High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

All the Pretty Fresh Wild Horses: The Prestige, the Novel

So after a false start on Friday night (we ALMOST tried to see Cowboy Junkies a day early, then we ALMOST went to see The Prestige), we actually made it to see The Prestige on Sunday night. Detailed spoilers for for Christopher Priest's novel follow. Some would constitute spoilers for the movie, too, but I'll address the movie in a separate entry.

I have refrained from talking about the novel, partly because I wanted to wait for the movie to see if Christopher Nolan could resolve some of my issues with the text. And I guess he did. Kind of. Maybe. Anyway, I'm going to talk about the novel for a bit first.

There are at least three things up with the novel that I thought of us as problems. First, there was a very poorly worked out present-day framing device. Priest introduces two people, a man who is putatively the descendant of Borden a woman who is a descendant of Angier. The latter summons the former to Angier's manor under lame and confusing false pretenses, only then to reveal that her real reasons are even lamer and more confusing. Basically, she is determined that the Borden/Angier feud, which has raged through generations, will end with the two of them.

The characters are amateurish. The motivation behind the hatred extending beyond Borden and Angier themselves is highly improbable. And, ultimately, these two seem only to exist to set up an ending to the novel that would be laughably bad if one didn't feel genuine pity for Priest whose suddenly, jarringly lurid prose (seriously, you know when Jo March is committing the heinous sin of writing sensational stories to feed her starving, illness-laden family? I now have a clear idea why the Professor wants to save her and a generation of children from herself.) indicates that he thinks this rilly, rilly RAWKS.

The craptacular ending is, kind of, the second problem with the book. Neither the framing device nor the ending stand up to the level of writing in the rest of the book (comprising the two magicians' journals). But worse than that, the ending reveals, at least to me, that Priest failed to decide what kind of book he was writing. In looking back on that entry on The Prestige, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and Carter Beats the Devil, I see that I linked the three as attempts to cross genre boundaries. I'm not so sure that Priest was deliberately trying to do that. I think he either has the attention span of a gnat, a series case of Neal Stephenson's No Endings EVAR disease, or a shitty editor. Or some combination of the three.

Mostly, The Prestige is a piece of historical fiction about stage magicians. Because of the nature of its main characters, it's also a psychological, character-driven novel. Priest is exploring something for which I'm a built-in audience: To be a magician is to be something of a sociopath (Yeah, I know, it's like being "a little pregnant" or "kind of knowing how to drive stick"), to enter every human interaction, every room, every situation and to think "How can I lie to these people? How can I manipulate them? Which lie will be best to tell?" That's ultimately why the outcome of The Illusionist was troubling to me and why I wanted very much to see how Millhauser dealt with Eisenheim's character in the story (he didn't, which was a let down).

In many ways, Priest deals with the sociopathy of Borden and Angier in ways that are interesting. Even in their journals, they are circumspect, loath to commit anything to paper that will limit their ability to deceive. Rather than discussing themselves, they intellectualize the screwed-up lives of other magicians. And somehow seeing the human casualties piling up around them only through these narcissistic media makes the loss more disturbing.

But then there are holes, gaps, and flaws in the writing that are serious enough to call the whole novel into question. For example, Borden's journal ends with him (or one of them, rather) fighting a . . . kind of Angier ectoplasmic emanation or something . . . and dying of fright (I guess that makes me inclined to diagnose him with at least a case of Stephensonism, given that he really is fucking up three separate endings in the books).

And in Angier's portion of the book, he is obsessed with how Borden accomplishes The Transported Man. Everyone tells him: "Dude, it's a double." Angier is convinced that there's more to it. Everyone says: "Dude, repeat after me: 'It's a double'." Despite the fact that Angier is supposed to be . . . kind of simple, really, and is never able to figure out anyone's tricks, he remains insistent. Part way through his journal, he gets validation on this. He comes across a journalist who has been investigating Borden. He insists that there is no double, no twin, no brother. Olivia, likewise, assures Angier that Borden is one man.

As a reader, you're like, "Dude, WTF?" (And given that Priest's universe goes totally wacky shortly thereafter, you start to get really, REALLY annoyed.) And then near the end of Angier's journal, the journalist and Angier cross paths again for no reason at all other than so the journalist can say: "Oh, remember when I told you there was absolutely no double? There was a double. A twin brother, and Borden went to some serious lengths to erase his existence. My bad." It's the worst kind of epistemological cheat and a fatal flaw in fiction.

And speaking of epistemological cheats: Real teleportation by Tesla introduced 2/3 of the way in? Seriously, Christopher, what the fuck? You cannot write 275 pages of a straight historical fiction novel, set in the world in which the reader lives, assuring the reader along the way that there is no such thing as magic, and on page 276 say: Oh, and by the way, physics works differently in my book than in your world." Because once you do that, why shouldn't I assume that there really is no double and Borden is really teleporting or bilocating or whatever during his trick? Why should I assume that I know how anything has worked up until now?

