Wednesday, August 31, 2011

loosing the offspring back upon the world

There's a stack of suitcases in the hall. These past few days the Resident Offspring has been steadily filling them and now they sit, a silent reminder that our days of being a three-person/one slightly retarded kitty household are once again drawing to a close. This has been the shortest four months in the history of time.

Tomorrow we haul these bags, containing the remnants of the summer, onto the plane and we head to the coast.

It's going to be harder than ever to say goodbye this fall, to lay the reminders of those long languid days between sheets of tissue paper and carefully press them into memory. It was a great summer. The Resident Offspring came home every night from her job at the thrift store with whimsical tales of bat-shit crazy customers and sassy coworkers. There were leisurely dinners on the patio, long evenings on the front porch, late nights on the chesterfield with laptops ablaze. There were coffee dates and shopping expeditions, farmers' markets and movie matinees, folk festivals and house concerts. Recipes were shared, as were opinions on the relative merits of being a kitty or an otter, and speculations as to which reality show celebrity would fare best in a slappy fight.

It will be fun to be back in Vancouver. It's always wonderful to spend time in the place I consider my second home, to reconnect with old friends over meals and wanderings. And of course I am highly curious to see the Offspring's new living arrangements. A townhouse on campus seems to offer the best possible combination of convenience and autonomy. I'm looking forward to stories of life with flatmates and cautionary tales involving meal preparations.

But of course the house will be ever so silent when the Spousal Unit and I drag our half-empty suitcases back home next week. The Slightly Retarded Kitty and the Skype machine will no doubt receive far more attention than either have anticipated.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

why I review albums

Because everybody needs to know that they are being heard.

Because if somebody is going to make the effort and incur the expense of sending me their CD, the least I can do is to listen with an open ear and an open mind, and then tell the world.

Because an album is a work of art that someone has poured their soul into, and you don't ignore the product of someone's soul.

Because reviewing gives me a platform to express my opinions, be they admiration, disdain, joy, horror, or surprise.

Because sometimes you get back a lot more than you give; sometimes you get expressions of gratitude for your effort.

Because reviewing someone's album is a gateway drug that can lead to personal encounters.

Case in point - a few days ago I met Folk Thief, a musician from Vancouver whose album I reviewed a few months earlier, and his touring partner, My Boy Rascal. It was a comfortable and laid-back show at a coffee house in Kensington, a few tables gathered around the stage area by the fireplace. My Boy Rascal started the evening with a heartfelt acoustic set and then proceeded to endear himself to us after his set by coming around from table to table, shaking hands and expressing thanks to everyone for coming to the show.

Folk Thief was equally charming. Delighting us with good-natured and self-deprecating banter between haunting songs of love, heartache and oblivion, he took us on a sonic road trip of evocative imagery. A particularly nice touch was the addition of covers of Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, and, of all things, Beastie Boys songs.

The beauty of a coffee house concert is the intimacy that it affords, not only during the performance itself, but after the music stops as well. We were able to chat at length with both musicians while they struck down the stage, and ultimately left the coffee house feeling that we had made human connections beyond the bond of music.

And that's why I review albums.

Friday, August 26, 2011

blood ties under the desert sun: True West

True West
- Arrata Opera Centre 

You don't often get to see a play during the height of a Calgary summer, so I was intrigued to discover recently that a handful of the city's theatrical alumni were launching a production of Sam Shepard's classic tale of sibling rivalry in the California desert. Directed by Sage Theatre's Kelly Reay, Pangloss Productions' staging of True West features Frank Zotter as Austin, a buttoned-down screenwriter currently house-sitting for his mother, and David Trimble as Lee, his older brother, a petty thief and a drifter.

The set of True West, a dated bungalow kitchen, is so intricately realized with its macrame owl hanging, gilded light switches and mounted spoon collection that I kept half-expecting my mother-in-law to wander onstage with a luke-warm cup of Nescafe instant coffee. It was only the Hank Williams and Patsy Cline soundtrack which greeted our entry into the theatre that kept her ghost off the stage. 

