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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Live and on the CBC

I did watch The Tragically Hip show on CBC television last night. It seemed the thing to do, and I was interested enough. I’m of the age where their music formed the soundtrack of my life, whether I realized it or not. I own only two Tragically Hip albums (Up to Here and Road Apples), yet I knew the chorus of almost every song they played last night.

For any non-Canadians who stumble on this: The Tragically Hip’s lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie has incurable brain cancer. He’s in remission, and the band has done a cross-country tour, ending in their hometown of Kingston last night. National broadcaster CBC interrupted their Olympic coverage to bring the concert to everyone, commercial-free.

There’s been a lot of great writing about this band, and this tour, in Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, The New Yorker. I can’t compete. It’s not only that I’m not as good a music writer—though that is true—but also that, familiarity with choruses notwithstanding, I’m not a big enough fan. I could observe that the band were quite good, that they mostly pumped through the songs without a lot banter with the audience (hard to know what to say, one thinks), that Gord Downie restricted his talking to thank you’s and a comment on First Nations people up north, that they did three encores, that the show was about three hours long.

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Gord Downie from an earlier Toronto show as, in a very strange decision, the promoter would not allow official photographers at the Kingston show

But I couldn’t truly get into the emotion of it. I’m not sure why, in all these years, their songs have never really touched my soul. They’re catchy, they’re in a genre I like, the lyrics are smart and highly original.

Maybe it’s simply that, until last night, I had never seen this band live.


Friday night Jean and I went to our first-ever CD release party. No, not our CD (heavens!); Alysha Brilla’s. Alysha Brilla is a local artist with some (not Tragically Hip level) national fame.

She once lived in LA, and was signed to a big recording contract. But she couldn’t fit into that little commercial box they wanted to put her in.

“They wanted me to write songs about going to the club. And picking up guys.” she commented on Friday. “And I’m like, but I don’t go to clubs. I don’t pick up guys.”

So she scampered away from that contract, and set up as an independent artist in Canada. And the only reason most of us have heard of her is the CBC Radio often plays her songs. (See her public love letter to CBC Radio.)

Her music has always been a kind of fusion of jazz / world sounds with a touch of pop, but the latest album, Human, has more Indian influences than her past work. I listened to it on Google Music (and yes, heard a couple tracks on CBC Radio) before picking it up on Friday, but I wasn’t sure about it. It has a lot of spiritual themes (one song is actually called “Spiritual”), it’s all peace and love and changing the world (another song is literally called “Changing the World”).

It’s very granola, you know?

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Music, singer, songwriter, producer, artist Alysha Brilla

But after having seen her perform several tracks live, I’m kind of digging it. For one thing, she’s just such a charmer live—gets you in her corner right from the opening, and keeps you there. She was playing the Jazz Room, which has an unfortunate rectangular shape that is not ideal for live music, and was very full, and pretty hot, and during the 1.5 hour or so wait before she started, we actually pondered leaving.

But I’m glad we didn’t; the show was interactive and so fun. We got the stories behind some of the new songs: “Gender Rollz” was inspired by her time in LA, and the strict modes of behaviour expected of both men and women in the big music industry. “Ahimsa” (which means peace) came to her while on vacation in Kenya. The “Bigger Than That” singalong has great lyrics. And her cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” was awesome.(“Until Amy Winehouse came along”, she said, “I thought, ‘What hope is there for an olive-skinned weirdo like me?’”) It’s not on the album, but it is on YouTube.

And here’s some more:


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To the late night, double feature, picture show

Rocky Horror Picture Show and I go way back.

I read about the movie years before I actually saw it. In my small, Northern Ontario town back in the day, there were no late-night (or any time) showings, but I read about them in the rock magazines. I recall being quite taken by the photos of Tim Curry in his fishnets. (I later learned that many women found themselves surprised by how much they were taken by Tim Curry in his fishnets.)

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Attending the film itself had to wait until I went to university in Montreal.  The McGill Film Society showed it and my friends and I were there, armed with newspapers and rice, but not in costume. The audience was a mix of newbies and, fortunately, some veterans who knew what you were supposed to shout at the screen when. I wasn’t entirely sure if the movie was good (so campy!), but I found the whole experience fun.

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Not the performance I was at–back then we didn’t take pictures of everything…

I never did become a regular screening attendee, but I’ve certainly seen the movie a number of times since then. Our local repertory cinema still plays it every year at Halloween. Jean and I attended with friends at least once. We hadn’t planned for enough ahead to get fully costumed as any character, but I did aim for a sort of Goth look. (And I believe that Jean eccentrically went as a clown.)

