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Diagonal, in opposition

March 31st, 2015

Vancouver is a beauty. With its downtown beaches and mountain views, it has to be one of the most picturesque cities in the world. But it’s also got some awfully grubby nooks and crannies. I discovered an endless supply of those a couple of years ago when I moved to an east side neighbourhood bordered by Kingsway, a street that runs diagonally from Main and 7th Avenue all the way to Burnaby.

It’s a real mess of a road. It’s out of sync with the rest of the city, screwing up the grid system and confusing local residents, who aren’t ever sure exactly where they are when they’re driving down it. Or maybe that’s just me.

Besides its perverse directionality, Kingsway is also interesting because it’s in a state of flux these days. With increasing numbers of professionals and young families moving eastward from more expensive westside neighbourhoods, Kingsway is starting to gentrify. Excellent restaurants and coffee shops (along with shiny new medicinal marijuana dispensaries and vape shops) are starting to pop up along the westernmost stretch of Kingsway, scattered among some of the grottiest, most ramshackle real estate I’ve seen in this city.

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Some of it is really quite beautiful.

Kingsway has a long history — it predates the street grid system, following the original wagon trail that ran from Gastown to New Westminster. In fact it was originally called Westminster Road but had its name changed to Kingsway in 1913 when the city fully committed to the cockeyed route and paved it.

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The road has even inspired a book of poetry — Kingsway by Michael Turner. Turner sees Kingsway as a way of thinking about cities and their residents. In Turner’s words, it’s “diagonal, in opposition,” but despite its oppositional nature it’s also a perfectly familiar urban landscape. The street’s endless string of strip malls and rundown restaurants is a stand-in for similar strip malls and rundown restaurants across the country. Kingsway, according to the book description, is “a place to get lost, to lose oneself—both a starting point and a destination.”

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It’s been both of those things for me over the past couple of years. My walks up and down Kingsway have exposed me to a side of Vancouver that I’d never paid much attention to. The street has changed the way I see Vancouver, but it’s also become my home.

A few months ago I started to photograph some of my favourite Kingsway sights and post the pictures to a dedicated Instagram account called vancouverkingsway. I was delighted last week when the local blog Vancouver Is Awesome discovered the account and wrote it up in a post. They’ve posted about a few other local Instagram accounts recently and I’m proud to see mine among them.

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It feels like there’s a little more pressure now, though, to explore a bit further and capture some of the more distant reaches of Kingsway. I’ve barely explored the first fifteen blocks.

In fact there are at least a dozen more crazy doorways and weird shop windows just between Fraser and Knight that I need to visit.

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I ran across this map last week, created by a Simon Fraser University student. It handily charts all of the locations Michael Turner mentions in his book of poetry. It will serve as an excellent guide as I start to travel farther east up the Westminster Road.

There are still so many miles left to photograph.

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Ukulele me

February 27th, 2015

It’s that time of year again here in Vancouver: yes, it’s ukulele season. Next weekend is the annual Vancouver Ukulele Festival, a three-day celebration of the weirdest little instrument on earth.

I’m highly attuned to news related to ukuleles, because there was a time in my life when people kept on giving them to me. I’m not sure why, but I’ve got three now. I don’t really know how to play them, but they’re fun to have around.

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And I love the sound of them, too. In fact, the first story I ever wrote for the CBC show Definitely Not The Opera was about the ukulele — its reputation as a goofy comedy instrument and its growing popularity. The uke was still the underdog and the bad joke of the music world back then, but over the past decade, as I predicted, it’s gained a lot more respect.

More and more musicians have discovered the uke’s versatility and its tiny, tender heart. Since I recorded that story for CBC, Eddie Vedder has recorded an entire album full of ukulele songs (appropriately titled Ukulele Songs). And the instrument has gained some indie cred at the hands of artists such as tUnE-yArDs and Jens Lekman, too.

But the master of the ukulele love song, in my estimation, is still Stephin Merritt. From his many Magnetic Fields masterpieces, to his work with the 6ths, to his silly solo ukulele ditties, he breaks my heart with every strum.

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Still not convinced that the uke can be a soulful instrument? Check out this cover of “Motherless Child” by Vancouver musician (and Ukulele Festival organizer) Daphne Roubini.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, I think I have something in my eye…

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New Year’s Dip

January 3rd, 2015

My favourite thing to do on New Year’s Day is brave the downtown crowds for Vancouver’s annual Polar Bear Swim. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually get wet. Perish the thought. I just like to watch. Me and about 15,000 other rubberneckers.

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It was particularly chilly for this year’s swim — around 3 degrees down by the water. The sun was shining, though, and it feels cozy when you’re packed in among the crowd on the beach. Plus, seeing people in bikinis and swimming trunks dunk themselves in the frigid waters of English Bay makes you feel toasty by comparison.

The joyous energy of the Polar Bear Swim is what makes it such an excellent New Year’s Day tradition. The swimmers’ exuberance is infectious, the positive energy seems to shimmer in the air over the crowd. And the costumes are fun, too. The “lingerie ladies” are my favourite. I caught them on camera a couple of years ago, but haven’t managed more than a glimpse of them since.

