Friday, May 30, 2008

And I Got To Thinking . . .

Sex and the City has a special place in my heart. I can't separate my love of the show (New York, those characters, marveling at Sarah Jessica Parker sprinting in heels) from the love I have for my dearest friends. That might sound strange, but when the show ended four years ago, Sandi and I anxiously waited as the bootlegged final episode downloaded before collapsing to the couch with a box of Kleenex®, preparing for the end of an era. Brian and I can have perfectly relevant conversations speaking only in quotes from the series. He's especially good at verbatim, I'm adept at tone and delivery. And while he might not be the type to quote the show or discuss the merits of its camera-work, the show even conquered Jeff. After showing him the series, beginning to end, nothing was so satisfying as hearing him exclaim it was "so good!" He can be a tough sell.

Like any good television show worth its salt, Sex found its way into the pop culture canon. It got into our hearts, its characters, like so many before, becoming real people in our lives. Our parents had Dallas and M*A*S*H, and we got Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha. A story about the families we create for ourselves, about friendship and love, whipped dollops of fairytale drama mixed with enough heart and sarcasm to satisfy my every whim.

Four years after the series ended with a classic voiceover and a giant reveal (John?!) the ladies are back with the movie. The blogosphere's been abuzz for months, especially the last 30 days, press tours and spoiler-alerts rampant all over the globe. You can't turn on the television without anticipation, speculation and expectation. Like an imminent high school reunion, you have to wonder what's happened to everyone. Will they live up to your memory of them?

But I don't think it was possible for me to be disappointed. Like catching up with old friends, sometimes all you need is to see them, know they're doing okay, and reminisce a bit about the good old days. For the film's opening, like perfect bookends, I caught the 11:45AM matinée with Jeff and a 10:50PM with Sandi (and a city's worth of over-accessorized women). I'd stumbled upon enough spoilers to know a bit about the plot, but was pleasantly surprised by the stuff I didn't know. With enough subtle nods to the past to satiate the oldest and truest fan, Sex succeeds as a gift to the die hards and as a stand-alone romantic dramedy for the masses. Fear not, I won't go into detail.

The bittersweet part of yesterday was Brian's very loud absence. He's still in Australia - I'm sure there's a Samantha Jones-style down under joke in there somewhere. When he gets home, we'll pop in the DVD for every self-congratulatory second of Michael Patrick King's commentary, we'll pause on each hysterical facial expression Kristin Davis conjures, and, when it ends, we'll start at the beginning and watch over and over again.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

My Playlist

I like music. All kinds. Eclectic might be a good word. Schizophrenic might be better. On any given day I cover a ton of territory. All genres, all levels of gloss and production. From the high-end Madonna and Kanye to the low-end Julie Doiron and such. Outside of metal and gangsta rap, I'm game to pop on my headphones and take a listen.

Today I iTunes'd what might be my new favourite CD of summer. M. Ward is a singer-songwriter I've followed for years. He's folksy and quirky and talented. Zooey Deschanel is an actress who may have stolen your heart in the Will Ferrell flick, Elf, among other things. Together they formed She & Him and recently released an album, Volume One. Somewhere between an Annette Funicello beach-blanket party of the 50s, twangy country, and that Phil Spector wall-of-sound doowop thing, it feels wonderfully authentic, old-school and effortless. With covers of "I Should Have Known" and "You've Really Got a Hold On Me", you can't keep my shoulders from moving.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

'night, Mother

I am drawn to the quiet and the sad, always have been. I'm not particularly dark, I can't imagine anyone describing me as miserable or angst-ridden. Those who know me well, however, know I enjoy a good wallow now and again, a solid tri-annual cry never hurts. And it's good for your skin. I listen to some real downer music, I love a healthy dose of melancholy. I'm a little morbid, having thought and re-thought my own funeral more than once, but, really, that's just party-planning. As I type this I'm wearing a summer-weight lavender sweater, for God's sake, how dark could I possibly be?

But it should surprise no one I was counting down the days until Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother (1983) began its run at my theatre. The story of a mother and daughter dealing with their pink-elephant-past, it stars none other than Megan Follows and her real life mother, Dawn Greenhalgh. I mean, seriously, who could ask for more?

