NOLA 2012: Here comes the sun

Chief costume
The band of thundershowers put on its last show pretty much all of Thursday night, but things dried up on Friday morning. It was still overcast but at least no longer raining, and the temperature was pleasant. Sweetie and I walked a bit northwest, stopping to say hi to two cute kittens and their owner, into the Tremé neighbourhood, the one that gave the TV show its name.

The Tremé is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in New Orleans, situated just north of the French Quarter. It's what is usually called a neighbourhood in transition. It is still primarily an African-American neighbourhood, I believe, and there are areas such as around the Iberville Projects that are not terribly safe. But it is going through a certain amount of gentrification, something that is illustrated by the TV show. The Tremé is where Davis the DJ (who pretends he's not gentry) lives, next door to a gay male couple.

We did not do a thorough exploration of the Tremé. Next time, a tour of the two St. Louis cemeteries would probably be interesting. This time, our destination was the Backstreet Cultural Museum, just a couple of blocks off Rampart Street. The Backstreet Cultural Museum is a house on St. Claude which a man named Sylvester has filled, and I do mean filled, with artifacts mainly from three areas—second line parades, jazz funerals, and the Mardi Gras Indians.

Ernie K-Doe, founder of Krewe de Vieux
When we arrived, there was a woman giving a tour to a large group of people. So as it turned out, we had Sylvester all to ourselves. And who better to show us the collections than the man who assembled them! We let him do most of the talking, of course, but it was basically an interactive tour. He even gave us a quiz at one point. Sweetie impressed him with her knowledge of New Orleans street culture. After that, we basically had an hour-long conversation with the man. It was wonderful!

The first room contains artifacts of second line parades. Second line parades are kind of "peoples parades." There are two kinds. Every Sunday, somewhere in the city, there are public parades in which people will gather to walk the streets, make music, and dance. The first second line after Katrina is a significant point in the plot of Treme because it shows that the life of the city is coming back. We never got to see a real second line parade, just one being shot for television, although the gathering of the Indians on Monday night sort of counted.

The other kind of second line parades are private: jazz funerals. Artifacts from those made up a second room. Jazz funerals are only for friends and family of the deceased. They are famous even outside New Orleans—even people who have never heard of second lines or the Mardi Gras Indians have often heard of jazz funerals. They begin with a rendition of "A Closer Walk with Thee" but soon become more of a celebration of the missing person's life than mourning the person's passing. Sylvester showed us one thing that people do—make T-shirts using a picture of the person, with two dates at the bottom, "sunrise" (birth) and "sunset" (death). Cool, eh? Jazz funerals are a great tradition.

On the other side of the hall, Sylvester took us through a large collection of costumes and other artifacts from various tribes of Mardi Gras Indians. He explained to us that we probably hadn't seen any of these tribes. The material he had was from "downtown" tribes, and we had seen "uptown" tribes on Monday night. He told us how they attached the feathers, all by hand, pointed out the elaborate beadwork that many costumes were made up of.

Tomb of the Unknown Slave
The Backstreet Cultural Museum would not be for every tourist, or perhaps even for many tourists, but for anyone interested in the "real" New Orleans, this was the place to be. And Sylvester is a treasure-trove of knowledge. I hope he is passing that knowledge along to someone else, because he is certainly not a young man.

We had wanted to see the inside of St. Augustine's Catholic Church, the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the United States, but it was locked. We would have had to arrange a tour. We were moved by the Tomb of the Unknown Slave at the front of the church, on which is a cross made of chains from slave ships and the shackles of slaves. (If you follow the link, you can read the text of the dedication plaque. It's very powerful.)

We crossed back over Rampart and into the Quarter. Sweetie was jonesing for an oyster po-boy for lunch, so we headed to Johnny's Po-Boys on St. Louis Street. We almost missed the lunch rush, but not quite. Still, we managed to order and commandeer a spot, and before long we were enjoying the famous loaf of New Orleans. Sweetie had her oysters, while I went for a lunch special of half an alligator sausage po-boy with gumbo and a beverage. The sausage was great!

We emerged into bright sun, such a treat after two days of pouring rain. We made a quick stop at a tea and spice shop, and then walked over to Canal Street to catch the St. Charles streetcar once again. Our destination was Magazine Street at the edge of the Garden District, known for boutiques.

