Thursday, December 18, 2008

The pizza / cast iron experiment

I'd been wanting to try this idea for a few weeks because, when I thought of it, it seemed like such an obvious solution to a familiar problem: how to get enough heat in a home oven to cook a good bread-based creation. While obvious, I hadn't heard of the idea elsewhere before, although I'm sure I'm not the first to have thought of it.

My idea was quite simple: stop fighting with baking stones and try the cast iron skillet that I like so much for cooking certain other meals!

First, the picture, so that you can tell whether you're interested or not:

I was determined that this wouldn't be a palaver, though, else it'd take up the whole day. I used cheap mozarella cheese (Black Diamond cheese that was on sale, whereas in the past I have bought a stretched mozarella ball for the purpose). I didn't make my own tomato sauce, choosing to use a bit of Classico pasta sauce instead And here's another thing: shredded cheese on pizza is stupid. It's probably done that way in the pizza restaurants for consistency of distribution and compatibility with a process, but at home you can just cut the cheese into small chunks and distribute it as you would any other ingredient, which is all cheese is -- just another ingredient -- in a good pizza. What else? Not much: a bit of green pepper, a couple of mushrooms, and some leftover frozen pepperoni from the last time I made pizza a few months ago. It went on the pizza frozen.

I've almost always made the pizza dough by hand from scratch when doing pizza, but this time I let the bread machine do the work. Bread machines only fall down in the baking stage. For kneading, they are actually pretty good. I am using a Zojirushi BB-HAC10 bread machine -- an excellent machine, and one of the few I've seen that spends time warming up the ingredients before kneading. This is the dough recipe I used:
  • 160g semolina flour: specifically, the bulk stuff from Foodstuffs in downtown Georgetown
  • 160g bread flour: specifically, some really old Bob's Red Mill bread flour that is probably almost 2 years old
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. active dry yeast
The method was the traditional bread machine method: water in first, then flour, then all but the yeast sprinkled around the edges and a dry well made in the middle of the mound of flour for the yeast. I put the machine on the dough setting. Once it had started mixing, I kept an eye on it and adjusted for proper dough consistency by adding flour sparingly until it wasn't too sticky. At that point, I left it and went out to get some more semolina flour from Foodstuffs, only to find that it was more than 2x the price of the old bag I finished off above. Actually, the main reason I went out was to go for a walk, but a walk to Foodstuffs and back is just about the right amount of time for a walk!

Once the bread dough was done, I put my cast iron skillet in the top rack of the oven and turned the oven up to 450F. Then, I dusted the counter with flour and shaped the dough into a floppy round ball. At this point, I noticed I had enough dough for two pizzas so I cut the ball in half, rubbed it with oil, and put it in a freezer bag for another time. You can do this and, when ready to use it later, thaw it and let it come up to room temperature.

With the other half, I reshaped it into a ball, redusted with flour, and rolled it out into an approximately round pizza shape (I haven't yet the skill to toss the pizza around in the air to make it perfectly round, as you sometimes see in shop windows). I then rubbed the now-flat pizza base with olive oil, covered it with a tea towel, and let it sit for about 15 minutes. The oven continues to pre-heat during this time, which is good because it should be very hot (and so should the cast iron).

After 15 minutes, I took the cast iron skillet out of the oven, put it on the cooktop, and lay the dough into the skillet. It started to bubble almost immediately, which is a very good sign! I put the skillet in the oven and let it cook for about 2-3 minutes. My idea in doing this was to give it a bit of a seal and make sure I had some room to take the dough out when the toppings are just done without worrying about the dough being undercooked. It also makes the dough hold its shape a bit better, seeing as it's very elastic when it goes in (part of the funny shape of the pizza in the picture is due to my not being able to get it into the skillet perfectly evenly).

So, once that bit of pre-baking was done, I took the skillet out again and put the toppings on the pizza: a thin layer of Classico roasted garlic & onion pasta sauce, some small chunks of cheese, sliced green pepper, sliced mushrooms, and a few pieces of sliced pepperoni. Then, back in the oven. It was in the oven for perhaps 8-10 minutes after this, and was done as you see in the picture after this time. I only judged it by eyesight based on how cooked the toppings were, really.

This method gave a very nice amount of oven spring -- a fast last-gasp rising of the dough in reaction with the oven heat when the yeast get hyperactive from all the warmth before they realize they're being cooked and are killed. The crust was crisp and the inside was soft and very lightly chewy, which is how I like it:

I was very happy with this result. Also, note that there was no sticking to the cast iron at all. Properly pre-heated and cooked, there should not be.

The skillet I used was a Lodge Logic 10.5" basic pre-seasoned skillet. Nothing fancy -- it cost me $20. I have started collecting cast iron pieces because the value is so great. I even found a cast iron biscuit pan not too long ago -- similar to a muffin pan, but a bit taller.

Technorati: ,

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Two sides of the same coin: "Snow Angels" and "Burn After Reading"

For some reason, it often happens that I pick movies to watch in close proximity to each other that have quite a bit in common. I did just that over the past few days.

The first of the two movies is the Coen Brothers's "Burn After Reading", and the second is David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels".

David Gordon Green makes movies that I find externally frustrating. They are often very well-done, and slowly but very evenly paced. They burn and unwind -- nay, unravel -- very gradually and end up having presented a rich story, usually about interesting events surrounding otherwise mundane characters. They're frustrating because they're movies that belong on my shelf, but they are also movies that I don't find myself wanting to watch more than once: when you've seen it once and you know where everything is going, what first appeared to be charming or innocent takes on a new meaning and it's never the same again.

"Snow Angels" is no exception, taking a cast of ordinary characters that seem plain upfront and gradually exposing their scars to an end where we know far more about them than we probably wanted to. This is a movie that absolutely should not be spoiled, so I won't. But there are no twists because everything is wholly plausible and consistent with the characters as they're presented. It's nice to watch a movie that gets its steam from solid dialogue and performance.

There are politics here. There are no bad female characters, and the only good male character is a teenage boy, with the other males ranging on a scale from averagely hopeless to tragic. The teenagers get on with their lives while the adults make a mess of theirs. The women hold everything together while the males fall apart. I don't doubt that this world exists out there in a subculture I'm unfamiliar with, but it's not one that I know very well. The religious figure is the epitome of a hypocrite, yet is not a cardboard cutout and that's refreshing.

This is a winter movie with some beautifully-shot winter scenes, but it's most definitely not a Christmas movie. It is depressing, so don't let the title fool you into thinking that you'll be in for a nice fireside winter tale.

"Burn After Reading", on the other hand, takes no sides. It is a very funny dark comedy where virtually everyone's life is in disarray and all of these lives are hurtling around in space coincidentally not crashing into each other -- most of the time. John Malkovich does the best take on the "John Malkovich role" I've seen to date, and the other well-known actors -- George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand -- all do something that breaks their usual mould.

But why is it like "Snow Angels"? Because characters meet similar fates and go through similar circumstances but have a whole lot less stress doing it. It is an upbeat and funny equivalent to the malaise and depression of "Snow Angels". The latter is probably the better movie of the two, but the former is infinitely more watchable. There are no good guys here, and there really is no message to be conveyed. "Angels" is about understanding, while "Burn" is simply entertainment and says there's virtually no point in trying to understand.

As I said above, I don't think I could watch "Snow Angels" again, but I will watch "Burn After Reading" many more times, I'm sure.

Technorati: ,

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Paranormal Show review : Campbell House : Toronto, Ontario : November 29, 2008

Last night, I went to "The Paranormal Show" at Campbell House. What a very interesting show!

First of all, the setting was great. Campbell House is a small Victorian mansion within the city -- the oldest original building still standing. Upon travelling the cobblestone walkway to get to the wooden front door, I went inside to find a candlelit foyer where the attendees were gathered at the foot of the spiral staircase waiting to go upstairs for the show. A man in Victorian outfit was just inside the door selling tickets and handling reservations by candlelight.

After the clock chimed 9pm, the group of 40 people made their way up the dark spiral staircase to the small ballroom where the guests were to be seated. Soon after, Vladimir Eisengrimm entered the room and began the show. The show began with a series of mind-reading and psychokinesis activities with a lot of audience participation. I think maybe 10 people altogether had been pulled from the audience at various times to participate. Thankfully, I was not one of them (although I don't really say that for any reason in particular -- it was all good fun -- I just don't like being called on without preparation :)). These activities were impressive and I wonder how many of them were done!

Vladimir Eisengrimm was essentially the same character that I had seen as Nikolai Diablo at the Carnival Diablo sideshow at Carnival Lune Bleue back in August. It's a great character and the makeup and voice are great. This show had the addition of maltuned cello ambient music in the background which added to the disarray. The smell of incense in the room also contributed (and I can still smell it, actually!). The atmosphere of the old house and its acoustics also added a lot. The chimes of the grandfather clock in the background marked the passing of every hour, too, which was a nice artifact.

After the mind tricks, Vladimir moved on to some of the same tricks I'd seen at Carnival Diablo, but they were no less interesting the second time around. The performance is what's interesting and he's interesting to watch!

