Monday, November 27, 2006

In Honour of Urk

Maybe you've never heard of Nits, the Dutch art-pop band. They've been around since 1974 and have achieved periodic fame, but arguably their "high point" was in 1988.

They'd just had a major hit with their "In the Dutch Mountains" album and were on a successful world tour. The band line-up was as solid and strong as it would ever be: long-time members Henk Hofstede (vocals, guitars) and Rob Kloet (drums), with innovative keyboardist Robert Jan Stips and recent member Joke Geraets on bass. They had a great stage backdrop: a rack of 32 hanging plates that could be swiftly moved around to create simple shapes (a car, a hat). As evidenced on "In the Dutch Mountains," which was recorded live to tape, the four of them were totally in sync: no edits or overdubs necessary.

The tour was archived as "Urk," a double-live CD of 29 songs, covering their career to that point. "Urk" is simply stunning; they rework their new wave classics -- usually improving on them -- and play all the new "stripped down" hits. You can tell they're loving what they do and that they are getting along very well with each other.

Sadly, the video for "Urk" was truncated -- only 13 songs -- and was impossible to get in North America. I don't know if it was ever released in NTSC format. Us hungry listeners wondered: why's the audience laughing during "An Eating House?" What's with the ten seconds of silence during "Port of Amsterdam?" What did it look like when the Amsterdam Saxophone Quartet blew everybody away with the new, subtle version of "Mask," which -- in its original format -- was an overproduced piece of unbearable schlock?

Without fanfare, Nits have re-released "Urk," now on DVD with an additional five songs (which their lighting director rescued from the garbage), a video diary, and a photo gallery. And holy cow it's good.

So in honour of Urk here's the inevitable YouTube rip of "Cabins." Once again, the original version was overproduced and far too slick, but here they've tightened and stripped it to fine-tuned frenzy. As an added bonus you get to see all four members at their fastest and finest.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Potboilers and Gary Jennings

What's a "potboiler" and why's it called that? Think about it for a second and I'll give you the answers at the end of the post.

Ten years ago my roomate at the time (Scott Irving) encouraged me to read "Aztec" by Gary Jennings, a pseudo-historical adventure about one of the last remaining Aztecs who travels around Central America, currying political favour, having wild sexual exploits, witnessing horrible barbarism, and inventing new devices with only the knowledge and materials at hand.

The book was worthwhile for two reasons: it described how people lived at that time, and why they lived that way. But it also appealed to my desire to be horrified and disgusted; I remember a scene that graphically depicted people being burned at the stake, and another that described the ritual mutilation of aristocrats in order to turn them into immobile and helpless freaks.

Since I've been reading too many "heavy" books lately -- and to carry on learning a bit about medieval life -- I picked up Gary Jennings' "Raptor." So far it seems to be a pseudo-historical adventure about a hermaphroditic child in the 5th century who travels around Europe, currying political favour, having wild sexual exploits, witnessing horrible barbarism, and inventing new devices with only the knowledge and materials at hand.

I guess Jennings new better than to mess with a winning formula.

Regarding the "horrible and disgusting" element, the poor author must have spent much of his time trying to find new things to gross us out, and he succeeded. A Roman soldier, captured by huns, is raped repeatedly through a small incision made in his stomach while watching the headless body of his pregnant wife give birth to a stillborn child. Ummm, thanks Mr. Jennings.

Anyway, when I bought the book at "Old Goat Books," the proprietor said derisively "You're buying a potboiler!" I realized I hadn't heard that word in a long time and I was very curious about WHY such a book was called a "potboiler."

So I asked a few people. Most of them had never heard the word. I myself was incorrect about the definition; I thought a potboiler was a romantic adventure, largely lacking in substance, sort of like a beefed-up Harlequin Romance.

Based on this definition I figured they were called "potboilers" because stereotypical housewives would read them just to pass the time between doing houswork (like while waiting for the pot to boil). Vanilla, on the other hand, thought that reading them was like being inside a boiling pot: lots of pressure, lots of heat.

It turns out that a potboiler is really just any book written quickly in order to make money. The word goes back to the 1800s when people used wood to heat their stoves, and therefore to boil their pots of food. A potboiler was a book written just so the author could afford wood for the stove.

So now we can all rest easy.

Friday, November 24, 2006

No Soliciting, Please

It shouldn't need to be said but I'm saying it anyway: I will delete any comment that I suspect to be an advertisement (eg. "Ha ha, great post! And CLICK HERE to learn how to make money with your blog!"

Hopefully this won't become an epidemic...advertisers seemed a bit fond of the "cat" post below.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Chef's Tip

I love when advertisers try to raise the status of an item, even though the item itself is so obviously crass or base. Whenever I go to the Forbes website to read their news, I'm treated to a full-screen advertisement (for cars or cel phones or something) with a message at the top reading: "Click here to skip this welcome screen."

It's not a welcome screen. It's an advertisement. But somehow their PRETENDING that it's a "welcome" screen -- even though I'm sure they know that they're not fooling anyone -- makes the screen sort of welcoming anyway.

Since I'm a sucker for quick meals I bought one of the new President's Choice frozen dinners. This line of dinners is being marketed as upscale...the fonts are all "script" and they feature maps showing you where the food supposedly comes from (no, not a map of the factory floor, a map of the region famous for that particular dish).

So I bought the "Piemonte Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms." It's ready in five minutes and has its own little microwave-safe plastic dish. Nothing about the food or its preparation sets it apart from other $2.00 microwave dinners...but on the back -- above the cooking instructions -- I found this totally discordant bit of overreaching promotion:
Serve with a red wine, such as a Chianti Classico or a Pinot Noir.
TV dinners and a nice red wine. That's class.

Sad Cats and Bored Cats

In 1993 Eli and I recorded a sweet little song called "Song For a Sad Cat." I mention this because now, 13 years later, he's come up with a sequel as part of his very disciplined "song-a-day" exercise.

To hear "Song For a Sad Cat" (1993), click here.

To hear "Song For a Bored Cat" (2006), click here and follow the link.

I'd like to point out that my present cat doesn't respond in any way to either song. Like, she doesn't perk up her ears as though there's really a cat in the room. Or maybe she just doesn't like the songs.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Musical Moments: If There Is Something

A while back Eli posted a list of five musical moments, that is, moments in a song that make you go "ARRR!" with delight.

I wanted to put my own list together but I realized this would be even more subjective than a list of rare perfect albums; the most obvious "musical moments" would leap to mind first, resulting in a list of twenty-five songs where I say "they go up an octave at the end and I get goosebumps." Not useful, the equivalent of Madonna and Michael Jackson winning 95 of the Top 100 Viewer's Choice Best Videos of All Time Awards.

So I figured I'd post "musical moments" when I came across them, therefore:

"If There Is Something (Live Viva! Version)" by Roxy Music.

If you've never heard it, the song -- from their first, self-titled album -- is really three songs in one. The first part is a ridiculous, embarassing Texas ho-down complete with twangy slide guitars, a fiddle, and Bryan Ferry doing his worst C&W hiccups, singing somewhat cryptic lyrics about trying to be in the place where a special somebody might think of looking for him.

This segues shockingly into an over-emotional, sparse, I'd-do-anything-for-you dirge. The tension -- and the Mellotron -- builds, but all the instruments slowly fade down to just Paul Thompson's mechanical, thumpy drums.

And this is the moment: Bryan Ferry, voice cracking from an excess of volume and emotion, breaks in with the final, simple, evocative, uplifting lyrics, under which the the instruments gradually return in a hypnotic and repetitive refrain:
Shake your hair girl with your ponytail
Takes me right back...when you were young.
Throw your precious gifts into the air
Watch them fall down...when you were young.
LIFT UP! your feet and put them on the ground
You used to walk upon...when you were young.
LIFT UP! your feet and put them on the ground
The hills were higher...when you were young...
This is when you pick up your cat, swing her around the apartment, and sing along as your heart jumps out of your chest and into heaven for the final sixty seconds. Sixty seconds of BLISS!

I single out the live version on their "Viva!" album because the silliness of the first segment is toned down and the middle portion is extended to a ridiculous length, giving every band member a solo. Therefore when the final segment begins you're really READY for it.

I'm not fond of the version on their 2002 "Live" album, however, as it's one of the few moments when backup singers manage to SPOIL a song. Instead of hearing Bryan Ferry's painful and exultant howling we hear a lot of sweet voices that can't carry the required emotional load.