But the real crime that this sudden attack of science fiction commits is that it ends up transforming the type of novel this is a third time. (So, for those of you scoring at home, or those of you reading this instead [FOOLS!], it's gone from a piece of historical fiction to science fiction already.) Rather than exploring the madness of Borden's duality (there is precisely nothing on the relationship between the two Bordens, and in Priest's eagerness to keep things concealed from the reader, we never even have any idea at all of how they negotiate their dual life), suddenly Priest wants to write a horror novel in which Angier has been storing grotesque Prestiges (who might or might not be alive, might or might not be immortal and/or incorruptible, might or might not even be sapient, and oh, might or might not in any important sense be the "real" Angier, but who cares about that, right?), frozen in a twisted position, in the family crypt. And suddenly, after 100 years, they decide to go lurching about the moors after the present-day Borden descendent opens the crypt door. The End.

Seriously, Christopher, what the fuck?

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Jesus Grandpa, What Did You Read Me This Thing For? Dia de los Muertos at the OTSFM

Volunteering at Old Town works like this: There is a single, superhuman coordinator who sends out a list of events for the next two months or so. Roughly 12 billion people respond to her e-mail, probably many of them in ALL CAPS, others peppering their responses with LOL! and Smileys, and still others who shout JANE! STOP THIS CRAZY THING! Oh, and 11.999 billion of those want to be Iris DeMent's personal friend as their only assignment. She then sorts out the legitimate responses and e-mails you back with your assignments. She also sends friendly reminders shortly before them, keeps track of your volunteer points, and registers those who want to use their points for classes. I'm willing to bet she also makes a mean souffle.

So, against all odds, the course of volunteering runs smooth. But, of course, I have some kind of powerful fuck-up field around me, so almost everything I've volunteered for has had something deeply weird about it: The first La Peña of the season was a joint effort with the Jazz Institute that featured two sets of very confused volunteers and no drummer for the opening trio; the First Teen Open Mic was staffed entirely by virgin volunteers; and the administrative shift I signed up for turned out to have almost no work to do.

Getting to the Point was relatively straightforward, so I thought the streak might have ended. However, my volunteer shift for the Día de los Muertos field trip was weird, and, my acting/voice class didn't carry, and my John Prine class didn't carry either (even though it seemed as though it had; then again, I'd actually been practicing fingerpicking in preparation for it, which was surely the death knell). Apparently, my fuck-up field really wants to direct.

So the volunteer gig was partly weird because the woman who coordinates these trips with local schools and other groups has just left for another job. The person who was supposed to be in charge wasn't able to make it, so the Speaker of the House ended up running things. Fortunately, the other three volunteers had things pretty much nailed down. There were no fire code violations, and not a single child or adolescent hurled him- or herself off the balcony, thanks to yours truly.

There were just under 400 kids from five different schools in attendance. They ranged from third grade up through Freshman year of high school. One of the interesting things about all the schools included is that they all seem to have bilingual English/Spanish instruction as a matter of course. (At least I have inferred this to be the case based on today and my administrative stint, which involved entering student comments on outreach visits. There is nothing not fun about seeing the drawings and comments of 7 year olds on the history of breakdancing.)

We were also supposed to have a senior citizens' group (we think), but they seem not to have shown. I'm hoping their bus didn't take a wrong turn toward Branson or something. But even without the added challenge of the AARP crowd, it's not a demographic I'd want to have to entertain.

Tarima Son, the group that was performing, seemed more than up to the challenge. It's a 5-person ensemble: three men and two women. They don't seem to have a website, alas, but references to them from performances elsewhere indicate that their musical style is Son Jarocho, a form of Mexican folk music originating in Veracruz that has heavy African influences. Son refers to the characteristics of the music (syncopated 6/8 time, a rhythmic refrain, often improvised repeated throughout the song), and tarima is the carved wooden platforms on which the percussive dances are performed.

I was up in the balcony for most of the performance, so I couldn't really see the instruments being swapped in and out. One of the guys was always on cajon, but the other men and the women switched off on the various 4-, 8-, and standard 6-string guitars, and fiddle and castanets made intermittent appearances.

They started by talking about the meaning of the Day of the Dead, soliciting whys and wherefores from the audience. Predictably, the little kids were eager to shout out things they knew, whereas the teens were mainly concerned with looking board an offended at being stuck in a room with youngsters.

Their first number was "La Llorona" ("The Weeping Woman"). Four of the musicians played, and two of them sang. In addition, the second female member of the group came out in a floral-print, full-skirted dress, mantilla, and skull mask. She danced across the stage, holding a candle aloft, and made her way down to the main floor to dance directly in front of the seats. There was at least one wailing youngster in the crowd after that (although I think it was a much younger sibling who had accompanied a chaperone).

