Quitting while you're ahead

In the book Don't All Thank Me at Once: The Lost Pop Genius of Scott Miller, Brett Milano tells the story of Scott Miller, leader of the bands Game Theory and the Loud Family. Have you heard of them? If not, that's not surprising. One of the main points of the book was how Miller never became as well known as many of his contemporaries. Miller wrote great songs and, like many talented musicians, deserved to be famous, or at least better known than he was.

I was strongly affected by reading the book. I felt that I understood a lot of what Miller went through and what I perceived to be his thought process. I feel the same way as he did about music, have always sought people who were as passionate as I am, and have never found them. I understand his bafflement that others can't see how wonderful it is to make great music and that it's worth the effort to try to have that music heard more widely and indeed to make a living at it. I also understand writing songs that come out of real experiences, songs that are sometimes cutting, sometimes even cruel, or at least seem so. Writing songs, good, bad, and ugly, is that way songwriters deal with their lives.

Scott Miller ended his own life in 2013. As much as I related to his story, I am not him. But the similarities are striking, similarities that include thoughts of suicide. That is want I want to deal with here. You have been warned.

Miller's suicide stunned everyone, including his wife. Those close to him knew that he had lived with depression for a long time, but no one anticipated him making an early exit, especially at a time that he seemed to be doing well and to have plans for a new recording.

I have read that people don't commit suicide when they are in the depths of depression. That makes sense. Taking your own life requires energy, and you don't have any when you're at the bottom. I have also read that the time when depressive people commit suicide is when they have just come out of a hole, when enough energy has returned. They said that about Kurt Cobain.

Maybe it's true for some. But I have a different idea.

Be aware that while I do have thoughts about ending my life, I have never gone so far as to make an actual plan. Even much of my thinking about it is more along the lines of "maybe everyone around me would be better off if I were gone" or "I'm making so little difference, what's the point?" That's not even close to a plan. I have managed to muddle along thus far in my life and imagine that I will continue to do so.

Still, there are times, more than I would like, when thoughts about shuffling off this mortal coil are strong. Certainly that's not when I'm in a serious, draining funk. But for me, at least, it's not when I'm coming out of a funk either. When that happens, I feel hopeful. Even a tiny bit better is welcome and keeps me going. No, the times when the thoughts are strongest is when you might think suicide to be the least likely: when things are going well and I'm feeling very good.

How can that make sense? Why would I think about suicide when things are good and I'm doing well? It's called going out at the top. I hate depression. I hate the lows. I hate the lack of energy. I hate the sadness. I struggle against it. I don't do suffering very well. So when I'm feeling good, I don't want it to end. I don't want to go back into the deep. I want to die happy.

From what I know, Kurt Cobain was actually in a pretty good place just before he left us. He had his troubles with his wife Courtney Love, but that was ongoing. He dearly loved his daughter Frances Bean and loved being a father. As is the case with many men, being a father gave his life a purpose that fulfilled him in a different way than music. Maybe he was afraid of losing that. By committing suicide, of course he did lose it. But he wasn't around to know.

Is that similar to what happened with Scott Miller? We might never know. If his wife Kristine knows, she's not telling, and that must be respected. But maybe it was precisely because his life was at a pretty good point. He was married to a women he loved and who loved him, and they had two daughters whom he adored. He was a good father. He had a good life. He still had a fanatical cult following, and he was planning a new project. Did it all seem too fragile to him? Was he afraid that things would go bad again? Did he want to nip a decline in the bud?

I don't know. But I can't imagine that I am the only person who gets stronger suicidal thoughts when things are good because of fear that the good won't last.


My musical 2015: an embarrassment of riches

I'm not a music reviewer. I'm just a musician who loves music, both a music maker and a music fan. Some music touches me deeply, resonates with my body, fills me with emotion or intellectual appreciation or both. Some does not do any of that. That's pretty much how I evaluate albums.

These are the albums released in 2015 that I bought (or, in one case, was given—thanks!). I listened to each album as a whole, at least a few times. I also put the songs on my phone with shuffle play on so I could listen to individual tracks on car trips. That way I heard songs out of their context, which is a different experience. Sometimes it made me realize there were more good songs on an album than I had realized. Sometimes I found myself skipping tracks in the car that I enjoyed when listening to the album.

As always, this is nowhere near the number of albums, possibly significant ones, that came out this year. But you don't need me to review Adele's 25, right? My taste skews toward indie rock—with guitars—but I expanded my horizons a bit this year (helped by Jessica Hopper, a live show, my former choir and, believe it or not, So You Think You Can Dance). Sweetie says I need some male artists, but I'm just not feeling male vocals these days, although I would like to check out more of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, which sits atop several "best of" lists.

If anyone thinks there is no good music coming out now, they aren't looking very hard. 2015 was a banner year.

PINS - Wild Nights

This might be the best album to come out this year. Or maybe not. But it's definitely the one that I love to listen to the most, that makes me feel good, that resonates with my own musician self more than any other. That's what PINS have done for me from the start, and even more with Wild Nights, their second full-length, on which they have taken their psychedelic pop rock to a new level. I love the beauty of wonderfully blended guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums. I love the individual musicianship and the ensemble playing. I love the sound of musicians playing in an actual room, with drums sounding great but also very real. I am impressed with the drum recording but even more with the drumming. I love the songs—really all of them, but maybe especially, "Young Girls," "Curse These Dreams," "Too Little Too Late," and "Molly." I love the songs individually (in my car) but even more in the context of the album. I call this album an absolute gem, and I bet PINS have much more to show us.

Seeing PINS live for the second time just added to the enjoyment. Even when the room is nowhere near full (as by all rights it ought to be), these women put on an energetic, fun, spontaneous show. And they are friendly and personable and good for a chat after a set. What more could a fan ask for?

Wax Idols - American Tragic

I have been a fan of Wax Idols since their first album of reverbed punk pop that shone with great songs. Each subsequent album has challenged me, made me decide whether I was going to go along with the musical shift or not. With American Tragic, I'm definitely on board. With each listen, I'm more impressed with just how powerful and assured a record this is. Leader Hether Fortune has dramatized her marriage and subsequent divorce into a nine-song personal journey. The early releases "Lonely You," "I'm Not Going," and "Deborah" are all stand-outs. "Severely Yours" grabs me at least as hard, as do the lead-off song "A Violent Transgression" and the closer "Seraph." I'm not going to get all stalky about lyrics talking to me, but lines like "I am punished for my dreams" and "I'd do anything, anything for love" go straight to my soul. And I really admire the cheek of a songwriter lifting one of the most famous Bob Dylan lines ever, not to mention the cheek of an indie performer creating an album this big, this accessible, this potentially commercial. In a just world, Wax Idols songs would be all over the radio.

When I heard Wax Idols were finally on a tour that would take them as far as Seattle but not Vancouver, there was no way I was going to miss that, damn the distance and expense. The show (and getting to chat with Hether, who was delightful) was impassioned, well worth the effort to get there.

Speedy Ortiz - Foil Deer

I discovered Speedy Ortiz through She Shreds, the awesome magazine and website for female guitarists and bassists. No sooner had I become enamoured of the twists and turns of their debut album Major Arcana when they released Foil Deer, their killer follow-up. This is the first album on my list that shows up on pretty much every other list as well, and deservedly so. I marvel at how singer-guitarist Sadie Dupuis comes up with these weird chord patterns that nonetheless end up melodic in a strange but pleasing way. She is also one of those lyric writers with an extensive vocabulary and ability to put words together in arresting ways. She and her band (with new guitarist Devin McKnight) create a great musical ensemble. As I read in one review, the guitars and bass seem like they shouldn't even fit together, and yet they do, wonderfully. "Raising the Skate" and "The Graduates" are obvious stand-out songs, but "My Dead Girl" and "Puffer" get very stuck in my head.

When Sweetie and I saw Speedy in Vancouver last spring, Sadie and bass player Darl Fern were hanging out before their set, watching the band that played before. It was nice to say hi and chat a little. She's shy, so I appreciate that she even hangs out.

Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtney Barnett makes some of the most refreshing sounds to come out of my speakers/headphones in a long time. She's a rock musician! A guitarist with a great (and hairy) rhythm section! There are so many great songs on this album. I love Barnett's lyrics, her way of observing, her storytelling. "Elevator Operator" and "Pedestrian At Best" are killer opening songs. "Dead Fox," "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party," "Debbie Downer" are all great. "Depreston" makes my cry. And I hope I get to see her play live before too long. From videos I've seen, she plays with passion and fire, and I love that.

Kathryn Calder - Kathryn Calder

The band in which Kathryn Calder sings and plays, The New Pornographers, were short-listed for this year's Polaris Prize. This album, her third solo record, was not even long-listed. What a miss! There are some absolutely killer songs here. I started to list the ones that I love especially, but I was listing them all, so I stopped. "If You See My Blood" is particularly powerful. "Song in Cm" and "Arm in Arm" are two more favourites among favourites. Calder is a gifted lyricist and composer who always touches my heart and sometimes breaks it—in the way that music should.

La Luz - Weirdo Shrine

An homage to the Fender Twin Reverb amplifier, full of reverb (of course) and that beautiful tremolo. Also, real music made by a real band, a band that survived a terrible vehicle crash. I don't know if it made them stronger, but this is a really strong album. I also don't know how fancy La Luz got in the studio, but this music sounds basically live. And as much as I can appreciate studio craftsmanship, that's fine by me. I even love the amp buzz at the beginning of tracks, because it's real. This album starts quietly and explodes. The guitar solo on "You Disappear" is fierce! So many other great tracks as well.