The play opens with Austin struggling to put the final touches on a screenplay which he is preparing to pitch to a powerful Hollywood producer. His concentration and his patience are tested by the presence of Lee, newly arrived from a three-month sojourn in the desert, who swaggers about in ripped jeans and a dirty t-shirt, cracking open beer after beer. After Lee appropriates Austin's relationship with Saul, the Hollywood producer, and usurps his status as screenwriter, the brothers bluster and spar until they eventually assume each others personalities. The rivalry between the two brothers is so palpable and so rife, that it is no great surprise that the posturing evolves into intimidation and violence. 

David Trimble and Frank Zotter are pitch perfect in their portrayals as the feuding brothers. We were rather taken aback by the sudden realization that they were almost identical in personality and vaguely similar in appearance to Frank and Dennis Reynolds from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Once seen, there was no unseeing the similarities. Strangely, this only added to the validity of the performances and to our enjoyment of the play. In all fairness, the Shepard play pre-dates the television show by decades.

Despite the brief appearances of the producer and the mother, True West is essentially a two-character play. Both the parts of producer and mother feel rather more like caricature rather than fully-fleshed characters, but I had the sense that this had more to do with the manner in which the characters were written than with their depiction.

There is a great deal of violence and humour (and humourous violence) in Pangloss Productions' presentation of True West. There is also a great deal of family conflict which rings all too true. We may not all have systematically smashed a typewriter with golf clubs or strangled a sibling with a telephone cord, but I am sure we have all wanted to. 

True West plays until August 28/11 at the Arrata Opera Centre.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

everything you ever wanted to know about pooping in space

Packing for Mars - Mary Roach

She's done it again. Mary Roach, author of such delightfully compelling treatises as Bonk, Spook, and my all-time favourite science book, Stiff, has once again captured my imagination in her most recent book, Packing for Mars. As has become standard practice, Mary Roach manages to answer all my questions, including some I didn't even know I had, this time about life in zero gravity.

In Packing for Mars, Roach sits in on the grueling and often perplexing astronaut selection process at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, chronicles odd and little known aspects of the historical space race, and speculates on some challenges of life in space which had never previously occurred to me.

Oh sure, everybody has thought about pooping in space (even though the particular challenges of fecal popcorning, free-floating escapees, and fecal dust blowback are matters that have eluded even my 10-year-old boy imagination), but NASA has done more than just think about it and giggle. They actually employ engineers who study the degree of curl that occurs without gravity to pull the feces straight as it is being emitted. This is crucial information to have when designing aerospace waste collections systems, in order to prevent the curlage from blocking the top of the narrow evacuation tube. True story.

And if it were not for Mary Roach, I would never have known about this.

There is actually much more to Packing for Mars than poop stories. While researching this book, Roach traveled to Devon Island to participate in Mars simulation studies, took a parabolic flight on a Vomit Comet, visited bone-loss study volunteers lying prone for three months at a time, and kept filtered urine in her fridge for drinking purposes, much to the dismay of her long-suffering husband, Ed.

With fascinating topics such as the development of astronaut food, speculations about the challenges of sex and childbirth in zero gravity, and a compelling look at historical space hygiene (or lack thereof) studies, this book holds something captivating for everyone. You have to read Packing for Mars.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

one week ago

we were setting up inside

Olenka and the Autumn Lovers were setting up outside
(bonus points if you can find Evan's sock)

and then, ladies and gents, we had a concert

until it was time for the road warriors to get some shut-eye

Saturday, August 20, 2011

life's a bowl

I'm surrounded by cherries.

They really are the world's most elegant fruit, those perfect ripe orbs, each dangling from a slender stylish stem. And yet, like the Hollywood legend who arrives home from the red carpet, sheds her Vera Wang and pulls on her Dorrito-stained sweat pants, the cherry transitions easily from luscious perfection lowered sensuously to waiting lips into a red-stained pit spat triumphantly across the back yard in a few juicy chomps.

Cherry production is big business. Like BIG. The Spousal Unit likes to tell the story of a business trip he made to a cherry orchard in the Okanagan a couple of years ago. This was no ma and pa orchard with some stunted apple trees and a few rows of cherry trees, chickens meandering through the grounds, cats lazing on fences. This place had helicopters.