Slide guitarist in the Quarter
It wasn't clear from the guide just where we wanted to get off. I said Louisiana. Sweetie said Washington. We chose Washington and walked down to Magazine, but there was little to be seen on that corner. We looked upriver toward Louisiana and there didn't seem to be much there either. We chatted with a woman at a nearby bus stop and took the bus a very short distance to the intersection of Jackson Avenue, which seem to be a retail district. It turned out not to be quite where we wanted to be, but we did find a great clothing store called Branch Out, which specializes in vintage and sustainable clothing. Sweetie and I both bought dresses. The woman who ran the store also told us that yes, toward Louisiana was the way to go.

The bus ride had been short, so we walked back toward Washington and then beyond. Soon, we saw what we couldn't quite see the first time—lots of stores. There was a T-shirt store called Storyville Apparel where I got my souvenir T-shirt, a great purple burnout T with a gold fleur-de-lis on the front. We also stopped at a shop that had been recommended by some of the other guests at our B&B, a confectionery called Sucré. Cupcakes! Lots of other things as well, but cupcakes! We split two, a chocolate one and one that was chocolate with salted caramel that was sublime. We also chatted with the young woman who served us. When she learned that we were from Canada, she got very interested. She seemed to want to escape northward.

After walking around shopping and window shopping, we walked up Louisiana toward St. Charles, where we were fortunate to squeeze onto a very full streetcar. If we had walked up Washington, we would have waited for a while. We took it to the end, walked back into the Quarter, and made our way home via a market where we bought some Crystal hot sauce, a local brand. Can't wait to try that one.

We knew Friday night at Green Goddess would be busy, so we went somewhat early. Fortunately, since it was a dry and pleasant evening, we could dine al fresco. Once again, our friend Chef Chris and his staff took great care of us. Sweetie ordered the lamb baklava again. I ordered something called Cochon de Lait/Lei, which was wonderful spicy pulled pork in a banana leaf, accompanied by sweet potato cakes and "adobo mess o' greens"—my kind of food. We also shared the Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding, a savoury bread pudding that was amazing (and set me to looking for savoury bread pudding recipes). At the end of dinner, we were sad to say goodbye to Chris, but we're staying in touch. I have a feeling we might be back in New Orleans before too long.

We had wanted to take one last turn on Frenchmen Street, but we had to be up at 4 the next morning to catch a cab to the airport, so we stayed in to pack. And that's really all she wrote—for now. The story is not over.


NOLA 2012: Something fishy

On Thursday, the band of thundershowers still weren't letting us be. It was raining quite hard in the morning. Now, we live in a temperate rain forest. If we didn't know how to deal with rain, we wouldn't be here. But it generally involves things like raincoats and rubber boots, which just weren't going to fit in my luggage. We were prepared for occasional showers, but not for a torrent.

Still, we didn't want to sit in our room all day. We called a cab, which actually came rather quickly despite what must have been elevated demand because of the rain, and went to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas on the riverfront, a bit upriver from the French Market.

We didn't go there right away. It was about mid-day. I wasn't really hungry, but I knew that if I didn't eat some kind of lunch, I'd be hungry in the afternoon. So I convinced Sweetie to take a detour into the Riverwalk Marketplace, a huge mall next to the aquarium. I figured the food court couldn't be too far away. I was wrong. It's as far from the entrance as you can get!

We did, however, find a Mexican place where we got a couple of cheese quesadillas, just the right thing to keep us going. And after all that walking, we were rewarded unexpectedly. Sweetie noticed that just past the food court, there was the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. This is something we had intended to visit but had never actually located. And there it was right in front of us.

So after lunch, we took a tour through the small but fascinating museum on all things about food in New Orleans and beyond. There were lots of old food preparation artifacts. There was information about typical Louisiana ingredients, like crawfish and red beans. As a cook who loves to make Cajun and Creole dishes, I found this all very interesting and informative. There were a few Katrina tie-ins, such as a menu making fun of the feeble FEMA effort. There was also a museum within the museum called the Museum of the American Cocktail, full of information and artifacts about various distilled beverages and the concoctions made from them, as well as a wall in a corner celebrating famous alcoholic artists and writers. All in good fun!

Sweetie and I walked all the way across the Riverwalk Marketplace again, with a brief stop at a handy annex of Café du Monde (mmmm, coffee). We then began our tour of the aquarium. It's an older aquarium but with a lot of good exhibits. I always want to see exhibits having to do with local habitat, and the ones on the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River were very good. I also loved the collection of seahorses, more different kinds than I had seen before. And then there were the jellyfish! There's something about watching jellyfish that puts me into a tranquil state. I love how they float and how their tentacles move so gracefully. I could watch them for, well, perhaps not hours, but at least for several minutes.