Since then, I’ve seen Rocky Horror on network TV, purchased and devoured the DVD–including all extras–saw a very fun live performance of it courtesy of the University of Waterloo drama department (being a performance for alumni and faculty, that was a different audience than previous), and even checked out the TMN parody (more nudity, but much less gay).

So when I read that JM Drama Productions had another local version on this past weekend, it was an easy to decision to go.

Most appropriately, we had to run through heavy rain to get to the theatre, where we were confronted by a number of scantily clad Goth types. Rocky Horror is always a sexy beast, but this production really laid that on thick, aided by the many very attractive young actors cast. For instance, Janet starting panting the minute she saw Dr. Frank (and who can blame her), and the choreography ensured that you didn’t miss any of the double entendres in the lyrics.

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The JM Drama cast; picture from The Waterloo Region Record

JM Drama is community theatre, so their budgets were small. But their costumes and makeup were top-notch, and they were very creative about the props and sets. The vocals weren’t always great; but then, that’s not as important for this particular musical. (It’s hardly Les Miz.) Fortunately, some of the best singing was done by lead Dr. Frank, who gave an excellent, charismatic performance.

Appropriately, there was some gender-bending within the casting. Both the narrator and Dr. Scott were played by women, and why not? It even allowed for some fun Frank / Dr. Scott flirtation. And Magenta was played by the absolutely fabulous David Cho.

Overall, the whole thing was a hoot (to quote Jean’s post-show assessment). Of course, with a live production, the audience couildn’t (and didn’t) yell back or throw any projectiles. But, they did invite everyone on stage at the end for a reprise of “The Time Warp.” Jean promptly sat back in his chair, but I went for it! And yay me, as I got to dance near the two hunkiest members of the cast, Rocky immediately to my right and Frank directly in front. (Which is why Jean didn’t manage to get a picture; the actor playing Frank was very tall.)

This isn’t the kind of play that’s meant to be contemplated on too deeply, but this production gave rise to some thoughts:

  • They weren’t nearly as clear on the difference between transsexuals, transvestites, and bisexuals back when this was written as we are now, eh?
  • All that stuff we used to yell at the screen? “Slut!” “The f word for gay!” That would just be uncomfortable now.
  • Is there supposed to be some sort of lesson here, and if so, what is it? Frank is very cool but really the villain, and he doesn’t win in the end. But what of Brad and Janet? Is it good for them that they let loose? They were so uptight at first, but seem so traumatized at the end.

Eh. Too serious. It’s just a jump to the left. And a step to the right.

See you back here after I watch Fox’s Rocky Horror reboot on TV, coming up in October.

Trailer for the new Rocky Horror Picture Show on Fox


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Amazonian Olympics

While not entirely glued to the coverage, I’m definitely watching some of it (like that Canada / France women’s soccer game) and trying to keep up with coverage. For all its flaws, one great thing about the Olympics is that women in sport get as much attention as the men.

This is particular acute for Canada this year as, at time writing, 12 of the medals awarded to this country have been won by women athletes.

It’s a great thing, but as the article Opportunity Costs: What the Olympics Show Us About the Economics of Women’s Sports describes, it’s also unfortunate that women athletes only get to shine once every four years. Other than in golf and tennis—where women still earn considerably less than men—few women benefit financially from their “once every four years” moment in the spotlight.

The numbers must be understood in terms of economics, not just discrimination. In general, attendance at women’s sports events is low, and only about four percent of sports media coverage is dedicated to women’s sports, making female athletes less profitable investments for sponsors.

I’m also reminded, every four years, of the bizarre way that NBC, the American channel, broadcasts the games: very often on time delay, and largely in the form of “human interest” packages. According to the Washington Post, they do that for the women folk:

As the network’s chief marketing officer John Miller explained:

“The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans,” he told Philly.com recently. “More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”

This is absurd, of course. For I am that women who normally doesn’t watch sports but will tune into the Olympics. All I need is a knowledgeable commentator to explain the fine points of sports I might not be familiar with, and I’m good. I want to see it live. The background on the athlete’s stories is nice, too, but you can put that in between events, ’kay?

And fortunately, that’s exactly the type of coverage I get from our national broadcaster, CBC, and its partner sports channels.

But if you care about improving women’s prospects in sports in general, NBC’s coverage matters to Canadians as well. Because it’s doubtful any women’s sports league can make it in Canada alone; it will need to be a North America-wide affair. And per Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post:

This is where NBC’s real offense lies. It’s not so much that it insults the audience — but it sure does insult Olympic athletes, especially female athletes. The Olympics is the most prominent competition in the world and 53 percent of Team USA is female, which means American women likely will bring in more medals than American men. Yet they will be presented in packaging aimed at a Ladies’ Home Journal crowd. Exactly how does that grow a hardcore audience for women’s sports, or a year-in, year-out base for other Olympic sports, for that matter?