Bonus Comment

It seems to me that many percussionists are playful eccentrics; every time I see a concert video the percussionist has a streak of individuality and is more than a little strange. From the bald guy who toured with everybody from Roy Orbison to George Harrison during the '80s (and who can be seen playing sax in the "not stupid, but definitely a sexual metaphor" version of Harrison's I Got My Mind Set On You video), to spastic Steven Scales (who I'd show you a screen capture of if my DVD copy of "Stop Making Sense" didn't cause my computer to crash), to the lovely Julia Thornton.

Julia Thornton using what seems to be a specialized type of castanet, which produces a precise quadruple snap.

You can see Julia Thornton's deadpan oddness on the Roxy Music "Live at the Apollo" DVD, as well as on the "Bryan Ferry in Concert" DVD. Her fashion sense is eccentric to say the least, and she plays percussion like she is simultaneously loving it and feeling embarassed about it. She particularly shines in "Mother of Pearl," the call-and-response of which always makes me think of The Rocky Horror Picture Show ("Well I was up all night--" "AGAIN?") ("...thus even Zarathustra--" CLAP-CLAP!) ("...a few throw-away kisses--" SMACK-SMACK!) ("...just give me your--" "FUTURE...")

What's up with percussionists? Do they feel insecure because their niche is so specialized and so many of their instruments are used to just add variety to what the wage-earning band members are playing? Is it because they need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure types of gongs, the names and specific uses and histories of which nobody else cares to know? Were they the slow children in music class who had to choose the Temple Blocks after the other kids had taken all the COOL instruments?

I don't know, but I DO know that -- while trying to figure out what the hell Ms. Thornton is holding in the picture -- I've discovered that this whole percussion business is more organized and complicated than I thought. You've got idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, aerophones, and controversial electrophones. Some of them have definite pitches and others produce sounds that are too complex for pitching. You can make a lot of them at home. You can become your own percussionist. Hmmm...maybe this gongs-and-rattles stuff is pretty cool after all...

Sunday, November 19, 2006


On Friday night -- hearing that I would be without heat until at least Monday -- Vanilla took me on a whirlwind tour of the city's foremost hardware stores. My apartment is drafty so I decided it would be futile to buy something that gently radiates heat...I needed something that blows like a hurricane and is really frigging hot.

We found it: the Honeywell Utility Heater, which I've nicknamed Big Red. In the picture below, Zsa Zsa and I thaw our frostbitten features before a night on the town:

Whenever I get cold I think of William T. Vollman's novel "The Rifles." To research the book he took a solo trip to Isachsen, as close to the north magnetic pole as possible. He did this in March when the temperature hovered between -30 and -40 degrees. Every piece of equipment he brought with him broke down during the first day; his sleeping bag froze solid, his radio received only static, the metal pump for his cooking stove snapped off.

He spent a feverish week waiting for the plane to come back and get him, frost-bitten, hallucinating, shambling through the abandoned weather station trying to stay alive. Reading about his experience makes you feel very cold indeed. Here's a few excerpts, but you should really go ahead and just read the whole thing for yourself.
The sound of something creepy coming down the hall was only the sound of his stove pressurizing. Likewise the sound of police sirens. The sound of bells was the sound of his frozen zippers clinking together when he walked...

Every night now he wondered if he would live until morning. He'd read in Stefansson that there was no danger in sleeping when it was cold, that one would wake up when one was chilled, and that was exactly true. But it was still unnerving, to lie down shivering, on the near edge of a dark night, and to know that he'd only get colder and colder. Lying still in the darkness, waiting for the next shiver, he did his best to thrust beyond notice the collar of iron around his neck, the helmet of iron on his face, and the frozen hood behind his head. After awhile, the first drop of ice-cold water ran down the mask and across his nose. The iron collar began to limpen, and water ran down his back. Meanwhile, inside his clothes, the opposite was happening. The sweat on back and buttocks and belly turned to ice...

That night again he thought that he might not survive. The pad of the sleeping bag felt like ice, and probably was. The down was clumped into frozen pebbles whose sharp edges had worried holes in the nylon shell of the bag. He closed his eyes, and saw a fire in a fireplace, with andirons; he dreamed of a warm woman hugging him. When he woke up, he'd slept three hours. The collar of his sleeping bag, thick and white with frost, stuck painfully to his throat. He was suffocating in his own breath-ice. In the darkness he could not feel hs arms and legs. His back and buttocks ached sharply with cold, and he was shivering. He was cold deep inside his belly.

He put on his boots and went outside and walked a mile until he was warm enough to think...

There was a mountain straight ahead of him, soft, white and saddle-shaped. Its base was shaded in snow as in a fog. Above it, nary a cloud. He decided to walk toward it. He'd never have the chance again. The new-exposed strata of snow were hard and off-white like gypsum. There were lemming-tracks in the snow. He followed them. They paused in a wide and shallow hole in which the animal had left urine and a few specks of excrement like sunflower seeds, and then they went on and then a fox track joined them and then both tracks ended suddenly in the new-blown snow. As he walked toward the beautiful mountain, he was suddenly filled with pity for everything in the world, and he cried.
So I'm not THAT cold. But just in case I ever AM, I keep his three big tips in mind:
  1. Never wear an inner glove too thick to brush ice from your eyelashes and also pick your nose.
  2. Keep your crotch unzipped in the sleeping bag to warm your hands. (Masturbation at low temperatures, however, is most unrewarding.)
  3. It's better to wipe your ass with chunks of snow than to fumble with unmitted fingers for toilet paper.
Saturday night I returned from the bar, turned on Big Red, popped a treat in the microwave, and the power in my kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom went out. I clattered into the basement to try to find the breakers or fuses, couldn't find anything that looked definite, and got myself a nasty shock. The next day the landlords were amazed to discover that I've lived here six years without ever noticing the breaker box above my stove, but here's me finishing off "The Name of the Rose" during that dreadful night:

Sleep tight!

Friday, November 17, 2006

My Fabulous Los Angeles Vacation, Part Five

Muffy is wet and happy! And then she has to leave.

This is part five! Click on the links to read parts one, two, three, and four.

Context: When this was written, Bush had recently announced the date for the invasion of Iraq (March 19), and reports were just coming in that SARS had hit Toronto.


The drizzle begins early Saturday morning and by the time the sun comes up...well, there IS no sun. It's a dark and unceasing downpour. I don't know if the rain is heavier than it should be or if LA just doesn't have enough storm sewers, but all the water is running downhill and taking the easiest route there: the street. When Eugene and I park it's a struggle to jump the river that is running past us. It's at least six inches deep. This is something quite rare around here. Experiencing it is a mixed blessing for a tourist without an umbrella.

Rain in the morning...

We visit Amoeba records and Wacko's, two places you need several hours to properly explore. Wacko's in particular is a purveyor of kitsch and kitsch-conscious objects, alongside books about those kitschy objects, and books about the people who collect the kitschy objects or otherwise contribute to the aggrandizement of them. They have a nice art gallery in the back where you can hear the endless, driving rain.

Later, with Chris, we check out Jet Rag, which doesn't have much happening except a killer decor: bombs and ducts and a sort of woodsy cottage feel, all at the same time. Aardvarks on Melrose is a bit meatier, but I'm destined to end my vacation without the gorgeous feather showgirl outfit that I had in my imagination. I regret not entering the ritzy boutiques on Sunset when I had the chance.

That night Talia picks me up and we drive, through the downpour, to Echo Park to see "The Cover Problem," an offshoot of a local band called "The Negro Problem," with Joe Berardi on drums. The group's headman -- Stuart, though it's uncertain if this is his first or last name -- is doing a reinterpretation of '80s pop music...or maybe he's just having fun.

Tonight's juxtaposition of styles is Morrisey vs. David Lee Roth, who Stuart can almost make you believe are the same person. The band seamlessly merges "Hot for Teacher" with "This Charming Man" with a gender-bending twist. They expose the zen meaning behind "Jump." They explore the motivation behind saying the word "zen" and "paradigm shift" on stage. These blues reinterpretations of songs are wonderful to hear, but the bar isn't exactly packed; the downpour outside is torrential and the venue is difficult to find.

The wonderful Talia, the wonderful Ron, and me.

I chat with Joe for a while in between sets. I ask him if, as a drummer, he ever feels slighted when he doesn't get songwriting credit, even though he's added something unique to the song. He says yes, sometimes. I ask him what it's like to be a popular (I may have said "famous") musician in Los Angeles. He looks offended and confused. This, sadly, is where I leave Joe.

Since it's still early I say goodbye to Ron and Talia, and Chris and I head off to a loft party in downtown LA.