I have to say, the news that they were about to launch into this song had me doing Homer's "Let's see where they're going with this . . ." Don't get me wrong: It's a lovely song. And if one thinks of traditional folk music in English as the original sing-along, appropriate-for-kids repertoire, then all's well. For example, listening to B and A's eldest sing ALLLL the verses of "You Are my Sunshine" really brought home the fact that whoever got to the Brothers Grimm surely must have folk music on the to-be-sanitized list.

My Spanish, of course, is pretty pathetic at this point, but I think the lyrics were in line with the fairly traditional version by Lila Downs. That makes it one of the following: (a) a rather seductive song, full of highly suggestive metaphor; (b) a cheerful tale of domestic violence with the woman's husband begging her for death; (c) a reference to the Mexican legend of the woman who drowns her children, is filled with remorse, and cries eternally for them.

So, having been ruminating on this, I cracked the hell up when on of the women got on the mic to fill the dead air before their next song, and started telling the last of these stories. Apparently concerned about the potential psychic damage of a beautiful woman telling an evocative version of a bogeyman story to 400 kids, one of the men rushed to assure everyone that it was a LOVE SONG a PURELY PEACEFUL DEATHRAY OF A LOVE SONG.

The same woman would later tell the story of "El Coco" coming to get bad children. But she was also responsible for gems such as: "When you live in the country, there isn't much to do. So you sing songs about the simple joy of eating a chicken." I can never hope to convey how deadpan funny, yet totally earnest she was.)

"Jesus, Grandpa . . . " moments aside, the between-song patter explored both the history of the holiday, the history of the art, and the history of Mexico since European contact in a matter-of-fact way. There was no soft-peddling of unpleasant realities. The reasons that Son Jarocho has such heavy African influences is the legacy of passive and active genocide, slavery, and Big-O Oppression, and they talked about how this history is reflected in music, lyrics, and dance. But even in discussing that, they always emphasized the celebratory nature of the holiday, stressing that the depictions of the dead are not about frightening the living into good behavior.

During the penultimate number, one of the female dancers got served by one of the guys. She had the tarima downstage and he wandered up and began doing a clumsy imitation. I assume, of course, that this is all scripted and meant to lead naturally into getting some kids up on stage dancing and others down in front doing the same. But you know me, I've been permanently scarred by Robot Chicken so hint of anyone serving anyone else has me thinking tender thoughts of Voltron.

Although the guy was downstage right (nearest the oldest attendees) at the outset, he and the woman criss-crossed when going down to the floor for "volunteers." The woman wickedly chose the most disaffected, faux-thug in the bunch and pulled him up on stage, where he turned 1000 shades of red and tried not to look as though he was on the brink of shedding the image in favor of playing nice with the hot woman. This dance went on for quite a while and it whipped the kids into quite the frenzy. All the little ones were dying to be chosen to come up and dance, and even some of the teenagers were up there by the end, enjoying themselves, I'm sure, with proper ironic distance.

So anyway, good fun, which is unbelievable, considering that all this was occurring at 9:30 AM and under the influence of my fuck-up field.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Culinary Return: The Big Easy, Day 5.1

M and I had packed and pretty much passed out on Thursday night, both in preparation for having Breakfast at Brennan's, which numerous people informed us we must. AMB and K were on board, as was J. Og also braved Cave!Slayer, but sie was all about the sleep at that point.

A lot of vocabulary has just been beaten to death by the tourism industry, particularly with regard to New Orleans: Old World charm, elegance, etc. But it all really applies to Brennan's. The spotless stone floors glow with care and time; the wood reception desk and glass-and-wood display cases are warm and inviting; the archways and chandeliers draw the eye from floor to ceiling and along corridors; and . . . dear Baal I sound like I'm writing Tennessee Williams fanfic or intro text for Gone with the Wind. It's just a really lovely, elegant space. Even Og could appreciate that.

Also according to instructions, some of enjoyed the canonical gin fizz. We'd had pale imitations the night before at Remoulade, but these were the real deal: lightly creamy, delicate hint of orange, and pleasant from start to finish. M also sampled another drink that he enjoyed (an Absinthe Suissesse, maybe?), but it was too anise-y for me. I am now kicking myself again because none of us tried the Mr. Funk of New Orleans (which, I'm pretty sure is what and I dubbed a "Butterwick" in honor of and at their wedding.

There was also COFFEE! Excellent, hot, delicious coffee in a pretty silver pot. And fresh-squeezed juice, which I suppose is good if you're not into playing fast and loose with your stimulants and your depressants before noon.

M was the only one of us brave enough to do the full on Table d'Hote. In fact, he went one better than that. He had the Creole Onion soup, but then pulled a reverse on the entree and went for the grillades and grits (please note that this involves BABY veal, not that imitation toddler veal). For dessert, he had the bananas foster.