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Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty

Just because you find that life’s not fair it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
Nothing will change.

My interest in seeing the musical Matilda was mainly that the music was written by Tim Minchin, a comedian-musician whose songs often promote reason, science, and humanism. And also cheese.

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The show has also received a number of awards, though, and a great review in the Globe and Mail, so I was pleased when my sister and brother-in-law agreed to go see it with me while Jean was off canoeing.

The play opens with a chorus of children whose doting, self-esteem-boosting parents lead them to be believe they are special little princes and princesses. “It seems that there are millions of these one-in-a-millions these days / Specialness seems de rigueur.” By contrast, Matilda really is remarkable—a genius. Her thick parents don’t know what to make of her love of books and stories; they can barely stand to have her around.

In her big number, Matilda’s mother explains that “People don’t like smarty-pants / What go round claiming / That they know stuff / We don’t know / Content, has never been less important… You’ve just got to be loud.” (This is truly a musical of our time.)

School should be an oasis for such a child, but Matilda’s school is run by the authoritarian Miss Trunchbull. Played by a large man (Dan Chameroy), she cuts a ridiculous-looking figure, but is a terrifying adversary nonetheless—a bully who brooks no dissent, who cares little about fainess (once she decides you’re guilty, you’re guilty), and who favours cruel punishments.

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Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey. Photo by Joan Marcus, from http://www.mirvish.com

Besides the town librarian (delightfully played by Keisha T. Fraser), the only one on Matilda’s side is her teacher, Miss Honey, who calls herself pathetic for not being more effective at standing up to Miss Trunchbull and Matilda’s parents. Matilda, endowed with a sense of justice as deep as her intelligence, realizes that this is a battle she must fight for herself. (With a little help from her schoolmates.)

But nobody else is gonna put it right for me
Nobody but me is gonna change my story
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

Three young girls alternate the role of Matilda in the Toronto production. We got Hannah Levinson, who was dang amazing, delivering each line with such clarity and perfect timing that you never doubted her sharp, mature mind. She also had a lovely singing voice.

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Hannah Levinson as Matilda. Photo by Joan Marcus, from http://www.mirvish.com

With intermission, the play runs just over 2.5 hours. It moves along well, with none of the numbers seeming to drag—proving that Tim Minchin can write songs advocating intelligence, self-determination, justice, and education, without expletives in them. Much like the rest of his oeuvre, Matilda is often thought-provoking and moving—but still kind of fun!

Trailer for Matilda the Musical in Toronto


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Meanwhile, in America

Monday night, I’d had it with the “Bernie or bust” people. After that convention? After the almost cartoonishly sinister connections to Russia? You’re just going to pout—and boo!—because it’s not your guy?

This Seth Meyers piece summed up my feelings perfectly:

Hey! A message to the Bernie or Bust Die-Hards

Look, I’m Canadian. I’m from the country where 80% of citizens would vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. She’d win every province, every demographic—the men, the less educated, the old people. We don’t feel the Hillary hate. We don’t understand the appeal of the Miserable Angry Bag of Orange Jello™.

™ Tabatha Southey, Globe and Mail

But, but this is not meant to be another smug “look how great Canadians are” post. Because there’s one thing that’s brought me out of the doldrums the past few days, and that’s Americans.

After my disgust Monday night, I returned to Twitter Tuesday morning to find much discussion of Michelle Obama’s speech at the DNC. I watched the entire, amazing, inspiring thing on YouTube. And after wiping up the sniffles, the world felt to me like a better place.

Tuesday night I had dinner with friends (always a good thing), and one remarked that she was a bit sad about missing the DNC convention that night. And that seemed slightly odd to me, a Canadian watching all that live. I’m not sure that I ever had.

And Wednesday night, I had shit to do. I had to catch up on the dishes, the groceries, the laundry… I figured I might try to watch President Obama’s speech live, later. Yet somehow, between all the chores, I managed to catch much of Joe Biden speech of righteous anger.

How can there be pleasure in saying, you’re fired? He’s trying to tell us, he cares about the middle class, give me a break. That’s a bunch of malarkey.

And pretty much all of Michael Bloomberg’s (former Republican, current In dependant) take-down of Trump’s supposed business acumen.

Throughout his career, Trump has left behind a well-documented record of bankruptcies, thousands of lawsuits, angry shareholders, and contractors who feel cheated, and disillusioned customers who feel ripped off. Trump says he wants to run the nation like he’s run his business. God help us.

Tim Kaine (yeah, I saw that too) wasn’t ab entirely riveting speaker throughout, but those Democratic Vice Presidential picks sure are charming, warm men, don’t they? And when he started to imitate Donald Trump’s “Believe Me!”—that was good.