The party is in a renovated complex of old factory buildings, and like many buildings in LA you have to buzz at the front gate in order to enter the parking lot, which is surrounded by a huge fence. The party itself is calm. I find myself watching Fatty Arbuckle on TV for the second time in two days, which I can't properly explain.

Everybody I've met seems to be involved with the movie industry in some way, usually as script writers. It's entertaining that whenver you talk to someone about a movie plot they'll jump in and finish it for you in exactly the way the plot would be pitched to a producer. For example:
MUFFY: I was watching this kids show tonight called "The Fairly Odd Parents." Have you seen it?
MUFFY: It's about this kid whose parents are fairy godparents--
TALIA: ...and they fulfill wishes for him and try to solve his problems, with wacky and unexpected results?
Afterwards Chris takes me to Bar Sinister, one of LA's biggest goth nightclubs. It's gorgeous and yet not ntimidating or ostentatious. The usual bad attitude "more goth than thou" folks are here, but they're outnumbered by people who actually smile at you and say hello. The attitude is good. The go-go (or rather "goth-goth") dancers are kick ass, sometimes literally. I have never seen so many anime-inspired hair extensions in my life.

I'd love to stay...but it's getting late. What was previously a dim realization -- that I'd be leaving LA soon -- has become a nearby physical ache, felt especially as I say goodbye to Chris. She did more for me than just untangle my fishnets and give me spectacular hair. Sopping with rain and alcohol and regret I watch her drive away in her pickup truck.

It's still raining when I get back to my hotel. People are drunkenly weaving up and down Sunset, wet and silly. In my room, washing up, I regret leaving disgusting panstick stains on the white towels. But considering how they gouged me for the phone bill I don't feel THAT bad.

...rain at night.

March 17, 2003

We are a strange crew inside the LAX shuttle bus. Most gregarious is the band manager of AFI, who has had a night of wild adventures involving candles. He explains to me the joys of PS2, Burbank, and cheap Mexican food. We pull up to a house to pick up a middle-aged woman whose father is hugging her goodbye. The AFI guy says it looks like a postcard. Then the father tells the driver to "take care of my daughter...she's till a virgin!" and the tone of the postcard suddenly changes. "Candy wants to come with you" he says, holding out a tiny toy poodle, and I ponder the stort of life these regressed oddballs lead.

Things are not exactly jumping at the airport so, after spotting Kiefer Sutherland smoking a cigarette by the entrance, I strike up a converssation with a woman who is stuck in line with me: Connie, on her way to vacation in Paris. Both of us are control freaks but she has managed to tone it down through a masters degree in...Inner Spirituality. She's a very positive person, a blessing in a place where the staff is obviously in no hurry to process a gate full of people who have a plane to catch.

I don't know what sort of conditions these folks work under but I have yet to see an airport employee in a hurry. The woman who takes away my bags (to give them a good dusting) moves with a slow, syrupy stroll. The people who process our tickets have an incredible "just out here fishing and enjoying the weather" attitude, except they're totally disinterested in their surroundings. They hold long conversations about their lunch breaks while the line up of passengers stare fixedly at their watches. But the person who actually CHECKS my ticket has spirit: he barks at me that I should change my hair and cut my fingernails because I "look like a girl."

This time around the security check goes smoothly, as I'm savvy enough to remove my boots and foil-wrapped life savers before braving the scanner. Next thing I know I'm on the plane ignoring the movie -- "Keith of the North" -- and passing the time.

From the Air (Again)

Unfortunately, due to some bad directions from a guard I go through security a second time in Chicago, which some people find amusing. I am getting very good at removing my footwear in a timely fashion. I have a few moments to relax so I settle in and watch the news.

CNN is really loving the world situation, they've got lots of nifty graphics for each segment of war coverage. They no doubt hope it will last forever. Their theme songs are stirring and scary.

The folks drinking their heads off in Wolfgang & Pucks are sober and sedate about the war. Nobody is spitting venom about anything, maybe because they're about to board a plane. I think back to war comments I've heard during my trip to America. One of the people at the DGA asked me "what's up in Canada, other than being morally smug about the war?" That was sort of ambiguous. A scriptwriter at the loft party last night greeted me and apologized for trying to destroy the world. At a bar somewhere -- it was either Parlour or Canter's -- there was a general agreement that George W. Bush is frightening. Carrie, on her way to Paris, hoped she wouldn't be treated badly for being an American. As much as I wish I was staying in LA longer, I'm happy I'm not going to be going through airport security two days from now.

Up here in the plane, in the dark, somewhere near the border, what I remember most vividly about my trip are the people. The awe at the size and diversity of LA, the beautiful scenery, the joy of putting on a good show...none of these things feel as immediate as the people who generously showed me around and became good companions. I went from knowing nobody to having these great people around me so quickly that it sort of feels like they're still here and that I'll be meeting them tonight for potato pancakes and coffee.

As for the city itself, I'm fortunate in not having seen a single bad thing, and I barely paid a dime for anything. My overwhelmingly positive impression must have somethng to do with that. I want to go back, I want to see these people again, I want to spend a leisurely time drinking it all in. Next time I'll get a more balanced impression of LA, and hopefully it won't lose its magic.


I haven't gone back again, partly because I don't want to impose again on these sweet people. But someday...

If you're wondering how all this came about, well, I used to post Bollywood film reviews at the rec-arts-movies-local-indian usenet group. David Chute was a frequent reader of the site, and he got me in contact with Asian Cult Cinema magazine, for which I wrote an article called "I Rejected Coronation Street." For reasons I forget ACC seemed to be giving me the runaround, and David passed the article to LA Weekly's film critic, Ron Stringer.

Next thing I knew, Ron called me from LA to buy the article for the paper (which is still online here along with a picture of me licking a D-cell battery), and to ask me to come down and perform at the "Kaante" gala showing. He'd heard from David that I impersonated Bollywood starlets, which wasn't really true. I gave him all sorts of reasons why they shouldn't foot the bill to bring me all the way down, but he convinced me. I can't believe I NEEDED convincing!

I didn't check my email until I returned home. I discovered that Bappa Lahiri had emailed me while I was down there, saying that his father -- Bappi Lahiri, one of the most famous Bollywood composers -- had read my article and wanted to meet me for coffee in LA. This was totally incredible, but I'd already come home and had to decline, which is probably good since I'd called him "obese and frog-like" in the article.

Now, why didn't I take more photographs? Because I was afraid of looking like a tourist. This didn't stop me from babbling about all the differences between Ontario and Los Angeles, though, and I kick myself for having no pictures from the DGA or Bar Sinister. But there was a film crew filming my performance, so maybe it will appear someday...

As for the wonderful people...

Joe Berardi doesn't show up in many Google searches at the moment. Double-Naught Spy Car is still performing, and holy cow, I've just discovered these pictures taken the night I saw The Cover Problem!

I saw an exhausted Ron Stringer in 2004 at the Toronto film festival; he was there to review the movies and we didn't get much of a chance to talk. He may be the Ron Stringer who takes photographs, his name doesn't show up in the LA Weekly reviews anymore. Must email him again...

While I was down there Chris D'Anda was planning a line of Gothique hair you can buy them here! I can vouch for them...they're great (and have a bewitching smell). Or go down to her salon and get a fabulous hairdo. Chris and I still keep in touch, thank goodness!

My Fabulous Los Angeles Vacation, Part Four

A trip to both the animal and the human zoo! Once again featuring never-before-seen photographs...and you wouldn't believe the stuff I found while looking for them. But more on that later.

This is merely part four of the tale. Click on the links to read parts
one, two, and three.

The LA Zoo

Friday, like every day I've been here, starts out looking gloomy and ominous then quickly heats up to a gorgeous temperature. The actual numbers don't matter to me; I'm basking in it and loving it.

Morning off the Grafton patio.

I start the morning off by eating at fake "western" restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, where the staff members yell at the customers. It'as a form of non-Canadian fellowship that I recognize and I enjoy, but if the manager of a restaurant in Toronto asked me why I'd "left so much fuckin' food left on the plate" I'd expect some sort of fight to start. Here it means they like you.

While finishing my (enormous) meal, my waitress hears that a country music show in Nashville is sending a camera crew to film her because they think she'll make a great VJ. She freaks and I hear the giddy details of her Texas childhood. It's a wonderful moment and I hope she gets the show; she'll be perfect.