The play takes place in middle-America, location unspecified. The set is the less-than-great room of a tiny bungalow and reminds me of every house I've ever known, basic and straight-forward, hiding nothing, so it seems. One of those standard oak kitchen tables, machine-spun legs and uncomfortable, spindled chair-backs, something you'd find on-sale at Leon's. There are candy dishes all over, needle-point projects, terrible furniture with faux-wood detailing set into the scratchy burlap fabric, tiny legs holding the bulky thing up. Afghans. Linoleum floors. Harvest gold appliances. Cheese Whiz and Thousand Islands dressing. The remnants of daily life.

Megan plays Jessie Cates, a woman in her late 30s/early 40s who appears quiet and calm. Dawn plays Thelma (my Grandma's name, incidentally), Jessie's mother. She wears elastic-waisted polyester slacks, the kind every woman (of a certain age) in my family wore. They are grey. She wears orthopedic shoes, beige, and a floral blouse of a man-made material. They are familiar, these women, sharing a house and a set of opposing memories. Denial runs rampant here. The play begins with Jessie searching the attic for her father's gun. Jessie announces she'll kill herself tonight, in a couple of hours. The play is in real-time, clocks visible, and I know what time it ends.

I could watch this kind of theatre all day long. Aside from rich characters and a compelling hook, the technical side thrills me. Watching these women, these incredible actors, inhabit this house as if it is real, seeing them move about, wash dishes in a real sink, heat cocoa on a working stove - All of this is a marvel! It all rests upon the immense talents of two women. Ninety minutes of talking, each errand and activity laid out in the text. There are no chorus members, no kick lines to distract, no musical numbers or intermission to break the tension or catch a breath. A real feat, if nothing else.

Dawn Greenhalgh, one of the great salt-of-the-earth Canadian actors, is a feisty lady. Some might even call her an old-school broad. She smokes and she swears and she tells it like it is. While the character has some of that, Dawn manages to quell so much, to appear meek and old in a way that she most-certainly is not. It's hard to watch and utterly moving. When she goes to her knees to gather the manicure set she has thrown on the floor, it hurts. Megan, dowdy in Mom Jeans and stringy hair, buries the effervescence that typically pours from her face. The physicality of these performances alone worth the price of admission.

Some patrons leave the theatre looking defeated, broken-down, even angry. Not everyone can see past the devastating outcome or the bleak lives these women lead. 'night, Mother is a cautionary tale of what happens to things left unsaid, when we glaze-over and check-out, what ends-up when parents forget their children are no longer theirs, but rather, as Jessie says in the final moments, what becomes of that child.

(Above: Dawn and Megan, 2007)

Ask for Steve Anubis

Sometimes my life is weird. I work in a performing arts centre where some of Canada's finest walk the boards. Greats like Diego Matamoros, Nancy Palk, and Kenneth Welsh, the new generation like Liisa Repo-Martell, Kristen Thomson, and Damien Atkins, and the superstars like Megan Follows and Ann-Marie MacDonald. It's strange to chat over a bowl of soup with Anne of Green Gables. Stranger still to casually converse about Ms. MacDonald's Oprah appearance or what it's really like to be part of the Book Club. And yet, so normal, so perfectly Canadian in its utter down-to-earthness.

Today I took a moment when I realized I passed by Megan, Anne-Marie, and Canadian director/playwright Judith Thompson without really batting an eyelash. Ann-Marie stopped to let me know I'd been in her dream last night. "It was you, but it wasn't you, you know how dreams work," she said, "You even had a name: Steve Anubis." She went on to explain how Anubis was the Greek God of the Underworld, he who determines where the dead belong. Scary and not an altogether flattering role to play in the subconscious mind of a Canadian treasure. I can't begin to imagine what goes on in a brain like hers, and, frankly, it's an honour just to be involved.

(Above: Ann-Marie and her partner Alisa Palmer at the opening of Top Girls, July 2007)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Music to my Ears

So, aside from routine infant male circumcision, I've been staunchly against one thing. Ever since Kazaa went the way of Napster and Morpheus, I stopped illegally downloading music. The thrill of watching a file work its way to you - 10% . . . 60% . . . 99% - closer and closer to getting your hands on an album yet-to-be released, or those Spice Girls songs you'd developed a long-forgotten hankering for one sunny summer afternoon. Oh! What excitement! During the boom at the turn of this century, the music industry slumped, executives worried about the future. Things got back on track, slightly, with the advent of iTunes and well-priced, high-quality legal downloading. A generation of kids stopped stealing and starting buying, 99¢ a pop. Those of us who remember the glory days, though, couldn't forget the financial freedom and hard drive overload, thousands of songs bubbling over in our C drives. Virtual memory critically low.

