Aloha spirit

Na Pali Coast
Today is the last full day for Sweetie and me in Hanalei on the island of Kaua'i. This is the third time we have come here, and the second time we have stayed in this beautiful rental house nicely situated between beach and town. Each time we have come, we have stayed for a week. We keep thinking we should make it two weeks, which would allow a better balance of activities and relaxation, but this time we were mostly about kicking back anyway.

We took a catamaran cruise to the Na Pali Coast that included a great snorkeling interlude, and we had one hour massages side by side in a tent that opens onto the ocean. Those were our main tourist activities. The rest of the time we did a lot of swimming in water warm enough for a wuss like me, had a few dinners out and two dinners that we made ourselves at the house (ahi tuna both times), spent a couple of hours at the Kaua'i Museum in Lihu'e, and had a great shopping trip to a. ell atelier in Kapa'a, a boutique that features locally designed, locally made, and sustainable clothing and accessories.

There is so much that we love about Hawai'i in general and this island in particular. We both seem to thrive in a warmer climate. We find that the island has much more fresh, local, and often organic produce than it did just a few years ago. The Hanalei farmers and craft market was hopping! And although not everyone here is an angel, we do find a prevailing "spirit of aloha."

The word aloha is used for both "hello" and "goodbye" but the meaning goes much deeper. We hear a lot of talk about "aloha spirit," which means among other things a spirit of generosity, sharing, and living lightly with respect for nature. "Don't be a dick," actor Wil Wheaton famously tweeted. Aloha spirit is the opposite of being a dick. On a small island with a fragile ecosystem, people want to help each other and help the land.

Print dress from a. ell by Scrapbook Clothing
We always try to participate not only in a general way but in at least one specific way—to wit, by picking up at least one hitchhiker. There is a bus that runs along the main highway around the island, but it doesn't run very often. Still, some people don't have a car, so hitchhiking is common. Last time we were here, we picked up a young woman on our way back from Kapa'a and brought her to Hanalei. She was great company, told us some interesting things about local flora, and left us with several apple bananas, which we love, that she had picked herself. This time, we were driving back from a lovely dinner in Kapa'a in the dark, and we picked up a young woman and man and brought them to a produce farm south of Princeville. They were living in a cabin on the farm. Part of what they picked covered their board, and the rest made them cash. We were glad to be able to spread our own aloha spirit, if only in a small way.

Vacation is one thing. Living in paradise is another. The weather is being particularly crazy today. Everything is expensive here. You either get used to the feral roosters crowing, and not only at daybreak, or they make you crazy. And there is only so much to do here. I remember a boat captain on Maui who said that periodically he would fly to the mainland just so he could go to a few concerts that weren't Hawai'ian music.

The humidity is pretty amazing! If I lived here, I would probably have my hair cut differently. Right now, it's like a bush. The upside is that moisturizer for your skin is almost redundant! We learned last time that if you use your usual night cream on your face, it feels like it's still on your skin in the morning.

We do love this place. We muse about retiring here or even moving here before retirement, although Medicare is broke and the Affordable Care Act is not really what it ought to be yet and maybe won't be during our lifetimes. But it's probably best, at least for now, if we just come stay here periodically. Right now, I miss our house, our kitty, our band, our friends. I want to get back to my guitars and my gardens and having more ingredients with which to cook. We have a show to play on Saturday and two masters (alternates) of our upcoming record to listen to.

We will bid a sad farewell to Kauai but know that we will be back again. We will say a happy hello to Vancouver and do our best to bring aloha spirit with us to the place that is still our home.

Mahalo for reading!


Return of the native

I fell in love with my garden again. I should say "gardens," plural, because in our case the entire lot is something other than lawn. To wit, several garden areas made up mostly of plants native to this part of the country or nearby. The only grass I mow is on the edges of the lot and actually belongs to the city.

I started this project after our first major renovation in which a dilapidated detached garage was removed, a deck and bathroom built over a carport and shed off the back of the house, and fencing installed around most of the perimeter. By the time the builders were done, what was once the back lawn was nothing but dirt and rocks. It looked like a war zone.

Side garden 2005. Flowering currant, turf grass, no trees.
We thought about renting one of those tiny graders, but we never did. Instead, we slowly rehabilitated the back of the lot, regrading manually as we did so. We also slowly and painfully removed the turf from the side and front of the lot. Instead of grass, I planted native trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and ground covers. I built a stone walkway through the side garden and some dirt paths in the back. Because we did not have a natural spot for a rock garden, I piled some of the nastiest mess into the middle of the back garden and covered it with soil and rocks, creating a mound. I reserved one area in what I thought was a sunny corner for a vegetable garden.