One problem with the aquarium was navigation. They had an exhibit of parakeets that took us a long time to find. It's actually outdoors (under netting) at the far end of the food court! I'm glad we found it. It's worth a buck to get a feed stick so you can persuade a beautiful parakeet to sit on your finger or shoulder. All for a photo op, right?

By the time we left the aquarium, the rain had stopped, so we could walk back across the Quarter. We turned around fairly quickly to make our dinner reservation at Bayona. Susan Spicer is a celebrated New Orleans chef and apparently was the model for Janette on Treme (except for the part about her restaurant failing). The restaurant is in what was once a house on Dauphine Street, quite a lovely space. I'm not sure if Bayona has a dress code, but I can't remember the last time I saw so many guys in suits! The crowd mostly seemed to be older, although Sweetie and I tend to forget that they're probably not much older than we are.

I started with a sea scallop appetizer that was delicious. Sweetie had some kind of crêpe that included Tasso ham that was also wonderful. (We ordered from the menu that changes daily so we're working from memory.) Then we went opposite our usual for the mains. I ordered flounder. She ordered a pork chop. Both were excellent. We couldn't help but notice how well the pork was treated compared to what I had at Commander's Palace. The chop was also huge, something you don't often see in a fine dining establishment. We finished with a lemon lavender semifreddo on an almond cookie with blueberry compote, a beautiful and delicious dessert.

Toward the beginning of our dinner, a young woman was seated by herself at the table next to us. I can't remember what got us talking, but something did. Perhaps the food, because she wasn't entirely pleased with her beet salad starter. She was an information architect (kind of a web designer plus) in town for a trade show. She was very nice, and I'm glad we got to chat.

We had thought about going to Frenchmen Street after dinner, but just as we were close to our B&B, it started to rain again. Since it was getting late anyway, we decided to surrender for the evening.


NOLA 2012: Stormy Wednesday

One exhausted drowned rat
On Wednesday, the most popular "program" on at the B&B was the weather radar on the computer in the kitchen. John, our host, had it on most of the time so we could track the huge band of thundershowers that was slowly making its way from Texas into our area. Even worse than the lack of speed was the fact that the cold front was tracking not straight west to east but sliding in a northeasterly direction. That meant that the thundershowers would not only crawl past, but that there would likely be more of them.

Nonetheless, we headed out in the morning, armed only with our umbrellas. Well, Sweetie was actually a bit smarter than me, and she had a raincoat and a pair of what were basically aqua-socks, the kind you wear to do aqua-aerobics.

We got a late start, and we had a lunch reservation at the renowned Commander's Palace at noon. Still, we thought we could squeeze in a visit to the Presbytère, which is one of four Louisiana state museums in New Orleans. The Presbytère, named that because it was supposed to be the residence for the priests of St. Louis Cathedral (and apparently never used for that purpose), was showing an exhibit on what happened to the city of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, when the levees were breached, and when Hurricane Rita followed up. The exhibit was simple but very, very moving. It's impossible for us who have never lived through such a series of events really to conceive of what it was like for the residents of southern Louisiana, but the exhibit did a great job of helping us to understand.

We should have spent more time, especially since there was a Mardi Gras exhibit on the second floor, but we thought we had figured out how long it would take us to walk to the streetcar stop and then how long it would take to get to Commander's Palace. We actually timed the walk pretty well, but after that everything broke. The car was very late, which is apparently not unusual. I called the restaurant to postpone our reservation. By the time the streetcar arrived at noon, there was a huge crowd waiting to get on, so boarding took even longer than it would have. Then the car lurched down the tracks toward the Garden District. I had forgotten just how slow that thing is! It's a pleasant ride on a hot day with the windows open when you don't have to be anywhere at a particular time, but not so much when you're running late for a lunch reservation.

And then, while we were on the packed car, the heavens opened. I mean, really. Lots of lightning and thunder and pouring rain. The streets flooded immediately. We got off at Washington Avenue, doing our best not to get completely soaked. We walked a block and a half in the wrong direction (my fault), then walked back in the right direction. By the time we arrived at Commander's Palace, a restaurant that still has a dress code, we looked like the proverbial drowned rats—well dressed rats, but still drowned.

The staff of Commander's are nothing if not gracious, however. They escorted us to our table, where we proceeded to try to dry out and warm up (not easy with Southern air conditioning). We were very well taken care of. The room downstairs is elegant, and pretty good for people watching. We relaxed and settled in to enjoy lunch.