Shana Cleveland & the Sandcastles - Oh Man, Cover the Ground

And now for something completely different—and yet by the same Shana Cleveland who is the guitarist and singer for La Luz. Oh Man, Cover the Ground was released earlier in the year and features her excellent acoustic guitar playing and singing. The songs sound like Americana folk songs, but they are her own creation. "Butter and Eggs," "Holy Rollers," "Itching Around" are all outstanding among other beautiful songs.

Chastity Belt - Time to Go Home

For a band that started as a joke—because they wanted to have a band called Chastity Belt—they sure aren't a joke anymore. This is a collection not only of great songs but of songs that say something about what it's like to be a 20-something woman in today's world. Sometimes they get carried away with their jams (I like "On the Floor" but the decelerating ending feels a bit much), but I do admire the audacity of musicians who dare to push themselves instrumentally. And what is rock if not audacious?

We could have seen them play live if we had squeezed going to the show into a day that was already too full when we were pretty knackered. I wish we had!

Florence + The Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Right from the start, you can hear this is a different Florence + The Machine album than the previous two. More of that gorgeous, expressive voice, less bombast. Better songs. Still big production, but harder, edgier. Standout songs include "Ship to Wreck," "What Kind of Man," "Queen of Peace," "Caught." I got a bit weary of Ceremonials except for the hits, but I think this one will stay with me.

Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color

I was late discovering Alabama Shakes, but I'm glad I finally did. Brittany Howard's voice alone would be enough to win me over, but we also have a great band. Sometimes I think the performances are better than the songs, and I could do without the glossy production on this album—I think it works better when we hear more of the band. I love how the album starts with the quiet "Sound and Color" and then Howard comes in with that unearthly sound that sends shivers up your spine, and "Don't Wanna Fight" kicks in. "Shoegaze" is another highlight. Most of the songs work better for me in the context of the album rather than as individual songs on my shuffle.

THEESatisfaction - EarthEE

Cool jazz? Trip-hop? Smooth R&B? Space rock? THEESatisfaction don't let categories stop them from exploring whatever they want. When I saw them open for Sleater-Kinney (and engage me more than S-K did), the singing/rapping duo hit harder than what I hear on this album. Even so, they were more about drawing you in than getting in your face. "Planet for Sale," "Blandland," "Nature's Candy," and the title song stand out for me. Sometimes the music becomes pleasant background, but overall there's a lot to listen to here.

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love

Of course I wanted to love this album. And I think I approached it without too many expectations. And given that, I liked it well enough. I gave it the full treatment in a post I wrote when the album first came out, and I still feel pretty much the same way. I think the album sounds really good, with great playing (probably stronger than ever). And it sounded even better when I saw them live. But that concert also pointed out just how much better the older material sounds. "Mature" Sleater-Kinney is still pretty good, but there are younger, hungrier bands that get me more excited now.

Positive No - GLOSSA

I can't remember why I followed Tracy Wilson on Twitter, but doing so led me to this album from her Virginia-based band Positive No. GLOSSA is an album I appreciate more intellectually than emotionally. The band is made up of four very creative musicians trading off each other, and that includes Wilson's vocals, which often are mixed like another instrument, barely rising over the top. The music is sometimes melodic, often dissonant, art post-punk. The lyrics are clever, with interesting turns of phrase and images like "bus stop cigarettes burn when you're gone." "Weird Hugs" "You Shoot, I Ladder" "Marjorie & Royal" are songs that catch my attention. I like it better when Wilson sings out than when she does breathy, almost whispered vocals, drawing out the words she is singing. I have listened to the album only a few times, and it's growing on me.

Waxahatchee - Ivy Tripp

Cerulean Salt was my introduction to Katie Crutchfield, who records as Waxahatchee. She was an indie darling, but even though I love primitive that album mostly did not not engage me. Ivy Tripp feels like a big step forward. "Under a Rock" (like vintage Crazy Horse), "Poison," "The Dirt," and "Grey Hair" catch my ear. Crutchfield goes full-on singer-songwriter on the three-quarter-time "Summer of Love" to beautiful effect. "Stale by Noon" makes me a bit crazy, but that might be because I hate the Fender Rhodes sound. The repetitive programmed drums on songs such as "Air" and "<" ("less than") I'm not big on either. Overall, though, I like what Crutchfield has done here. This is another that I like more in context than as individual songs.

Metric - Pagans in Vegas

Synthesizers have always been part of Metric's sound, no more so than on their album Synthetica. Now with Pagans in Vegas they have made a completely synth-based album. If there is any guitar in this mix, it's acoustic. Instead of playing, Jimmy gets to sing a song! I think this album works best when the songs are distinctly Metric songs, such as the way the album starts with "Lie Lie Lie," "Fortunes," and "The Shade," and later with "For Kicks." I also love the haunting "The Governess," which is really different than I have heard from Metric before. I think it works much less well when the song loses out to the purposely clichéd synth dance melody and beat. Really, "Celebrate" and "Cascades" could be any 1980s dance band. Is that the idea? I love Emily Haines's voice, but it can't redeem a sub-par song. And without that voice, the closing instrumental tracks are skippable. Apparently the next album will be back to guitars. I look forward to that.

Shannon and the Clams - Gone by the Dawn

Goddess knows I love vintage sounds and lo-fi production. And I know I'm supposed to like Shannon and the Clams. "Kinda like" is the best I can do. This record is touted as going beyond their 1950s and '60s nostalgia. Sometimes it does, but it feels mostly like shtick to me. And if you love that shtick, great. Shannon Shaw does have an interesting voice when she doesn't try to push it too low, and some of the songs stand out for me: "Point of Being Right," "Corvette," "Telling Myself." "Knock 'em Dead" is a curious bit of early punk. The on-purpose cheesy keyboard sounds get old for me—right off the bat, actually, on "I Will Miss the Jasmine." The repetition of the refrain on "If You're Gone by the Dawn" tries my patience. If find that I can enjoy listening to the entire album when I'm in the mood. On shuffle play in my car, I'm likely to skip to the next song.

Screaming Females - Rose Mountain

I love Marissa Paternoster's playing. I'm not quite as fond of her singing, although I think this is the best singing she has done to date. And even though her songs are fine, they're not great songs. For the most part, they don't stick with me, although the title song works well. Her playing does stick with me, which is really the point, I guess, although possibly not what Paternoster wants most. "Empty Head" is verse riff plus portentous metal chorus that doesn't fit with verse riff. "Wishing Well" quiet and melodic, good stuff (although solo goes a bit awry). "Hopeless" is slow as well with a strong melody.

Missing: Best Coast - California Nights, which I haven't bought, although they're getting very big and shiny these days. Veruca Salt - Ghost Notes, also don't have. I heard that they were great on their reunion tour.

Live shows: Sleater-Kinney (with THEESatisfaction), PINS, Speedy Ortiz, Namoli Brennet, Wax Idols, L7, the Richard Thompson Trio, and soon Tacocat. Sadly, the Potty Mouth show in Vancouver was cancelled.


Hope and hard work

I drove away from my house a little after 9:30 this morning to do my usual Saturday morning provisioning at the farmers market. So when I turned on the radio, Chris Hall of CBC's The House was already in mid-interview with someone from the federal government. I guessed—correctly—that the interviewee was Dominic LeBlanc, the government house leader. And he was...answering questions! Not all of them, but most of them, giving straight responses with no obfuscation. At least once he said "That's a good question" and proceeded to honour the good question with a good answer. At one point when he didn't answer (and didn't pretend to), Hall asked again, saying, "Just between you and me," and LeBlanc laughed and said "You and me and about two million of your listeners, right?" It was very much a political interview, with Hall asking direct and sometimes pointed questions, but there was an openness to the whole thing that was striking.

I thought maybe I should pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming.

That's a sad commentary really. This kind of exchange between a national affairs correspondent and a government minister should not have seemed exceptional. Yet after almost a decade of hostility, stonewalling, and often complete bullshit (former foreign minister John Baird being one of the few Conservative ministers who seemed relatively at ease and forthcoming in interviews), it was absolutely refreshing to hear the obvious change of tone.

LeBlanc didn't know the answer to a question about specifics of the troop training deployment in Iraq and Syria because he was waiting for a decision from the Minister of Defence. He brought up several other cabinet colleagues who were clearly very hands-on with their portfolios. He spoke of having a discussion with the leader of the Conservative caucus in the Senate and with the leader of the Senate Liberals (technically no longer a caucus) about the role of the Senate as currently configured and how a Conservative majority in the upper house would handle legislation from a Liberal government.

I spent the years of Conservative minorities warning about what would happen if the Conservatives won a majority, and the last four years helping cite the abuses that the Harper government was perpetrating. It was a surprisingly uphill battle. For a long time, many people seemed to have thought that things weren't so bad, that they were really okay, and that the new normal was fine or even inevitable. Since the election, I have seen so many with a palpable sense of relief at the change in the government and in the country. It's that stark. I read someone saying that the defeat of Stephen Harper and the end of his tenure as Prime Minister was like getting away from an abusive partner. You don't know just how bad it was until it stops.