The Spousal Unit and his companions were scheduled to take a helicopter tour of the area on the day that they were there, but it had rained the night before. All the helicopters had therefore been commandeered to hover above the orchard, fanning the trees with their blades to dry off the cherries in order to prevent them from bursting. The warehouse only operated for a few weeks each year, employed dozens of people, and generated some serious income. The largest, most perfect cherries never even get sold in Canada. Cherries are way more profitable than drug running evidently.

With my family stemming from the Black Forest region of Germany, I admit to having some cherry juice running through my veins. Which is why I found myself lugging twenty pounds of Okanagan cherries home from the farmers' market a couple of days ago. I really didn't want to delve into the whole canning process - been there, done that. A little research convinced me that freezing batches of cherries was the simplest way to deal with this over-abundance of goodness, but I was a little terrified of the pitting process. I had visions of myself cowering in the corner of a juice-splattered kitchen, in a scene from a torture-porn movie, rocking back and forth cradling my red-dripping hands, now crippled and useless. Much as I dislike kitchen gadgets that serve only one purpose, I figured it was time to invest in a cherry pitter.

Cherry pitters are actually not very expensive. With the money in my pocket from taking the house concert empties to the bottle depot, I was able to buy a very nice one at a kitchen supply store and still have enough left over for a cheap bottle of wine.

I love my cherry pitter! Cherry pitting is actually fast and easy, and considerably less messy than I expected.

In addition to freezing pitted cherries, I decided to try macerating a few jars of them. I gathered up all the little sample booze bottles and fishing trip leftovers that had accumulated in the liquor cabinet, and poured them into jars packed with only perfect blemish-free cherries, pits and stems intact. They look gorgeous, although I am told that the alcohol will eventually leach the colour from the cherries, so we will need to eat them within a few weeks. Shouldn't be a problem.

I have about ten pounds of cherries left to pit today, and tomorrow I plan to bake some cherry muffins, putting a lie to my assertion that I only ever bake muffins when we have overnight guests. Unless you want to come for a visit...

What would you do with twenty pounds of cherries?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

front row centre

Just pretend that you were there with us, lounging in the back yard listening to Olenka and the Autumn Lovers work their sonic magic.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

flags and ribbons, smiles and guns: Olenka and the Autumn Lovers house concert

The smiles captured by my friend Jeff's camera sum up the evening perfectly. The return engagement of Olenka and the Autumn Lovers to casa del Zombie was an evening awash in laughter, a celebration of friendship and camaraderie.

It seems an odd juxtaposition, that there be so much mirth accompanying a band whose songs often detail the struggles of the politically oppressed, the downtrodden. Poignant songs of loss and revolution rang out into the calm of the evening, escaping the embrace of tiny spruce-enclosed yard, Olenka's heart-wrenching voice occasionally punctuated by an incoming 737. But somehow, the odd low-flying jet, the occasional bark of a neighbourhood dog, only served to make the music more powerful. To have the luxury to relax in a suburban backyard, surrounded by friends, neighbours and hardcore fans who would brave Calgary transit on a Sunday for a trip to the southeast, all the while being sonically transported to a Poland struggling under communism, really magnified how privileged we are to have these special moments.

When an abbreviated version of Olenka and the Autumn Lovers first graced our house last May, everyone in that living room was stunned by the power that could be transmitted by three women, a guitar, a cello and a violin. To experience the richness of the full band, six people with guitars, bass, drums, cello, violin, and the sweetest slide guitar you could hope to hear, outdoors on a beautiful summer evening, was really something quite sublime.

Olenka and the Autumn Lovers played two sets, allowing us all time to mingle and refill our plates and glasses between bookends of song. Despite the hostess with the big glass of wine (who obviously succumbed to the lure of the microphone) insisting upon delivering both introductions and denouements, the show was magical. With the power of bass and drums mimicking the raw power of Olenka Krakus' iconic voice, with the poignancy of her words reflected in the sweep of the violin and cello strings and in the cry of the lap slide guitar, we were all transported by the music of this incredible band.