Sweetie chose an appetizer, a gumbo, and a salad to make up her meal, while I went for the three-course lunch. It all started well. Her shrimp dish and gumbo were excellent, as was my turtle soup, a classic Commander's Palace dish and one that I had never experienced before. It felt a bit odd, since I love turtles. I tried not to think about the Green Sea Turtles that I have swum with in Hawaii. My main dish was a grilled pork tenderloin. It took longer to arrive than it should have, and when it did, it was dry. The accompaniment was excellent, but the pork just wasn't what it ought to have been. I had to tell them. They offered to bring me something else, but the dish wasn't terrible, just not right, and I didn't want to wait longer. We finished with another Commander's Palace classic, bread pudding souffle. Tasty, but we both prefer actual bread pudding. They comped me the soup and dessert, basically charging only the à la carte price for the pork, and that was decent of them. Still, the meal overall was not quite the experience we had expected from one of the top restaurants not just in New Orleans but in the country.

The storm had passed by the time we left the restaurant, so we caught the streetcar back to the Quarter. We crossed Canal Street, and I spotted a Chinese foot massage place. I figured, what the heck, we needed a little pampering, so we went for it. These massage places are major tourist traps, but I managed to convey to them that we wanted only a half hour on the feet with no extras. They actually did a lovely job on our poor tourist pods.

Somewhat refreshed, we made our way back across the soggy Vieux Carré to our B&B. We got changed and finally truly dry, and waited long enough to be somewhat hungry for dinner. As our host said, you don't have to be hungry to eat, but we would rather be. We took a cab to a restaurant called the Green Goddess that had been recommended to us by two friends.

And now the mystery becomes less mysterious, with permission from the person involved. The person we met so serendipitously on Monday, to whom we had been asked to convey greetings, who gave us such an amazing day, is Chris DeBarr, the chef/owner of Green Goddess. As I wrote, we had intended to go to the Green Goddess anyway, but now that we knew Chris, we had that much more reason to go.

In good weather, the restaurant has outdoor seating in Exchange Alley, but it was too wet for that. Fortunately, it was after 8, and before long Chris had us comfortably ensconced in his small back dining room. The dishes are mostly what we would call small plates, which was ideal, because then we could try a few different things. We decided to share the "Cornucopia on the Bayou" tasting menu, plus a lamb baklava, accompanied by a bottle of delicious Pinot Gris from Oregon that was suggested by our excellent server, Sarah.

Oysters Delacroix were a beautiful start. Next came Shrimp "Wearing a Grass Skirt," the "grass skirt" being shredded phyllo. The spice level was just right. After that, we had "Freaky" Tabouli with Smoked Wheat—called "Freaky" because the particular kind of wheat is called freekeh. I am not sure how to describe this variant of tabouli. All I can say is that it brought tears of pleasure to my eyes—something about the combination of flavour and texture. The savoury lamb baklava that we had at the same time had a similar effect. And then the Andouille-Crusted Gulf Fish arrived, with potato gratin and rapini greens. Oh baby! That was more a large plate, but it didn't last very long. We finished with Armagnac-soaked Mission Figs stuffed with blue cheese, wrapped in Serrano Ham, roasted, and finished with aged balsamic vinegar. Finger food extraordinaire!

Sweetie and I have had some pretty memorable food over the years, and a lot more that was less memorable or even forgettable. This was some of the most memorable food either of us have ever eaten. It completely blew away lunch at Commander's Palace. I say this not because Chef Chris is our friend. He simply makes amazing food. All I can say is try it for yourself if you get the opportunity. And as haute cuisine goes, it won't even set you back very much!

Chef and Sarah and the staff sent us home very happy and resolved to visit Green Goddess once more before we left New Orleans.


NOLA 2012: Beignets and Brass

Fats, Al, and moi
After being chauffeured all over the city on Monday and eating as much as we did, on Tuesday Sweetie and I decided we'd better do some walking. It wasn't a particularly eventful day. We mostly wandered around the French Quarter. Sweetie took a lot of pictures of cute houses. The photographic evidence also shows that we ate lunch at Remoulade, which is "the casual side of Arnaud's." It was quite inexpensive, and the food was good.

We also walked to the riverfront as the afternoon turned blustery. We hit several of the shops in the French Market, where we found a great baby gift for a friend who is about to have her first child and some inexpensive but nice hand-crafted jewellery. It's hard to avoid "made in China" stuff in New Orleans, but there are locally made goods if you look hard enough.

I spotted the studio of WWOZ. This is a totally cool radio station that plays all kinds of New Orleans music. It's the station where the Davis McAlary character on the TV series Treme supposedly works (when he works).