Certainly the new government is far from perfect. Except among the media, whose job it is to be skeptical, and some of the chattering classes, who do what they do, the Trudeau honeymoon seems not to have finished. But the government faces huge issues, those they promised to deal with as well as things they did not anticipate. The Prime Minister will inevitably disappoint some. Rookie ministers will make mistakes. And that is especially true because we are not just back to the status quo ante. In many ways, Canada is back. But in many more ways, this is a government of new ideas. Some of those will run aground on the shoals of reality and changed circumstances, but I think that with this new generation of politicians we might see some changes that we really do like and have been needing for a long time.

I am cautiously, realistically excited. Is that possible?

I have even applied to work with the transition team, despite being able to see the light of retirement at the end of the work tunnel. Somehow I think my lack of direct government or political experience and my fair-to-middlin' command of French will not put me high on any minister's list of potential employees, but who knows. I even said I would be willing to relocate to Ottawa. And I hate winter! But I have always wanted to go ice skating on the Rideau Canal. And right now, Ottawa is where it's happening.

Whether I am in Ottawa or, much more likely, here in Vancouver, I really am realistic. But I am also really excited. This is Barack Obama time for Canada, except I think this government might be even more forward-looking and has the advantage of a majority in the House rather than a hostile Congress. I'm actually anticipating the Speech from the Throne and for the House to be in session again. Let's get to work! We have a lot to undo and a lot to do.


Open letter to PMJT

Dear Prime Minister,

By now we all know about the attacks by Daesh on civilians in Beirut and Paris. We also know, and have known, that Daesh continues to wreak havoc in Iraq and Syria and to execute people every day. Slaughter is nothing new to them. We should not only now be paying attention to it.

Recently, I have seen many calls for Canada to change the foreign policy stance that was set out in the Liberal platform and that you have shown every indication of following. I have seen calls for you to change your mind about bombing and to toughen Canada’s response to terrorism. I have even seen calls to "put boots on the ground," that facile phrase usually uttered by those who will never have to create an effective strategy for those boots and whose own boots will remain safely (so far) in Canada.

No one seems to know what will truly be effective against Daesh. After bombing, including by Canadian forces, and fighting on the ground for years, Daesh is still a viable fighting force holding territory and pushing beyond it. The current flurry of cries are all of the "do something" variety. There is no question that a response is required. But a poor response would be a mistake.

I trust you and your government to hold to the principles you articulated so eloquently—and strongly—in your ministerial mandate letters. I trust you to keep your head while others seem to have fallen into macho outrage.

I understand the outrage. I understand the grief. I understand the desire to "do something."

But if that something does nothing more than make us feel good, and especially if it ends up doing more harm than good, then we must resist the temptation to react and, I daresay, play into the intentions of Daesh, and instead hold to our determination to act in ways that will actually help.

One change I do urge is for Canada to cancel sales of military hardware, even light-armoured vehicles, to Saudi Arabia. Not only is that equipment used in Saudi Arabia's ongoing violation of the civil rights of its own people; it is also well known that Saudi Arabia funds Sunni extremists, all the while smiling and pretending to be our friend. We must not be in the position of helping those who repress their own people and aid those who wish to destroy others near and far.

I urge you to continue to look for effective ways of dealing with the violence of terrorism and the destruction wrought by war. I trust that you will. We must use what power we have to find ways to undercut Daesh and not just strike back at it.

However we respond, we must not lose the Canada we love just as we are starting to regain it. I think you feel the same way. Thank you.




The woman who knew too much

(If life disturbs you, don't read this. There's my warning.)

I had considered myself fortunate. Unlike too many other people I know, I had never been sexually assaulted. At least that's what I thought until just a few days ago. For some reason, I recalled an incident that happened many years ago. I had never forgotten it. I was just thinking about it again. And it struck me, as it never had before, that the incident was sexual assault.

Not a club I actually wanted to join.

What happened was not asked for, nor was it wanted. It violated boundaries. It violated trust.

I didn't stop it. I could have. At least I think so. But I was in a vulnerable situation, and it happened quickly. I was caught off guard, unprepared. And then it was over.

I didn't think of it as assault at the time. And I wasn't hurt, not physically. It wasn't my doing or my fault, and I never blamed myself. I just thought of it as a vaguely disturbing thing that happened. That I had allowed to happen. That might be a big part of why I never considered it assault.

Now it's in me in a whole new way.

I'm not trying to recast something innocent as something sinister. It wasn't innocent. It was not malicious, but it was definitely a transgression. I just hadn't really known what to call it. I've learned a lot since then. Now I know.

(Just so you know: We're not talking about Sweetie here. Anyone who is acquainted with us would know that, but I want to make sure it's clear to everyone.)

I'm still very fortunate, just not quite as fortunate as I thought I was. I'm okay. I don't think the incident altered the course of my life. I don't think of myself as a survivor. As I said, I wasn't physically harmed. There was nothing to survive, not like someone who escapes from a burning building or makes it home safely from a war—or lives with the memory of any traumatic experience. I don't consider that incident to have involved violence. A violation, to be sure, but not violence. That would devalue the real violence that too many experience.

Your mileage may vary. And it's not for me to say what's true for anyone else.

Now I'm trying to figure out what to do with this realization. Because I can't un-realize it. I'm not traumatized. I'm not suffering. But it's a thought that's staying with me now. I can't forget it. But can I let it go?


It's not easy being red

Even though I have been interested in electoral politics since I was a kid, I had never been a political party joiner. I had briefly been a member of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in the States only because membership happened automatically as soon as you voted in a primary. Usually I voted in the Democratic primary, but in 1980 many people voted in the Republican primary to cast a ballot for John Anderson. Normally you could unregister as soon as you had voted, but that year there were so many people doing the same thing as I did that the polling station ran out of forms. It took me years to get off the Republican mailing list!

When I became a Canadian citizen in 1997, I had no thought of joining a political party. I briefly belonged to Gordon Wilson's quixotic provincial party, the Progressive Democratic Alliance, but when he sold his soul to Glen Clark for a cabinet post, that was the end of the PDA and of my involvement in provincial parties. But I had always had an affinity for the Liberal Party of Canada, an affinity that really went all the way back to when Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister (and we were stuck with Richard Nixon). I generally liked what the government of Jean Chrétien was doing, fending off a takeover by the International Monetary Fund by making severe cuts, getting the books in order (which was hard on a lot of people, I know), and then restoring a bunch of spending. (For a great behind-the-scenes look at what went on, see Double Vision: The Inside Story of the Liberals in Power by Edward Greenspon and Anthony Wilson-Smith) I knew nothing of internal Liberal battles. I liked Paul Martin as well as Chrétien. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to like both!

I joined the party in 2006 because I wanted a say in selecting a leader to replace Martin. I attended an event in downtown Vancouver in which all of the contenders made brief pitches. I remember being impressed by Martha Hall-Findlay. Ken Dryden's passion for the country was inspiring! I thought Scott Brison and Bob Rae came off well. Stéphane Dion wasn't bad, Gerard Kennedy was meh, and Michael Ignatieff was a stiff. Not long after that, it became apparent that the race was really among Dion, Ignatieff, and Rae. I backed Dion because I liked his focus on the environment. I also chatted with him a couple of times. He wasn't good on the stump, but he was intelligent and well-spoken in person. I had run as a delegate, but I was not selected to go to the convention in Montreal. I was listening to the radio in the car when I heard that Dion had come up the middle and won the leadership. I had to pull over because I was crying so hard!

Sadly, Dion proved to be a disappointment as leader. I don't remember there even being much if any contest when Ignatieff took over. He was a disaster, leading the party to its worst ever defeat and a rump of 34 seats.

The next leadership contest featured some new faces. Hall-Findlay was still there, and she was my first choice, but on the preferential ballot I also selected Justin Trudeau, Joyce Murray, and a fourth choice (I think). It seemed obvious that Trudeau was going to win, and although I wasn't that impressed with him, I thought it might not be bad to get back a bit of star-factor. And the more I learned about him, the more I saw how he operated, the more impressed I became. At an event in Vancouver, I carefully wormed my way through the throng and put myself in just the right place to shake his hand and say a few words. I was never star-struck. But I did think he could be a winner.

It all turned out rather well as far as I'm concerned. Quite a number of my friends and acquaintances disagree, sometimes in ways that are hard to take. But Liberals have to develop a thick skin, take the blows, and prove the critics and cynics wrong—or eat crow if our leaders fail or bail out. At this point, I'm cautiously hopeful that the new government will produce real and necessary change. Given time, I guess I'll look back to see whether this post was naive or prophetic.


Soothe a savage breast

Musick has Charms to soothe a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
(William Congreve, The Mourning Bride)

I make music because I have to. It's as vital to my well-being as eating or sleeping.

Music is communication, reaching out to other people and to the world at large. I communicate in many different ways, but I always feel that music is the most important way. And communication is not a solitary activity. It depends on others being receptive of the communication. That's why although I greatly enjoy playing music by and for myself (and one must write and practise, after all), I must continue to record and play music in public, for the public, for as long as I am able, and hope that I can find some kind of audience.

Music isn't just an outward activity, however. For me, it is also therapeutic.

I have done my share of cognitive-behavioural therapy. CBT is quite effective for a lot of things, notably dealing with irrational fears (phobias). Because the fears are irrational, learning to think about them differently can defuse their power. There are a lot of problems that are really about how we think about things, and those can be helped by CBT.