I was all about following the path of the unusual omelette, which had treated me well earlier in the week. My omelette is not represented on any of the menus that I can find, but it had andouille and cheese and deliciousness on its side. AMB had a tasso omelette (mmmm). I think K might've gotten the same omelette as I did, and I've utterly blanked on J's dish. Braver folk than I ordered the key lime pie, the pecan pie, and auxiliary bananas foster, but I couldn't even think about dessert. Not even when the waiter appeared to really, REALLY want me to have a sympathy order of bananas foster. (It was a very nice gesture, but seriously, Og cannot be responsible for hir actions in the presence of bananas en fuego before noon.)

Somehow we made it back to the hotel after breakfast, and the Fellowship was broken. J and AKS were headed back home by way of Atlanta, and M and I were off to a less capacious room for our last night in NO. AMB and K were kind enough to help us move (which meant that we doubled our likelihood of getting lost on the way to the elevator, simply because none of us could remember where it was).

M had to work, of course, but the rest of our remaining merry band was intent on heading down to the end of Magazine Street near Audubon Park. First up, though, I had to hit the FedEx/Kinko's to ship the posters off to Casa Wombata. This errand and planning for the excursion set us up for more wackiness in the service sector. Bear in mind that I was carrying a 4-foot-tall tube of heavy vinyl as I asked the clerk at Kinko's about shipping.

Clerk: Do you want to ship those ground?

Me: I think so. It's not important how soon they get there, so whatever's inexpensive.

Clerk: Ground is cheaper.

Me: Ok, ground then.

Clerk: You can't ship those ground. They're not packed.

Me: . . .

Clerk: I can put them in a FedEx bag if you ship them 3-day.

Me: 3-day it is . . .

Earlier at the Marriott, AMB bravely tries to obtain information about the St. Charles streetcar.

DRB: Can you tell me how much the streetcar is?

Clerk: $1.50.

DRB: Great. Thank you. Do you know how often they're running?

Clerk: Oh, I don't think they're running, are they?

DRB: . . .

Clerk: You can take the bus. That's the same price.

DRB: Ok, then. Thanks . . .

Like I said: Not bad service, just weird service.

Posters mailed, we hopped on the bus and tried not to be worried about the sign warning us about the penalties for attacking transit employees, which was in Reader's Digest large-print format. The bus ride took us through the Garden District where there seemed to be a lot of real estate for sale. As I was saying to M today, visiting NO in October—especially this October—may have been a grave error. I found myself saying over and over again, "I could live here. I really could live here." We've decided that we need to return in July to remind ourselves that there's no way we'd survive a single summer there.

I don't think we saw much of the real destruction on that ride. M saw some on the train in, and certainly AMB and K saw a bunch on their trip out to the swamp tour. But certainly that area of the city was both harder hit and more forgotten than the Quarter.

We exited the bus around Calhoun and began shopping our way back down magazine. I very nearly wound up with these Vans, and AMB very nearly wound up with these; sadly neither of us got quite the right fit. (And I confess that I have since obtained these.)

We moseyed onward, stopping in any shops that caught our fancy. Most were in houses, so it was a great opportunity to soak up the enviable architecture. We hit a bath and scent store along the way where AMB obtained much-needed rubber duckies for the bunnyface F1 generation. One store dealt exclusively in vintage accessories. Most of you know that I have a much lower than average attraction to and concern for purses than the average XX individual, and even I saw that there were some genuinely beautiful bags in there. Also, K tried to talk me into buying the most beautiful compact in the world, but I simply could not justify spending $60 on a pocket mirror when I often go weeks without looking in the regular mirrors in my home.

We hit a boutique called Sweet Pea & Tulip that also has a location in the Quarter (one that we somehow missed in the shopping extravaganza on Thursday). I somehow lucked into a pretty peasant/hippy top on clearance. It's white with purple-grey faux finish, melon trim, and has a periwinkle and melon embroidered/sequined design front and back. I realize that sounds like a nightmare, but it's very pretty. Another boutique called Fairy (Woman's Clothing) came very close to doing a LOT of damage to my wallet. There was a gorgeous pale green wrap blouse that (mercifully) happened to hit me in exactly the wrong spot. There were also cute cargo pants that did weird things to my butt. (I can only imagine what they would have done to someone who actually has a butt.) I also remain grateful that I didn't see the vintage skull bead necklace until we were on our way out.

Given the near miss at Fairy, it was sensible to take a breather and Luna Cafe, a great coffee shop that took up the main floor of a house. In addition to good coffee and delicious cookies, this had great seating on the porch (overlooking the Starbucks across the street) to recommend it. But even if it had failed in the most basic necessities and lacked other fringe benefits, it would have rocked if only for the sign over the toy area at the back of the house, which read:
Unattended children will be given espresso and a puppy

As we continued our journey, we stopped at Blue Frog Chocolates, where I picked up a taxonomically confused chocolate gator for the friend who covered my midterms for me. We stopped in a few more boutiques and "antique stores" that leaned more to the thrift shop end of the spectrum (not that there's anything wrong with that, and I very nearly scored an Emergency Home Sacraments Kit very like the one we had when I was growing up. This was a far superior EHSK, though, because it had a kind of electric blue enamel inlay behind Our Savior.