I've been extremely self-righteous about it. I've always said that music is the most economical and valuable art there is: 10 songs or more for $15? And with iTunes quickly slaying the big box music store, you can get it even cheaper! Music lasts forever and $9.99 is not too much to ask for a lifetime of enjoyment. Crafted by several artists (from songwriter, to musicians, to producers, engineers, etc.) and fawned over for months and sometimes years, all for less than the price of an American Apparel deep-V or Dr. Phil's integrity; the same cannot be said for all artforms. These are the things I say. And I believe them. Even if a friend asked me to burn him a copy of a new album, I'd scoff and tell him to go "buy it himself! Support the musician! I don't do that." (My retro-apologies, but my heart was in the right place.) I think it's important to support artists of all kinds. And I know: so little of the money from CD sales actually goes to these artists, but rather to the man sitting in the corner office at Sony or some other media conglomerate. I know. But, still. It felt wrong to me, and I pretended music piracy was a thing of the past avoiding discussions about torrents or bits of any kind. I knew it could take me down fast, if I let it. And I've done well.

Until yesterday.

In order to procure some live Robyn tracks (which can't be purchased in an upstanding way) I downloaded a BitTorrent client, or whatever it's called. I'm a novice, but the thrill that I once got from Kazaa and its illegal predecessors is back: I'm drunk on piracy. My head spinning, pyjama-clad, hair a mess, I'm searching, searching the internet for albums I never knew I cared about. Watching percentages rise, I feel my wallet thicken. The conflict I once felt is being stomped out, pro-file-sharing voices in my head (people like Sandi) listing the very convincing reasons why she's okay with it and why I could be too! Where once I could see what she was saying, now I feel overturned. It's just far too easy and amazing to ignore. Anything, at my fingertips! I hear a voice telling me "You've spent thousands on music! You're one of the good guys! Go wild just for a day or two, then stop cold turkey!"

I can justify almost anything. I'm good at that. But, come on, it's straight-up stealing, right? Pollyanna-Pirates have adopted such friendly concepts as Peer to Peer File Sharing and other hippy-dippy lies to make it right. If we could get clothes over the internet for free, we would. Food? Shoes? An original Picasso? Music is less tangible and can be zipped into a handy folder, fired across the world, and delivered to your eardrums in seconds. Remember the news story about the Brinks truck overturning on the highway, sending thousands of fluttering dollars into the air, bystanders gathering bills like autumn leaves? It's like that. Isn't it?

Oh well. We'll see how I feel when this high wears off.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cut Me Some Slack

I get worked up about stuff. But never politics; to me, the government is like the weather. You're not really gonna change it, so it does little good to worry. Don't get me wrong - I vote, I participate, but I don't go to rallies, I don't write letters to my MPP, and I don't get upset about taxes or gas prices. I just don't. But there are a series of social issues that really grind my gears.

Chief among them is my deep desire to criminalize the routine circumcision of boys. It simply needs to change. Unless required by religion or a medical condition, there is no good reason for it. I always use the old eyelids comparison. Snipping off your bouncing baby boy's foreskin is like hacking off their eyelids because you think it's better. Eyelids have a distinct purpose, as does the skin that covers the head of the penis. Until we've evolved something out or off of our bodies, I just think it's a bad idea to lop it off, fast and loose.

At some point, outside of religion and medical necessity, circumcision became a fashionable thing to do. By the 1950s about 70% of boys were being circumcised routinely after birth in the United States. It quickly became the norm and an uncircumcised penis became "gross", "dirty" and a variety of other unflattering terms. I don't blame people for taking this route at the time - Until very recently it was what was recommended by medical professionals and seemed the right thing to do. It has since been refuted and is no longer provided free of charge within our health care system. So why are parents forking over $250 when every doctor worth their salt strongly advises against it? Because we're a fucked-up people, that's why.

We pierce baby's ears. Somehow that's socially acceptable, but I'd like to give my newborn a nose ring and just see what the neighbours say. Or how about a tattoo? Maybe gift-wrapped hair extensions or Baby's First Vagioplasty. Because these things aren't much different than mutilating the baby you had 20 minutes ago.