Next, and after a warning and 10-minute reprieve to decide if you want to stay for the next part, the group walks back down the dark spiral staircase and continues down to the cellar of the house for a séance to try and communicate with the female ghost of the Campbell House. The audience participation aspect is really well done: how many other shows do you participate to this extent?

In the cellar, and around an old wooden table, the people that could fit around the table did so and Vladimir introduced the concept of séance and to his instruments -- essentially, to try and capture the energy of the spirit and focus it into a number of objects through which the spirit can communicate. The people around the table were asked to join hands and everyone in the room focused their energy on the task at hand. I won't go into too much detail because I don't want to ruin it for anyone.

After the séance, it was back upstairs for Vladimir's reading of "How The Grinch Stole Christmas". I enjoyed it -- very well done!

Overall, it was a great show, and about 2 hours long. A lot of time and effort was obviously taken to bring the best out of the atmosphere possible at Campbell House and the small audience makes it feel rather special -- a limit of 40 people was probably just about right, and anything much larger would have made you feel lost in the audience. As it stood, you felt like a central part. If you're interested in a creepy atmosphere or just an over-the-top sideshow type of performance, it's definitely something to see!

Last night was supposed to be the final show, but the run at Campbell House has apparently been extended through to December 20th. Here's the flyer, although it doesn't show the new dates yet; but, there's a Facebook page for the extended run. Highly recommended!

Technorati: , , ,

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Two new solo piano CDs: Mark Pinkus's "Touching" and Laura Sullivan's "Close to Home"

Once in awhile, I go and pick up some independent music from CD Baby. I've found quite a few good CDs there over the years. In this case, I found one great and one not so great, although they were both by independent artists that I'm already familiar with

Mark Pinkus - Touching

I have all of Mark Pinkus's CDs and like every one of them quite a bit. His new CD, "Touching", isn't an exception to this -- I like it very much. As far as I know, they are all original compositions. Some of the tracks remind you a bit of Kevin Kern, but with one important difference -- they never fall into clichés, which Kern's music often does. When you think you know where a melody is going, it usually doesn't go there, and to me (and perhaps many) this is important: if I can remember a song, it just plays over and over again in my head until I'm sick of it. When the details aren't memorable, it's more likely to be timeless. There's some obvious classical influence in his work, too -- some complexity and sense of long-term construction of a song as opposed to the song that has a moving window of attention of about 15-30 seconds. This further separates him from the wishy-washy new age stuff that he'll probably still be associated with due to a lack of a better mainstream description.

I first heard Mark's music with the first track of his "Quiet Place" CD (now renamed to "Simplicity") some years ago and I was looking forward to hearing something new from him, because it's been awhile! There are a number of things that "work" with his music: first of all, he isn't afraid to make short songs if they nothing longer is justified and so nothing is longer than it needs to be; second, as I said above, he doesn't fall into clichés and there is no lazy composing involved; finally, he clearly knows how he wants the piano to be recorded because it is a very rich-sounding solo piano recording.

So, this is an excellent CD and I think I'll be listening to it a lot!

Laura Sullivan - Close to Home

I'll start off by saying that I didn't like this CD very much. I first heard Laura Sullivan with her "Mystical America" CD which is still one of my favourite solo piano CDs by any artist: there is some truly great original music there with excellent atmosphere that is cohesive across all of the tracks on the album, and all of the non-piano elements such as the synthesizer pads to fill in some of the space work together very well. "Bighorn Medicine Wheel" from that album would be on my list of favorite solo piano tracks. The album that preceded "Mystical America" ("Pianoscapes") was also good.

But, since these albums, I haven't really enjoyed anything she's done. The previous CD was bland and introduced dreamy vocals that interfered with the piano, and this latest CD, "Close to Home" is made up of arrangements of traditional songs. But, none of the arrangements are as good or better than those that I've heard elsewhere. If you're going to do "Scarborough Fair" on piano then I think it has to be something really special because it has been done so many times before, but here it's just average and thin. The second track, "She Moved Through The Fair" is an obvious attempt at an Enya clone that isn't as good as Enya (mostly due to production values and not artist talent, though) and sounds a bit like a spectre is loose in the room. I don't understand why you'd want to emulate something that already exists if you're not going to try and be better than what you emulate.

Another problem with this CD is that the recording is not very good. The piano is flat and bland -- it has none of the body that Mark Pinkus's CD above has. I'm a bit worried that this is a mixing and engineering problem -- an amateur mixer, maybe? -- and that the piano quality was sacrificed to make room for the vocals and other elements which, to a fan of relatively uncluttered solo piano, detract from the experience to begin with. One of the numerous reasons I like Tori Amos, for example, is that she knows how she wants to record a piano -- the recording quality is masterful on her CDs. There doesn't seem to be much respect for the piano on "Close to Home", though if you're listening to it on an MP3 player or in the elevator then you probably won't notice.

I mentioned clichés in my Mark Pinkus review above, and though there are no piano clichés here , there are a lot of vocal clichés. They're the type that Sarah Brightman often makes that grate against your nerves a bit but are tolerable when the voice is otherwise impressive as in Sarah's case, but on this CD the voice is masked with effects and bathroom reverb to hide the fact that it isn't that impressive.

So, for now, I'm hoping that Laura Sullivan will one day put something together to rival "Mystical America", and I'll keep waiting. But I'll probably be more hesitant about buying the next CD, having not been too enthusiastic about the last two.

Technorati: ,

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Paranormal Show : Campbell House : November 2008

[ 2008/11/30 update: my review is here ]

It looks like the fellow that put on the great Carnival Diablo at
Carnivale Lune Bleue is doing his Paranormal Show at Campbell House in Toronto this month.

Campbell House should be an interesting venue, being build in 1822 and the oldest original building still standing from the former town of York. The show is limited to 40 seats, which means the atmosphere will be great.

A third show to add to my November itinerary??

Technorati: , ,

Thursday, November 06, 2008

All good things... (the end of the St Jacobs summer sausage)

Well, it is with a heavy heart that I mention that the end of the St Jacobs summer sausage is nigh. The penultimate slice will soon be taken from the stump, and there will be no more possible forthwith. I will fondly remember our time together.

It is important to remember in these difficult times that these things we eat are never lost. They become a part of us and we carry them far into the future.

I am not joking when I say I think I am having withdrawal symptoms. Since I got it, I'd been having about a slice a day and then I slowed recently as I saw the train light at the end of the tunnel... and I think I feel a difference. Maybe it's lower blood pressure :)

Anyway, I am really wondering about going out to get another one. All kinds of rationalizations are taking place...

Technorati: , ,

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Georgetown Bach Chorale : Violin & Piano : October 24, 2008

On Friday night, I went to see the opening concert of the Georgetown Bach Chorale's 2008/09 season; a selection of pieces from the baroque, classical, and romantic periods arranged for solo violin and piano. It was one of the best live music experiences I've had to date.

The venue : Knox Presbyterian Church
First of all, I'm glad I looked up the address of the church before I left. I had somehow planted it in my head that this church was just north of Mill St. on Hwy. 7, but it's actually right by the library on Main St. I now know the Hwy. 7 church to be a United Church. These two locations are pretty close to each other, so it's not a big problem, but... still, it's nice to know where you're going. I go past this church so often that I can't believe I didn't know what it was called!

This church is very impressive. It's quite a small church, but the interior was notable. I haven't sat in a more comfortable building in a very long time. By comfortable, I'm not talking about the chairs, which were just wooden benches as you normally see in churches. I mean that the interior was just so perfectly proportioned to human scale and acoustically-treated that I was sitting in the middle of the room without much around me and it felt more comfortable than my own house! This is clearly a church that was built when buildings were built for people and not architects.

During the concert, the excellence of the acoustics was even more apparent. I haven't been in many different churches for comparison, but it had perhaps some of the best acoustics I've ever heard. On the other hand, the audience and hall were so small that no amplification was needed -- it was the instruments alone. Amplification adds its own set of challenges to good acoustics.

An audience make-up always interests me, as some of my previous concert notes probably show. In this case, the audience was mostly older people; more seniors than even middle-aged people. Except for a couple of children at the front, I think I was the youngest person in there. The pub down the road was more attractive entertainment for younger people, it seems. This is kind of sad, but I'm not really surprised, though given the choice between pretending that I've got the ornate culture of 18th and 19th century Europe and pretending that I've got the culture of an English/Irish mucker who doesn't know what to do with himself at the end of the day, I'd rather pretend about the former. It was nice to see that a couple of parents took their young children to something like this, though.

The music
The music was performed entirely on a single baby grand piano and a single violin and came from a variety of composers, including Mozart, Liszt, and Brahms. The complete programme is shown above. The guest violinist, Conrad Chow, was incredibly good, as was Ron Greidanus on piano and they complemented each other very well. I've never seen anything like it live -- in such a small venue while also a venue of high acoustical quality. I've heard plenty on well-recorded baroque and classical CDs and this recital was evidence that recordings will never come close to the live experience for this type of music. I don't really feel qualified to comment further on the specifics, but I'll just leave it by saying that I've never been as engaged at a concert before, and I was not expecting to have a reaction like this.

I had only bought a ticket for one of the shows in the 2008/09 series, but after what I saw that night, I went and got tickets for three more of the shows*, held at various area churches over the coming months. I can't wait to see more from this great ensemble!