Time was sadly growing short, though, and all too soon it was time to point ourselves back toward the Warehouse District to collect M. Our cooking class was scheduled to begin at 5:30, and we definitely did not want to be late. Despite rush hour traffic, though, our United Cab Man had us at the House on Bayou Road by about 5:10. We rang the bell and were waiting for a response when a deep, authoritative voice from behind us asked if we were there for the cooking class. As one, we turned to find . . . a guy in full combat fatigues coming up the path.

This would turn out to be Tom, husband of Judy (the business part of NOCE, and former archaeologist. Had I but known his identity at the outset, I would have been obnoxiously talking shop with him all evening. As it was, I only got in a little bit of this when he generously drove us back to the hotel at the end of the evening, and by then I was so full of delicious food that I was barely conscious.

Speaking of barely conscious, I'm afraid I'm going to stop here for now. I'm rapidly fading, and I still need to work out before I can sleep. The best and last is yet to come.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Canadian Emo: A Chi-Town Interlude with the Cowboy Junkies

It may sound odd to say that I just "discovered" the Cowboy Junkies earlier this year. (No, this was not some kind of Og!Cave-induced cultural poverty—I'd heard of them, of course, I just hadn't discovered them.) It probably sounds odder to say that I discovered them in Outlaws of Country. What can I say? The denizens of the Old Town School of Folk Music may look like hippies, but we're Amurrican right down to our alarmingly broad definition of Outlaw.

So B had worked up an arrangement of "Misguided Angel" from The Trinity Session. I liked the song. I loved the album. It was recorded with minimal sound equipment in an old church. It'd be a mistake to call Margo Timmins' voice "ethereal"—it's too laden. And I suppose people who aren't me would be creeped out if I described it as "disembodied," as that usually goes along with "head" (and what's wrong with disembodied heads, I ask you). Whatever adjective you'd like to apply to her voice, that church was a venue made for it.

I believe that I enthused about the Cowboy Junkies coming to Old Town long ago. If you think that enthusiasm carried over into action, I think you're at the wrong LJ. The tickets were sold out before I was aware they were on sale, and there was sadness. And then, last week, I was volunteering at yet another teen open mic night. I had gotten there a bit early and M was bemoaning the fact that she was trying to sell her CJ tickets. I blinked, thinking that I couldn't possibly have heard right. I asked if she was serious, and soon the deal was done: She had her costs recouped and I had two tickets to the 10 PM show. And so we see that virtue, for once, is rewarded. It is worth noting that "virtue" is pretty broadly defined here: When the munchkins started stage diving during the last act, I thought, "Aw, man, don't do that. I'm not even close to finished knitting this row, dudes." You'll be relieved to know that someone else played the role of authority figure before I could leap in, Mom Look a-blazing.

I was so excited about the tickets that we very nearly showed up 24 hours early for the show (I don't know why I had the 27th in my head). As it stood, we did have to skip out a touch early on a lovely dinner with our OLD, MARRIED friends J & B (uh, not the "scotch"), and only just made it into our seats in time for the opening act, Finlayson & Maize, who also appear to be 40% of Skydiggers.

As M commented, the stage was as crowded as any I've ever seen, which is a little odd as I'm used to thinking of the Junkies as somewhat minimalist, thanks to Trinity Session. There were the usual wedges and other miscellaneous sound equipment, of course, but also a small, cloth-covered cafe table down center that held one of two vases of beautiful flowers, a tall stool next to this, and a rack containing guitar after guitar after guitar at stage right. Also, there seemed to be some kind of riot shield (the ZK's assessment, naturally)/sneeze guard (my assessment, just as naturally) in front of the drum kit, which was upstage left.

Finlayson/Maize came out to downstage left with a guitar, a trumpet on a stand, and little fanfare. It was rather like Opening Act by Byers and Randy Hickey, who'd both donned their best wrinkle-free Dockers and button-down shirts for the occasion. If that sounds like a criticism, I'd like to draw your attention to my future "All Jammie Pants, All the Time" presidential campaign.

They did about 45 minutes of low-key covers and original material. Finlayson did most of the work on guitar and Maize most of the lead vocals, although they traded off on the latter for a few songs and provided harmony for one another. The trumpet appeared in only one song, so you've got to admire the commitment to toting brass. In between songs, Maize kept up a minimalist patter that was suffused with incredibly dry, hilariously geeky wit. In listening to a bit of the Skydiggers, I'm not sure that their music alone would have moved me to a second listen, but having seen them perform, I'm inclined to smile a lot while listening, and therefore inclined to listen over and over again.