There are a series of reasons given for circumcising one's offspring - aesthetics, tradition, hygiene - none of which seems good enough to warrant slicing off part of your child's body.

Aesthetics: Get over it. A wise person (online somewhere in my half-assed research) said that the only time a penis' looks are in question, really, is during some kind of sexual experience, at which point the penis is erect and the foreskin is, really, a non-issue. (Non-tissue?) Unless we start to shift our notions of what looks good, this will never change. Much like wrinkly old ladies in soap commercials, we need to embrace what we've been given and celebrate it.

Tradition: "Well, my husband is circumcised and I don't want my son to be confused." There will be a variety of differences between the childhood penis of your son and his father - I hope. Hair and size, in particular, unless you're adopting a present-day Colin Farrell and he's planning a nightly bath with your husband, in which case please comment below to arrange for a free babysitter! You and the girls can catch the early show of Made of Honor. I'm very good with a loofah and a real stickler for the naughty corner.

Hygiene: Will you teach your child how to brush his teeth, or is that too big a commitment as well, you deadbeat. Cleaning beneath his foreskin will be one of the quick and easy daily routines, unlike having sex with his future wife for 90 minutes because all sensation in his penis has been obliterated. Oh wait, his mother is a control freak and he'll never maintain a long-term relationship.

Times have changed, people. It's like smoking - We have no excuse anymore! It's just wrong. Like Scientology, circumcision is a choice someone should make when they're an adult. I know what you're thinking: "But ouch! At least a baby doesn't remember the pain!" Does not remembering the pain take the pain away? Think about that for a second. If someone other than a doctor came into your hospital room, picked up your recently-born baby and said "Hey Mom! Just gonna take little Franky here to another room and slice off part of his penis. Back in a jiff!" every maternal instinct would kick-in and you'd be up on homicide charges. Somehow, within the sanctity of some half-rate, under-funded hospital in Who-Knows-Where, U.S.A., we let it become so normal that it became freakish not to.

Okay, now I'm preaching, so I'll stop. But seriously. YouTube it or do a Google Image Search. It might change your mind. Unless you're insane, in which case, please don't have a baby. Even if it's a girl, you'll probably make her wear an anklet or dye her hair. I know your type.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Kanye West, Superstar

I've been thinking a lot about Kanye West. I recently started listening to his music, really listening, and have noticed what many already have: He's actually that good. It pains me to admit this, because I'm so fundamentally against his type. To my core, the repulsively-arrogant alpha-male has always posed a problem. Being rather sensitive, I've always found men like this (the gym teacher, the aggressively masculine neighbour, Dennis Leary) to be altogether too much.

With an ego somewhere between Paris Hilton and Hitler, Kanye West has dominated the music scene for the last several years. He's been known to make obnoxious acceptance speeches at major awards telecasts (claiming the Grammy® stage as his home in February) and has even compared himself to Jesus Christ. Gross, right?

Entertainment Weekly
recently gave his blockbuster new tour a very favourable review. Sure, they called him out on his self-proclaimed arrogance and showboating, but that's just good journalism. In response to this glowing B+ review, Kanye posted an angry rebuttal on his blog asking why, "if they weren't fans of his" would they even bother reviewing the show? He continued, "You'll never gain credibility at this rate. You're fucking trash! I make art. You can't rate this. I'm a real person. I'm not a pop star. I don't care about anything but making great art. Never come to one of my shows ever again, you're not invited and if you see me . . . BOW!! This is not pop, it's pop art!"

Pardon me, young man? How is it that a person with such universal traits of the storybook poor sport - someone no one likes - can be such a superstar? Kanye managed what seemed impossible - He made Eminem look humble like the Dalai Lama. He wasn't satisfied with a B+? Grade-grubbers are the worst kind of people, everyone knows that! Why are people charmed by it?

Is it because he actually has the talent to back it up? Are the masses smarter than I thought? Pop music tells us nothing much, mostly to stand under my umbrella or to touch my body - so in the heaps of garbage (while fun and frothy for summertime!) Kanye does rise above. His songs are candid and honest, fascinating four minute exposés of his peers in the music industry or odes to his Mama and his upbringing. His success gives me a newfound respect for the average music consumer - In a world where artists are controlled and constructed from the moment they're plucked off a Bahamian island, it's refreshing to see something close to reality, however unattractive. Kanye and others like Amy Winehouse are brutally honest and they lay it all on the line, which might be something. The idea that we're drawn to truth as well as fiction sets my mind at ease.