Technorati: ,

* wow, I am going to be busy. On top of this, I have tickets for flamenco shows in November and January!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Ray LaMontagne : October 7, 2008 : Danforth Music Hall, Toronto : concert review

Last night, I went to the Ray LaMontagne concert at Danforth Music Hall. After a bit of a preamble, I'll write a bit about the concert!

When getting lost is a good thing
With the show at 8pm, I thought I could take the bus from Georgetown to arrive at Toronto Union at 7:35pm and take the subway over to Broadview, which is right by the music hall. I'd never taken the bus from the GO station to Toronto before (although I've taken the return trip). I thought it would be pretty straightforward, so I memorized a few times and that I had to change buses at Brampton station, and left it at that. So, I got on the bus that looked it was going in the right direction to Brampton's bus terminal and got off to go and have a look for the one that was meant to go to Union. Didn't see it, so I asked inside the station and he said that it should be right around the corner. Going back around the corner, I saw the bus I'd just got off of and a sign on the platform saying that the buses that stop there go to York Mills and to Union. So, I got back on the same bus. A long uninterrupted trip later, I ended up at the end of the route -- at York Mills, rather than Union! I think the bus to Union must have been arriving right behind the one I got on, and I'd got on the wrong one. Anyway, panic was short because I saw the subway sign at York Mills. I ended up taking the subway south on the Yonge line and got to the music hall 20 minutes before I would have if I'd taken the GO to Union and the subway back up!

Aggression at the TTC
I don't normally take the subway, but it's cheaper to buy tokens than cash and they're handy to have around for those occasional quick trips around the city once in awhile, so I bought tokens. After exchanging money and getting three different types of change and my tokens back, I absent-mindedly started to wander through the gate toward the subway when the guy behind the glass started screaming at me because I was clearly about to not put one of my new tokens in the fare box. I suppose he thought I was trying to scam a free ride. The outburst from the guy behind the glass was the kind of outburst you normally get from homeless people on the street, accusing me of all kinds of unrelated things! I'd heard about the bad manners of these incredibly well-paid TTC attendants ($20+ per hour to dispense tokens and change) before, but this was beyond my expectations!

Yes, yes... but what about the concert?
I am just getting to that.

Opening act: Leona Naess
I hadn't heard of Leona Naess before, but apparently she is already reasonably well-known. Although she was well received by much of the audience, a significant piece of the audience-to-be was also passively quite rude, which I've explained in an "Etiquette" section near the end of my post.

She played a very downtempo set which occasionally sprung to life, and was cut through with some sharp acoustic guitar at times. I was reminded of a number of other artists at various points throughout the songs -- sometimes within a single song. Jewel's early folk style came to mind occasionally, as did Natalie Merchant (more frequently), Kate Walsh, and Camera Obscura. I was even reminded of what I like to call the "power bleat" used by Coldplay's Chris Martin at times.

Another one of the impressive things about the opening set was the amount of mileage that the drummer got from his very minimal set of drums. In fact, the entire band managed to squeeze out a rich sound, despite the relatively meagre resources.

When I saw Sarah Slean at the very same hall a few months ago, I came away liking the opening act (Royal Wood) more than the main event herself, but it wasn't the case this time (and the audience reaction, though positive for both, clearly agreed). But, I found enough to like that I may go looking for a CD.

The main event
Ray LaMontagne came on stage and began the show quite quickly, entering straight into his first song -- a new one from his forthcoming album, "Gossip In The Grain". What an amazing sound this new song had! It was incredibly tight, instantly hit you with some of the more powerful aspects of his rather unique voice, and was just an incredible way to open the show.

The concert was mostly made up of new material, which I was happy about, but he did play some of the best of his older repertoire -- "Trouble", "Three More Days", "Empty", among many others. I'm very enthusiastic about the new material and am anxiously awaiting the release of the album next week. I think he must have great creative control with his material, because every time he grows, it's genuine growth that takes everything that was good about his prior work and pushes it forward with improvements from the same category that made you appreciate his older work to begin with.

Ray stood off to the side of the stage, not really facing the audience. Much of the time, he was in silhouette or low-light from the side. Actually, I rather liked this configuration because you were able to see a lot more movement than you would have seen head-on (and he did move a lot within a confined space, and more vertically than horizontally -- in fact, his movement contributed a lot to the sound because of the effect it had on the vocal styling and dynamics). The entire band formed a semi-circle, with him at one end. An interesting effect here is that the music was the main event and not the performer. It was a comfortable type of modesty -- the type that allows you to come to your own conclusion about the material without being influenced by the theatrics of the performer.

The contrast between his shy and quiet demeanour and the incredible passion and feeling in the way he performs is quite striking. It's hard to reconcile the two images, but you don't need to. Just leave it alone. The fact that he reserved outside of the music allows the music to come straight to the front and be received on its own terms. Isn't that what it's all about? In the end, you're left thoroughly impressed by the talent without being led in any way by anything other than the music itself.

After a couple of encores that he really made people wait for (this isn't a complaint!), he concluded the show with a very good version of "Jolene", which was shouted as a request a number of times from the audience throughout the show, and he seemed to leave the stage unable to express how he felt about the response he received. Actually, the response he received was the most genuinely positive I have ever seen at a live concert. Everyone was on their feet to applaud him at the end, and it wasn't one of those standing ovations where the crowd pops up like a faulty chain of dominoes falls down -- stilted and interrupted with stragglers in the chain that are begrudgingly stand up because they don't want to feel anti-social. Everyone meant it this time.

It was an excellent show that everyone involved put a lot of heart and soul into.

Concert etiquette
A few comments on etiquette in general at the show, though... mostly to do with pre-show etiquette during the opening act. Ray received the utmost respect when he was on-stage.

What is going on with concert-goers these days? The pre-show etiquette at this show was terrible! First of all, it was a sold-out show that ultimately filled all of its seats but only half (if that) of the seats were occupied when the opening act came on stage. About 75% of the remaining chairs were filled in during the opening act. In the interim, there was constant loud chattering coming from the foyer during most of the opening act -- plenty of people had arrived on-time but decided to have a drink and a chat outside of the hall while they waited for the opening act to get it out of the way! Some of them did come and have a gander, causing all kinds of disruption in seating as they tried to find their way in the dark. This is manageable when one or two stragglers come in, but not when half of the audience hasn't yet made it! In my aisle seat, I had three different people interrupt me to come up and ask me what row I was in during the opening act so that they could, in the dark, better find where they were meant to be seated.

When the opening act was over and the lights came on while they reconfigured the stage for Ray, all kinds of people found out they were actually in the wrong seat. Lots of them were heard blaming the seating configuration, despite the fact that nobody who came in on time had problems finding their seat.

I've seen this type of behaviour before, but always in stadiums, usually with teenagers, and never in a medium-sized concert hall filled mostly with grown adults. Actually, what it reminded me of precisely was the laissez-faire attitude that people have toward trailers at the movie theatre, wandering in and out during the trailers as they realize they didn't buy enough popcorn, playing video games outside for an extra few minutes because the movie didn't start yet, anyway; or just milling about as if they're not sure they want to sit down yet. A pre-recorded movie is one thing, but when a live performer with a receptive audience is on stage, it's something else to cause such an interruption.

Another thing: cameras. I was searched coming into the building because I had a small backpack with me, and I was asked if I had a camera, which I didn't. During the concert, all kinds of cameras were going off. A lot of times you got a flash right in your face because people were taking pictures of themselves with the flash pointed backwards toward themselves. Rather than searching people for cameras and confiscating them, and especially now that cell phones have cameras (I did have a cell phone with a camera on me, but the bag-searcher was looking for something bulky), how about simply asking people not to use cameras? This worked at Carnivale Lune Bleue, although I suppose people realized that a flash going off during a sword swallowing might be gravely distracting. But it worked in the main bigtop event, too. I didn't see a single camera flash go off, and no bags were searched.

Overall, though, this was one of the best concerts I've ever been to!

Here's a clip (not of this show):

Technorati: , ,

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Beetroot talk (me about them, not me to them or vice versa)

You can't live on beetroot. I'm sure many vegetarians have died trying, though you'd probably get sick of life and kill yourself before malnutrition did it for you, but beetroot do have a necessary place in life.

One thing that beetroot needs to be partnered with in marriage in order to be somewhat pleasant is something that holds its shape, and is something that's acidic or something sweet (preferably both). An apple fits this description but isn't quite acidic enough. So, I've found that judicious use of vinegar makes up for this. And, to this, adding olive oil, goat's cheese (to be vegetarian is one thing, but I don't tolerate vegans), salt, and pepper can hold hands with the beetroot quite handsomely.

The last time I tried something with beetroot this past weekend, I inadvertently smoked my beetroot when the amount of water I used to steam the rather large roots was judged insufficient by the smoke coming from the residue burning on the bottom of the pan when the pan ran dry right near the end of the steaming time. The smoke added a new and positive dimension of flavour (the beetroot didn't burn, they were simply submersed in mild smoke for about a minute), but I also added some Jerusalem artichokes since they are the only vegetable that tastes anywhere near as earthy as beetroot while complementing the taste and having a slightly different texture.