After a short intermission, the Cowboy Junkies took the stage to the tune of the entire crowd singing Happy Birthday to the drummer. Margo, naturally, was down center, complementing the flowers; Alan Anton, the world's most impassive bassist and one of the two non-Timmins in the band, was down left in a black suit and skinny tie; Pete TImmins, the birthday boy, was behind the riot shield up left; seated upstage right was Jeff Bird on "shaky things" and various mandolins; and downstage right was Michael Timmins, their primary songwriter, seated in front of his mighty army of guitars.

Our seats were at one of the tables at the back of the main floor. Normally I prefer these to the table-less seats closer to the stage, but we were at something of a disadvantage because Michael's back was to us, and he was blocking much of Jeff from our view. Thus, we were unable to see either of the two people who were most likely to be responsible for some of the more amazing nonvocal sounds of the evening.

They opened in appropriately eerie dark red light with "So Lonesome I Could Cry" off The Trinity Session, which is like the world's most ill-advised lullaby (in the best possible way). It's languid and lazy and calling. It coaxes you toward sleep and tucking you in for the night every loss you've ever experienced, every regret you've ever had. It's fantastic.

Funnily enough, just as she finished this song, Margo joked that it was so past her bed time. It certainly seemed as though she was a bit sleep deprived and punch drunk. That led to some Grandpa-Simpson-like moments when she'd launch into a long story about trying to buy pants (and I don't know anyone who would bore her audience with such things), then look astonished at the narrative situation in which she found herself as she had to introduce a completely unrelated song. Again, this isn't a complaint. It was quite charming, and anyway, Ray, if a woman that gorgeous with that voice wants to tell you long, rambling stories, you say "YES."

Much of the show seemed to emphasize songs from Early 21st Century Blues. I'm unsure whether this represents one of the projects that Margo described as having been recorded "for fun" or if it was promoted and has been a commercial failure, but she remarked several times that they were still striving for the 1000-copy sales mark. In any case, I was a fan of the individual songs for the most part ("December Skies" seems a little overt, for example, but I might feel differently in context), though it's possible that it might just be overwhelming as a whole.

Another highlight of the evening was Joni Mitchell's ("another depressed Canadian") "River." This was a highlight on its own merits, depression notwithstanding. But it was also a highlight courtesy of the (on-topic, this time) lead-up story and because hearing it, seeing it, was a like a lightning bolt between the eyes. Other than Joni, I think I've only ever heard the Indigo Girls' version, and I can't think of a cover that more completely scoops out the creamy emotional center of a song. Amy and Emily give harmony without compare, but man, where's the pain ladies? Where's the pain? Must be over there in the box with the ambiguity.

I've also got to give a shout out to "He Will Call You Baby," and "Cheap Is How I Feel" particularly Michael's guitar work on it juxatposed with Margo's vocals. There's nothing pleasant about either of these songs. They're songs that start from a low-down nagging itch. And everything that comes after is that desperate, self-destructive scratch that you just can't stop. At one point, the guitar was distorted, abrasive almost to the point of causing literal pain. Two thoughts popped into my head: Velvet Underground, unaccompanied by a verb, and "This is what domestic violence sounds like." It was brutal and overwhelming. And gratifying and cathartic.

And speaking of productive juxtapositions, it's hard to beat ending with U2's "One," then finally doing "Sweet Jane" for the encore. Of course, for me, "Sweet Jane" gave closure to my weird Velvet Underground moment. For fans who saw Cowboy Junkies earlier in the tour, I regret to inform you that we got all your closure. Apparently, they haven't played it at all this time out, no matter how many times the audience has clamored for it. Saturday, they let the birthday boy pick the encore. This is a rare treat, apparently, because they're generally too wise to let the drummer make too many decisions.

The whole show was a strange (yet pleasant) hyrbid. On the one hand, the mood was combination of very laid back, thanks to the combined energy of the venue, the crowd it draws, and the band. On the other, it was unusually raw and emotionally charged. Live music of any kind usually leaves me ramped up and excited; Saturday I felt like I'd just had a good, long cry and was ready for sweet, dreamless sleep. I guess that's appropriate for a show that starts with a cruel kind of lullaby.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Stimulation: The Big Easy, Day 5

On Thursday, it was imperative that we shop. There was only one paper in the morning that looked even mildly interesting if you squinted at it. We were firm in our determination to avoid the convention center that morning. And then we had to go there anyway.

You see, the crackhead meeting organizers had determined that posters needed to be taken down by 1:30 PM on Thursday. That is deeply stupid, given there was an entire additional day toe the conference. Furthermore, it must have sucked for the "Group C" presenters, who were on from 11:30 to 1:30 that day, trying to talk to people about while the rapidly emptying bulletin boards around and behind them shook and wavered as people attempted to liberate the posters by coming between the true love so dear to pushpins and crappy, flimsy boards.