But what if the problem is not you? What if feeling bad is actually an appropriate response? What if the world around you really is fucked up? What if you've done the things you should to reach out and form networks and yet you're still lonely and isolated? What if you've done what you can to change yourself and you really can't or shouldn't do any more? What if there are things you can't control and no amount of changing yourself is going to make you feel better?

You don't want the world to crush you. You want to develop at least some amount of toughness. But you don't want to learn to tolerate the intolerable. You don't want to deaden your own soul just so you can avoid being hurt by the outside world.

I'm in favour of psychotherapy of whatever kind works for you, if that's what works for you. It has worked for me before. But I seem now to be at the point where I have to help myself in my own way, because no therapist really gets me. So, music. Okay, sometimes a bit of self-medication as well, sometimes in conjunction with music, but only a reasonable dosage.

Is music just another way of self-medicating? Sometimes I think it functions that way. But I think it's more. I'm not a person who gets angry very often, but I can express anger in songs. I can express all kinds of things in songs that I normally don't express in my life. Is this healthy? I don't know, but so far it seems to have given me a pretty good level of equilibrium. So I think it's a healthy outlet.

Being fucked up will not make you creative, and I think it's possible to be creative without being fucked up. But it does often seem that creative people are at least somewhat fucked up, and certainly if you're fucked up being creative seems to be a good way to handle it. So I will keep making music. It's not free—equipment and studio time cost money—but it usually feels more like money well spent than paying a therapist.


Sidewalks of democracy

In case you hadn't noticed or live outside of Canada, we're one week away from a federal election. Here are some things I observed (or thought about) whilst distributing campaign pamphlets for the local Liberal Party candidate for Parliament:
  • In an east-west direction I covered 12 long blocks on both sides and eight more on one side only (the boundaries of the area). North-south I covered eight somewhat shorter blocks on both sides, four shorter blocks on one side only, and four shorter blocks on one side that was pretty much all commercial buildings or apartment blocks. That's 32 long blocks (each side) and 20 shorter blocks (plus four). I walked for close to five hours over two afternoons. This afternoon it was raining lightly.
  • There is a variety of houses in that neighbourhood. Judging by the houses, people in the neighbourhood are generally well off or at least solidly middle class. Two small houses are designated heritage houses, just as ours is. Several had plaques showing the name of the house (usually the name of the first owner) and when it was built.
  • A few lots had new construction underway (the old house having been demolished). A few houses were undergoing renovation.
  • Some houses are well set back from the street. Some houses have quite a few stairs to climb. All of that adds to the distance. And if the city ever allows laneway housing, which it very well might, this job would get even harder.
  • If a gate was closed, I closed it behind me when I entered and when I left. You don't want to let out a dog or something (although I didn't see any). If a gate was open, I left it that way. Gates can be latched in a wide variety of ways.
  • I said hi to several kitties and gave skritches to a couple of friendly ones.
  • I saw quite a few lovely gardens and more water features (recirculating, I hope) than I expected. One was quite extensive, forming almost a mote in front of the house (no drawbridge). Some people had vegetables growing in their front yards, which is cool.
  • I saw evidence of chafer beetles. Chafers destroy the roots of turf grass, especially when the grass is growing in not enough topsoil (most often the case, because who has six to eight inches of topsoil?). Then raccoons, crows, and other critters that consider chafer beetles to be a tasty high-protein snack rip up the weakened lawn to get at the beetles, leaving it quite a mess. Many people replace their lawns with other plants, which is not a bad thing.
  • Halloween is only a few weeks away. Some people really love Halloween. I shook hands with a skeleton.
  • I saw maybe a dozen or 15 signs for the New Democratic Party candidate. I saw at least half as many for the Liberal Party candidate, which is more than I expected. I saw one sign for the Conservative Party candidate and none for the Green Party candidate. I left pamphlets at all of those houses. I figured the Liberal sign people might want to see the pamphlet, and the NDP and Conservative sign people might have a sign but are considering voting differently. It's a secret ballot, after all.
  • I already had plenty of respect for Canadian posties but even more now. Unlike the United States, we seem not to have any kind of standard configuration for mail delivery. Most people have regular boxes outside their door, thankfully. Some use rural mailboxes, also easy to use. Some have mail slots. Some of those mail slots are ancient. Several times I had to fold the pamphlet so it would fit through the slot. And some people seem to have no discernable way to receive mail. Maybe they have postal boxes?
  • Don't give up too easily on finding a mailbox. Sometimes it's hidden or camouflaged or just in an unexpected place.
  • Some people with mailboxes seem to pay little attention to their mail.
  • Some people have storm doors. I preferred to use the mail slot in the inside door so as not to just dump a leaflet on their doorstep, but some people lock their storm doors.
  • Some people not only don't want mail. Apparently they don't want visitors at all.There was one gate with a keypad. Another had no keypad but I couldn't find any way to open the gate.
  • Judging by path condition, debris, and overgrowth, some people rarely if ever use their front entrances.
  • Quite a few houses had sandals or slippers on the front porch.
  • I am not an agent, peddler, or salesman. I am a campaign volunteer.
  • The few people I spoke with were friendly. One person walking on the sidewalk even asked me for a leaflet, which I gave to him. Some people thanked me! I felt a little funny saying "you're welcome" when it's really me who's grateful they are accepting a political pamphlet. I seriously expected at least some hostility, but there was none.
  • A few houses had pretty good watchdogs. Barking and yapping to beat the band! I should have apologized to that one guy who came to the door after I left, His dogs got all riled up. I didn't mean to cause that!
  • The most popular monitored alarm brand in that neighbourhood is AlarmForce.
  • A couple of large, barking dogs that sound potentially dangerous are probably at least as good if not better than any alarm system. And you can tell it's not fake because you can here the claws on their giant paws on the floor. I'm glad I wasn't door-knocking!
  • I would suck at door-knocking, just as I was never any good at doing sales things when I was a kid. I'm good at chatting with strangers, but I don't want to walk up to their front door to do it. It feels so intrusive. I would make a terrible Jehovah's Witness! Or political candidate, I suppose.
  • I'm glad someone wants to run for office. Me, I'll just walk. Democracy is hard and can wear out your shoes and make your legs sore, but it's important. I always vote, but I was glad to be able to do a little more.


Stand and deliver

I've been using my hacked standing desk for only a week, but I'm already sensing differences.

Improved posture is definitely a plus. I don't automatically slouch in my chair, but it's easy to slump without being aware. Standing isn't an automatic improvement. I sometimes lean in too much. But it's pretty easy to keep myself straight and my shoulders relaxed. And even though leaning in is not good, it's not bad to lean on the table top from time to time. And sometimes I find that I stand with more weight on one foot or the other, just as I would normally.

Even though standing eliminates the problems endemic to sitting, it's not absolutely comfortable. My hips feel better, but my legs and feet pick up the slack. Anyone who stands all day (such as many service workers) will tell you that it's not easy. One thing that's important for me to remember is to keep my knees soft—slightly bent. Locking them is pretty generally bad for any kind of standing. I stand on a chair mat, a soft rubbery one, but I'm also standing most of the day in my slippers. I might need to wear something more supportive on my feet.

And of course I need to take breaks. Which I do, as I always did. Now I take some sitting breaks. The only problem is that while my cat can no longer sleep on my lap, he's quite content to take over the empty chair. He's a big guy, and he's not too good at sharing a corner of the chair so I can sit. But we're working it out.

I think standing has improved my focus, generally. Somehow that part of my desk now feels more like a workstation. My personal laptop is no farther away, but it's on a different level. The top surface is all work for all of the work time. I do find, however, that if I'm short of sleep, standing does not keep me more awake in the afternoon than sitting. There's really no remedy for lack of sleep other than to get more sleep.

The Lack coffee table is about 17 inches high and not adjustable. I'm pretty comfortable with the height because I'm used to my desk being a little higher than some. I have never liked "keyboard drawers," which feel too low for me. Still, this setup might be a bit too high. If I have to adjust, I will do so. This table was cheap, and it's not sacred. But if I cut some off the legs (after measuring twice, of course), I will also add some amount of height adjustment. Further fine adjustment might be necessary.

I wear prescription reading glasses that are not quite bifocals but are called "office glasses" because the top part magnifies a bit less than the bottom. That's so I can read what's close to me and also see my screen, which is farther away. Now, however. my screen is even a bit farther away than it used to be. So far, my glasses still seem to be doing the job, but it's something I'm aware of.

One reason my laptop is so far away is that I use my old Dell keyboard plugged into it because the small Lenovo keyboard with no numeric keypad doesn't work as well for what I do as the full-size keyboard. The laptop screen would certainly be closer if I didn't use that keyboard. I'm finding that the coffee table doesn't absorb sound as well as the heavier table below does, so I might want to get some kind of thin pad to put under the keyboard.

As someone with a chronically messy desk, I must say that I'm quite enamoured of the extra shelf space. More room for piles of stuff! I've also taken advantage of space to bring the main power strip up off the floor. No more crawling under my desk at 5:30 in the morning to turn on the juice.

It's early days, but so far I'd say this experiment is a success. There are downsides, but I think they are outweighed by the upsides. I've never really cared about how sitting is supposed to shorten my life, but I do care about pain in my hips and butt. I think we're going better on that and staying just a bit more active in the process. There's nothing that says I can't dance at my standing desk!


Getting the government you want

Stop me if you've heard this one.