Cleaning a burned stainless steel pan is quite easy: boil vinegar in it for a few minutes and the crust pretty much flakes or falls off. The underside of the base of the pan didn't clean so well, but these aren't decorations -- they're for cooking!

The beetroot salad turned out well: beetroot, Jerusalem artichokes, olive oil, goat's cheese, a Gala apple, salt, pepper, fennel, and malt vinegar. I'm not going to type out a recipe because this is the kind of thing you do by ear and tongue (mostly the latter). I added different ingredients and varied and adjusted until it tasted right. It gave me three lunches this week and, each time, I seasoned it with a few splashes of malt vinegar to put some sharp edges on it.

What does it taste like? It tastes like a used bookshop. If you could eat a used bookshop, this is what it would taste like. And when you bite a piece of the apple, it's like wandering into the corner of the shop where sunlight still shines through the cloudy, weathered window.

Technorati: ,

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Spicy curried potatoes (similar to chips or fries but not deep-fried)

Well, here's a recipe I came up with for some spicy potatoes that turned out very well. They are similar to chips or fries but they're not deep-fried. It makes a great snack.

Below is the list of what you need. I normally use whatever potatoes I just have lying around, but I usually mix types to some degree: white, yellow-flesh, red, etc. Despite the fact that Russet potatoes are normally used for fries, they are not the best ones for this. If you use some good new potatoes, they'll come with a nice soft, creamy texture if you following the cooking times and sizing of the slices:
  • 8 small (not mini -- about 2-3" diameter) new potatoes: it's nice to mix a bunch of potato varieties together. I normally mix white, yellow-flesh, and red potatoes. I have used 4 small and 1 medium Russet before, but I prefer new potatoes for this.
  • 4 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tsp. mild curry powder: use a curry powder that carries very little heat. If you only have a hot curry powder, don't add the dried chili below
  • 3/4 tsp. crushed dried red chili
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • salt
  • pepper
For best results, you need to get 3 pans ready: one large saucepan to parboil the potatoes; one oven-suitable frying pan that can go right in the oven -- ideally cast iron; and one frying pan for the stove.

First of all, boil enough water (and add about 2 tsp. of salt to the water) for the potatoes and set the oven to preheat to 425F with the cast iron frying pan inside (i.e. preheat the frying pan with the oven). The frying pan should be on a rack in the top part of the oven.

While the water is boiling, wash and cut up the potatoes (don't remove the skins -- they are very nutritious!). Cut the potatoes into pieces that are between 1/2 and 3/4" thick at their thickest part.

Once the water is boiling, get the stove-top frying pan preheating by turning on the element. Put the potato pieces in the water and boil them for 5 minutes.

Peel the garlic cloves and cut them in half. After the potatoes have been boiling for about 3 minutes, put the olive oil in the stovetop frying pan and add the garlic cloves. Toss them and let them sizzle for about 1 minute, and then sprinkle the crushed chili and then the curry powder into the oil abot 30 seconds apart. Make sure the curry powder is dissolved into the oil.

The potatoes should now have been boiling for 5 minutes. Take them off the heat and drain them, and then add them to the stovetop frying pan. Toss them well to coat the potatoes with the oil (the curry powder should have a yellow tint from the turmeric in it, so you should be able to see when the potatoes are coated well).

Sprinkle about 1 tsp. of salt over the potatoes and about 1 tsp. ground pepper. Toss again.

Now dump the contents of the stovetop frying pan into the cast iron frying pan that has been pre-heating in the oven and return it to the oven. Cook in the oven for about 10 minutes and then turn the potatoes with a spatula (or tossing, if you've mastered the art of tossing in a heavy cast iron pan!). Return to the oven and cook for another 8-10 minutes (test for doneness around 8 minutes).

Now, remove the frying pan from the oven and transfer the potatoes to a bowl. Sprinkle with more salt, and add a few splashes of malt vinegar to add some zest!

That's all, and these are better than fries/chips, in my opinion! (and probably healthier)

Technorati: , , , , ,

Monday, September 29, 2008

Seldom-told stories: Ron Rash's "Eureka Mill"

I took Ron Rash's "Eureka Mill" on the train with me this morning and almost finished it in the one-way trip. It's a book of poems describing the lives, stories, and circumstances of cotton mill workers as such mills began to move into farming communities and offer an attractive alternative to the backbreaking work of tobacco farming (even more backbreaking since the abolishment of slavery, I imagine).

I came away with a rather vivid picture in my mind of the types of issues that people had to deal with in living during such changing social circumstances: the loss of freedom of working your own land vs. the financially unsustainable nature of that work at the time, and the promise of affluence and a better future for your family offered by the factory.

There's a strange contrast between people having lived severely independent lives of often-unpaid hardship on the farm, deciding to give that up and go to work in the mill, and then forming community with others who have done the same only because of the newfound shared hardship they experience as factory workers -- though, this time, it is rather well-paid and assumed to offer a better future for your family.

Assuming you can forgive a loss of independence and of soul, this, I suppose, is progress. Even if you don't agree, you understand the temptation.

To give such an understanding (though obviously far from comprehensive) in such a small amount of time, I think it must mean that Ron Rash has written a good and effective collection of poems.

Technorati: , ,

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ripley's Game

Out of the many, many DVDs I've bought, "Ripley's Game" is one of the relative few that I really should have bought. I watched it for about the 10th time this evening and it never gets old.

Strangely, this film was never released in theatres. For most films that suffer this fate, I can see a reason why. But with this one, I can't.

It is, at its heart, and as with the other Ripley stories, a study of a psychopath who has no conscience and who comprehends this "gift" and uses it to his full advantage. When people say things like, "well, he did x and he has to live with himself"... Ripley is a guy that could do x and live with himself and sleep quite soundly at night. These types of people exist and are probably at the receiving end of such platitudes more often than others.

In the earlier Ripley films, such as "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (with Matt Damon in the lead role, and probably the most well-known in the series), Ripley was learning to become comfortable with his gift and how to best make use of it. He was trying a lot of things on. But, in "Ripley's Game", we are seeing a fully-adjusted Ripley who uses his gift in a machine-like fashion. In my opinion, the latter is a better movie.

"Ripley's Game" is an understated, mild movie with a demeanour that matches the public persona of Ripley himself at this stage of his life. It has a complementary instrumental score that never overwhelms, as well as some beautiful music on the harpsichord that is woven into the story as his wife practices her craft on various versions of the instrument in preparation for a live concert.

The film is set in Italy and shows off much of the country's great street life, architecture, and countryside. It has drama, dark humour, romance, and intrigue, and none are overblown or overemphasized. It flows freely and everyone is consistent with their characters. What more can you ask for?

Well, you could ask for the brilliant actor John Malkovich to play the sly lead role, and you get that, too. He is perfect for this role, and I can't imagine anyone else having done so well. He makes Ripley his own. So, is one of my favourite films a straight-to-video release? Yes, it is!


Trip: St. Jacobs summer sausage

Summer sausage earned itself a bad reputation when I was growing up, but it was because of user error. For one reason or another, it ended up in a soup that had regular amounts of salt and pepper added to it. The resulting soup was incredibly salty and strong to the point that it almost made you feel sick. Summer sausage being a very strongly seasoned and flavoured sausage, the amounts of those things should have been adjusted downward to make it compatible with a soup.

So, in the interest of rehabilitation, on the trip I just finished, I picked up some Mennonite summer sausage from the St Jacobs market on the way home.

The best way to describe this sausage is that it's like a more complex version of those meat sticks you can buy as snacks in the supermarket -- the "Hot Rod" and that kind of thing. It's a strong, peppery, tough and chewy sausage that is cured and doesn't need to be refrigerated. As you can see, to the left, I'm just hanging mine up in the kitchen for now.

The sausage pictured is about 14" long and 3" thick and cost about $18. It is cured with maple smoke and has a very strong (but very nice) smell. When I got home from my trip, I wasn't sure if the smell in my house was coming from me or the sausage, having just sat for large parts of 3 days next to a campfire. It was a bit of both.

In my mind, the summer sausage has been vindicated. It is a delicious piece of foodcraft cured in a somewhat traditional way that, from my perspective, is best eaten as-is and may never see a recipe!

Bach Chorale in Georgetown, Ontario

This morning, I was browsing through the recent autumn edition of Sideroads of Halton Hills and noticed that a chamber choir called the Georgetown Bach Chorale was putting on a series of concerts at various locations in the region starting in October.

By early afternoon, I'd gone and bought a ticket from Foodstuffs in Georgetown (Freckled Lion is the other outlet, but I needed to buy coffee and tea and rarely need to buy childrens' books).

For $20, on October 24, there is an evening of violin and piano being put on by this outfit at the Knox Presbyterian Church. This church is a more traditional church (rather than the soulless "new parent" collapsible-tables-and-chairs-in-a-square-room-with-bad-acoustics style of church) and should provide a great environment for this concert.

But note that, although Bach is mentioned in the name of the choir, it doesn't look like this is a concert of Bach's music... slightly disappointing, but there's more to life than Bach, when you really think about it.

Technorati: ,

Friday, September 19, 2008

"Carrot farmer" may not be in my future

Although I had some success with tomatoes and beans this year (it is my second year growing both), my first year of growing carrots has not been successful.