But the conflict remains. I try to keep my shoulders from moving, try to quell my sing-along tendencies. But I can't. Almost every single track on his newest album (Graduation) is fantastic the way you wish all music could be. Sometimes the lyrics make you cringe, anger rises up at the brazen lack of humility, but . . . it is that good.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Baby Mama

Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice. Nicole Kidman in The Hours. Diane Keaton in Baby Boom. Some of my favourite screen performances of the last 25 years. Particularly the latter; Baby Boom (1987) was the story of a J.C. Wiatt (Keaton) a New York executive who had worked her way up the corporate ladder. She'd put everything behind her career, had a starkly designed (and very American Psycho-esque apartment), and a failing common-law marriage. You see, in the 80s it was important to show career-minded women as frosty and critical to show their bosses as powerful men who had to be clambered over. Both accomplished expertly. Then, out of the blue, a baby was left on her doorstep and she was forced to slow down and make applesauce. I'm over-simplifying, but I don't have that kind of time.

It was a lovely movie, lots of laughs. I've seen it dozens of times, those lazy Saturdays in front of TBS or by popping in my VHS copy. Yes, I own a copy of Baby Boom. What of it?

Last Friday, Baby Mama, starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, opened. For me, it's an updated version of a favourite, a Baby Boom for a new generation of high-powered ladies, women of the current child-bearing demographic who aren't too good for fart jokes, aren't above the kind of potty humour Tiny Fey serves warm and with utter integrity. While the movie is far from perfect (or even good?) I'm charmed by this modern-day Carol Burnett/Vicki Lawrence combo who, truly, can do no wrong. Since they paired-up to dish out fake news on SNL's Weekend Update they've become the pinnacle of new-wave lady-comics - Smart, edgy, self-effacing yet disarmingly confident. Revenge of the nerds, or something like it.

Oh, and start watching 30 Rock, would you? We don't need another Arrested Development debacle.


If you're my age, you'll remember Robyn from the 90s hits "Show Me Love" and "Do You Know (What It Takes)", but she's done far more than that. Being the Puritan North Americans we are, we miss out on a lot of European music (and art in general), and we should be disappointed. Three years ago she released an album that straddles some amazing and vast territory. Part straight-up pop, part singer-songwriter on a laptop, and part Eurotrash-technodance, her self-titled fourth album is tough to pinpoint. It was finally released this week in North America.

Having heard several of the songs stripped down to a piano and her clear, girlish vocals, it's hard to believe these songs are thumping, techno (but street-wise) dance songs in their original form. (This is the album I wish Madonna had released this week, instead of her ultra-disappointing, sub-standard Hard Candy.) Some of the material is cheeky and crude ("Konichiwa Bitches", "Cobrastyle") while others are melancholy ballads laced with drum machines and synthesizers ("With Every Heartbeat", "Be Mine!") - Something for everyone. But the album is cohesive and, with each shift in mood, there's a distinct point of view, a trait American musicians (who buy their songs from several oh-so-current beatmakers) don't seem to have anymore. Instead of a pack of songs working as an album, a whole experience, we've become used to singles, stand-alone tracks that never fit into a group, often leading to a terrible disc full of filler-songs and "featuring" tracks. iPods play one song from 1000 different artists; the age of the pop album seems to be, for the most part, dead.

I've had several tracks from the album for a while (released on iTunes as a few EPs), but now that I have the whole thing, it makes so much sense. Needless to say, it's been on repeat all week. It satisfies me on a variety of levels.

Take a listen to Robyn's recent AOL Music Sessions where you can hear an updated version of "Show Me Love" (alone worth the click) as well as tracks from her new (to us) album. And then hit up iTunes to buy it. Who knew the poppy Swedish girl I knew in high school would eclipse Madonna. Who knew.

Renaissance Man

The husband of Laura, soon-to-be mother of twins, is Mark. He is a writer and is constantly doing something very interesting. Currently he's spending all of May in Europe for Condé Nast Traveler becoming something of a Renaissance Man. He will blog about his exciting life lessons, everything from learning how to golf and garden to piano and Italian language lessons. I urge you to read - He's funny and excellent and the father of one of my favourite babies. Enjoy!