Eugene arrives and we take a scenic route to Griffith Park. Apparently he hasn't been to the zoo since he was eight. I hear that the zoo was horribly neglected at some point (and the polar bear STILL looks disgrunted), but now things are pretty much back in shape. We take our time strolling and exploring. We are skeptical that any koalas live in the darkened koala pavillion. We share a belief that monkeys are pretty horrible. At one of the many souvenir booths -- where you operate a machine to inject plastic into moulds of about 20 different animals -- a very strange man tells his son that "this is how God makes animals." "God injects the plastic," he says in all seriousness. Eugene and I don't believe this.

A Los Angeles gorilla, with bonus Eugene silhouette.

We're late to pick up Chris for a trip to Melrose, so we shortcut through the park, return to civilization, and the three of us have a typically heavy and slumber-inducing Indian meal. It turns out that Chris is a real zoo veteran and she chastises us for missing the most excciting predators. I off-handedly mention that two people I'd love to meet in LA are Johnette Napolitano and Andy Prieboy, and I am less shocked than I should be to learn that Johnette did a benefit show for Chris, and that Chris used to do Andy's hair at his apartment. This blurring of the line between celebrity and private life is surprising and odd. People see celebrities very differently here.

Sadly we are a bit rushed on Melrose, but I do manage to see some fabulous things. These are the first funky stores I've been to since I've arrived. Some of them are certainly generic and/or trashy, but Chris and Eugene are great guides and don't discourage impulse spending. Passing on the genuine leopard shoes (because I'm squeamish), I settle on a beautiful ostrich-feather fan.


Since arriving I have been hearing the name "Vaginal Davis" from everybody's lips. In keeping with the synchronous theme of the weekend, three different groups of people independently suggest I visit "The Parlor Club" to see Vaginal's show, which apparently has a roaring '20s theme. I get ready at the Best Western (where I'm now staying) and while waiting for my clubbing companions I become intrigued by "Battle of the Sexes," a reality TV program that I can only assume is typical of the genre. I am convinced that the pressure of the camera spurs soap-opera behaviour. People keep going on "trash the cabana" sprees when they're upset, and beloved ex-members of the teams are repeatedly lionized by those remaining. People watch this under the impression that it's "reality" and start acting this way even without the cameras on them. It's depressing and engrossing at the same time.

Oh my goodness, the Bricktops show is fabulous. The crowd is mixed, some in full '20s gear and some more casually dressed. On the corner of the dancefloor a woman does a quirky and lovely tap routine in front of projections of inept retro porn. Faux-Irish lads get up on stage and sing heartfelt songs in faux-Irish accents. These folks can REALLY sing and they can REALLY play the piano, especially "Mr. Uncertainty" who mixes oblique political observations with goofy camp.

Meanwhile, in the back room, we've scored a couch and are drinking heavily. This is easy to do because the mixed drinks seem to be about 9/10'ths alcohol, about which few complain. I find myself discoursing about the things I find intriguing about LA, and people are patient with me and make fun of the way I say "about."

Me, Chris, Eugene, and nameless sweet girl in the Bricktops backroom.

Chris and I, apres booze.

Vaginal Davis -- Miss Bricktop -- appears. This lady's manner is simply beyond my experience, and I won't try very hard to describe it. She is very funny. Her "hootchie-kootchie dance" is a cross between a Disney cartoon and a Ken Russell film. She plays St. Patricks Day matchmaker in the crowd. Her method of announcing last call sounds a bit like a gibbering ghost in a washing machine.

She is not nearly so baffling in close quarters, however, and I get the chance to thank her for playing "Tom, Dick, or Harry." Music to an Ann Miller-lover's ears!

The night ends before it should, sadly. Eugene, Chris, and I retire to Canter's (fortunately not Oki-Dog) for the perfect post-drink experience: grease. Hash browns, actually. We talk bafflingly of politics, geography, and the other things you talk about when you've been drinking what tastes like rubbing alcohol all night.

Part five is on the way!

As An Aside... begins the second week that our apartment has been without heat. They have promised to fix it every day, and every day there's a new problem getting parts. Now I find out that parts are coming from Germany and won't be here until at least Monday, and we're looking at a windy, colder weekend ahead.

I am frustrated and angry. The smelly girl across the hall -- who's been staying with her family to avoid the cold -- looks like she's going to cry. One of the landlords has just offered a $50 rent rebate and recommended I get an electric blanket. I said that what I really want the minimum 21-degree temperature required by the city's bylaws, not to mention the timely repairs mentioned elsewhere in the bylaws. I said an electric blanket will not keep me warm when I'm not in bed, and won't heat the air in my apartment. I asked that they provide a heater until the problem is fixed, and the landlord said he'd contact the other landlord and they'd contact me this evening or tomorrow.

Which, judging by how things are going, means I probably won't hear from them until Monday afternoon, when they call to tell me the part hasn't arrived and they need to get one built in Mandalay.

These landlords have been responsive and responsible for six years (other than their delay in fixing my door a few months ago). That's why I've signed a rental agreement to move into another of their apartments. I don't want to sour our good relationship or demand more than they can give, but I also find it hard to believe that this is an acceptable situation or that they are doing everything they can do. Is there nobody in this city who can fix this furnace?


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Horrifying Taser Video

This is the video of police officers repeatedly tasering Mostafa Tabatabainejad in the UCLA library on Tuesday night. The story (so far) is that he didn't have library ID and refused to leave, the police arrived, he started to leave, they grabbed him, he told them to let go of him, and they tased him. That's when the video starts.

It's horrifying. It really makes me physically ill. You probably don't want to watch it.

UPDATE: This has agitated me enough to finish off "Bethsheba 2006," a song about people who become collateral damage.

My Fabulous Los Angeles Vacation, Part Three

In which Muffy walks in LA, performs in LA, tries to say something positive about "Kaante," and gets her dance card filled. Click here to read part one, and here to read part two.

Walking in LA

Sunset Boulevard is not the only game in town here in West Hollywood. It has all the swanky bars and clubs and hotels, sure, but for someone like me who delights in the quirky things, it's a little antiseptic. Walking toward Hollywood proper (and, presumably, a distant sign on a hilltop), I get prime enjoyment looking to the left, above the gas stations and coffee shops, to the looming mountains and their precariously balanced hilltop houses...

Sunset Boulevard (where Muffy walks alone) and those precarious hilltop houses.

Distant, high above me, yet clear in the dry air, these buildings sit perched on every available cliff. The mountains rise, jumbles of sandy landslides and ground-hugging ferns, topped with these sky-hogging houses, often on stilts to gain a few extra feet above the neighbours. They're usually accompanied by two or three impossibly tall, spindly, fungoid palm trees. Like everything else I've seen so far in LA these residential areas look like an unplanned patchwork, a Doctor Seuss cartoon, a mess and a beauty all at the same time.

In the opposite direction -- to the right -- the streets drop sharply to Santa Monica, which I find more "human" than Sunset, possibly because the junk shops and bohemian touches remind me more of Toronto. Unlike Toronto, however, there are outdoor escalators and crosswalks that actually SPEAK to you, as do some of the pedestrians.

I am shocked to realize that I haven't seen a single unhappy old person here; all of them are chuckly folks who dotter along the street and smile at you when you pass. They delight in dogs and seem in no hurry to get where they're going. These are old folks that I can't picture sitting rigid in anonymous bingo halls, frantic to spend the last bit of their savings on a hopeless reach for a sudden windfall. These old people play bridge and go for leisurely walks. They congregate in parks. They sleep in when the mood strikes them and they never pee themselves, and if they do they have a sense of pride and decorum about it. Maybe they're like this because they're warm, or they're rich, or they're American.

There is definitely some unnatural substance in the air, you can see it and smell it. More than one person has described this to me as a "mix of haze and smog," which is curious because smog is already a "mix of smoke and fog." There may very well be days when LA is blanketed with hog, hoke, and shmazog.

The trip back uphill to Sunset Boulevard is a tough one -- it's on a 40-degree angle -- but I do survive, and I manage to find replacement eyelashes. In the hotel lobby I step in the wax of one of the cleaning zombies. He mutters in spanish as I pinwheel my arms and almost fall not once but twice. I'm seeing a fair number of the zombies already, they work in some fast-food joints and they do menial tasks in the large buildings. They are either victims of head trauma or they're just pretending. They mutter and treat you with outright disdain and disinterest. None of them respond in any way to kindness or pleasantries. I think of them as zombie bulldogs: sullen, stupid, and somehow resentful.


The Director's Guild of America (or "DGA" as everyone calls it) is a huge place with a big theatre, and with a lot of people walking around. The crowd is a curious mix of west and east. On arriving I finally meet David Chute, film critic and totally sweet guy, and we face the task of deciding on some sort of pre-show banter. Yes, they've given us microphones. Yes, we need to give an "oscar-style introduction" to the film. Yes, I'm nervous. Fortunately my mic matches my outfit.