I'm a member of the Liberal Party of Canada, but I'm not voting for Justin Trudeau. Nor Thomas Mulcair, nor Elizabeth May. And not for Gilles Duceppe, and certainly not for the other non-francophone guy, the one with his own hair stylist to keep his helmet in place. That's not how things work here. Nor does it matter what national poll numbers say, or even provincial poll numbers. The only thing that counts for any individual voter is the riding (electoral district) in which they live and vote.

Each of us has one vote to cast for a Member of Parliament to represent our riding. The candidate who garners the most votes, even if less than a majority, becomes the MP for that riding. If that winning candidate is a member of one of the major political parties (as is most likely), the seat is added to the total count for that party. The leader of the party with the most seats in the (now) 338-member House of Commons will almost certainly ask the Governor General to form the next government, and that leader will then become Prime Minister.

We don't vote for Prime Minister. We don't even truly vote for a government. We only vote for one MP from one party and hope the result is what we want.

I wrote once that in a race with more than two candidates, which is true in pretty much every riding in Canada (unlike in the United States), it's possible and even probable for a candidate to win with less than a majority. In a three-way race, a candidate needs only 33 1/3 per cent plus one of the vote. In a four-way race, the minimum would be 25 per cent plus one

Ah, first past the post. Officially called single-member plurality, because you elect one candidate from each riding, and all a candidate needs is a plurality of votes to win. In so many ridings, Not-the-Winner actually gets the most votes. The trouble is that Not-the-Winner is more than one person. And that's how a party can win a majority of seats with only a plurality of total votes. Riding by riding.

There have been calls for electoral reform before, and this time around they are part of the platforms of three of the major parties. The New Democratic Party favours a system called mixed-member proportional, in which MPs are still elected by riding but there would also be a party list of candidates, with seats awarded based on total percentage of the vote. The Green Party also supports a proportional system. The Liberal Party favours a preferential ballot (there are several forms) in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, and then a mathematical formula (which can get complicated) is used to determine which candidate has the most support if no candidate gets a majority. Either system would be preferable to the current one, which unsurprisingly is favoured by the ruling Conservative Party.

My riding is a new one, the result of the redrawing of electoral boundaries earlier this year, but it mostly overlaps with the old one. So the NDP candidate is virtually an incumbent. He is a prominent, high-visibility MP, and he's quite popular in a city which has tended historically to vote labour-left. The chances of any other candidate prevailing on election day are slim to none (and, as the saying goes, Slim just left town). Under MMP, my vote would at least count toward some number of seats from the Liberal list. Under a preferential ballot system, I could mark the Liberal candidate as my number-one choice, rank the rest of the candidates (probably Green then NDP, or vice versa, with the Conservative candidate ranked dead last). The result would almost certainly be the same, but at least my vote wouldn't feel so wasted. And with preferential voting, if the first place vote is scattered but one candidate is the second or even third choice of a lot of voters, that might make a difference in the outcome.

Since we're stuck with first past the post for this election, what are voters to do? They can vote their conscience, mark an X next to the candidate they want to win (either for personal or party reasons), and hope the national outcome is what they want. But if they've had it with the Conservative government and want to make sure the Conservatives are is held to no more than a minority if not turfed outright, they can vote strategically. That means to vote for the candidate in their riding who is most likely to defeat the Conservative candidate. In a riding like mine, the choice is easy. I could probably even vote for the Liberal candidate without hurting the chances of the NDP candidate. In some ridings, the decision is more difficult, because two or more non-Conservative candidates might have a good chance of winning. That's where things get sticky, and where vote-splitting among the non-Conservative candidates can allow the Conservative candidate to come up the middle.

I realize that a lot of people disdain strategic voting. It feels dishonest. We might have to hold our noses and vote for a candidate we might not prefer just because they're not the Conservative candidate. We have to let go of any illusion that our preferred party is competitive in every riding, because that's just not so. In your heart of hearts, you know it's not so.

I hate strategic voting too. But under the current electoral system, since I want to ensure that a moving van pulls up at 24 Sussex after the election, I see no other choice. I have to play according to the rules of an unfair system, and that means I have to game those rules as much as possible, and encourage other like-minded souls to do the same. Within the unfair framework, that's both fair and legal. And, I daresay for any who also want that moving van to pull up, necessary. If we can gang up on the Conservatives and give one or the other major party enough seats to form government, separately or in cooperation, then we can have electoral reform, among other good things. And from then on we will be able to vote as we really feel without the distorted outcome we get now.

I assume that Conservative supporters, if I have any among my readers, stopped reading at the beginning. For the rest, I hope you consider carefully before you vote, think of the desired outcome, and put partisanship aside if necessary.


The sound of music

I'm old enough to have grown up listening to AM radio. As a kid I listened to Top 40 music (and short wave broadcasts) on an old tube radio that sat on my desk. Later, I got a really nice transistor radio that actually had an FM band. But even with FM sound quality, we're still talking tiny transistor radio speaker. The fidelity of my parents' stereo in the den was better, but even that was far from audiophile quality.

I grew up appreciating music more than sound quality.

Later, when I was at university, I had roommates and friends who owned nicer stereo systems. I also worked at a stereo store, absorbing the prejudices of audiophile salespeople. The self-titled Fleetwood Mac album, the first with Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, was so well recorded that we used it for speaker demos. John McFee's bass! Mick Fleetwood's drums! The crispness of the cymbals and fullness of the voices! (Fleetwood Mac were early users of the aural exciter.) We had a jazz record that had been recorded directly to disc, played back on some of the finest equipment then available. Vibration-damping wooden tonearms! Multiradial styli! Speakers with nearly flat response from 20 to 20,000 Hz!

I definitely got spoiled working there. And fortunately I was able to buy some pretty decent equipment at employee rates, below cost. Even then I couldn't afford the high-end stuff, but my system was pretty good for the price. I kept it long enough for it to become an antique. The was always the first thing you set up when you moved into a new place. It provided the soundtrack for the move.

Sadly, I no longer have that system. It was not really that good by modern standards, and I thought I was going to get some newer, better equipment. I have yet to do that.

Instead, what do I do? Listen to MP3s on my computer while I work. Listen to what I have stored on my phone via Bluetooth in my car or through earbuds when I'm on a plane and occasionally while riding transit (although there I'm more likely to read a book). Occasionally pop a CD into the car player. But nothing like the old days of indulging in substances while the Skull and Roses album was blasting through speakers, or lying on the floor with awesome headphones on while "Revolution 9" made your head explode.

So I'm basically almost back to AM radio. Okay, not nearly that bad, despite Neil Young's fulminations. MP3s provide reasonable fidelity. But they do provide much less audio information than a CD or vinyl record can convey. The sound truly is degraded. But how much does that matter? Even though I still appreciate good sound quality, not much. I'm mostly concerned with hearing a variety of music, new music, old music, rock, blues, jazz, whatever. The music. Not so much the sound quality.

This was true even when I had a good stereo. I still listened to music on cassette. I still had my Sony Walkman in my bag. I still heard songs on my none-too-fancy FM car radio.

Have you ever listened to field recordings, the kind that Alan and John Lomax made in the early part of the 20th century? They were lugging around the best reel-to-reel recorder they had, using the best microphones they could, but you're still hearing very degraded sound, full of hiss and scratches. And if that's too distracting, then it is. I have known people who could not have got past the poor sound. But if you can focus instead on the music itself, as degraded as the sound quality is, you hear real people playing real songs and singing with voices that shoot electricity up your spine. High fidelity is great, and it's best to be able to reproduce a performance as faithfully as possible. But in the end, it's the music that matters most. At least to me.

I still want to get a new stereo setup. For one thing, I want to listen to some records that I haven't heard in years or even decades. And I wouldn't mind getting back into collecting classical and jazz recordings and playing them on some good equipment. But no doubt I will continue to buy music in MP3 format, or whatever improvement comes along next. I won't give a shit about Young's Pono system. I won't use up tons of hard drive space with FLAC files.

I can hear the difference between my band's recordings in lossless WAV format (as originally recorded) and in compressed, degraded MP3 format, even on my inexpensive Sennheiser computer headset. I will always want to put the best sound on CD or, with enough money, vinyl. But I will always be more concerned with the music itself than with sound reproduction. Anyone who grew up with inferior sound quality is pretty skilled at filling in what they can't hear.


Elected dictator

The Nazis came to power in Germany by winning the most seats in an election. The Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt by winning the most seats in an election.

Okay, the Conservative Party of Canada is not the Brotherhood, and Stephen Harper is not Hitler. I've dropped the name, and according to Godwin's Law this blog post should already be over. But I shall soldier on because I have a serious question. What happens if someone who is fundamentally opposed to the system in which they live manages to win an election within that system?

I dislike when political opponents become "the enemy." That's Nixonian—and Harperian. But I'm afraid Steve has brought it upon himself by making himself an enemy, of the Constitution, of our parliamentary democracy, and of Canada.

Stephen Harper flouts the Constitution. At present, he is refusing to appoint senators. Whatever you think of the Senate (and I imagine that's "not much" at best), unless the Constitution is amended the Senate has to be functional enough to pass legislation. Our system requires it, however undemocratic you might think that is. At this point, the Senate is barely functional. Starving the Senate of funds and members is not the way to deal with the Constitution and in fact could lead to a constitutional crisis.

He also flouts the Constitution repeatedly by passing legislation that he knows is unconstitutional. Time and again, his laws have lost court challenges. No matter how much he has tried to stack the judiciary in his favour, it has continued to do its job. Yet he continues to push through legislation that causes damage until it is tested in the courts and rejected.