We also made the requisite stop at Café du Monde. Can't go to New Orleans without going to Café du Monde! We got coffee and beignets, of course. Since they're open 24 hours a day, it's most fun showing up there in the wee hours of the morning. But we no longer keep those kinds of hours, so we were part of the crowd at the opposite end of the day.

For dinner, we returned to the Marigny Brasserie. Really, the catfish we had on Sunday was so good that we figured the place deserved another visit. As well, it was conveniently between our B&B and Frenchmen Street. We didn't want a lot of food, so we went for their daily special, which was crawfish po-boys, along with a side of corn fritters. I probably spent more on beer than on food! The "dessert" stout was very tasty.

Tremé Brass Band with guests
We then returned to d.b.a., this time to hear the Tremé Brass Band. This is a traditional New Orleans brass band, and they play really well. The guy who plays the bass drum is in his 80s and apparently lives in a nursing home near Frenchmen Street. They also have a somewhat younger guy on snare, who is the band leader, as well as younger players on sousaphone, alto saxophone, trombone, and trumpet. We didn't dance like on Sunday, but we were bopping along. At one point, they were joined by another trombone player and a white guy on trumpet. Sometimes, the trumpet player sang, as on a Sachmo-like version of "Cabaret." Sometimes, the old guy on the bass drum sang! New Orleans is full of excellent musicians.

Having been out all day, we were glad their set started at 9. We did not make a late night of it!


NOLA 2012: Magic Monday

St. Joseph altar in a private home
Monday, March 19, 2012, the feast of St. Joseph, was one of the most extraordinary days of my life. And Sweetie and I had no idea that it was going to happen. I'm going to leave out some names, only because this is a really personal story. The person I'm writing about is kind of a public figure, but this story is ours alone. It's one of those stories that make some people believe in gods or fate or, at the very least, serendipity.

The story really started in 1985. I was an assistant editor for a computer trade magazine, and the spring trade show was in New Orleans. I had never been before. The show didn't start until Tuesday, but I was there the day before. I knew where the French Quarter was, but I knew little else. I went searching for lunch, and I came upon the Old Coffee Pot on St. Peter Street, half a block off Bourbon toward the river. I saw that they had a red beans and rice special, so I went in. I had a great lunch at a very reasonable price. It was my introduction to Cajun and Creole food.

Altar with symbolic food
So on this trip, I told Sweetie that we had to go to the Old Coffee Pot for lunch on Monday (even though you can get red beans and rice any day of the week). We spent the morning not far away, mostly in or around Jackson Square. We toured the St. Louis Cathedral. We listened to a brass band on Chartres Street. We were going to tour a house several blocks east on Chartres, but the tour didn't start for 25 minutes. We circled back via a cool shop that sold hand-made wooden toys, most of which moved in clever ways. They also sold great carved pieces. I wish I could have brought back one of their beautiful jewellery boxes!

One more bit of setup. Before we left, we asked friends for restaurant recommendations. Two friends highly recommended this one place, and both said to say hi to the chef, whom they knew. We weren't sure about sending greetings to someone we didn't know, but we planned on having dinner at that restaurant.

After our stroll along Chartres, the church bells were ringing noon as we arrived at the Coffee Pot. There was a bit of a lineup to get in. The place wasn't full, but it was being run by only a couple of older women, and they were seating people slowly so as not to get overwhelmed. A guy by himself in the lineup right behind us noticed Sweetie's octopus tattoo and said that he liked it. We started chatting, and he introduced himself, saying that he was chef and owner of a restaurant in the Quarter. I asked which one, and I was floored to learn that it was the one that had been recommended to us. Here was the guy to whom we were supposed to send greetings, and he just happened to be behind us in a lineup at the Coffee Pot!

More than one goddess was at work here. And maybe a saint too.

Nice that Ignatius is taller than I am!
He asked if we might want to turn our party of two into a party of three, and we were quite amenable. So we had lunch together, getting to know one another just a bit. It was his day off, so he decided that he wanted to show us the city, and we decided we were ready for an adventure. On St. Joseph's Day, people in the Sicilian community of New Orleans set up altars in their homes and give food to those who come by (you can make a donation, which we did). We had never heard of this tradition! But it was something our chef friend did every year. He had only recently broken up with his partner, so since he had no one to go altar-hopping with, he had thought he would not be doing it this year. With us in tow, he was happy to visit several altars—two private and one at a large church in the Garden District.

We also drove along Bayou St. John and through City Park. The chef, being as big a fan of the book A Confederacy of Dunces as Sweetie is (I've read it, but not as often as Sweetie has), found Constantinople Street. He and Sweetie checked out the houses, deciding which one would be Ignatius Reilly's house. He also took us to the statue of Ignatius that's in front of a hotel on Canal Street. I wasn't always sure where we were on this adventure, but I know we drove through a fair amount of the city.