Also matching my outfit is a gorgeously spikey, peacocky hairstyle courtesy of Chris from Je Jeune Salon. Chris manages to kill some of those Congo butterflies by being a very cool and friendly person...not to mention a person who understands my desire to see the LA Zoo. Ron gives her an invitation to the film, and she even drives me to the venue. Chris: approved! And she's getting herself a cadillac too, though for now we're in her pickup truck.

Before the show we hear that a rising talent in the Indian film industry is going to attend: Kashmira Shah, a starlet who was vacationing in the desert where water is apparently not the only thing it's difficult to come by. Her friend tells David Chute that his last name is a Hindi slang term for "vagina," which I expect will only serve to heighten the sales of his future treatise on cow humour (my bookshelf cries out for it!)

We are a mismatched pair on the stage, us faux vaginas, and we steer clear of Bad Academy Award Humour. David talks a bit about the film, a bit about Bollywood in general, and he praises my Indian cinema insight. I "aw shucks" him and try to look pretty.

"Kaante" is an interesting crossover film, shot in a yellow-tinted LA and somehow sandwiching Reservoir Dogs together with The Usual Suspects. There seemed to be more than the average number of imossible moments in the movie, partly due to this sandwich attempt...if these guys are ALREADY the usual suspects, arrested whenever there's a heist in LA, why do they think they'll "get away with it" and just return to their famiy responsibilities -- a sick wife, a mentally handicapped sister, a frustrated girlfriend, a child-custody case -- especially when they took off their masks BEFORE engaging in a gun battle with the police force? After killing numerous officers in a clear as (yellow) day shootout, their later rationale for kidnapping a police officer -- he'll be able to identify them -- is sort of funny. So is the reason for NOT killing him: fear of police retaliation. I mean, they'd already killed about six cops.

Still, though, it was fun and with a lot of high-tech action, and it looked gorgeous. It's almost a cliche to say it, but: Amitabh stole the show with his calm bluster and devoted love for his ill wife. While watching the movie I can't believe that Kashmira Shah is sitting in front of me.

After the film I commandeered Chris to help me change in the bathroom. She proves her stoic sweetness as I give her a pair of unwashed fishnets to untangle. My only performance fear is that the Bollywood fans in the audience will find my "Chin-Chin Chu" and "Baithe Hain Kya" routines offensive. I compensate by throwing everything into an energetic seven-minute set, and for an audience who hadn't much time to warm up to the act they are superb. Doing my Helen numbers for East Indians who are actually dancing, whooping, and singing along will be the highlight of my trip, I'm sure. I am gratified to see that one of the women knows the hand gestures better than I do!

The show ends and I learn the folly of ignoring my diabetes and then doing something strenuous: I find myself in the women's washroom both revelling in the joy of the moment and wanting to vomit up my liver before it shuts down in disgust. I haven't eaten or taken any insulin all afternoon, and my blood sugar is so high it's embarassing.

After shooting up I decide to "take the air," and it's on the front steops of the DGA that I -- still a bit muddled -- get to chat with the people from the show. I know I've done well when a fan of Helen's praises me for my article [in that week's LA Weekly] and the show. I get a few minutes to chat with Kashmira Shah who is friendly, gorgeous, and on her way back to the desert. I chat Bollywood politics with a lady from Pakistan and am particularly gratified when a large and somewhat daunting Indian patriarch smiles and tells me that he got some great pictures of my performance. I find this reception difficult to believe, especially since I've got rock candy running through my bloodstream and the actual performance is a total blur. But by all accounts the audience liked the show, and I liked the audience. What could be better?

The band for the evening is "Double-Naught Spy Car," and the drummer is Joe Barardi who, among other things, was a longtime member of Stan Ridgway's band. I'm a big fan and I finally get to meet "tripod Joe" after their set. His friend Talia begins filling out my social card for the weekend, and suddenly the lone tourist has got things to do and people to do them with! The long-anticipated trip to the zoo with Chris' friend Eugene, followed by shopping on Melrose with the two of them. A trip to a drag show with Talia, Joe, and Ron, and an invitation to see one of Joe's other bands perform. Offers of gigs and fun times should I ever come back to LA. What a night! I am much less alone in this enormous city.

So tell me, is this typical or am I just lucky? Is some backwards-talking dwarf with a karmic hand pushing me away from the bad and towards the good? Hey, thanks dwarf!

Get ready for part four!

My Fabulous Los Angeles Vacation, Part Two

This is part two, in which our protagonist hopes to live a Mulholland Drive fantasy. Plus the first of several exclusive, never-before-seen pictures! Click here to read part one.

In the Air, Part 2

Sitting in the terminal waiting for the next flight I slowly become aware of the cel phones. I have never seen so many of them in one place, everybody has them, and most of them are attached to ostentatious headsets. I'm a dishevelled mish-mash sitting in a room full of businessmen and one surfer dude, and even he has a cel phone. He says "later babe" into his phone and clicks it shut.

To pass the time I am determined to memorize the conversation that two men next to me are having, but it's so inane that I can't be bothered.

The people ON the plane, however, turn out to be so firiendly that I want to hug them, except for the extremely loud woman who spends the three hours getting drunker and spouting Oprah-inspired wisdom to whoever will listen. She calls the stewardesses her "girls" and claims that her husband, "like all Mexicans," treats women poorly. She takes credit for encouraging her younger sister to "educate herself" making her own lunch before she goes to school. Her philosophical highpoint -- said in the most lofty and explosive tone -- is this:

"WHY SHOULD I BE QUIET?!? Don't I deserve to get sloshed on a plane for once in my life? DON'T roll your eyes at me, girl. We're not alive for long. I heard this once, that we're only on earth for a little while, so we better make the most of it!"

Trooper said it more eloquently.

I am sitting beside a sweet old couple. When the drunk girl gets particularly loud the old man makes sock-puppet gestures with his hand. He also has a remarkable habit of explaining the stock market to his wife while she's sleeping, though most of us paid attention when he claimed to have seen "four huge, metal cylinders" in the middle of the desert.

This couple is a shocking "Mulholland Drive" parallel for me, except that I don't think they'll crawl giggling under my doorjam this evening. I can't resist trying out some dialog on them as we're departing, telling them to "watch for me on the television" and then saying "that'll be the day." They don't take the cue. The old man just asks how many months of snow we get in Canada each year.

Like many of the people I've met so far, I'll never run into these folks again. Ever.

A Tour of LA

After a morning that was essentially one long string of uncertainties and anxieties, the last thing I thought I needed on arrival was a whirlwind tour of Los Angeles. But somehow my host -- Ron Stringer -- knew the best cure of an enormous sense of displacement and fatigue: sight-seeing with a guy who really knows the place.

It was easy to make a list of "LA cliches" and check them off as they appeared. The first surfer dude had already been spotted, and you can't take a step outside LAX without seeing an enormous fern or a palm tree, and amazingly these palm trees come in several different varieties. Some of them are stunted, or maybe they're just young. Some have soft, kitteny fur on them. Apparently they are also the area's rat habitat, which I think LA should be prouder of.

(People here are of different opinions about the truth of this "rats in the palm trees" thing, but I see quite a few metal girdles around trees that go near apartment windows, so I'm pretty sure it's true).

For the first time in my life I see the Pacific Ocean; it winks at me over a hill in Venice. We take a trip through Bel Air, or rather "around" Bel Air because car's like Ron's "make the security guards very nervous." We see a jogger and a ridiculously rich private girl's school, "the sort of place you can bring your dog to class with you," apparently.

Strangely enough, Ron agrees to reinforce my obsession by taking me over a stretch of Mulholland Drive, and I get a chance to see LA from the ubiquitous mountains. We drive around treacherous, eroded hairpin turns, marvelling that we're actually looking DOWN on the tops of skycrapers. I don't want to spoil the first 8 seconds of "Mulholland Drive" for you, but Ron points out that the thought of a person wearing high-heels climbing down the mountain is totally ridiculous. Seeing the mountainsides I have to agree.

Yes, the driving is bad, extremely aggressive, though apparently the freeway shooting fad is over. I notice that nobody EVER jaywalks, in fear for their lives, and that strangers on Sunset Boulevard have few qualms about talking to you as you're passing by. I also notice an absence of variety stores, though there are plenty of gas stations.