Harper despises the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and has no respect for human or civil rights in general. He is one of those who wishes we did not have a Charter so that Parliament could pass laws without regard to our pesky rights. More than once he has played the security card to chip away at those rights. Bill C-51 is only the latest foray in a war that only terrorists and Stephen Harper win.

Harper has no respect for the Westminster System, Parliament, or parliamentary procedures and traditions. He has instructed committees to obstruct any legislation that he cannot simply ram through. He has turned Question Period into a bad joke. He would like nothing better than not to have to deal with the House of Commons at all. He makes a mockery of a system that has served us well for almost 150 years.

Harper does not believe in Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, He doesn't like any opposition, either outside or within his own party and caucus. He has a personal vendetta against the Liberal Party of Canada. His stated intention is to destroy it. Especially now that the New Democratic Party is looking like a reasonable bet to win a plurality of seats in the House of Commons, I imagine he would like to destroy the NDP as well.

He despises free and fair elections. He manipulates the system as much as he can get away with it. His minions have been charged with and sometimes convicted of electoral fraud. He has made it more difficult for many people to vote, most of whom would probably not be voting Conservative.

Harper despises facts that don't support his ideology. He has muzzled scientists, destroyed the ability of Statistics Canada to do its job, and eschewed any kind of evidence-based policy. He has certainly shown himself to be a proponent of the Big Lie—something repeated loudly until people (who should know better) start to believe it.

The media rarely do their job of holding the government to account, but then Harper almost never talks to them anymore, and only delivers scripted messages and photo ops in tightly controlled situations. He has gutted the CBC and would like it to disappear.

Finally, Harper despises Canada. He has stated publicly that we will not recognize the country once he is finished. We have witnessed the Americanization of our politics, the poisoning of the political process, the fundamental disrespect for Canadians who do not toe his line. He wishes aboriginal people would just disappear.

Preston Manning, the founder of the Reform Party (which the Conservative Party is, despite the pretense of having merged with the Progressive Conservative Party), favoured drastic changes to the system yet understood how it worked. Stephen Harper is much more about scorched earth. We are already paying the price for this, and will continue to pay the price as long as he lives at 24 Sussex.

Is it even proper to allow non-democrats to run in democratic elections? Is every vote for the Conservatives really a vote to help undermine our democracy, rights, and freedoms? Do we have to wait for our own Enabling Act before we realize that we should not elect dictators?


Seattle shines

It's not that the shine went off Seattle. It's only that ever since we started making the longer drive to Portland, we have tended to head back there more often than to our much closer neighbour. But our last two quick trips to Seattle made us realize how much we missed the city. So when I discovered that PINS, a band from Manchester, England, that I love, would be touring only as far as Seattle and not to Vancouver, I proposed a long weekend to Sweetie. I did not have to twist her arm.

We made one disconcerting discovery right away. It used to be possible to book decent Seattle hotels for a reasonable amount of money. No longer. The cost of nice places where we have stayed have suddenly leaped to several hundred dollars a night. Even hotels we know are decent at best have gone out of reach. We thought we might have to make this a trip where we drove down and back in one night. Thankfully, Airbnb came to our rescue. We found ourselves a lovely place on Capitol Hill for two nights for an amount we were willing to pay.

The nice apartment was also in a particularly good part of Capitol Hill, on the slope that leads to downtown. Lots of stuff nearby, and lots more not far away. One thing not far away is Sitka & Spruce, a fantastic farm-to-table restaurant in a little complex of shops (bottle, meat, sandwich, and more) owned by the same company. We've been to plenty of "fresh, local, seasonal" restaurants in Vancouver. They are among our favourites. But I think the chefs and owners might want to pay a visit to Sitka & Spruce. They're doing some really innovative, flavourful things. Morels on a big chunk of grilled sourdough bread with sherry cream and an egg yolk on top! That was just one of the fantastic dishes we had.

Dinner was early and the show we were going to wasn't until later, so we walked up to Broadway to check out Sweetie's old 'hood (when she was in grad school at U Dub). Some things are the same as we remembered—Annapurna Indian Restaurant, the Rite Aid drug store (the one with the old movie theatre marquee), the QFC supermarket, but so much else has changed. We have since learned that the huge construction project east of Broadway just south of E. John St. will be a light rail station connecting to the U District, Downtown, and SeaTac Airport. And there are many empty storefronts on Broadway. We walked by a restaurant and said aloud, "Is that where Minnie's used to be?" A couple eating outside said, "You're the third people walking by who've said that." We got a good laugh out of that.

Later it was time to head to the SoDo Lounge to see PINS. That was a bit of an adventure. The SoDo Lounge is south of Safeco Field, where the Mariners play. Sound Transit got us to a point east of the stadium, maybe a mile from the club. We wended our way through a mostly empty land of bus and train stations and huge highway overpasses, skirted past the stadium (where there was a game on), and finally made it to our destination.

The SoDo is a newish room, a bit sterile but with clean bathrooms (an advantage of new, sterile clubs) and overpriced drinks. It's a good-sized room, and sadly only a few dozen people made it for the show. Shades of the Electric Owl last fall. I'm beginning to think I'm a jinx for this band! But just as then, PINS played a great show, and the people there were enthusiastic. After the show we chatted with guitarist Lois (whom I had met in Vancouver), drummer Sophie, and bass player Anna. They are the nicest people! I feel bad that I was drunk when I had intended only to get a buzz on. I probably did not give the best impression. I'm sure they put up with drunken fans, but I don't want to be that fangirl.

I felt much worse the next day. You know how we say, "I can't drink like I used to"? That's a real thing. This was way beyond a hangover. Nasty headache, unrelenting nausea, and a lethargy that kept me from moving very far from the bed. A stupidly wasted day. I finally asked Sweetie to Google "alcohol poisoning." It wasn't that, of course, but she found "alcohol intolerance"—the kind of thing that is often genetic but that also sometimes develops when you get...old. Ugh. But the best thing was that she found a remedy—chicken soup. Seriously! I needed to get myself up and out, so I slowly wandered to a convenience store and got a Cup o' Noodles. The combination of ramen and chicken-flavoured broth (and seemingly not too much MSG) was magic.

Later, with me cured, we headed out to the Egyptian Theater, now run by the Seattle International Film Festival. We saw The Wolfpack, a great documentary. Check it out. We then did a kind of Broadway nostalgia tour and ended up at Pagliacci Pizza for slices and salad. Not quite the dinner at Altura that we had had to cancel due to my idiocy, but still fun.

We finished our weekend on Sunday morning with a great breakfast at Glo's Cafe. The place is tiny, and even fairly early there was a wait (it was Father's Day after all), but the food was worth the wait. I had an eggs benedict variant with bacon, spinach, and grilled tomato that was very satisfying. The hollandaise was outstanding! And they were generous with the hash browns. We also discovered a great habañero sauce (for the hash browns) called Secret Aardvark, which is apparently from Portland. We bought a bottle to take home.

We were sad to leave, but we have already booked the same Airbnb for early fall. The owner gets two thumbs up from us! We will still be back in Portland, of course, but it was nice to get reacquainted with Seattle and with the changing Capitol Hill neighbourhood. And next time we will make it to Altura and the Seattle Aquarium!


Farewell, my lovelies

I have a choir-shaped hole in my heart. This has been a difficult entry to write.

This past weekend, Femme City Choir put on two fantastic shows at the York Theatre in East Vancouver. I think we did our best shows to this point. I loved the repertoire, and we used more arrangements created by our musical director, who is a brilliant arranger. The band and the singers worked very well together. The solos were great! I got to sing a duet on the first verse of "Dreams So Real" by Metric (I love Metric) which then turned into a sextet to finish the song. It was glorious.

The Saturday show was also my last official show with the choir.

It was a difficult decision to leave. In many ways, I really did not want to. Choir has been both enjoyable and useful for me. I love the people involved in it. I love how much we have improved in less than two years and through growth from about 15 to more than 40 members. Choir has been very good for my singing voice and my breath control. And every Thursday evening, choir practice was an excuse to wear something nice. It's femme choir, right?

If time were infinite, or at least more plentiful, I probably would not have left. But at some point during the last couple of weeks, I realized that I had not touched my guitar for longer than I could remember. I had scribbled some lyrics and actually finished a couple of songs, but they were almost flukes, because I hadn't really been working on them. I had barely practised with my drummer and partner in V+T, our duo.

I am also now involved in another volunteer activity that it important to me, and that takes time and focus as well. And I have new plantings to tend. And cooking to get better at. And books to read. Something had to give.

It's sad for me no longer to be a part of the choir for musical reasons, but at least as much because of people. Being the social critter that I am, I fear losing connections. I won't be at practice every week. I won't automatically see a lot of these lovely people. I only hope that the connections I have formed will endure. There are definitely people I don't want to lose touch with. Farewell ("fare thee well") but not goodbye, I hope.

I also have to make sure not to get lazy. When you're part of something like the choir—someone else's band, in a way—you're like an employee. You show up. You participate. You do your job, and you make a contribution. But you're not the boss, and it's not your responsibility to run. Now I'm back to being more like a freelancer. I have to hustle. I have to be disciplined. I've never been as good at either of those as I need to be. But now is the time for me to step up. Among other reasons, I said I was leaving choir to make music, and by George I had better have something to show for it soon!