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“I don’t get it,” said my sister as we watched hordes of swimmers hooting and shrieking in the water and shivering, blue-lipped on the beach afterwards. “I don’t understand what would possess anyone to do such a thing.”

I’d never do it, but I get it. The Polar Bear Swim gives the dippers a fresh start to the year. It’s like a ritual cleansing, a symbolic hitting of the reset button. It makes for a dramatic beginning to the next chapter. Here we go, it says. A brand new year. This is going to be a good one. See how fearless and intrepid I am?

It’s an appealing idea. Too bad I have such a profound loathing of cold water.

The rest of my New Year’s Day involved an inspiring interview, a terrible movie, a nice dinner, and a parking ticket.

If the first day of 2015 is in any way representative of the year to come, it’s going to be a roller coaster ride.

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All singing (no dancing)

October 17th, 2014

I’m not much of a singer, but there sure has been a lot of singing going on around my house lately. Like, a lot. 

Both of my kids are in a choir this fall. They’ve been learning songs ranging from Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in preparation for a big performance in mid-November. Excitement levels are high.

Meanwhile, I’ve been taking an audio storytelling course through Duke University’s Center For Documentary Studies. We were assigned to choose a location and use it to create an audio postcard – a short, narration-less audio piece that uses sound and interviews to tell listeners about a place. Since it’s filled with amazing sounds — and I have to go there every week anyway — I decided to send an audio postcard from my kids’ choir practice.

It was great fun. There were so many beautiful songs and cute kids to record. Way too many in fact — it was hard to keep my final piece to the suggested 5 minutes. In the end, I just gave up and let it be the length it wanted to be. You can click here to listen.

But that’s not the only singing that’s been going on around here. I also dropped in on CBC’s Definitely Not The Opera to talk about my most traumatic singing experience ever – the time I was peer pressured into singing “Oh Canada” in a tempura restaurant in a small town in Japan. You can hear that woeful tale right here… I’m about half an hour in, right after former Prime Minister Paul Martin tells a story about singing the exact same song. He had a bigger audience for his performance, but it doesn’t sound like his experience was quite as scarring as mine. 

It was genuinely a life-changing moment. I think it burned out some sort of shame sensor in my brain because I haven’t been nearly that embarrassed about anything since.

Not even during my most recent public singing experience — at my youngest sister’s wedding this past summer where I got up with my middle sister and performed a wobbly rendition of “Sisters” from White Christmas. My two younger sisters did the same for me at my wedding ten years ago, so we decided to make it a tradition.

We were slightly off key and I spilled my drink down my dress. But it’s the effort that counts, right? And we totally nailed that last high note.

You’ll understand, I’m sure, if I don’t post a link to our performance.

The original version by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen is better, anyway. It certainly has a lot more giant feathered fans in it.

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Happy Cassette Store Day!

September 27th, 2014

It came to my attention earlier this week that there’s such a thing as Cassette Store Day. And it’s today! Yep, September 27, 2014 is the second annual day devoted to the celebration of cassette tapes.

To mark the day, stores all over the U.S. and the U.K. will be selling special cassette releases by artists ranging from They Might Be Giants to Townes Van Zandt, from Weezer to Best Coast.

Founded in London by three independent labels, Cassette Store Day is kind of like Record Store Day except that it’s more about celebrating the format itself than supporting the businesses that sell it.

Apparently, last year’s inaugural event was a “runaway success.”

So why would anyone want to celebrate such a rattly old obsolete recording format?

Lots of reasons.

According to Cassette Store Day’s UK website, Bobby Gillespie of Scottish rock band Primal Scream loves cassettes. 

“Cassette is a cool medium to listen to music on,” he’s quoted as saying.

“Warm and fat. Good bottom end.”

I’ve got no opinion on the bottom end, but there are plenty of reasons I loved cassettes back in their heyday. They were cheap. Easy to customize and share. And they gave off that wonderful dusty/sweetish smell when you opened their hinged plastic cases. Remember cassette tape smell? Mmm.

These days I mainly love cassettes for the nostalgic pang they give me. They remind me of the days when I had to press my cassette recorder up against the radio speaker to catch snippets of my favourite songs. Of lazy days spent filling those long strips of magnetic tape with songs to give to friends or lovers. Of carefully lettering a tape case insert to make a song list fit elegantly onto that little paper rectangle.

Back when I was first learning how to make radio, I produced an ode to the cassette for CBC Radio 3. It was called The Lost Art of the Mixed Tape. It analyzed the keys to creating a perfect mix and lamented the demise of the culture of the cassette tape.

But Cassette Store Day seems to indicate that it’s not dead after all.

This NME article from last year’s Cassette Store Day offers some compelling arguments for why the cassette format might be on the verge of a rebirth. It points out that you can’t sell MP3’s at a merch table and that cassettes are the cheapest and easiest format for young bands to produce. It insists that Cassette Store Day isn’t just hipster nonsense.

I’m not fully convinced. I still think cassette tape appreciation is going to remain a music nerd niche. Like vinyl collecting, only less pretentious and kinda crappy.

But whether they make a real comeback or not, to me cassettes will always represent thoughtfulness and effort, beauty in imperfection, and the act of listening hard.

How’s that for a good bottom end?

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