Below, I present to you the entire carrot crop for 2008.

Still, I will try again next year... with not only orange, but yellow, purple, and maybe black carrots!

Technorati: ,

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bean and tomato harvest, September 2008.

I neglected my bean and tomato picking for more than a week, and what did I find? Well, a lot of beans and tomatoes ready to be picked! Still quite a few to go that have not matured yet. Hopefully they'll make it before the weather really cools down. It has been cooler over the past week or so, but nothing near to frost yet.

Technorati: , ,

Friday, September 12, 2008

My recent camping trip (epic version)

Well, finally, I am getting around to writing about the trip part of that Carnivale Lune Bleue visit I made back in August.

[ note: I am going to post random pictures amongst the text that don't really have any relevance to the position they're posted in. The pictures are of, in order
  • MSR Hubba tent in the front pocket of my pack
  • Hubba tent set up and in place
  • Rideau Canal coast from the campsite (aka the Mosquito Coast)
  • inside the very cozy (and other real estate terms for "small") tent
  • Omnifuel liquid fuel stove doing its job
  • Candle lantern
  • Me, home again ]
My original plan for this trip was over-ambitious: to take the train to Ottawa, take public transit as far south as it would go, and then walk to Rideau River park -- probably a 20+km walk, as well as carrying my stuff on rush hour transit, which would also have been a bad idea. I'd then have to walk to the carnival from the park, and back -- about 13km each way. In my review, I mentioned that I had to get back to the park by 10pm before it closed. Since it would have taken about 2 hours to walk back from the park, I would hardly have been able to see anything at all.

In retrospect, it was a good idea that I decided to rent a car in Ottawa instead. But the faulty premise above made me a bit shortsighted in the plan, because I ended up taking the train to Ottawa and renting a car from there. It would have been more efficient to get off the train earlier along the line at Smiths Falls and rent a car from there, saving both travel time and money. I would have avoided rush hour on Ottawa's highways and cut my driving by about 15km, in addition to possibly paying less for my train ticket. Adapting the original plan, rather than replanning, meant that I didn't consider those options.

The plan I actually used was to walk to the Georgetown GO station with my stuff, get on the VIA train to Toronto, transfer to the VIA train to Ottawa, and then walk about 3km with my stuff to a car rental place I'd found in Ottawa. Then I planned to buy groceries and drive down to the park in the rental car. This worked as planned with no problems.

So, in whatever plan I used from above, I still had to carry everything in one bag on my back in order to make it portable for the train and carry it on the walking segments. I used an MEC Ibex 80, and it was very well-suited to the job. Within that bag, I was able to pack:

  • MSR Hubba tent
  • Primus Omnifuel stove
  • MEC Drake sleeping bag
  • MEC Kelvin sleeping pad
  • 0.5L liquid fuel bottle, filled with white gas
  • lightweight frying pan with detachable handle (doubles as plate/bowl)
  • lightweight Nalgene cup (doubles as measuring cup)
  • UCO candle lantern
  • LED flashlight
  • Leatherman Wave II multi-tool (Swiss army knife type of device with can opener, saws, etc).
  • camping pillowcase (soft bag for stuffing with clothes to use as a pillow)
  • toiletry bag
  • lighter
  • MSR 8L dromedary bag (water storage)
  • light waterproof/breathable jacket
  • 1L Thermos (empty)
  • coffee percolator (doubles as tea kettle)
  • coffee, tea, sugar, powdered milk
  • light towel
  • clothes, including hippie cardigan
  • lightweight Nalgene spoon, fork, knife
  • MEC Dragonfly miniature backpack (for carnival trip), strapped to outside of the Ibex
  • camping soap (biodegradeable soap that works well in hot, cold, and salt water)
I took the 1L Thermos because I had no way of keeping things cold on the trip, and I wanted to keep some milk. I bought milk in Ottawa and kept it in the Thermos. This worked well, because the remains were still cold when I opened it after getting back from the trip. Obviously a luxury, though, and not necessary, because powdered milk is always an option.

My gear includes almost no food because I had planned to buy that in Ottawa. If absolutely necessary, food could have been added to the pack and milk could have been stored in the Thermos right from home, but I would have had to do a lot more planning because you can only really take non-perishable or dried foods. I had done a brief search for high-calorie, non-perishable foods and would likely had taken instant noodles, fortified oatmeal, rice, pasta, dried vegetables, and things like that. As little water as possible makes them more compact and lighter, but you could also taken things like Chunky Soup and canned fish, which don't even need a can opener because they have pull tabs. Obviously, it would be possible to take flour and yeast and make bread by fire, but that's an adventure I didn't have this time.

Another thing: the packed Ibex bag exceeded VIA's stated specifications for carry-on luggage. Not by weight, and not by all that much in size, but it was measurably in excess. Still, numerous people had luggage the same size or larger than mine in the carry-on area, and it fit without any problems at all on their luggage storage shelves. I had to load and unload 4 times in total, and had no problems.... which is good, because if there's one thing I get anxious about, it's holding other people up in queues!

The trip was surprisingly smooth, and everything worked as planned. One thing to be said about VIA is how big and comfortable the seats are, and how big of a leg room area there is. Since I'm used to taking the GO Train, it was also nice to notice that there was a lot more shock absorption on these trains, and the train just kind of floated along. On the GO Train, you feel every rail defect in your skeleton.

On the way to Ottawa, I sat next to a woman (good sign -- my head won't be cut off) who became progressively impatient early on when the coffee cart wouldn't arrive. The frustration seemed almost childlike to me -- large, loud puffs of despair that I think she hoped would be overheard. After that, though, it was pretty uneventful.

One of my main concerns was that the train would be late getting into Ottawa (scheduled to arrive around 4:45pm), and I wouldn't be able to get to the car rental place in time, before it closed (6pm). But, the train was actually early! Also, getting off the train was quick and I was probably on the street within about 5-10 minutes of the train arriving.

One thing I should say about the Ibex pack is that it's very well-built. All of the seams and zips are strong, and there's water resistance in most places. The pack is very flexible, with lots of straps and adjustments. There's an internal frame inside the pack that pushes all of the weight into just the right places so that it almost forces your back straight while you walk. Despite being relatively out of shape for a trip like this, I had no muscle pains afterwards. Any feelings of exhaustion I had were due to the fact that I tried to conclude the day with a 3km walk carrying 35 lbs. on my back, having only eaten a light breakfast, a few cups of tea, a can of apple juice, and a 6-inch sub for lunch that day. I was able to do that 3km walk in about 30 mins, which is pretty much top speed: when I walk without a pack, I normally cover the same amount of ground in the same amount of time. The waist belt is very comfortable and the straps are so well padded that they don't dig in.

It wasn't the best day to be carrying 35 lbs. of camping gear around with me -- the route that I'd chosen was mostly concrete and asphalt, and it was at the end of quite a warm, humid day, plus the above-mentioned food/energy deficits.

One thing that Google Maps didn't tell me when it picked a walking route to the car rental place was that it was sending me on a walking tour of one of the seediest ghettos I've ever seen. It was right out of a South Central LA movie -- weedy lawns, mopes wandering around with gang-like clothing and nothing obvious to do, ambiguously prostitutional women passing you on the sidewalk, and a general sense that you shouldn't be there unless you knew why. Still, I got out alive, with all my stuff still on my back.

Also, lots of people had their patio sets out on the front lawn. Not sure if that's an Ottawa thing, or maybe a French-Canadian thing. I'm not really up on these matters.

They wanted a local phone number for me at the car rental place. So, I spent a few minutes trying to look like I knew how to find my own phone number on my own phone and then conceded that I didn't. A helpful co-customer let me call his phone so that I could get my own phone number from his caller ID display. Other than that, they handed over their $20,000 vehicle within about 5 minutes of my arrival. Pretty good for someone they've never met before. The car rental place was conveniently right across from a supermarket, so I didn't have to stop anywhere on the way to the park. The car was a 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt with only about 700km on it. As with most North American cars, I had a small surprise when a piece fell off -- in this case, the window handle on the passenger side, but it was easily reattached.

On the way to the park, one thing I noticed about Ottawa's highways is how well-maintained they are. I suppose politicians have to drive on them. The traffic was also quite courteous, which is an interesting change from what you see around Toronto. In fact, the only aggressive driving I encountered on the whole trip was on the way back to Ottawa after the trip was over -- on the Friday before a long weekend, on the road that Torontonians take to get to Ottawa.

Another interesting thing about Ottawa was that they have a bus highway -- a road that only buses travel on. During rush hour, buses were flying by every minute or so.

The trip to the park was uneventful, really. No problems at all. There's not much to say about the stay at the park in general. It was a nice site right on the Rideau Canal. Nice view, enjoyed by all, including the mosquitoes. I feel a bit sorry for the mosquitoes because they have no way of knowing that the Canadian blood bank won't take my blood because I was born in England and am therefore suspected of carrying mad cow disease.

I used pretty much everything I packed on the trip, and didn't really notice that I'd forgotten anything. Score 1 for the plan.

I've already covered the story about the carnival visit, so I won't repeat any of that.