And then President Obama came on and knocked it out of the park. The speech was long. It was late. (And now I’m tired.) But I hung on every word. And I liked the world… even more.

See, Canadian politicians don’t do that. This country just doesn’t have that history of inspiring speaking. Trudeau Senior, whose movie bio I’m re-watching, was very eloquent, had some good lines. His son and current PM can put together a decent stump speech. The late Jack Layton’s last letter to Canadians touched many.

But it’s grasping at straws. It doesn’t compare. And I’m a total sucker for this sort of eloquence. I can’t put words to what made President Obama’s speech so great; I again have to turn to the experts, the Americans, for that, per this brilliant Esquire article:

The president is all those things—jazz musician, torch singer, politician, president—all fashioned from his own aesthetic derived from the hidden music he found in our common history. He appropriated optimism and the best elements of that tired, loaded concept called American Exceptionalism. My lord, he even jacked Ronald Reagan, ringing his own changes on the shining city on the hill. He is cool in all the ways that matter.

November is a long way away, and I still don’t how understand how this thing is even close. But at least for today, I’m feeling more hopeful.

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Passing the baton

A PS: CBC’s Arron Wherry writes about why Canadian politicians don’t make speeches like American ones do. And why that might be unfortunate.


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Electoral reform: Asking the right questions

Canada’s current, low-key debate about whether to change the federal voting system (and if so, how) is way less dramatic than the political power plays in the UK, Australia’s coping with a near-tie in their new Parliament, and the insane US election. But it’s what we got.

The Liberals ran on a promise that 2016 would be last election under “first past the post” (FPTP), but without committing on how it would change. They have struck an all-party committee to try to figure that out. The main debate is between those who want PR (proportional representation) vs. those who want to keep FPTP. (A side debate is whether the question should be put to a referendum.)

Maryam Monsef

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef appears as a witness at an electoral reform committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday July 6, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Essentially, PR proponents think it’s important that each Canadian voter have a reasonable chance of electing an MP of the party they vote for. In practice, this would be achieved by having larger multi-member ridings that allow for a more proportional distribution of total votes, vs. the current system of one member per smaller riding. (Andrew Coyne, PR advocate, explains.)

FPTP proponents don’t agree that this matters. They seem to think that wanting to be able to elect an MP from the party of your choice is just a sign of not really understanding the Canadian system of responsible government. For example: Roundup: Values vs. mechanics.

Now, said lack of understanding is likely true—we don’t have great civics education in this country, and even politicians seem a bit fuzzy on how it’s all supposed to work. But, just dismissing PR proponents as ignorant is neither helpful, nor persuasive.

Admittedly, PR proponents have a tendency to be overly optimistic about the system’s potential benefits, claiming it will lead to increased voter turnout, better representation of women and minorities in Parliament, improved social equity, more political harmony—even a cleaner environment. Absolutely none of which is guaranteed. (Not the most egregious example of these, but see Activists gear up for ‘historic opportunity’ to usher in proportional representation.)

But, PR does give you that better shot at electing an MP from your preferred party. An MP who is then more likely to vote for legislation you agree with, and against legislation you don’t.

I wish FPTP proponents would address that fact. Why exactly do they think we better off having one MP from a party we didn’t vote for (which happens to the majority of voters under FPTP), than having four or five MPs, one of whom (odds are greater) we did vote for? What  current benefits will we lose if we move to a multi-member riding system?

While not exactly addressing this question, I did find this article, from a pro-FPTP perspective, rather interesting: Trump and electoral reform: Connecting the dots. Not sure about the main point that Canadian politics is in such a great state right, so why change it. If true, isn’t that more a factor of who won the last election than the system itself? Great Britain has the same system; does anyone think their politics are in a great state right now?

But, Mr. Heath did cause me to think about the fact that even if you do manage to elect an MP you want under PR, and they mostly vote how you prefer they do, that might not make any difference in the grand scheme of things. MPs that are not part of the coalition government still won’t win too many votes. It’s also absurd to think that under PR, there won’t ever be Conservative governments again (even if the current Conservatives, with their constant bleating about referendums, seem to believe that themselves). PR is no road to leftie utopia. All parties would adapt, include theirs.

It is a bit fear-mongering, though, to suggest that “the first thing you are going to get is a redneck anti-immigration party, which will get around 15% of the vote, and which will hold the balance of power in any parliament where the Conservative party has the most seats.” Not that such a party might rise; that’s likely true. But that such a party would definitely and always partner with a more moderate Conservative partner. I have a higher opinion of Red Tories than that; I expect they might prefer to ally themselves with another centrist party than a bunch of racists.

 

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