Anyway, we obtained our posters while AKS was taming Cave!Slayer. On our way back to the hotel, we ran into the animé character colleague of J's, whom AKS had very much wanted me to see. We had been tentatively referring to him as "Speed Racer," on the basis of his truly unique chin, but going on overall cranial shape (and don't think visions of calipers weren't dancing through my head), I diagnosed him as "Hunk from Voltron."

I think I've forgotten to mention up until now that I caused unusually warm, sunny weather in New Orleans (while it was snowing everywhere else) by buying myself a new leather jacket and bringing it to the Big Easy? Thursday was the pinnacle of that phenomenon. While we walked on toward Cafe Du Monde to meet up with AMB and KJ, we were relatively comfortable in the shade, but the sun, she burned us. Burned us like elven rope.

By the time we arrived at Cafe Du Monde, AMB was sporting a beautiful balloon flower (meant for her wrist, but she is so PURSE obsessed that she attached it to the strap of her new PURSE). AKS and I were both desperately in need of both coffee and something cool. Du Monde had been reading the Morning Rage Diaries of Morning!Matilda and Cave!Slayer, apparently, because their Iced Cafe Au Lait was pretty much made for us. We sat in the cool shade on a stone wall at the back of the cafe and girded our loins for some serious shopping.

We started at the stores on Jackson Square that had caught our eye the previous day. The very first one, which had a t-shirt in the window that AKS seriously needed to own, was tragically closed. We were brave, though, and soldiered on to the highly superior store next door (which, I believe is called Jackie's, but they sadly don't have a website). This was one of those boutique-y places that actually has clothes and accessories that you don't see over and over again in every store. And as a giant bonus to distinguish it from such stores, the price tags were not heart-attack inducing.

Upon entering this store, it became clear that I had been made by the merchants of New Orleans. Seeing that bag, I began to tremble, but said to myself, "Self, that bag is awesome, 'tis true, but there's far too much overlap with your shit hot Lexie Barnes bag." Before I could breathe a sigh of relief, the merchants of New Orleans collectively said, "Too much overlap? Nae problemo!" That bag definitely does NOT have too much overlap with Lexie, and is ideal for toting larger knitting projects and, as it turns out, the endless series of student papers under which I am forever to be buried. And it is mine. Oh yes, it is mine.

Not satisfied with making me their bag bitch, the merchants of New Orleans turned my attention to this t-shirt (which looks better with boobies in it, if I do say so myself. And just when I thought I was going to escape, they had really cute reversible headbands at the counter, so I grabbed a couple of those. My compatriots also fared well (for wallet-emptying values of "well"), with AMB scoring an awesome MONKEYBAG, and AKS a fantastic shirt and classic, faux-wrap, polka-dot dress that stuns and disorients in the best possible way.

Also along this stretch of shops, we visited a Tea Shoppe, which was somewhat overly scented and featured the world's most extended Muzack remix of "Norwegian Wood." Nonetheless, it had some pretty things, including some jewelry that very nearly needed to be mine. KJ was trying to be his usual helpful self with regard to the jewelry that badly wanted to come home with me when he tragically misread the price tag, making it seem much more reasonably priced that I had feared. Fortunately (?), it was too rich for my blood (not TLBO "too rich" you understand, just more than I can justify given that I only wear jewelry sporadically).

We moved on to the 1850 House Museum, which smelled like Kampsville. AMB and I only just barely avoided having olfactorally induced nervous breakdowns before we beat it out of there. I did see this cookbook, and the title cracked me up.

We turned Esplanade-ward on Chartres and made our way into Trashy Diva where it looked like AKS was the primary target. While she tried on a number of beautiful, vintagey things. AMB was a dark horse mark and wound up with a
very pretty cameo. Sadly, it seemed that none of AKS's items were quite right, and we soldiered onward. (I definitely was not casting a final, wistful look at the wrap that wanted to be mine and only mine. Nossir, not I.)

Once back out on the street, we immediately saw the Trashy Diva lingerie shop, which was in a "back in 5 minutes" state. We wandered up toward Royal in search of Diet Coke. There was some meandering into various parfumeries, The Idea Factory, and so on, where I saw yet more jewelry that wanted to be mine. When a Diet Coke-specific venue failed to materialize, we decided that it might actually be time to eat again, despite protestations the night before that it would NEVER AGAIN be time to eat.

We wound up at a beautiful table on the corner of Royal and St. Ann. We sat in the shade, enjoyed the architecture and the world passing by, and realized that the place we were in had a menu that was more or less identical to that at the River's Edge Cafe. Not that this was a bad thing, mind you. I had to have me a Half Muff, and I had no regrets on that score (in fact, I pretty desperately want a Half Muff right now). There were Catfish Po' Boys, a sausage Po' Boy, and I really can't tell what else.

Restored and revivified, we headed back out for more shopping, popping into a couple of antique-cum-second-hand stores and the parfumerie on which Jitterbug Perfume is based. (I didn't know this until I'd already headed back out on to the street, but AKS had a conversation with the owner, and we both lamented that we had no beet homage with us.)