My hotel for the first two days is "The Grafton," a place far more comfortable than my apartment. It even comes with a "Grafton frog," a sort of gel-filled rubber duckie, and the furnishings are gorgeous.

The view from my hotel room.

Diet Coke, phonebook, bible, Grafton frog, and Floyd the Radio Lion.

The decorations and furnishings have a sort of funky tastefulness to them that has given me a new appreciation for lime green, and the rooms and halls are loaded with black and white tributes to classic movie stars, mostly Marilyn Monroe but with a smattering of Ella Fitzgerald, Humphry Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, and James Dean. I cannot escape James Dean. His ghost, entwined with his crash site, is as much a part of my trip as anxiety and bottled water. Too bad I don't like him.

While unpacking I discover that one of my bags has been searched, the box with my cosmetics broken into, and my false eyelashes missing. Right now they're probably lying on runway 15 in Chicago, or being worn by one of the many floor-sweeping zombies I always see in America.

I go to sleep just before 10am and I sleep like a Grafton frog on a log.

Day two in Los Angeles coming soon!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

My Fabulous Los Angeles Vacation, Part One

In March 2003, the LA Weekly newspaper sent me to Los Angeles so I could perform at the gala opening of "Kaante," a truly awful Indian film. I've never had so much fun in my life. It was the first time I'd been in a plane. My first trip south of New England. And the first time people had invested a lot of money to watch me do a pseudo-impersonation of a popular Indian starlet from the '60s. The last time too, incidentally.

While I was there I kept a journal, which I've barely glanced through since. Just thinking about the trip was enough to make my heart feel like it was going to melt. Now that sufficient time has passed -- and my ache for LA has subsided to a dull sob -- I have an urge to post it online. Maybe because my life right now is so boring, and it's the one truly spontaneous and exciting thing I've done in my life. Or maybe because I can't think of anything to say at the moment.

So here's part one: My Fabulous Los Angeles Vacation. Let the wide-eyed naivete be revealed!

March 12, 7:00am

The airport employees are about as pleasant as anyone paid to hunt terrorists at 6am. The custom official may have actually said "get your ass in," but I was too busy being nervous to be sure. To any future first-time travellers my advice is: know where to find your pen. And telling a frustrated woman with a buzzing metal prod that this is your "first time" doesn't cut any ice.

Even through my gummy eyes I can tell that the Toronto terminal is big. The Orlando flight has removed most of the children, but two manic, half-human monsters delight in crawling underneath me as their father takes pictures. I can't tell whether the parents are patient or stupid, and my drag queen intuition tells me they're patient. But drag queen intuition is often wrong.

The mysterious, rapid-fire lyrics of "Mera Naam Chin-Chin Chu" fight for recognition in my brain. I have butterflies about performing, the kind of butterflies that suck your face off in the Congo. Three hours of sleep has left me looking like I have tuberculosis.

There is a momentary tussle outside the gate. There is some question as to the identity of the pilots, who have boarded without giving their names. The women who don't have bobbed hair all have ponytails.

More than anything else I am looking forward to sleep. Sleep seems almost possible, given the right sort of seat without a child under it. Not for the last time I think of the joys of home: a purring cat, a quiet room, a controlled and calming bubble that appeals to my neurotic "never been on a plane" personality. But fun, excitement, and opportunity are not things that come often in a bubble. I feel like a fresh-water fish dropped into the Pacific ocean, but determined not to explode, or whatever fish do in the wrong type of water. I can't ask my own fish about it because he's at home with some sort of parasite on his gills.

Two antagonistic sisters engage me in a brief and vitriolic debate about smoking. One tells a story about standing in an LA bathroom and listening to several women discussing their augmented breasts. Being hicks, we all find this an apalling cliche that shouldn't happen in real life. I hope to see this for myself after having a long sleep.

No matter what I am prepared. I have gum.

On the Plane

The pilot speaks as though ice was invented in Toronto. This is not true, as the Inuit dealt with it first. We just put it on planes. Giant mechanical dinosaurs with spotlight eyes spray something on our wings, to frighten the children.

I have a lot of time to think before takeoff. When we first stated moving I got excited, but by now we've navigated most of the area around Toronto in a convoluted labyrinthian path. It's a larger version of the lineup at customs, without the velvet ropes, and it seems like the end of the line is moving away faster than we can approach. I'm convinced the pilot is driving around like this because he's bored. After an extended period of just rolling around, the announcement that we have 13 minutes left is greeted with groans, but gives me time to...find my gum!

The plane itself is, judging by the interacting oscillations of the fans and engines, a Brian Eno model. Eno would have even thrown in the yelling children, though he probably would have added echo.

The instructional video has an amusing shot of a cheerful businessmen puffing on the tubes of his life-vest like a gratified stoner, no doubt about to drop head-first into the middle of the ocean. I have oceans on the brain and I'm not even flying over one.

In the Air

Well, "whoosh" pretty much describes it, and the somewhat unreal image of the world has disappeared. We're all alone up here in "the friendly skies," except for the other passengers who are -- so far -- friendly At least nobody is hitting anybody. It's my hope that I can spend the entire trip without seeing anybody fight, which is why I'm not watching the news.

Being at 28,000 (?) feet isn't nearly as disturbing as being in a ferris wheel. I'm absolutely terrified of heights, but only if I can imagine falling from them, or, more specifically, hanging above them off some unstable precipice. But hanging off the wing of this airplane is just not feasible. I can't imagine it. I doubt it's going to happen.

I'm reminded of all the pop songs about airplanes, and -- thanks to Laurie Anderson -- the avant-garde ones as well. In deference to her I make sure my tray table is in its upright "locked" position.


We arrive at Chicago O'Hare and people are moving. Due to the uncredited Inuit invention of ice our plane is almost an hour late. Some of the passengers have certainly missed their next flight, but a few of us -- including myself and a woman I'll call "Misty" -- have exactly 8 minutes to run from one end of the airport to the other. O'Hare is a big place. I have no idea what the consequences will be for missing this plane. We run.

Misty is a sensible, professional businesswoman in her late 30s, and she's also very funny. She claims that she has missed more connecting flights than che can count, and even takes a sort of karmic blame for our late arrival.

As we dodge slowpokes who "stand on the left" and spend absolutely no time enjoying the neon borealis leading from our terminal, it's obvious that even though Misty's got spunk she's a bit of a liability. She has short legs and her rolling suitcase is holding us back. But I can't ditch her because she knows more about airports than I do, and her sense of direction is impeccable. After she darts off to her own gate I really turn on the jets, getting a sense of the size of airports, this one in particular. People laugh at me as I run. The man at Gate 15 laughs at me too, and says "Oh, it already left."

Gasp! What happened next? Stay tuned...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Childhood Role Models: Eldrad Must Live!

Hindsight, 20/20, all that.

Occasionally I run across a piece of nostalgia that causes part of my life to finally make sense. When I look at drag queens and see the type of drag they do, I can't help wondering what influenced their "look." After all, when you do drag you essentially reinvent yourself. Why do we choose the elements we choose?

Over the last ten years I've been piecing together my inspirations. Here's one that inspired me when I was six or seven years old: the gender-bending, sexy, somewhat odd but extremely skimpy "Eldrad" from the Doctor Who story "The Hand of Fear" (click on the pic for a larger view). I remember pretending to be "Eldrad" in the playground. Gosh, I REALLY wanted to be her, which must have been confusing for my parents. It's one thing to have a cheesy sci-fi monster as a role model. It's another thing when the role model is a girl with an electronically pitch-bended voice.

The story has finally been released on DVD so we can now see Eldrad (played by the very statuesque Judith Paris) in all her glory. Tales already abound regarding the havoc she created wearing this outfit on set...typical of the Philip Hinchcliffe era of the show, they pushed the boundaries in all directions; this was the only time they got ridiculously sexy.

Thanks to the running commentary we finally hear from her own lips what it was like to wear this costume: she had to be stitched into it, couldn't sit down, and couldn't eat or drink. It crackled loudly and bits of it kept falling off. But nobody said that being "striking" was easy.

So here's to Eldrad, re-released on DVD, turning a new generation of children into queens.

Thinking About Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day brings up a host of associations for me. Let's see if I can put this into words.

As a child I sat through the yearly Remembrance Day "assemblies," which always involved sitting on a cold gymnasium floor and watching boy scouts fold a flag or something. I tended to blank out during assemblies. In grade 6 I think I had to read part of "In Flanders Fields" to the assembly, but not because I understood it or sympathized with it, but because I was literate. The World Wars were indefinite and cloudy to me. To really get a grip on "war" I had to understand the geographic, political, historic, and human elements, four things I've always had trouble learning and retaining.