I love my band most, but I'm having fun writing and playing solo songs as well. Catch me at the open mic night at the Heartwood Cafe on June 24th?


Life after life

So I was going to write about how all the critics were wrong in saying that Don Draper in the Mad Men finale was actually dreaming up the iconic "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" Coke ad while he was seemingly blissing out in California. I was sure that was wrong because the origin of that ad is well known and documented, and series creator Matthew Weiner had not previously done that much fictionalization of history.

But apparently that was exactly what Weiner had in mind. He thinks the Coke commercial is the greatest ad ever, and so of course Don was behind it. Which makes zero sense to me. But Don is Weiner's character, and if Weiner thinks the height of enlightenment is an ad that co-opted the idealism of the 1960s to sell caffeinated sugar water, well, that's his prerogative. And it's mine as a loyal viewer who thought the show pretty much rocked to think that he's a bloody idiot for having Don's journey finish that way. To borrow a '60s phrase, it feels like a cop-out.

Anyway, since Mad Men is done, and done in such a way that makes me care less about it (at least Peggy and Joan's stories came out okay), I'll move on to something else.

A little over a lunar cycle ago, on the day of the new moon, I made a sacrifice to my goddess. Really, an actual sacrifice, in more ways than one. I hope she appreciated it. I had already been making changes in my life. On that new moon, I resolved to make more changes, including some important ones.

The first two weeks were a bit rough. Good days, bad days, bad hours within good days and vice versa. Going cold turkey off something that has been integral to your life is not for the faint of heart. But as I relearned how to love my real life, there were good things that helped me along. Saw an excellent local production of My Fair Lady. Saw a very good documentary about clothing production called Traceable and got to catch up with two of my favourite local fashion people. Had a great dinner at Fable that was part of Eat Vancouver and met two lovely guys who later invited Sweetie and me over for dinner at their house. Enjoyed some Doxa (documentary festival) films and the excellent documentary about Kurt Cobain, Montage of Heck. Saw a great show by Sleater-Kinney at the Commodore. Had more dinners with more friends. And drank too much only a couple of times.

I hope my friends know how much I appreciate their love and support through all of this. They mean the world to me—people I've been able to spend time with as well as people whom I would like to see but for various reasons (including distance) have not been able to see. I received a beautiful note from someone far away who is very dear to me. I have been touched many times by small acts of generosity and kindness. And through it all, my beloved Sweetie has been there with her strength and love.

I'm also grateful for other things that have kept me out of trouble and helped me rebuild. Femme City Choir has a pair of shows coming up very soon—June 5 and 6! (Hint: buy tickets.) Songs and choreography don't learn themselves. I volunteer for Out On Screen, the organization that produces the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, and it's one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable things I do. Tomorrow, I will take delivery of a whole lot of new native plants for my garden, which I will place according to a plan drawn up by an excellent landscaper who really knows his BC native plants.

I'm still a work in progress. The quest for balance and harmony are constant. How could I ever have thought otherwise? I suppose some people reach a point where they settle into comfortable complacency. Sometimes I want to be one of them. Fortunately, my goddess won't let me. Even though I get weary sometimes, I appreciate the nudges and sometimes kicks. If I stopped moving, stopped trying, stopped caring, I'd be dead, right? Not ready for that yet.


Répétez, s'il vous plaît

C'est un mystère et boule de gomme.

Je ne sais pas pourquoi, mais récemment, je me trouve avec un désir fort de parler français. Dans la voiture, souvent j'écoute Radio-Canada, quelquefois CBUX (classique, jazz), quelquefois CBUF (comme Radio One en français). J'essais à écouter bien pour comprendre l'animateur et les autres parleurs.

Vous voyez, ça c'est ma faiblesse. Je peux lire un texte en français sans trop de difficulté. Je peux écrire en français, lentement et pas sans fautes mais pas mal. Je peux parler aussi pas mal, avec un bon accent. Mais quand quelqu'un me répond?

Souvent, je ne comprend rien.

Oui, ça me fait hônteuse. Les gens me disent, "Your name is so French! Do you speak it?" et il me faut répondre avec "un peu." Un peu—une expression terrible. "Un peu" veut dire "pas vraiment."

Ce n'est pas de ma faute que mes parents ont parlé français rarement chez nous. Ce n'est pas de ma faute que dans tous les cours de français—à l'école primaire, à l'école secondaire, même à l'université—j'ai appris comment réussir aux examins et c'est tout. Et c'était bon que, après trop d'années, j'ai enfin participé à un cours d'immersion, à Jonquière (Saguenay), où presque personne ne parle anglais. Mais après ces trois semaines, rien. J'ai perdu tant que j'avais appris.

Ma vie est bien chargée. Je ne fais pas le temps de trouver un groupe de conversation. Je ne cherche pas des autres avec qui je pouvais parler français. Mais maintenant, ai-je un désir assez fort?



Until you start climbing out of a hole, you don't always know how deep it is. I knew I had had a rough winter. I just didn't know how bad it was, because it hadn't felt that bad. But it might have been the worst ever.

Curiously, although I have a certificate in counselling and have benefited from psychotherapy in the past, I didn't seek help this time. I'm not sure why, especially considering how bad this was. I guess I found help in other ways—my Sweetie, my friends, music, writing. Thinking and reflecting. I guess I found some resources within myself too.

Last night was the full moon, half a lunar cycle from when I stopped self-medicating with something I love far too much and have never been able to control. I knew that even though meds were isolating me and robbing me of self-confidence, they also created a cozy life. Not one that I wanted any longer, but cozy and safe nonetheless. I was under no illusion that going cold turkey was going to be the answer to getting out of the hole. But I knew it was a necessary beginning.

The past fortnight has indeed sometimes been difficult. I find myself on the edge of tears more often than is normal even for Ms. Highly Sensitive Person. I still have a long way to go to rebuild the life I want to have. Climbing out of the hole is a bitch, and sometimes I slide backwards. But I'm not giving up.

There were good things during the climb. Sweetie and I saw a fantastic production of My Fair Lady put on my our local musical theatre. We saw an excellent film called Traceable about how we so rarely know where our clothes really come from and how many hands they have passed through, but that technology makes this increasingly possible. We had an amazing dinner at Fable put on Fable's executive chef, Trevor Bird, with the chef who won his season of Top Chef Canada, Carl Heinrich. We met a couple there with whom we will get together again! Despite a cold, I successfully auditioned for a solo (duet really) at the upcoming Femme City Choir concerts. And we saw a very good film at Doxa (documentary festival) called Tab Hunter Confidential about what it was like for one man to be a closeted teen idol in the 1950s.

A fortnight can't change everything, but you can't get where you want to go without the first step, and the next step, and however many more it takes. I'm not looking back.


Wild things

Since I have been writing more, I thought I would be publishing more blog posts. Unsurprisingly, however, a lot of what I'm writing is just working stuff out, a way of thinking out loud. Not for publication. Either I don't want to share it or it's interesting only to me or both.

It feels good to have some of the time back that I was spending, especially on Facebook. It feels bad to be in so little touch with what is happening in the lives of people I care about. I had expected both of those feelings. But I have to keep my time reduced indefinitely.

I seem to be in a shell. I don't like it much, but I hope it's part of the healing and growing process and not a deep hole that I won't get out of. I haven't been reaching out, which is what I am normally wont to do. No one is reaching in. Maybe everyone is used to me being the instigator. Maybe they think I need alone time.

Not really. It's my online social networking that I have to curtail while I find the right balance, not actual social networking. I always want personal connections, perhaps more than others want from me. I know I can be kind of intense sometimes.

The beneficiary of my solitude has been my native perennial garden. Thanks to the amazing weather stretching back into winter and many doses of herbal tolerance for tediousness, I have removed most of the early crop of weeds. The insidious ground cover that crawls between other plants and makes huge mats where it has no competition, the creeping buttercup (not doing well this year due to dryness), and dandelions galore, as well as plantain, clover, old turf grass, and all that stuff with no name. And the ubiquitous and relentless maple tree sprouts. I've done this by getting down and dirty, on my knees or butt or whatever position is not too painful for the time it takes to clear all the weeds within reach.

Being up close and personal with my plants and with the soil has taught me a lot about the pico-ecosystems we have around this house, the drier areas and the ones with more moisture, the sunny spots (more of them since we had to have a large red cedar removed).

I'm also learning about what makes these plants happy. I started this garden 12 years ago, and most of the perennials have been in for at least eight years. I sited them according to advice from native plant guides, watered them until they were established (2-3 years), and then mostly left them alone. If they are sited correctly, they should do well, without any water other than rain (look up xeriscaping).

Some species didn't make it. Some struggled, and some still do. Some thrived and even expanded their range. Some died in the spot in which they were planted but sprang up elsewhere. Some thrived, withered, and are coming back, which could be a natural cycle.

I never intended to have anything even close to a formal garden. But I always made sure it was fairly domesticated. I liked my paths and rock borders, the neat beds with mulch between, and each plant where I could see and identify it. You wouldn't know it by looking at my desk, but I am an orderly person, sometimes to a fault.

Imposed order is not how these plants grow in the wild. And I wondered if I could let things go more wild without the garden becoming too messy--this is a house lot in a city, after all, not an actual sanctuary. But maybe it was time to see where the plants, the successful ones, wanted to go. I tried to give them a good start, but they know best how to thrive.

