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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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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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The Lost Art of Staring Into Space

July 11th, 2014

Freelancers never take vacations. The ones at my house don’t, anyway. My husband and I, both freelancers, haven’t taken a non-working vacation together since our honeymoon ten years ago.

He’s spent Christmas vacations in Alberta working on his laptop at the dining room table. I spent evenings on last summer’s trip to Nelson, BC scheduling tweets and blog posts in the bedroom of our rented cottage. A few years ago, we left our kids with their grandparents and went on a romantic weekend getaway to Salt Spring Island. Inspired by the atmosphere of the artsy B&B we stayed at, we spent the whole second day of our trip working on a couple of long-neglected creative projects.

Back-to-back, in total silence.

It was great.

But it’s not just us. I polled my freelance network about their vacation habits last month and received the following responses:

“On my first week of vacation, last week, I jumped head first into 3 freelance projects and a new website!”

and:

“What’s a vacation? For that matter what is a weekend? Haven’t had a non-working vacation since I went full-time freelance seven years ago.”

and:

“I actually never take a vacation or break with no work at all, but I don’t mind. A partial shut-down is all I need.”

A “partial shut-down” is all I’ve had for the past ten years, too. And for the most part I’ve been fine with that. I, like most freelancers, am not big on “real” vacations for several reasons.

First of all, they’re difficult to organize. Freelancers hate to turn down work, and it can be hard to time deadlines to neatly coincide with a scheduled vacation.

Secondly, freelancers don’t get paid holiday time. If we take vacations, we don’t get a paycheque.

Third, we freelancers are able to spread out our relaxation time throughout the year – a Tuesday afternoon at the fairground here, a mid-week day at the beach there – so we never feel as desperate for a full-on break as 9-to-5ers do.

Finally, and I’m speaking only for the members of my own household now, when you enjoy what you do for a living, vacations become less of a priority.

So after a decade of “partial shut-downs” it was disconcerting for my husband and me when we had to take a “real” vacation last month. My mother-in-law hit a milestone birthday and asked the whole family to come and help her celebrate it.

In Varadero, Cuba.

Having heard that internet access would be expensive and extremely unreliable, I decided, for once, to give up on the idea of doing any blogging or social media work.

But I didn’t give up on the idea of work altogether. I figured without internet access maybe I’d have time to spend on a few creative projects. I thought I’d be able to work for an hour or so each day on story pitches or new ideas. But it didn’t happen.

With the temperature above 30 degrees and the humidity at 85%, my brain slid quickly into a state of total sloth. I found myself sitting on a deck chair poolside most afternoons, staring into space, with a drink in my hand and a closed book on my lap.

Remember staring into space? I’d almost forgotten all about it.

It didn’t take long to come back to me, though. Without the infinite scroll of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to keep it busy, my brain quickly remembered how to do nothing again. And since I wasn’t even able to access the endless info-gush, my low-level sense of anxiety about trying to keep up dissipated.

Turns out it feels really good to unplug completely once in a while. And if that’s not enough to convince my freelance friends to try it, how about this nugget: according to recent research, boredom spurs creativity.

Taking a few days off work to stare into space recharges your batteries and refreshes your energy. And it provides opportunities for inspiration to surface from deeply buried corners of your brain.

Not that that happened to me. Mostly all I thought about was which of the hotel bars mixed the best mojitos.

But my mind is quieter after a week without a constant flow of information. My thoughts feel less fractured. It made me realize that I should unplug regularly and give my tightly coiled brain a chance to ease up a bit.

Ideally in a location with views like this:

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