The turning point for me came in first year university when I read "Gravity's Rainbow" as part of my newfound discovery of All Things Postmodern. Not knowing anything about World War Two probably enhanced the effect of the book, making it even more mystical and magical than it would be otherwise. The vast, anarchic freedom of The Zone, the double-crossing paranoia of special operations overseen by "Them," and -- most importantly -- the fetish for the rockets, new and terrible weapons that somehow inverted cause and effect, designed by cinema-obsessed and distracted engineers with doppelganger children, built by the walking dead in concentration camps, tested by captive scientists on a bleak penninsula, commanded by the witch and his team of Hansels and Gretels, and arriving with an explosion right above your head, followed AFTERWARD by the sound of its arrival.

So I started reading about the Blitz, in particular the stories of everyday people who became war workers, firemen, blackout wardens. I learned about the fashions and the music of the time, when crooners and female singers began edging away from the hegemony of bandleaders and started their own solo careers. Black soldiers from the American south suddenly tasting equality and interracial love in London. Mass evacuations of children. Henry Moore's sketches of people sleeping in the subways. The cold, sickly, lopsided drama of the Atlantic convoys as written about in "The Cruel Sea," where soldiers and civilians lay covered with oil and floating on the mountains and troughs of a gale-swept ocean.

Then, on the homefront, the work of Canadian cannon fodder, most of them volunteers but many of them "Zombies" who were forcibly conscripted. D-Day, V-Day, my grandfather shuttled endlessly between Vancouver and Halifax, repairing airplane engines but never going overseas.

I know less about World War One, but enough to appreciate its enormity, complexity, sacrifice, and importance.

So now, when Rememberance Day arrives, I wear my plastic poppy with all these complicated associations attached. Mainly, I wear the poppy because I believe that if *I* had fought in one of the wars, living in a country where war is viewed more as a human failing instead of a noble calling, I'd be happy to see at least this acknowledgement of the significant part I'd played.

I'll respect the individual soldiers -- and the Canadian military -- on any given day, but at the same time I worry about the fetishization and simplification of war. Also, I understand the need for structure and command in the military -- it's the only way you can convince people to kill other people -- but it makes me uncomfortable to actually SEE it. So I don't go out of my way to attend the massive ceremonies at the graveyards and cenotaphs...I understand that they're drawing strength from their organization, but to me it looks dehumanized and simplified.

My other thought is that there must always be a distinction between "remembering" and "wallowing." It's like any human trauma: if you had a bad relationship, you need to REMEMBER you had it -- so you don't make the same mistakes again -- but WALLOWING in it just makes you feel angry, vengeful, and hurt. We don't have many of these "remembering" ceremonies in Canada -- we haven't codified the remembrance of The Alamo or Pearl Harbour or 9-11 -- but when we DO have them I hope it's about learning and reflection, not about grudges and fiery rhetoric.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Cheap Post with Lots of Videos

I figure we have to enjoy "YouTube" while we can, since I can't imagine blatant theft surviving much longer. In fact, we probably need to enjoy "Blogger" until the next bubble bursts. But that's beside the point.

I'm sitting in my apartment and I'm freezing cold; the heat has decided not to come on. Smelly girl next door has been on a particularly smelly spree. Anticipating my January move, I'm slowly packing my stuff into boxes and inhaling a lot of dust. My cold is almost gone. I just finished reading Anna Kavan's "I Am Lazarus" (for which I paid about 40 cents a page) and am working on Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose."

But I'm not here to talk about any of that...I'm here to post YouTube videos that have delighted me over the past few months. Maybe you'll find some of them delightful too?

Greg Hits Hollywood

It isn't ALL funny -- and it is less funny during repeated viewings -- but the first time I saw it I was in rapture. It has a baffling realism that doesn't get Borat-nasty or uncomfortable. You've got to love the Japanese girl.

Divine Comedy, "Bad Ambassador"

I can't share my love of Divine Comedy with many people, but maybe I can TRICK people into watching them (errr, him). Here's an exceptional song with an exceptional video.

Zsa Zsa Gabor & David Letterman Eat Fast Food

St. Mark passed this one along. As much as I dislike Zsa Zsa, this is hilarious. She's good when she's being pandered to. And she loves those fries.

The Fall, "Eat Y'Self Fitter"

Speaking of eating. And more disturbing than Zsa Zsa could ever be. Brix does the early-'80s post-punk ska dance near the end.

Whale, "Pay For Me"

I could babble endlessly about the magic of Whale. This becomes less effective over time as fewer and fewer people remember them. The day will come when Whale is totally forgotten. In fact it's already happened.

Talk Talk, "Such a Shame"

I have an intense (platonic) love for Talk Talk so I can't resist putting my favourite Talk Talk song and video here. Listen to the bass. Check out the budding rebellion against their New Romantic image. Listen to the bass some more...Paul Webb's quick, huge, bendy method was a major (and underappreciated) part of their style.

Renaldo and the Loaf, "Songs for Swinging Larvae"

And finally, for those who've never seen it, a video that's even more disturbing today than it was twenty years ago.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Spreading the Joy

When I can't sleep my emotional state mirrors this screenshot from Mike Oldfield's "Pictures in the Dark" video:
You see what I mean? There's a choirboy with a crooked collar, and an '80s girl with lopsided breasts, and Mike Oldfield is in a muscle shirt, screaming, with fireworks.

That's how I feel.

Aristocratic Canadian Life, Circa 1872

Midway through Lady Dufferin's Canadian journal, I'm learning so many things about the social, technological, and geographical situation in Canada that I can barely keep it all in. As a way of recording some random impressions:

The Governor-General -- referred to by his wife as "D" or "His Ex" -- dealt mainly with politics during the scope of the journal (1872-1878). As the representative of the Queen, his offical duties involved giving speeches, attending celebrations, and occasionally observing Parliament.

His wife dealt more with the social side of things. She is endlessly visiting convents, schools, jails, and waterfalls. Wherever Lord and Lady Dufferin go, they are obliged to dine with anybody who asks, and to see whichever local sites the citizens deem important. These sites tend to be waterfalls.

Husband and wife have three main passions:

Skating. Even now they're remembered for personally financing a skating rink, curling rink, and toboggan slide at Rideau Hall. Lady Dufferin loves to skate, but in the first few years she isn't good enough to be comfortable skating at official functions. She frequently says that men are more graceful skaters than women, mainly because they don't need to wear as much clothing. I find myself wondering what these poor women wore when they skated.

She frequently mentions skating terms that probably aren't used anymore: "We worked away at roses, double roses, thistles, lilies, snails, etc."

Lady Dufferin is, in general, fond of snow...with just one exception:
The children, with the help of Colonel Fletcher, Mr. Dixon, and a ladder, have erected in front of my window an enormous and hideous snow-man, who will remain an eyesore to the whole winter, unless some kind friend assassinates him.
Fishing. Wow, do they ever fish. They fish in every backwood stream they can find, often going hundreds of miles out of their way to check out a promising spot. Lady Dufferin is positively obsessed with the sport, often recording the poundage of every fish caught. She gives the impression that she's really "roughing it" during these excursions, but don't be fooled: their whole troop of servants was always sent on ahead to set up the campsite -- in one case even building a cabin -- and the aristocrats arrived once everything was prepared.

Lady Dufferin does not appear to be a fan of the Indians, dismissing them as pagans whose words are too long and who dress poorly. Near Sault Ste. Marie, she says:
At the Fort we saw a number of the most miserable Indians, who sat huddled together, and who were dressing their children's hair much after the manner of the monkeys in the Zoo.
Amateur Theatricals. Lady Dufferin is always roping her servants and her children into plays. I have a feeling this was relatively common for upper-class Victorians, to hold large functions during which the children performed for the visitors. The plays usually ended with tableaux, something we just don't see anymore.