So I have started to let the herbaceous perennials become an experiment in evolutionary fitness. I'm watching various species share space with other species. I'm watching some move into areas where they weren't planted but that could use some foliage. I'm seeing some take leaps into new areas.

I'm not letting nature take its course entirely. I have a suspicion that wild strawberry might run the world if given the chance. That's certainly true for Nootka rose. That guy has serious roots. Its job is to pop up in places near and far, and my job is to keep it in check. As well, I prune the smaller trees and shrubs, sometimes quite hard, thus treating them more like domesticated garden plants. But in most parts of the garden I am now letting things happen. I shall watch closely to see what actually does happen.

Is this some kind of metaphor for my life? I sweah ta gawd, even though I started by writing that prologue, I did not expect to write an epilogue as well. I have no idea if it's a metaphor. But a tarot reading gave me lots to think about. Why shouldn't the plants in my care and the place where they live do so as well? I have always been mostly a "bloom where you're planted" kind of person, but maybe I'm getting fussier in my old age. Or maybe it's just that I have less time left and want to spend it in a way that's good for me. Some places, some situations, some fellow human beings will help me to grow and thrive more than others. Maybe I've tried to grow where I might do okay but will never thrive. Maybe I resist shifting to better soil, or maybe there is a barrier. Maybe if I find soil and fellow plants that are good for me, I'll make the best foliage and flowers ever.


All the feels

I read a ton of stuff on the interwebs. But I usually avoid anything with even a whiff of click bait. And that's a ton of avoiding. Trying to make money by creating nothing is a practice as old as humanity, but I have my own tradition of letting them get their clicks elsewhere.

So either I had ignored links about Highly Sensitive People or just hadn't paid much attention. It's not that I'm against labels and categories. They're just words, and words are how we communicate and distinguish different things in the world. If a label fits, then there's nothing wrong with it. But I'm also not big on saying "I'm a Capricorn" or "I'm ENFP" the way some people do so that others can know how they define themselves. Too facile.

As well, I have never thought of myself as being exceptional. I'm part of a sexual minority, but I'm also white, middle-ish class, able-bodied, and a whole slew of other "normal" categories. Even my blood type is as normal as can be. So I belong to a lot of majorities, and I have always been reluctant to claim any kind of "special" status. And saying that you're more sensitive than most seems special to the point of bragging.

A while ago, however, a friend posted something about Highly Sensitive People, and I decided to look into it. I found a test. Unsure whether the test was legitimate or not, I checked off the boxes that applied to me, and I found that according to that test, I was just inside the category of Highly Sensitive People, which describes about one in five people. When I told Sweetie, with some surprise, that I seemed to be a Highly Sensitive Person, her response was "Duh!" She said she had always known that. How did I not know? It's really just that I never thought of myself that way and never knew that it was an actual classification of human beings. And that it wasn't bragging. It was just reality.

I did some more research and found an article on the Huffington Post. As I read through the list, I teared up. In item after item, I saw myself. And of course I teared up, right? Duh indeed.

I have long wondered why things like art, music, drama, stories, and sometimes just life in general affect me so strongly. I thought it was odd that people seemed not to be affected by things that brought me to tears or shook me to the core. Sweetie is like me in that aspect as well. But as it turns out, it's not so odd for people to feel things less strongly than I do. I'm in the minority.

I don't think HSP is an explanation for everything about me. I'm neither that simple nor a stereotype. But it has certainly informed how I look at myself in relation to the world. It is always my goal to evaluate things critically, but it's hard to ignore the thrill of recognition.

The ability to feel more strongly and deeply must be a good thing, right? A meter that is more sensitive is usually better than one that is less so. But people are not meters. Being HSP feels fine to me, probably because it's just part of who I am and I accept it, but it's not easy dealing with it. Psychic pain is still pain. It's hard for me to be resilient. It's hard for me not to have fear. And it's far too easy for me to self-medicate as a way of building a cushion around myself.

Understanding about HSP doesn't automatically mean I will deal with it more effectively, but I think understanding can help. When you're trying to live mindfully, awareness is a definite plus.


Holiday in the sun

One relaxed chica
The therapy of spending a week on Kauai did not work miracles. I didn't expect it to. But I think it was a helpful part of a process that is turning out to be a bit more involved than I had thought it would be at first.

I want to say, even though this re-evaluation process is sometimes scary, I am doing my best to embrace it. It seems that I spent last year thinking I had myself all sussed out. Getting a bit smug and complacent. But the deities are sensitive about hubris. And complacency is not good for my character. So, bring it on.

I feel awkward posting a link to this blog post on my Facebook wall, because one thing I decided was to give myself a bigger Facebook break. Not a total one, but I'm letting myself forget to go check it rather than making sure to check it every mumble minutes. I'm sorry not to engage very often with postings, as was my wont (and might be again), but self-care right now demands a Facebook footprint reduction.

There were so many more things I thought and felt about as I listened to the earth and water and sky. As I breathed the tropical air, basked in the sun, got splashed by the rain, and looked at the stars (when the clouds would let me).

One thing I changed just by being there was to increase my activity level. I haven't gone to the gym in longer than I care to think about. I walk a fair amount, but not enough, and at my age I need strength training as well. But on Kauai I swam every day, sometimes twice, and took some long walks. And all of that felt very good, both physically and mentally.

Celebrating the birthday of Prince Kuhi'o
You know what is good therapy? Snorkeling while swimming. At least snorkeling at Beach House Beach, a somewhat sheltered cove next to the Beach House restaurant. Pretty much as soon as you put your face in the water you see fish, all kinds of fish, as well as a few invertebrates such as sea urchins. Best snorkeling ever! Better even than boat tours specifically for snorkeling. It was wonderful to drive down the road, swim out not very far, and see all of that beauty. I find snorkeling to be both exhilarating and calming.

Swimming is such a good exercise for me that I ought to keep doing it. But here at home, swimming involves going to the pool at the right time (on a fairly restrictive schedule) and the overhead of the before and after. And all of that for the dubious privilege of swimming laps in a chlorinated pool, not even close to the joy of frolicking in rolling, tepid salt water until my body says "Okay, enough for now."

So maybe not swimming, but I know very well that no one can improve their mental state without the holy trinity: nutrition, sleep, and exercise. In this case, two out of three ain't bad but ain't good enough.

Sweetie and I did well on the nutrition part, with some indulgence (cough, gelato, cough). We had light breakfasts mostly at home, often the same for lunch, and three times I made supper of grilled fish with papaya salsa and veggies. We had our foraging down this time! We bought enough to have some variety in our meals, but we ended up with very little unused food at the end of our stay. We shopped locally and also at the Hanapepe farmers market, which is not just farmers but sometimes people who are basically gardeners who work small plots and sell some of what they pick. It was such a treat to have fresh papaya and apple bananas and a variety of fresh, local vegetables. I learned to use calamansi (great in the salsa as well as in fish marinade). I grilled not only ahi and ono (my new favourite fish, also called wahoo) but also Japanese eggplant, green onions, and blanched broccoli and green beans. Grill marks on everything!

We found great restaurants in Po'ipu and Koloa, some that hadn't come up in our research. La Spezia in Koloa was a delightful discovery, with distinctive Italian food and excellent service. We had a lovely dinner at Red Salt in the Koa Kea Resort that included seared scallops in four different sauces and a wagyu filet mignon (we split it). We had one breakfast out at a place called Joe's on the Green, which is at the edge of a golf course. It's a lovely covered, open-air restaurant and bar that looks out on the golf course (where we saw nene, the state bird) but also the ocean and the mountains. And the breakfast was great: Kalua pork with rice, eggs, and toast (and hot sauce, of course), a local favourite.

The best meal of all came via a casual suggestion. Sweetie and I were getting manicures in Kapa'a. I was chatting with the woman doing my manicure. At some point she mentioned a couple of her favourite restaurants, one of which was Josselin's in Koloa. We went on our last night. Oh mah effin ever-loving lawd. Tapas, Pacific Rim fusion, and even sangria all done so well. Normally I'm not interested in sangria, but the lychee white sangria was delicious and refreshing. Tempura green beans, ahi poke, rock shrimp tempura, pork dumplings, and especially the kabocha pumpkin ravioli made our mouths very happy. The ewer of warm dark chocolate that we drizzled over pistachio ice cream profiteroles was killer. And the service was excellent. This was a Tuesday night, and I've read in reviews that the place is noisy when full, but at least on the night we went we had an outstanding experience.

Three paragraphs on food. You can tell where our priorities lie, eh? Cooking is always good for me, which is why I wanted to do that even when on vacation. And having other people make and serve great food to us is pretty darned therapeutic as well.

After watching an episode or two of season one of Game of Thrones (can't wait for the new season), I had some nice quiet time at night before bed. I would sit on the lanai, feel the breeze, look at the ocean and the sky and the huge monkey pod tree and sometimes the feral kitties that would come around (but never too close). I let the spirit of the island into me. As always, I expressed gratitude, and I wished blessings, but being in those surroundings made my ritual extra special.

Oh yeah, about that dinner at Red Salt. It was a celebratory dinner after a special event. Sweetie and I renewed our marriage vows on Shipwreck Beach with a lovely woman named KatRama who created a beautiful ceremony for us. I was looking forward to that evening for the whole vacation, and it was even more wonderful than I had thought it would be.

The best part a day among a week of wonderful days. Now it's important that I hang onto and build on things I gained from spending time in paradise.