Powerful musicians and performers they are, but also wonderfully warm and funny human beings. Mirth, merriment and bone-crushing hugs were rampant.

If you have never attended a back yard concert, I urge you to do so as quickly as humanly possible. The intimacy between performers and audience, when that invisible barrier breaks down and is eradicated forever, is a moment that I cherish most in a small setting. A small back yard, walled by trees and under a blue sky ceiling, is arguably the perfect setting in which to forge new friendships, bond over food and drink, and celebrate the love of live music.

Stay tuned for photos and videos.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

soundtrack to a zompocalypse

Bring on the zombie apocalypse. Not only has a recent facebook meme helped me comprise my zombie-slaying team - complete with sniper, heavy weapons and an idiot who survives - but I now have a soundtrack to my own personal zomcopalypse. Many props to the fabulous Bloody Awful Poetry for melding zombie-slaying with music.

You know how it works, put your itunes on shuffle and so on and so on.

First song: overall theme for the apocalypse
I'll Go Down - Brock Geiger
(hopefully not a premonition)

Second song: plays when you kill your first zombie
Lilac Breeze - Eels
(either an ironic choice or the name of the air freshener required to face that rotting corpse)

Third song: plays when you are being chased by a horde
Too Good for Reverb - Glowbug
(okay then, no reverb)

Fourth song: plays when you have to kill your loved one
Clumsy Seduction - Emma Hill
(yeah, likely the clumsiest seduction of all time)

Fifth song: plays when you find a group of survivors
Skeleton Jar - Youth Group

Sixth song: plays when you meet a new love interest
Standing in the Shower Thinking - Jane's Addiction
(definitely has possibilities)

Seventh song: plays when you have to make a final stand
On a Mission - Small Sins

Eighth song: plays when you think you've survived it all
The Brain of Purple Mountain - Leo Lotke
(time to get a little cocky)

Ninth song: plays when you discover a bite mark on you
Time to Get Ill - Beastie Boys
(drat, foiled!)

Tenth song: plays over the end credits
Kiss of Death - New Order
(perhaps this will not be a rom zom com after all)

Your turn!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

new world order

If you had to start the world from scratch:

- what sort of hierarchy would you establish?
- who would eat whom?
- would you invent a god?
- what would be the most valuable raw material?
- what would be the most prized characteristic?
- what role would otters play in the grand scheme of things?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

creeping nostalgia

The Resident Offspring gave her two weeks' notice yesterday, putting another piece of kindling on the smoldering mawkishness I have been feeling lately. Despite truly enjoying her summer job and her coworkers this year, she is itching to return to her real life at university, and that's the way it should be. But it does little to stop me from trying to grasp every last moment with her.

Skype is great, but can't compare to lounging together on the chesterfield watching reruns of Parks and Recreation.

Already dusk is coming on earlier in the evenings; the first yellow leaves are starting to drift down from the trees, where they lie as small tokens of inevitability on the grass. Perhaps it's a residual reaction to the long hard winter we suffered through this past year or the non-existent spring, but this summer seems to be passing before it really even gets started. I have always loved autumn, but I am not ready yet to entertain the thought of it, let alone the reality.

The only way to battle this premature nostalgia is to throw a party. A house concert party.

How timely then that Olenka and the Autumn Lovers will be playing at casa del Zombie next Sunday, the only house concert on their summer tour of the western half of the nation. With the full band representing and with an early evening backyard concert in the works, we're going to rock the hood.

I already have way too much food prepared. You should join us.

what: Olenka and the Autumn Lovers backyard concert
when: Sunday August 14, doors 5:30, music 6:30
where: my house (contact me for details)
cost: $10 suggested band donation

See you there?

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday: if cabin pressure should change

How fitting that this week's Flash Fiction Friday prompt is to write a story detailing the consequences of being late. For I have not merely been late regarding the heralded FFF these past few weeks. No, far beyond mere tardiness, I have been missing in action. Buried in a muddy trench somewhere in the French countryside.

No more!

With that desperate declaration, here then is my re-entry into the Flash Fiction Friday brigade.