One thing I should mention, though, is that although I normally just go dirty on small camping trips, I did take a shower for the carnival and also because I'd done a lot of walking and it'd make the trip back a bit more comfortable for myself and those around me. The showers at the park presented a special challenge because they had no shelves, no benches, a wet floor, and only three small hooks on the back of the door. Try imagining how you would manage old clothes, new clothes, and even just drying your feet and getting socks and shoes on in that kind of situation! It required some creativity. Thankfully, at least, my wet pack came with a large hook inside so that I could hang it from the shower curtain rail -- someone has had this problem before!

To be honest, though, I'm amazed that they even provide showers at parks.

On the day to leave, it was raining when I woke up. This was a bit of a problem because, unlike with car camping where, when it rains, you can just throw everything in the trunk and dry it out when you get home, I had to pack all of this stuff tightly back into my pack. I considered throwing it all in the back and driving to the picnic shelter in the park to do that, but eventually the rain broke for a bit and I got complacent and had breakfast. When I sensed rain about to resume, I started to disassemble the tent and, near the end, the rain started getting heavier. So, I threw the footprint and inner body and all of the stuff I had out on the picnic table for breakfast into the trunk of the car. I left the outer fly of the tent on the table because it was already soaked, and is waterproof so dries quickly, anyway. Later, I just shook off most of the water, folded it, and packed it in the shelter of the trunk. The rest of the stuff, I tried to start packing everything up from inside the car by opening the rear seat split and working in the trunk from the backseat. Kind of challenging and it's a time when you wish you could temporarily jump into a 5'3" person's body (don't ask why I picked that number!) to save feeling like a giraffe must feel when it tries to squeeze itself into a helicopter.

The weather forecast for Wednesday to Friday for the park when I checked on Wednesday morning, by the way, was for cool, dry weather and sun. By Wednesday, this had changed to warm and humid and rain on Friday.

I had to vacate the site before 2pm on the last day, so I left around 1pm and had to get gas for the car in order to make it back to Ottawa. I thought I might try and combine that need with a walk around a local town. The town I chose to victimize was called Kemptville, and it was a disappointment. It was a humid, uncomfortable day and, when I got there, I was pretty clueless about what to do. I wandered into a civic building that had "walking tours of Kemptville" maps in an information area, so I went and did the self-guided tour. It was disappointing and not really worth touring. The buildings might have been historical, but they now just housed shops and looked like they'd been "fixed up" back in the 1970s with the popular fascias of that time. Sort of like how someone walks you down to the basement of their historic house and you go down to find the walls adorned with that 70's faux wood panelling on the walls. Exuberance about possibly seeing something old is displaced quite quickly.

So, Kemptville, really, is a truck stop whose gas stations can't accommodate trucks.

After delaying my exit from Kemptville so that I wouldn't be at a loose end waiting for the train for hours once I got back to Ottawa, I ended up leaving early anyway. The rest of the trip home was like the trip there in reverse, really. Having tamed the ghetto, I went back through it on the way back. It was a Friday and the start of a long weekend, though, so quite busy. In retrospect, the traffic would have been worse if I'd not left Kemptville when I did.

On the train, the guy sitting next to me on the way back to Toronto was a "bark orders" kind of guy with a Mafioso tone who liked chips and periodically stood up to brush all the crumbs and fragments that'd fallen into his lap onto the floor in the aisle with one big sweep like a gorilla grabbing for a bunch of bananas. The view on the Toronto-to-Ottawa trip is not as interesting as some of the other routes. It goes through a lot of unforested wild areas, and through marshy/swampy area. But, it's still nice to look at, particularly compared to the concrete and asphalt alternative.

Going from Toronto back to Georgetown, I was sardined in with a bunch of London-bound students, presumably going home for the weekend from their new horizons of Toronto. The atmosphere was completely different on that short trip for some reason. It was tangible: a kind of strongly put-forth "I don't care" energy, mixed with the smell of cheap cologne (in amongst the mix, I smelled Aqua Velva, that cologne that smells like Off! mosquito repellant, and that other one that smells like the fart spray I bought in Quebec on my grade 8 French trip to Quebec). The young man next to me was playing video games non-stop and didn't even interact with the ticket collector, just slapping his ticket onto the armrest without diverting his gaze from the game when she came around. Being a right proper and rather elegant French lady, she didn't seem impressed.

One guy got on the train and tried to hammer his suitcase into the storage shelf, jumping and beating it with his fists with audible aggression and eventually almost headbutting it into a position that was satisfactory to him, but which left it half-hanging overhead into the aisle. The stewardess eventually had to ask someone to help her get it down and moved to a safe place. The strange thing about that, though, was that the violent owner was a full-grown man and not obviously a student -- at least 40 years old. He boarded with a student and seemed to be either a parent of a student, or someone trying to blend in with people that were considerably younger than him. Very much a type-A personality in the worst possible sense, he informed the whole train that he hoped we would be better passengers to be with than the ones on the last train he was on -- apparently including someone who "crapped their pants". Most likely, he was a dentist: he had the swagger of a doctor but was without breadth or acuity.

At the time, I'd thought, "this is just what I expect from Western students". When I was in high school, you see, the drunken, loud and promiscuous were the ones with Western at the top of their lists, presumably on their way to a remarkable career in business. But then I realized that they were probably going back home to London and not to London for school, and that the main troublemaker was not clearly a student. So, I was wrong... not about Western students in general (pre-emptive disclaimer: although this does not apply to Sarah, of course!), but that the main troublemaker was likely not really a student and, if he was, he probably wasn't a Western student.

And, that was my trip.

I've one more camping trip to go this year, but it will be with the car, and I'm hoping for cold weather. Not too cold, though: winter camping is on my to-do list, but not this year -- I might need one or two pieces of additional gear for that type of thing. Sleeping bags need to be loftier (mine is only good down to 0 degrees C), and tents need to be sturdier in wind and be able to bear snow loads.

I've compiled a short list of things that I found worked well on this relatively minimal trip:
  • vacuum bottle: as mentioned, a stainless steel vacuum bottle (i.e. Thermos) is very useful for keeping liquids cold. For milk, it was good. You could also use a food jar to carry foods that you want to keep cold... well-packed eggs, even...maybe? If you're not going to fill these until later, you can pre-fill them with water and ice cubes to pre-cool the inside. Vacuum bottles can also be useful for conserving fuel, if you want to pre-cook a multiple quantity and save some for later.
  • bread as a dishcloth: if you are taking/making bread, eat foods whose liquid can be soaked up with bread and eaten. It makes cleaning the dishes a lot easier and you use far less soap.
  • candle lantern: this seems to me to be the most compact type of lantern without ruining the mood. It is a wax candle inside a collapsible enclosure. It's springloaded so that the candle rises inside the lantern as it melts. LED lanterns may be a bit smaller, but the light they give off is horrible and don't belong on a camping trip!
  • liquid fuel stoves: liquid fuel stoves are a bit more work, but I don't like depending on heavy, large, compressed gas cylinders. Over 3 days, I used less than half a 0.5L bottle of fuel. When you are finished with them, the stoves take some time to turn off because the remaining fuel in the line has to be released and be burned before you can close the valve. With that in mind, it's useful to have a plan for that residual minute-long heat... nmaybe get the dishwashing water warm? Or remember to turn it off about a minute before you expect cooking to be done.
  • MEC Hubba: if you're going to use this for 2 people, make sure person #2 is the significant other. It's a very close tent, but ideal for this trip because it fits perfectly in the front pocket of the Ibex pack and doesn't take up any internal room. I originally considered an MEC Tarn 3 for this trip, and it wouldn't have worked: it was too big and twice the weight of the Hubba. The Tarn 3, however, seems far more durable and is my choice for car camping.
  • use of pack space: this is probably obvious, but all kinds of hard, hollow things can be filled with other things. The biggest offender on this trip was the coffee percolator, which is a roughly 1L, wide kettle-type steel pot. Fill it with bags of sugar, powdered milk, tea, etc.
  • cooking gear: one frying pan can do it all. Plan to make meals that are done in one pot, and share if you're with someone else
  • camping soap: worth it. It is suitable for all kinds of uses, including dishes, body and hand washing, laundry, and even shampoo. It's also biodegradeable and can be used in cold water (verified). Saves having to take all kinds of different soaps.
  • MEC Dragonfly: the Dragonfly is a perfect companion for the Ibex. Not only is it exactly the same colour, but it's also of the same quality. It's almost as if they were designed by the same people. I strapped this backpack hozizontally onto the Ibex using the straps that might normally carry a sleeping bag, which gave me a small backpack for side trips and also one that I could quickly detach to carry with me to my seat on the train.
  • coffee: if you're going to get groceries on the way, and since percolating is the easiest and cleanest way to make coffee while camping (other than instant), it's not a bad idea to grind just what coffee you need for the trip to percolator grind (a bit more coarse than drip grind) at the supermarket and take that with you. If you use drip grind, you'll get coffee grounds in your cup.

The End.

Technorati: , ,

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sudbury vs. Appalachia: Whitlock's "A Week Of This" vs. Rash's "One Foot In Eden"

I've read a couple of books lately that deserve mention because they're similar in ways other than plot. It's not much of a unique similarity -- many books are the same in this way -- but they're just unique in that I've read them both :) They're both fiction, which I don't read all that often, and they're both just as much about describing a way of life as they are about moving the plot forward. They're also the first published books of two authors.