Not only are native plants suited to the climate; they are also suited to the rather acidic soil that we have here. Except for the vegetable garden, I never brought any soil into these gardens. As well, the gardens are xerescaped, meaning that once a plant becomes established, it should no longer need watering. And if it does need watering, it might not have been correctly sited. I've lost a few plants along the way because they just weren't right for the spot where I planted them.

Mock orange flower
Now, after 10 years, we have gardens that to a large extent maintain themselves. We have small-ish trees such as Pacific dogwood, black hawthorne, vine maple, and paper birch. We have shrubs small and large like the beautiful ocean spray, mock orange, black twinberry, salmonberry, yellow flowering currant, and snowberry. We have a few varieties of fern and several low-growing perennials such as vanilla leaf, false Solomon's seal, wild ginger, yellow violet, a few species of penstemon, and two kinds of wild strawberry. We also have lots of birds, bees, squirrels, and snails, and seemingly a healthy ecosystem in the soil.

Self-maintaining to a large extent, but not entirely. In the autumn and winter, we do some cleanup, mostly removing dead leaves and trimming off flower stalks. I also get out my trusty hedge trimmer. Some of the shrubs get rangy or just plain huge. A hard pruning doesn't hurt them but ends up making them grow better. And in the spring and really all growing season, there are invasive plants, also known as weeds. Dandelion and it's late season cousin (the one with the tougher stem), creeping buttercup, holly from the nearby park, and quite a few small plants the names of which I do not know. There is also an abundance of maple seedlings from the sycamore that's as old as the house, and somewhat fewer horse chestnut seedlings from the huge boulevard tree that belongs to the city. I don't want any of these things in my gardens. I don't want them competing for resources or crowding out the natives. So we get down on our knees and dig out the weeds.

Rehabilitation of nodding onion (after grass removal)
I was really into the gardening and landscaping for several years. Then when things got fairly well established and there wasn't that much to do other than maintenance, I slacked off a bit. And then I got distracted by other things. The garden suffered. I lost some plants. Some others lost ground to grasses and other invaders. I didn't keep up with the weeding.

This year, we seem to be back on track. Sweetie started it with an aggressive weeding campaign earlier in the summer. And recently I have stepped up my own maintenance. The garden is getting back its shape. It's a semi-wild garden, but we don't want it to run completely wild. It has its own shape and form.

Nodding onion flower up close
In a lot of ways, it's a silly time of year to get all enthusiastic again. Most of my plants bloom in spring and early summer. At this point, the only flowers left are some ocean spray (slowly browning), nodding onion, bits of penstemon, and some of the non-native succulents in the rock garden. But I still love being up close with my plants. I don't really love the weeding itself. It's tedious and back-breaking. But I'm treating it as habitat rehabilitation. I'm carefully extracting things like grass and buttercup and maple seedlings and allowing the plants I want to have a better chance. I'm being very careful about what I clear, but I find that some of the natives have jumped out of their original locations, especially violet, nodding onion, and strawberry, which goes everywhere. I'm letting some of them stay at least to see if they help keep the weeds down. And they're pretty growing in smaller cluster, sometimes sharing space.

Not many people appreciate the garden, but I'm proud of it. I love how I don't have to water it. I love how it's like a mini-wildlife habitat. And sometimes someone visits who understands what I have done. They are pleased and I am gratified.

I was on the leading edge in the early 2000s. Now both native plant gardening and xerescaping are starting to go mainstream, especially with many locations under watering restrictions during the summer. I'm glad I'm back to communing with my babies. I think they're happier for it.


Crazy love

My band Lisa's Hotcakes just completed recording and mixing our second record, a six-song collection that currently does not have even a working title. I keep referring to it on Twitter as #hotcakesep2, "EP" being the abbreviation for "extended play," which is what a record that is more than a single but less than a full album is called.

We made the last record in 22 hours. We recorded five songs and used four (with the fifth being a bonus track). This time I booked 30 hours, three 10-hour days, but I wanted to record six songs. And due to various commitments as well as two shows in June, we had less time to really work through all the songs. Even worse, there was a song I wrote specifically to be the closer, but we had barely rehearsed it. And yet I really wanted it to complete the set. So right off the bat, I was making unreasonable requests of the band.

Day 1

We loaded in on Saturday at 10 in the morning. Our friend Pat Steward, drummer for the Odds, was kind enough not only to lend our drummer T some equipment but also to spend a few hours with us getting the drums set up. He had done this for the previous session as well. It made such a difference in setup time and also in drum sound, and drum sound is so important for a rock record. Humble thanks and much love to Pat!