If Cabin Pressure Should Change

He didn't even know her name. Names had never been part of the arrangement, had never seemed necessary until now. A superfluous trapping of life beyond the Air Canada cabin, the telling of names would have burst the protective bubble that for the past half year had insulated their twice monthly encounters in seats 19E and 19F.

But even though he didn't know her name, didn't know much about her beyond the fact that twice a month she flew the red-eye from Montreal to Winnipeg, he recalled their first meeting with a sense of nostalgia. His pulse raced a little every time he remembered the first time he saw her, reclining in the window seat, book open but ignored, airline blanket draped across her lap. With her haughty air and the knowing glance with which she appraised him as he settled in the middle seat beside her, she looked more like she was ruling a small European principality than sitting in a cramped airplane on a cross country flight.

She turned a discerning eye to him, appraising what lay beneath his new white shirt, now wrinkled, sleeves rolled back to his elbows. With one shapely eyebrow raised, she tilted her head and addressed him, will you join me in a drink?

Four glasses of wine later, the aisle seat passenger snoring lustily beside them, the airline blanket found its way across both of their laps. As it had on the dozen subsequent flights they had since found each other on, both of them always conscientious about booking their seats early, she in 19F, he in 19E.

Lately, he found himself thinking about her all the time. Who was she really, how did she spend her days, what would it be like to see her on the ground? He envisioned meeting her in a cafe, dreamt of taking her to his apartment for the weekend, but she always refused his muted suggestions. No names, she insisted, you are 19E, I am 19F.

This flight, however, things were going to be different. His first thought, upon awakening early and luxuriating in the faint rays of the early dawn that crept across his bed, was that this time he would wear down her resistance.

The assured optimism of the dawn was now rapidly shriveling as he surveyed with dismay the endless rows of tail lights that inched along all eight lanes of the freeway. As the radio broke the news of the multi-vehicle collision and the resulting bridge closure 20 kilometres ahead, he feared the worst. When the deepening dusk on the horizon settled into impenetrable gloom, he realized that digital clock on the dashboard was moving more rapidly than the tires on the car.

There was no way he was going to make that flight.
Wally couldn't believe his luck, getting the final seat on the flight. He didn't hold out much hope when he had agreed to fly standby, so he was astounded when he was called to board moments before the flight was due to depart. He shuffled his way to the back of the full plane, knees bumping into his carry-on bag, until he reached the final empty seat on the plane.

He thought that the woman in the window seat looked oddly startled when he squeezed his way into the row. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her affixing him with a perplexed stare while he thrust his bag under the seat, so to set her at ease and to make up for taking the last bit of space on the cramped plane, he turned to her and smiled. Good evening, he nodded to her.

She looked him and up down slowly, raised one eyebrow and titled her head. Then, a slight smile began tugging slowly at the corners of her mouth and she asked, will you join me in a drink?

Monday, August 01, 2011

perhaps a multipurpose machine

It's approaching a singularity of sorts, the technological void around these parts. The camera which was once dropped into a lake and whose battery compartment door is held closed with duct tape appears to have finally given up the ghost. It owes us nothing.

Meanwhile, it is proving increasingly harder to be the last remaining Luddite who refuses to carry a cellular phone. There have been too many instances lately where my inability (refusal?) to be reached instantaneously has caused no small measure of frustration for others and increased legwork for me.

But if I am going to succumb to societal pressure and carry around a blasted phone, I want it to be worth my while. Sure I could haul out one of the old clunkers that now reside in the junk drawer, but there's a good reason those are in the junk drawer. With not even so much as texting ability on those phones, I didn't see the point in paying a fee to make maybe two phone calls a month.

No, if I am going to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 90's, I want to do so with a piece of technology that will do it all. And since we rarely use our home phone except to receive automated messages about credit card offers, I am considering getting rid of the landline entirely. Plus I don't want to replace the camera, but use the phone exclusively for taking photos instead. But I am also cheap and I want to get the best value for my money.

I welcome any advice.

Do you have any recommendations for both a phone and
for a data pack that won't put me in the poor house?