During the summers, the Lord and Lady go on huge, gruelling, four-month excursions to visit the towns and Indian reservations throughout Canada. Lady Dufferin is constantly being attacked by horses (and even sheep), while Lord Dufferin gives speeches and dances with all the ladies. He has this to say about all the ceremonial arches they travel under:
There was an arch of cheeses, an arch of salt, an arch of wheels, an arch of hardware, stoves, and pots and pans, an arch of sofas, chairs and household furniture, an arch of ladders, laden with firemen in their picturesque costumes, an arch of carriages, an arch of boats; a Free-trade arch, a Protectionists' arch, an arch of children, and last of all an arch -- no, not an arch, but rather a celestial rainbow--of lovely young ladies! Indeed, the heavens themselves dropped fatness, for not unfrequently a magic cheese or other comestibles would descend into our carriage. As for Lady Dufferin, she has been nearly smothered beneath the nosegays which rained down upon her, for our path has been strewn with flowers.
Lady Dufferin is impressed by Chicago's hugeness, but finds New York uncouth and ostentatious. She thinks the entertainments are vulgar, and she is particularly annoyed at a woman she sits next to during a dinner:
There was a lady there who was just like a conventional Yankee on the stage. She announced, first, that she had told her husband she would never put on black for him, as she meant to marry again as quick as ever she could. Then she informed me in a light and cheerful manner that she had had convulsions every Sunday since January, and that this was the first occasion upon which she had not been ill! She next proceeded to tell her domestic troubles, and how she had had to get a policeman to turn her cook out of her house.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Intriguing (and Sort of Disturbing) Artwork of Hans Flato

I keep on running across the art of Hans Flato. Apparently he was an accomplished realist, but in the 1920s he also dabbled in this weird, disconnected, totally distinctive cartooney style. I snapped this from an advertisement for The Greenwich Village Inn, The New Yorker, December 18, 1926.

Part of me finds his style to be disturbing. Another part marvels at a technique that is so rooted in the time. Goofy, vibrant, manic, graceful, and barely in control, this particular style of Flato sort of makes me want to lose my lunch.

Friday, November 03, 2006


As you get older fewer things are surprising. I look at my 90-year-old grandmother and she doesn't seem up to learning things anymore, she's comfortable with what she knows and what she's done in her life. She has no interest in hearing about the internet or computers or anything that's happened in the last 15 years or so.

I find it very exciting to discover something new, it makes me feel alive. Learning tidbits from history -- where the word "bushwhack" comes from, for instance, or what sort of hobbies people had in 1873 -- are good ways of getting that 'zing' of revelation.

Wikipedia is doing away with conundrums and office trivia contests, but here's something that still baffles me:

Sometimes a spider will go on "reconaissance" by dropping from the ceiling on a little self-spun thread. The spider hangs there at the end of the thread, looking around, then climbs back up the thread again, and takes the thread with it somehow.

My question is, what does the spider do with the thread? Does it wind it back up inside its "spinner?" Does it wrap it around its legs? Does it eat it? Does it bite off small pieces as it goes up?

I sent this into "The Straight Dope" a few years ago and they've never answered. Does anybody know? If you were a spider, what would YOU do?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

June 1873: A Busy Life

Okay, enough daily journals, my life just isn't that interesting and I'm starting to feel self-centered. So instead I'll give you an excerpt from The Marchioness of Dufferin & Ava, so you'll know what a REAL busy person's life is (was) like:
Tuesday, June 17, 1873 (Quebec City) -- A long day of Viceregal functions. At twelve we ate a hasty lunch and started, with five children and our 'suite,' to the Ursuline Convent, where I was to give away the prizes.

There is a new Lieutenant-Governor here, and as he has a large family, our combined movements on State occasions require a deal of arrangement. The first fact established is, that the Governor-General and I, on public occasions, walk first; His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor and his wife follow. But the five Lieutenant-Princesses have also to be seated in proper positions, and when (as to-day) I take three of my family the aide-de-camps tear their hair! Priests met us at the convent door, and we proceeded to the room where the prizes were to be given, which was filled with people. The nuns did not appear at all. I found in front of me trays full of books, and as the names of the winners were read out, wih an account of their various merits, they walked past, and I presented them with books. There were at least 200 prizes, every girl in the school, I am sure, having gained from one to six 'rewards of merit.' Then I crowned six of the most remarkably virtuous young ladies. The first three wreaths, alas! I put on wrong side foremost, but perceiving that the girls managed to turn them round, I was more careful, and was at the end complimented upon the way in which I placed them on their heads. Between each trayful of books we had music. The ceremony lasted two hours. One lady fainted, but the children bore it admirably, and I took them to a field of cut grass to refresh them when it was over.

We dined at six, for we had to go out early to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the discovery of the Mississippi. 'Why on earth?' you will exclaim. Well, I don't quite know why, but the Laval University has to find some object for a yearly fete, and the discoverers were French-Canadians.

The celebration was a tremendous affair. For three hours I sat on a very hard and stately arm-chair, with my Lieutenant-Governor beside me, on my right an empty space, on the other side of which sat His Ex. and his Lieutenant-Governess.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Day in the Life: Wednesday

7:00 - 7:45 - I wake up from a night full of sick-dreams. Maybe you know the dreams I'm talking about; they have no plot or direction, just one element repeated over and over again, and you keep waking up slightly, promising yourself that you'll dream about something else, then falling asleep and dreaming the same thing all over again. This time it was something to do with a page full of numbers...I kept reading the same numbers. All night. That's exhausting. The Tylenol and the drowsy flu medication probably didn't help. Anyway, I get out of bed and cough up something that would have frightened H. P. Lovecraft. Eat tasteless Golden Grahams and read The New Yorker. Sometimes there's nothing interesting in The New Yorker. This is one of those times.

7:45 - 8:00 - I shower and wash my hair. I love buying shampoo from my hair salon, because it always makes me feel like I'm back in the salon, and the salon is nicer than my bathroom. I still have a hole in my ceiling from when the plumber had to fix a leak. I imagine it gives the spiders easier access to my apartment.

8:00 - 8:30 - Walk to work. The Bauer Loft construction is not appreciably changed. I'm listening to music on the way, which is something I prefer not to do; I'm worried about becoming detached from the world, and I'm already barely integrated with it. I see too many people walking around in their own little realities.

8:30 - 12:00 - It's hard to write anything interesting about what I do at work. Mostly I sit in my cubicle and work on whatever project is most urgent. In the morning I take screenshots and add arrows and labels to them. The receptionist sends an email telling people to request songs; I'm DJ'ing the Christmas party again this year. Somebody sends an email to me and the receptionist complaining that I didn't play the song he requested at last year's office Christmas Party. The receptionist -- who has even more spunk than Hariot Dufferin -- responds with "Suck it up, princess." I like our receptionist!

12:00 - 1:00 - Henning arrives and offers me the gift of P1, which is one of the many unhealthy meals served by "Sunshine," a local Chinese fast-food dive. The P1 is rice, sliced pork, an egg, onions, and salt. LOTS of salt. I enthusiastically accept his offer. I'll be thirsty for days.

1:00 - 4:30 - Screenshots, darn it.

4:30 - 5:00 - I stop at the grocery store on the way home. I live alone and have no car, so instead of loading up on a lot of things that I can't carry by myself, I make two or three trips a week. This is a cereal trip because I can't stand the Golden Grahams much longer. They ain't what they used to be. I also buy turkey cat food for the cat. I try to only buy her food that's made out of things she could have feasibly caught herself...she could kill a turkey or a chicken without much struggle, but there's no way she could kill a cow, not even in her prime. I carry my groceries home and note that somebody "toilet-papered" the group home next door. This isn't surprising because the group home is probably the most active youth-spot on the street. Fortunately the pre-teen girls who used to simulate orgasms on the front lawn are no longer there, which means I sleep with fewer interruptions.

5:00 - 7:00 - More Battlestar Galactica. Should I give excuses for why I'm hooked? It's partly because the cliffhangers are so effective, and partly because I really just want to sit on the couch and stare at something, and partly because I tell myself that there are only a limited number of episodes...the faster I watch them, the sooner I'll be able to get back to real work, like:

7:00 - 8:15 - Re-visiting an old track called "The Demeaning Power of Tequila," one that's never been finished enough to show up on the website. It's got a slow, extremely buzzy, 4/4 electronic vibe to it. Catchy, I think, but as always with "actual songs" (or any highly organized project) I struggle to find "the ending." An earlier version of the track ended quite nicely, but I decided that it was too effective to not evolve and get longer. In Logic Audio -- the program I'm using -- it isn't always easy to extend a song once you've organized it nicely, so the last few edits of the track have been about tweaking it so it's longer. Tonight I decided to add an ESQ-1 keyboard line. My intentions were good but I kept getting an "Unable to find file, result -43" error. I've never seen it before. Half an hour later I finally worked around the bug by reassigning the record path, but by then my enthusiasm was slipping away. I also can't figure out why my line in is so damn quiet. I've never had much patience for rooting around with cables, mixers, and levels. Anyway, I did make SOME progress so I can feel justified in rewarding myself: Tylenol and drowsy cold meds. Bye-bye, fever!