The first book is called "A Week Of This", by Nathan Whitlock. It's been a while in book years since I read this one -- maybe a few months -- so it's not as clear and present in my mind as it could be, but this book was essentially just about small-town life in a particular corner of Canada. That was the plot. I can't remember where the story was situated and whether it was a fictional or non-fictional town, but for some reason I kept thinking of Sudbury when I read it. It was a rather depressing, even-paced book about dysfunctional but necessary family and friend relationships in a small Canadian town. Everyone was white, everyone was just scraping by financially, everyone had uninspiring parents, nobody had a grand plan for life, and there seemed to be no life drawn from any of the surroundings. That's why it reminds me of Sudbury: if I have one distant memory of Sudbury, it is that it was a depressing place with bad roads, no appealing decor, and lots of opportunities to drink alcohol. It wasn't well taken care of and didn't seem to be built by people that cared. It's similar in a way to what I imagine communist Russia to have looked like.

"A Week Of This" is obviously effective, because I think it set out to conjure precisely these images. It wasn't really about anything, other than to explain an environment like the above -- hinting at why it was the way it was without offering a verdict. It suggested that the characters happened into their circumstances through no fault of their own, but I'm not so sure. The conclusion was a consolation prize; none of the characters were sympathetic except, I suppose, from the perspective that they hadn't pulled the plug on their existence and had some willingness to make it work.

But then we come to Ron Rash's "One Foot In Eden", set in the mountainous Appalachian region of the United States and revolving mostly around a handful of rural people that live there and their community. And it hints at what a difference a culture, meaning, and the lack of excuse can do for a people. Though these people had far less money, had to work much longer hours, and had to endure far more physical labour in order to survive, and had far less opportunity than anyone in "Week", there's a richness to life that is completely missing from the Canadian story. There was a sense of ability to achieve -- that nobody would do things for them if they didn't do for themselves -- that was prominent in Rash's story but almost entirely absent from Whitlock's, except for in the most trivial sense of going out to get groceries.

"Eden" starts off being told from the perspective of a small-town sheriff investigating a report of a missing person. The possibilities are so limited and the community so intertwined that he already knows what has happened before he even begins his investigation, but can't find the proof to connect the dots in any meaningful way that would stand up to legal inspection. This is not a case of the good old boys; the sheriff was not turning a blind eye. Not knowing the stories of anyone involved, we are left disappointed that the sheriff can't get his man.

But then the story is retold from the perspective of the accused's young wife, who has only a very brief interaction with the sheriff and who we mostly know through hearsay up until this point. More of the puzzle pieces are filled in by her story, and things are not so simple. This is followed by the story of the accused, which makes the picture more granular still. This is, admittedly, as far as I've got in the book so far, but I already know enough to give it such a good review. I await the ending, but it doesn't matter with respect to the quality of the artistry.

Though we already know the conclusion, each story holds great interest and continuously adds colour to what we've already been told. There is very little wasted space here, and we recognize the points where each of the perspectives cross and where one person assumed motives of the other that were sometimes true but oftentimes misunderstood.

What makes it even more interesting is that each story is told with first-person prose. In doing that, we get to see some of the rich turns of phrase that we so often associate with people from this southern region:

"Her saying that gave me pause, because there's currents that run deep in a woman, too deep for a man to touch their bottom. I'd crawled into Amy's lap. I'd hear her in the kitchen singing the last few months when I came up from my field. Amy had always carried a pretty tune but there was a difference now, a kind of smile in her voice I'd never hear before."
"I stood tall and watching him come as another dynamite stick boomed downriver. He knew well as me that I'd spotted him. There was no use of counterfeiting I hadn't."
Though proudly making their own lives, the same people make mistakes -- sometimes severe -- but they accept them, and live with the consequences both within themselves and without. There are no excuses, just what is and what has to be done. There's a self-imposed justice and tension to the course of action that makes a legal system somewhat irrelevant. Don't harm, and you won't be harmed. Do for yourself and don't take what belongs to someone else. Help those in need, but it has to be offered and not taken with presumption. Judged by the legal system we know, the result in the story would not have been satisfactory. But, from my own point of view (and I suspect the view of many readers), it's a result that's more appropriate than anything that could have been handed down by our self-conscious system of justice that tries to exchange guilt for time and money. When nobody has a sense of entitlement and there are no rights other than those assigned by what you've earned, people impose their own justice on themselves or, failing that, on others. There are exceptions to the rule, but the exceptions should never be allowed to become the rule.

I have already read Ron Rash's secondmost recent book and I had an idea of what to expect because of his masterful portrayal of Appalachian life -- he is, after all, a professor of Appalachian culture -- in "The World Made Straight". But, considering that "Eden" was Ron Rash's first book, I'm not only very impressed but also look forward to everything in between and, of course, his latest book, "Serena".

I'm reminded by the contrast between these two books that I don't have a problem with people making mistakes -- even moral ones. What I have a problem with is when someone makes a mistake and then tries to make believe that it wasn't a mistake at all, or is indifferent to the mistake. The people in "One Foot in Eden" would be considered hillbillies by some -- perhaps with disdain -- but they are better people with a stronger culture and more meaningful history than what we see in Whitlock's book. And, it's true that there's a simplicity to the lives portrayed by Rash, which are uncomplicated by the illusion of impossible choices. But complexity doesn't automatically overrule simplicity. In fact, I think complexity comes about when simple, but viable, things are compromised. It's very important that stories like this are written and that the story of the people from this region is told with care, and I'm glad we have someone like Ron Rash who has set out to do it.

And, finally, I'd like to make a comment on the tone of the two books. "A Week Of This" almost seems like a book of class warfare and is very consistent with the political realities of Canada: the underlying but unspoken suggestion is that these people were born into a situation that they have no control over, and that it is the fact that they're working class that is responsible for whatever problems they may have. In "One Foot In Eden", on the other hand, there is virtually no insinuation that the amount of money you make has any bearing on the quality of your life in any way but a material one. They receive energy from the beautiful things around them, and there's a warmth and a strength to the characters that suggests they'll do fine no matter what and that they are fully committed to their life, no matter what comes their way, while those in "Week" hang by a thread and might only be truly saved by a well-placed lottery win.

Though it's probably entirely evident, I find much more companionship with "One Foot In Eden".

Technorati: , , ,

Monday, September 01, 2008

My Carnivale Lune Bleue review... finally!

To begin, I did take some photos of the event, which I've uploaded here. Many of them are not that great because I was trying to take a quick photo of something before the scene changed, or because it was dark and I had no way of steadying the camera for a long exposure.

I am surprised it took me so long to get around to writing my review of Carnivale Lune Bleue, but it's not because of a lack of enthusiasm for the event. The strongest feeling I have about it, after the fact, is that I wish I could have stayed longer. I should probably have written about the trip first, but I want to get my carnival review out there well before it finishes on September 6 in case it can be of interest to anyone who hasn't yet been.

Back when I planned the trip, I wrote a post about it. I originally got the idea to go and see this event when I heard Nikolai Diablo talking about Carnival Diablo on Richard Syrett's conspiracy theory and paranormal AM radio show back in July. It sounded interesting, and Nikolai made it sound as if CD was a travelling sideshow, which it apparently is. But when I searched for it, the only concrete way I could find to see the show was at this strange event called Carnivale Lune Bleue. In Ottawa. I pretty much ruled it out at that point, seeing as it was so far away and would need a multi-day trip, but I read a bit further anyway, and I'm glad I did.

Upon reading further into CLB, I found something that I was immediately interested in and would likely not otherwise have known about if not for the segment on Syrett's show. I have been enthusiastic about the HBO series Carnivale since I first saw it, as I wrote about earlier this year. I also have an intersecting interest in the Great Depression era (the late 1920s and 1930s), and the coinciding dust bowl that occurred in the plains states. Carnivale combines both of these -- it portrays a Depression-era carnival and does a fair amount of travelling through the dust bowl: the first episode lands right in the middle of it, in fact. Seeing as CLB was a faithful attempt to replicate a 1930s carnival, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to have a look.

Looking through all of the options, I eventually found out that there was a provincial park nearby -- Rideau River -- and so I planned a camping trip around the carnival. I loaded all of my lightest camping gear into an 80L backpack, took the VIA train to Ottawa, and rented a car in Ottawa to get to the park. I'll write more about the trip in a separate post.

I got to the park last Wednesday evening and my day to go to the carnival was the next day, on Thursday. Unfortunately, I didn't realize until I got to the park that they close their gates at 10pm, meaning that I had to be back at the park by then. Seeing as the park was about 15km away, I had to plan to leave the carnival at about 9:30pm. Thankfully my Cirque Maroc ticket -- the main event and the only one that had scheduled seating -- was booked for 7:30pm, and the CLB sideshows were staggered nicely such that you could go from one to the next with a small breather in between.

I had wanted to try the food at the carnival by having dinner there, because it looked like they had resurrected some 1930s-style food for the event. But, when I found out about the campsite's closing time, I decided to have dinner before I left and get to the carnival very near opening time so that I could figure out how to see all of the shows before I had to leave.