After setup, we had a light lunch and started working. The first thing we recorded were the bed tracks, which in our case consisted of drums, bass, guitar (sometimes scratch, sometimes a keeper), and a scratch vocal (to help everyone know where they were in the song). You might think recording six of these in eight hours would be easy, but it's not at all. We knew four of these songs quite well, but even those took time. You get warmed up. You start a take. Something goes wrong. You do a complete take. You decide whether to keep it. You might have a listen in the control booth and then maybe do another take. You need short breaks, and you need a longer dinner break toward evening.

By end of day, we had five bed tracks that we thought were keepers. We struggled with the new song, as might be expected. When you haven't been playing a song for long, you don't have the muscle memory to play it without thinking. And thinking while you're playing can be deadly. In the end, we decided to save the final bed track for the next day.

We were all exhausted and in need of rest. Recording is really a lot more work than it might sound, both physically and mentally. After a day like that, knowing we wanted to try to get the sixth track, my brain wouldn't let go. I was thinking through how I needed to change the guitar part. I was thinking of how to keep the whole sound together. It's a good thing I was exhausted, because that finally let my brain and body get some sleep.

Day 2

We started on Sunday at 10 again. Our singer G was late, so since I was planning to replace the guitar track for the final song anyway, I decided I could do a scratch vocal while playing. And even though it was an ungodly hour for rock and roll, we got a decent take. Then G arrived, and we laid down one more. Between the two takes, we had the basics of our sixth song.

After the bed tracks, Sweetie fixed one spot on bass, and then we spent the rest of the day (with breaks) alternating between the lead vocal and the guitar overdubs. That way, neither G nor I got too burned out. Laying down vocals in the studio is gruelling, and I admire how cool G stays while doing repeated takes and retakes, sometimes one line at a time. And despite that, she not only hits the notes but the emotional notes as well. Most of the guitar work is relatively easy for me, but it still requires a lot of energy. And some parts are quite difficult. I'm not that good a guitarist, and occasionally I overreach.

Still, by the end of the day, we had lead vocals and guitars for five songs. That left us with the brand new song. I'd written some parts that really weren't in the best range for G. So I got even more unreasonable than having the band do the song at all. I asked G if she could basically rewrite the final chorus to fit her range better. And make the melody interesting. And then sing the chorus twice. She didn't hesitate. She didn't tell me to get bent (which I might have). She figured out a new melody and then proceeded to nail the whole song, including the brand new parts. Really nail it. She did great vocals all the way through the session, but that last one, at the end of the day, when we were all tired and a wee bit lubricated ("sponsored by Makers Mark"), with G singing brand new lines, might be the best.

New moon that night. My esbat on the back deck was especially heartfelt.

Day 3

Monday was supposed to be for mixing, but I hadn't finished all the overdubs. We started at 9, just me and our engineer. I did my harmony vocals (with no bourbon), then laid down the guitar parts for the new song, and finally added some tambourine to one song and a bit of cowbell, yes cowbell, to another. There were other things I would have liked to have done, including work on that lead guitar part for a few hours until I was really happy, but it was already late to start mixing.

Our engineer and co-producer, however, is not only a genius but also amazingly fast. The first song takes the longest to set up, but then once that is done, the others go more quickly because you're basically adjusting from a starting point. He is also great for me as a co-producer to work with. Sometimes I have specific, coherent requests for how I want the sound to be different. But sometimes I know what I want but don't know how to express it. Like when I said that one song had gotten too classic rock and needed its Lou Reed back. Somehow, that made sense to the engineer, and I was much happier with the result.

We finished all the songs, including that rather difficult new song, by the end of the day. Thirty hours total, a ridiculously short amount of time to do what we did. But I think the result will speak for itself. It's far from perfect. There are things I would like to change. And yet there is nothing I can't live with and much that I am proud of. In fact, I'm really quite proud of it overall.

Blood, toil, sweat, and tears

It's all still under wraps for now, this work with no name. There is another step called mastering that the songs have to go through. They get sent to a specialized studio where they are adjusted (mostly small boosts or cuts at various frequencies) so that the CDs will sound as good as possible. We also need artwork. And then it all has to be sent to one company or another that manufactures the CDs and prints the artwork onto folders. And hopefully we have a wildly successful record release party. And get some reviews. Et cetera.

For now, we have tracks to listen to and hopefully we get to relax a bit. I love being in the studio, but there's no question it can be a difficult process. It's play, but it's also real work. And making music is not just about playing notes. It's about telling stories and conveying feelings. We pour that into what we play in the hope that others will feel it too, and the process of pouring it in can leave you drained. I'm exhausted. Our drummer is sick. That's what this process can do to you.