Sadly, we didn't have the good camera with us
We spent some time with a bottle of wine until it got dark. Then we went in search of another St. Joseph's Day tradition. The Mardi Gras Indians, "tribes" of various African-American men (and sometimes women), go "masking" on St. Joseph's. They put on their elaborate, colourful costumes, hand-sewn with feathers and beads, and parade through the streets of their neighbourhood. Our host knew just where to go—a neighbourhood in which he used to live. Sure enough, just after we parked, we spotted a Spy Boy from one of the tribes. The Spy Boy is kind of the advanced guard of the tribe. We thought we would have to drive elsewhere to see more, but before we knew it, three tribes converged on a nearby intersection. The colours were fantastic! And they all engaged in their ritual (genuinely violent at one time) to determine which tribe would pass and which would have to back down. It was just unbelievably cool to watch this going on, and I doubt we would have seen anything like it without our host.

We finished the evening by catching a late supper (after all the St. Joseph food in the afternoon) at a place on Frenchmen Street. We reluctantly parted with our new friend. Since his night goes much later than ours, he went off to a club, while we walked home.

It's hard to convey just what this day meant to me. It was about the St. Joseph altars and the food and the Mardi Gras Indians, of course. But much more than that, it was about a chance meeting that it seems could not possibly have been by chance. We were befriended by one of the top chefs in the city, who gave us his day to show us the city he loves. But it wasn't about meeting a celebrity. It was about meeting a really special human being. We didn't run into just any local to show us around. We ran into exactly the right person.


Look, talk, touch

Pardon me while I take a short break from the New Orleans travelogue.

It's funny how sometimes things happen at the same time. This weekend's Globe and Mail contained an article by Ian Brown called "Why men can't—and shouldn't—stop staring at women." And then today on Facebook, Women Against Violence Against Women posted a link to this video:

Now, the article was about looking, although it also mentioned the Italian male propensity for bum pinching. The video is aimed at men who talk shit to women. I'm guessing they don't mean a friendly hello or even a polite compliment. I'm guessing they mean something of the "hey, baby" or "yo, mamacita" or even more explicit variety—something I would definitely construe as verbal harassment. Still, I'm not sure just what the ground rules are here.

It leaves me a bit confused. I'm pretty sure my feminist credentials are intact, even though not backed up by any academic work. I've always been a self-taught feminist. I understand and see male privilege in action. I understand and see systemic discrimination where it exists. I tend not to use the word oppression, because I don't believe anyone can oppress me without my cooperation. That in itself might be controversial.

When it comes to street behaviour, I decidedly do not want to be touched against my will. I don't care how good-natured those bum pinches are supposed to be. My body, my space, keep your hands to yourself, signore. I also do not want to be shouted at or spoken to in a crude manner. Whether I feel threatened or not, I think that kind of behaviour is potentially threatening and should not happen. Nor do I want to be leered at—not just a look, but a virtual tongue hanging out sort of thing. That's potentially threatening as well. To me, all of those are attempts to exert power, with implied bad consequences should I take issue.

But a man looking at me with desire, reasonably subtly? A man giving me a polite hello, as so many did in friendly New Orleans? A man saying, again politely, that I look good? I realize that the compliment of a heterosexual male (or a lesbian, technically) is not the same as one from a heterosexual woman or a gay man. There is almost always a sexual component to it. But I like to be looked (not stared) at. I like when I catch a man doing so. I like when a man politely greets me. I especially like when I'm told that I look good, especially when I know that I do. Does saying all this destroy my feminist cred? Should it? I really don't know.

It might be a function of being older. I appreciate a mild expression of sexual interest, as long as it doesn't cross a line. Such expressions of interest come my way a lot less often than they will to a younger woman. Receiving an affirmation that I am still sexually desirable (by the right person) feels good to me.

Maybe "as long as it doesn't cross a line" is the key. I know where that line is for me. I think it's probably at least close to where it is for most women of any age. Thankfully, I have never been raped, nor have I been assaulted. If I had, I imagine my line might shift. At any rate, I hope that a range is allowed. I hope that I can enjoy an occasional male gaze and still proclaim myself proudly feminist. If not, someone can let me know.


NOLA 2012: A great start

Sweetie and I are back from a vacation in New Orleans. We were there for just under a week—spring break in her school system. I'm bleary-eyed (a friend told me so, and I can feel it), but I still made a variant on shrimp creole for supper, and now I'm going to write up the first night.