The carnival opened at 6pm and ran until midnight. It was held in a relatively isolated rural fairground, which I thought was a great idea -- it was DARK when you stepped away from the lights. I didn't realize how impressive the entrance was when I got there because it was still quite light outside, but I got the chance to be impressed on the way out. Although I think it would have been best if they'd waited until dusk to open the carnival for maximum effect, I'm glad that they didn't, in light of the campsite closing time.

I was a bit surprised at how bright everything was. For some reason, I had expected dull lighting and lots of shadows, which are the epitome of a carnival experience in my mind. But at least they didn't resort to floodlighting -- strings of lights were everywhere, which was very nice to see. If they had been coloured lights and not as bright, it would have been better. As it stood, the amount and quality of light was similar to what you'd get from floodlighting. I wonder if this had to do with modern litigation and safety regulations -- like the big, bright "EXIT" signs in the Cirque Maroc tent. I don't know, really.

When I first arrived and it was light outside and there weren't many people there, I must admit that I didn't really know what to do. I saw the ferris wheel, but I didn't feel like going round and round the thing as the only person on it. So, I went to have a look at the show times to figure out if I'd be able to see everything. Carnivale Diablo had a show at 6:30, so I wandered around for a bit and found the museum tent.

The museum tent was pretty interesting, actually. It had a bunch of odds and ends from the 1930s period, including a number of carnival relics like coin-operated games and a bed of nails. When I first went in, there were a bunch of people with brushes brushing away at some of the relics. I wondered if it was one of those reality displays where real people interact with the apparatus to show you how it would have worked back in the day (sort of like the moving wax museum exhibits that do the same thing over and over again, but with real people). I don't know why I wondered this, but I felt a bit silly when I realized that they were probably just cleaning the exhibits. This was not a long decision-making process, so don't go away thinking I'm incredibly slow or something.

When I got to the other end of the museum tent, there were a bunch of more weird things, like dinosaur skulls and life-sized turtle boy in a glass jar. I must admit, I like this kitschy kind of weird stuff when it's in its right place. There was also a souvenir booth on the way out. Yes, I bought the t-shirt. The $25 t-shirt. I got the one with the Carnivale Lune Bleue art on it, because I'm not sure I knew what any of the the other designs were all about.

By this time, it was around 6:25. I took a photo of the beautifully-painted sideshow posters outside the Carnival Diablo tent. I didn't see a queue outside of Carnival Diablo, but a couple of ladies in costume were standing with the strongman by the entrance. Wondering if there were people sitting inside already, I asked if we can go in yet. Apparently not, because it doesn't start until 6:30. I wandered around again for a bit and when I came back there was a line forming. One of the ladies came around to tell us that photography was allowed, but that we couldn't use a flash in case it distracted the performers. Seeing as there was going to be flame eating and sword swallowing going on, this made sense. Although, I wondered why they allow photography at all in CD when they didn't allow photography of any kind in Cirque Maroc.

The Carnival Diablo set was an impressive faded-tone set with all kinds of weird set pieces, including an electric chair and a big electrical panel, and a number of tables and cabinets. Not all of the set pieces were used in an act, so it was a nice touch to be wondering which pieces would and wouldn't be used in the show. CD was supposed to be a ten-in-one sideshow. I'm not denying that there were ten acts, but I can't remember what they all were. Nikolai hammered a nail up his nose, drank boiling water and lifted a basket of rocks from a shark hook he pierced through his tongue on stage. His strongman companion became the human dartboard, bent a metal bar with his hands and teeth, and took some punishment in the electric chair -- the latter was quite an elaborate act. The other performer -- I think it was the same one that did both -- swallowed some progressively larger swords and took a bow without removing a rather large one and did some impressive flame theatrics, swallowing fire and regurgitating it back. Not all of the posters outside of the tent were represented as acts in the show, but I didn't really expect there to be a half-boy in there. The Carnival Diablo show was very good, I thought, and Nikolai Diablo has done a great job at creating an atmosphere around the show -- he had a great stage presence and was suitably creepy, and the other two performers did a good job, too. Here's a video link of Nikolai doing a couple of his feats on Rogers TV.

Nikolai did some merchandising at the end of the show, which I thought ruined the atmosphere a bit. Selling souvenirs is a great idea because it's a very memorable show, but it would have been better if he'd had someone else do it.

Carnival Diablo was over by about 7:20 and the main event -- Cirque Maroc -- was set to start just across the way at 7:30, inside the huge big top tent.

Inside the big top, my seat was pretty good -- E1, about 5 rows back and near the main aisle. The two people and their kids next to me got sat right behind one of the big poles supporting the roof of the tent, so I felt a bit sorry for them. Their kids ran off to go and sit in some unused seats when the show began. Sitting people in assigned seating with a big pole right in their face...? There wasn't any indication of the pole on the seating maps, either.

But that's the only thing remotely negative that I have to say about Cirque Maroc, because it was a very, very impressive show. I didn't quite "get" some of the acts, but I can still appreciate it as art and most people seemed to enjoy them. All of the acrobats were women, but two male characters (I'm not sure if you can call them clowns... I think you can) were the joining thread that connected all of the acrobatic acts with an act of their own. The clown humour was that type of French Canadian humour that I don't normally find funny, but it was still a good way to tie together the excellent acrobatic acts.

I have seen no professional circus acts before, so bear that in mind. I haven't seen Cirque De Soleil or anything like that.

Going from memory, I think there were four acrobats and the following acts: handstanding, hula hoops, German wheel (which I heard described as "that big hamster wheel!"), Russian bar, slack rope, chair balancing (it is more impressive than it sounds), and trapeze.

In Cirque Maroc, by far, I found the most impressive acts to be the slack rope and the German wheel.

I was pretty amazed watching the slack rope routine, performed by a lady named Elizabeth Clarke, and I'm still not sure how something like that is possible... but, obviously it is. I think it must require a huge awareness of how to control every muscle in your body, and to be aware of what that muscle is doing at any one point in time (one of the acts before this, where an acrobat was forming body shapes around one of the male clowns was equally impressive in the muscle control respect). Just when you had been impressed by a particular balancing act, it went one step further and showed something you hadn't thought possible. We could have done without the clown sniffing the rope after she was done, though. I'm not sure who thought of that one. Rogers TV has a video here.

And, the German wheel. This seemed to me to be more of a gymnastics routine (and the young lady -- Kristina Dniprenko -- that performed the routine looked very much like a gymnast) and it was very, very good. Some of the moves, particularly the ones where a revolution of the wheel was followed by some kind of exit through the outer rim of the wheel were incredibly fluid and I can't imagine how much practice goes into something like that. It was actually better than gymnastics because there was some performance art involved, whereas gymnastics is rather mechanical, even in the freeform routines. It was like a refined gymnastics routine with a lot of the clutter that makes judges happy removed. Also, I liked the choice of music for this routine. Some of the other acts were accompanied by some pretty jarring music. Here's a video from Rogers TV.

The other routines in Cirque Maroc were good, too, but the above were the standouts to me.

After Cirque Maroc was done, when I got outside of the tent there was someone ushering people into the snake show across the way. I went into that and had a look, and it was quite a fun show. A guy dressed up like Indiana Jones was showing progressively more dangerous creatures -- starting with a tarantula and working his way up to a 20-foot snake! At one point, the host asked a teenage boy sitting in the front row to hold one of the snakes but he wouldn't do it and the host moved onto the person sitting next to him. When the next-largest snake came out, the poor boy bolted out of the tent, presumably in anticipation of being asked a second time to have a close-up of the larger snake.

The snake show was done by about 9:30, and it was time to leave. I wandered around for a few minutes. I noticed that the ferris wheel seemed to have carriages sized for the day. A number of larger couples were not able to comfortably sit side-by-side in some of the cars, and the horses on the carousel were remarkably small by today's standards yet were apparently designed for adults. Regrettably, I didn't try either of the two rides, though they were free for unlimited play.

There were also some old-fashioned pay-as-you-go carnival games going on, but I didn't look at those. I also didn't look at the fortune teller's caravan -- in fact, I don't think I even saw it. There were some other old attractions, like the one where you try and ring the bell by swinging the mallet. I was trying to take in too much in too short of a time to notice many details about these things.

It would have been nice to be able to stay for longer because the carnival is at its best after dark. Even Carnival Diablo would possibly have been better after dark, because there was significant ambient light coming in from outside of the tent through the canvas walls when I caught the 6:30 show. The snake show was definitely enhanced from having seen it after dark -- just the fact of having quiet darkness outside makes a big difference in the experience.

If the carnival returns next year, I will probably go again and plan to be able to stay for longer.

Overall, it was a great experience and I'm grateful to the creators for going through with their vision, and it would be great to see something like this become an annual event. I don't think that you can ever truly replicate the 1930s carnival because it was a product of its time: during a time of hardship, it was an inexpensive way for unworldly people to see the wonders of the world. It was a place for freaks of nature to earn a living and find belonging. Today, we have little hardship, many of us are relatively worldly, and we expect a lot from a show, and the creators of this carnival obliged the latter. In doing so, they made the show less authentic, but still genuine enough to provide a unique and memorable experience.

And, again, my Flickr photo set is here.

Technorati: ,