There was one song that was particularly difficult to write. Last winter into early spring, n the midst of the worst depression I've been through in a long time, I needed to write. Being somewhat stuck, I went back to basics. I worked out a simple chord pattern. I knew how the rhythm would go. I had a melody and even the phrasing of the lyrics. But the words themselves would not come for a long time. I kept working at it, and out came a song about hope. In the studio, I played the second guitar incredibly loud, right on the edge of feedback, and it came out just the way I wanted. I went into the control room, heard what the song sounded like at that point with the brand new guitar part, and cried. And when the song was complete, I cried again.

That's what creating music means to me. That how creating music affects me. I only hope that listeners feel even a fraction of what we put into it.


True North under siege

It's bad when you realize you've stopped writing in your blog. It's worse when it's the second (or third) time recently. I wrote a post a while ago thinking it was a restart, but it was a false restart. I had better not jinx anything by making any promises I can't keep.

I used to always have something to say, but lately, not so much. I'm reading what other people have to say. I'm tweeting quite a lot. A hundred and 40 characters seems to suit my attention deficit well. But nanoblogging isn't really blogging.

Anyway, it's Canada Day. Confederation is 146 years old, if I'm counting correctly on my fingers. A little later in the summer it will have been 19 years since my little part in Confederation started. It's hard to believe that I've spent close to a third of my life here. And even though I'm an immigrant, and much as I love the United States, the land of my birth, Canada is home. Even before I moved to Vancouver, I used to feel that going to Canada was going home. It's a big part of why I moved here.

Thirteen years ago, Molson Brewery (as it was then before the merger with Coors) ran a commercial that became more famous than its iconic beer. It was the "Joe Canadian rant." A young actor came onto the screen to stand at a microphone in front of a series of images and say what it meant to be Canadian, destroying a few stereotypes (how we pronounce "about") and reaffirming a few others (that we believe in peacekeeping, not policing). He finished off with "my name is Joe, and I Am Canadian," which of course happened to be the slogan for Molson Canadian beer. It didn't matter. It wasn't really about beer. It was about Canada. We loved it.

Just two years ago, the Conservative Party of Canada won enough seats in the federal election to form a majority government. The CPC is the product of a takeover of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada by what was once a PC splinter group, the Reform Party of Canada. Don't let anyone tell you it was a merger. PC leader Peter MacKay sold his birthright, or rather the birthright of his party, for a mess of pottage. He himself sits in the current cabinet.

The PCs were a centre-right-ish party, even under Brian Mulroney. In truth, neither the PCs nor the Liberal Party of Canada was ever very ideological. They were both about winning elections and forming governments. When they did, sometimes they caused harm, and often they did good. Through it all, Canada remained recognizably Canada—calm, reasonable, tolerant, not terribly ideological. It's curious that in a country only half the age of the United States, we hold much more strongly to our traditions.

Many if not most of us, of whatever political stripe, still do. The current federal government, however, seems to have a different idea. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is on record saying that when he gets finished with Canada, we won't recognize it. Few took this statement seriously, and in 2011 a plurality of voters in a plurality of ridings gave his party enough seats basically to run the country unopposed. That is what majority government does. In the US, it would be as if one party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, which sometimes happens. Most governments in Canada have been majority governments. Until now, however, no government had so blatantly disregarded the hopes and desires of the majority of the country in favour of its own narrow ideology.

I watched the Joe Canada rant and was sad to think of how much had already been lost. We still have peacekeepers on the ground, but lately that is not what our troops have been doing. And then I saw the latest in a series of small and not-so-small cuts the Harper government has made to the fabric of Canada. A research laboratory that found Infectious Salmon Anemia virus in populations of farm-raised Atlantic salmon on the West Coast has been decertified by the federal government.

That is part of a pattern. This government hates science and indeed anything that does not support its agenda. Facts be damned. Research be damned. Silence those who speak out. The trouble is, most of what the government does flies under the radar of ordinary voters. Did you know about ISA virus in farmed salmon? Does it alarm you? This is only one blatantly harmful thing the government has done. There is a litany of offences. It's much easier, however, to get people worked up about something like Senate spending scandals. But the things that few see or care about are making profound and, I think, harmful changes to Canada.

I am a progressive. I think that's a Canadian value. And yet we have always made sure the baby does not go out with the bath water. We are careful about change. Until now, that is. The Progressive Conservative Party respected the traditions and values of Canada. Not so this Reform, er, Conservative Party government.

Thankfully, the government is not Canada, much as they might like to think so. There are wonderful things going on in this country. There is much to celebrate on Canada Day. I don't want to get negative. I only wish that more people saw the danger in the actions of this government. I have come to love this country. Don't take it away—from any of us.