We left YVR on the 18th at an insane hour of the morning, but due to the length of the flight and a fairly long layover in Minneapolis, we did not arrive at our final destination until about 6 in the evening (local time). We stayed at La Maison Marigny, a great B&B just a block east of the French Quarter and only a few blocks from Frenchmen Street, which hops with music every night.

It was toward Frenchmen Street that we first walked. We had a light dinner at the Marigny Brasserie (suggested by our host), which was very good. We then headed to d.b.a. on Frenchmen, just a bit early for a set by the Lost Bayou Ramblers. The Ramblers are a Cajun band, a cross between traditional and modern. They know a lot of songs! Sweetie and I danced for almost the entire set, something we haven't done in years. The old broads didn't tire out, and if you know anything about Cajun jitterbug, you know that it's pretty energetic. The Ramblers finished up their first set with a Cajun French rendition of "My Generation," done pretty faithfully with fiddle and accordion and guitar, complete with a wild bass fiddle solo. We also liked the club quite a lot. The beer list is impressive!

We took a short break and walked the length of Frenchmen Street, at least the part with clubs. There was music coming out of several venues—jazz, blues, funk, even some reggae. What a great area! We got some snaps from people who had been at d.b.a. for our dancing.

One note for anyone who doesn't like the fact that bands in New Orleans usually pass a bucket for tips. The cover at d.b.a. was $5. That won't even get you into most dance clubs that shouldn't have a "cover" charge at all (a cover charge is meant to pay the band). So I don't mind giving a little more to a band that's just given me such great music.

Despite having gotten up at 4 a.m. Pacific time, we made it past 11 p.m. Central time. And just before we left d.b.a., I ordered a beer to go—just because I could. And sipped it all the way home.


Slouch ahead

I work from home on virtual Eastern Time. My home office is three time zones east of here, so I start my day at 6:30 my time in order to be available for meetings and other required interaction. Occasionally, I'm at my desk at 6, although fortunately I don't have to attend too many 9 o'clock Eastern time meetings.

Last week, I would get up, look out the kitchen window as I fed the cat and made breakfast, and feel just a bit better because I started to see some dawn's early light. All during winter, 6 a.m. is really the same as the middle of the night. It's pitch black. But the rosy fingers of dawn have now been withdrawn again for several more weeks, thanks to the insidious thing called Daylight Saving Time.

There was no springing ahead yesterday. I mean, really, who "springs" ahead? Annoyingly perky people, maybe. At any rate, the start of DST on a Sunday isn't usually so bad. This year, at least, I didn't have to be anywhere. We were smart enough to schedule band practice on Saturday! But the first Monday is the test. I usually start out fine. Then I start dragging.

Daylight Saving Time is useless at best. Once upon a time, it was supposed to save energy. I remember seeing a study that indicated that if this was ever true, it is no longer. It might even cause greater energy use! I certainly have to switch on a light to start work.

Did you know that a study done in Canada showed that single-vehicle accidents—most often attributed to inattentiveness or falling asleep—increased by seven percent in the week after the start of Daylight Saving Time? And went down by seven percent during "fall back" week? They had a control to measure against: Saskatchewan. Prairie farmers apparently don't cotton to this DST nonsense. No DST in Arizona or Hawaii either.

I'd really love it if noon meant "sun at highest point" all year round. And if people really want more daylight toward the end of the day, they can start their day an hour earlier! That's all DST does anyway.


Blog for International Women's Day: Undermining the backlash

I would be surprised if there wasn't someone, probably many people, who ask why we need an International Women's Day. It's fine to ask. The answer is "yes." Here's why.

A while back, I reviewed the film Miss Representation. If you haven't seen it yet, you really should. Even though you probably already know about much of what it shows, there are still eye-openers. And it presents evidence in support of a very important point: right now, we are living through a powerful backlash against women's equality.

It's a man's world. It has always been a man's world—made by men, made for men, run by men. By default, a person is male. If you say "president," "CEO," "news anchor," "doctor," "rock band," and many other designations, the first person to come to mind will probably be male. The only exceptions are positions traditionally associated with women, such as "nurse" or "secretary."

It's less of a man's world than it once was, at least in parts of the world. We now have female presidents, CEOs, news anchors, doctors and more. Women are in positions of power. Women experience greater equality than, say, 60 years ago. The women's movement has had an impact, not just in the West but globally.

Therein lies the problem for those with power. People who hold power rarely give it up voluntarily. If they sense it slipping away, they do what they can—through means fair and foul—to regain it. But just as with the apartheid regime in South Africa, if those with power can read the writing on the wall, they just might negotiate.

At this point, the backlash is still strong. The powerful are in fighting mode, even more so in the rest of the world than in the West, but here as well. Yet there is more and more writing on the wall. We have to keep it up.

As part of this backlash, girls are under assault. In the West, while we tell them they can do anything they want, the media has stepped up the message of hypersexualization. Girls still get the message that they can't do certain things that boys can. But the girls—and boys—of today are the adults of tomorrow. We really hope that tomorrow is better than today.

In the spirit of thinking globally and acting locally, I offer what are variously known as Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls or Girls Rock Camp. They originated 11 years ago in Portland, Oregon, as a way for girls to have an environment for a week where they could feel free and safe to be as creative as they wish. The girls form bands, learn to play an instrument, write their own song together, rehearse, and finally play the song in a public showcase. But music is really the vehicle for building confidence, self-esteem, teamwork, and leadership. The girls also create their own 'zines and buttons, learn how to silkscreen T-shirts, get the basics of self defence, and talk about what it means to be a girl in today's world.

I volunteered in the summer of 2009 and 2010 at Girls Rock Camp Vancouver, once as a guitar instructor, once as a band manager. It was life-changing for me, the (alleged) grown-up. I got a strong sense of what it all meant to the girls. I watched them grow, ask questions, open up, tell us what life is like for them, and discover their own strength and power and creativity. It was amazing to watch, and amazing to be part of.

(Lest you think this is only for well-off white girls, GRCV offers scholarships and reserves several spots for First Nations girls. Ladies Rock Camp Vancouver, which runs this year from May 25 through 27, raises funds for those scholarships.)

Girls rock camps are only one small effort in various urban locations in North America and Europe. So much more is needed in so much more of the world, especially with regard to girls' education, safety, protection from forced marriages...the list goes on. But the seeds of cultural change are sown among young people, both girls and boys.


Daydream believer

I'm not usually much for nostalgia. My present is much better than my past, so I tend not to look back longingly. Although I love the music I grew up with, it's mostly not the music I listen to now. I've never gotten stuck on only the music I heard in high school. As a musician, I kept listening to new music and still do. But the 1960s pop music of my youth is pretty well engrained in me.

Still, I was surprised by the flood of memories that the death of Davy Jones on Wednesday brought back to me. I knew so many Monkees songs by heart. I watched the show every week. We had the first four albums in the house and played them a lot.

Even then, as young as I was, they were a bit of a guilty pleasure, something I might not readily have admitted to at the time. I grew up a bit more slowly than my classmates, who were listening to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles as they got heavier and weirder. It took me a while to get to that point. Meanwhile, the Monkees were just so darned accessible. Everyone listened to Top 40 radio, since "underground" radio had not yet been invented, and the Monkees had several number one hits. You couldn't really avoid them.

I have picture memories. I very clearly remember a hot, dry and dusty day in the summer of 1966, playing outside at a friend's house with a radio on nearby. Competing for the number one spot were "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees and "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys. It was a time when pure pop and psychedelic experimentation co-existed on Top 40 radio. I no longer have those Monkees albums, but I remember a picture on the back of one album of Peter Tork playing a keyboard on which the white keys were black and the black keys were white. I was fascinated by this! It was only much later that I learned what a Vox Continental was and got to play one myself. I love that reedy organ sound!

As an aspiring musician, I tended to like Peter more than Davy, since Davy only sang and played tambourine (Micky Dolenz was fun but not too appealing to me, and Michael Nesmith always seemed a bit too grown up, although I did like the wool hat). Even though I wasn't yet into heavy sounds, the songs Davy sang tended to be too light even for me—Harry Nilsson's "Cuddly Toy," for example, or ballads like "I Wanna Be Free." But there's no question he was personally appealing, so short and cute and with that adorable accent. And as it turns out, I did like a lot of the material he sang: "Daydream Believer," "Star Collector," "Here Comes Tomorrow," and "Valleri" (with that amazing vocal harmony on the refrain) come to mind.

It wasn't just memories flooding back that surprised me. I don't usually get teary when a celebrity dies, but Davy's death feels personal. Maybe it's because the heyday of the Monkees was a formative time in my life. We still lived in the town I call my hometown, before we moved across the state just as I was about to start high school and everything changed. The end of childhood and the last bit of innocence, I guess. I'm feeling it now as I write this. If you're anywhere near my age, maybe you feel it too.

Thanks, Davy. You're gone too soon. There are a lot of bad memories from that time, probably more than good ones, but you were part of what made my life better.