Our next dangerous stop was the La Mina Sterling Silver jewelry shop on Royal. I don't think any of us escaped from there unscathed. I know that I got a lovely ring, but I can't be arsed to find either the ring or the camera at the moment. It's a filigreed rectangular design with an aquamarine set in the center. Very Deco and very delicious. I also very nearly walked out with the Kewlist Viking Head ring for M, but he has since proved himself scornful of it, so I'm glad I didn't bother. Humph. AKS scored a lovely pair of flowy earrings with dangly silver discs (also for stunning and disorienting purposes). I cannot recall what AMB and KJ obtained, if anything (although I really thought we all bought something there), and J began laying the groundwork for reparations to be paid to chicagowench for going to NO without her.

Continuing along Royal, we got sucked into Fifi Mahony's, where I got some awesome, midsized hammered metal hoops and green hair die. I resisted the sweet, sweet, black skull-and-hearts foldover leather clutch on the grounds that I needed to give some serious thought to the question of whether or not one can have too many skull-themed bags. (Sadly, I think the answer is yes if one almost never carries a traditional purse.)

I guess that we turned riverward at St. Phillip, because the folks at New Orleans Gem & Lapidary had definitely gotten the memo about us. The proprietor was narratively loaded for bear. I had been looking at an awesome bloodstone (not very bloodstone-y looking, as the stone was almost jade colored, but I liked it) ring in a kind of rough-hewn setting with geometric designs, but then I spotted a tourmaline ring in a much more delicate setting.

As I called in my team of advisors to help me choose (tourmaline won), he informed me that I should buy both so that he could continue to feed his dogs, a rottweiler and two miniature dachshunds. My lower lip set to quivering when he also mentioned a chihuahua. I told him he'd lost me on the last not!dog. He looked me in the eye and said, "Ah, but you see, my grandmother died recently, and he was the light of her life. No one else would take him, so he came to whip the rottie into shape." Dirty pool, sir. Dirty pool. The weeping of my credit card helped me to stand firm, and Ieft with only the tourmaline ring. KJ got a cool agate ring (having very nearly attached a hematite ring to himself permanently); AMB got a bracelet; and AKS bought a ring with a large piece of amber that she had to leave to be sized (I wouldn't swear to it, but I'm pretty sure she gave the precious a parting lick before handing it over).

We were back to Decatur before long and on the way to Dutch Alley (hmm, I'm not sure what's going on with that website, which is listed on their literature, but quite clearly seems not to be the gallery's site). We stopped along the way so that AKS could obtain a pirate lunch box as her new handbag. This was fortunate, because I'd forgotten that the gallery was actually on the street behind Decatur, and I spied the gallery through the toy shop's window.

Once again, we did remarkably well from the perspective the economy of New Orleans. I was in love with this lovely straw hat by Tracy Thompson in soothing green, but dazed as I was, I still knew it was just too damned impractical. No such charge could be levied against the jaunty red skull–bandana print beret (can't find a picture of it on her website, tragically), and I had to have it. One of the artists similarly felt that I should have it, but kept trying to arrange it in a cheese-eating-surrender-monkey configuration on my head, which was a little irritating.

Of course, one of the main things that I wanted to see at the gallery was what Ric Rolston was up to (he of the King of All Sweet Potatoes painting). He had a new label painting in his section of the gallery, and sadly very few of the tables for which I had lust in my heart back in '04. He has a new series called "July Nights" that is absolutely haunting and beautiful. I'd hoped to run into either him or to someone who might tell me more about them, but no such luck.

AMB and KJ were torn in two directions, artistically speaking. They wound up with a couple of large prints by Dan Fuller (in fact, from the surreal "Treehouse" series mentioned in that article). They also need—really and truly need—the large cypress tree painting for which they lusted. It's really frustrating that the website for the co-op seems to be defunct. There are so many terrific artists whose work is represented there, but I can remember every single name, and that breaks my heart.

I'll try as much as I can to recall what else was there that we needed to have. There was a rack of brightly colored metalwork jewelry, including the best. pair. of. earrings. EVAR: One was godzilla, the other was a Tokyo Building. Ah ha! I have dredged the line and the artist's name from memory! It's the "Glamour Trash" line by James Jensen, who seems to get mentioned a lot, but doesn't have a web presence of his own, which is a shame. M's much-loved King of Lake Pontchartrain (which, I think, was by Shakor) was not in evidence, and we both fervently hope that this is because it found a good home. J obtained yet more bakshish for chicagowench in the form of a beautiful piece of glass by Teri Walker. I think it was also Walker's black-and-white sculpture and prints that almost tagged AMB once again before we left.

Having stimulated the economy, we repaired to a stone wall to ponder our next move. We wound up meandering (if any group can meander in the confines of a cab, it's us) back to the Marriott to try to decide on dinner. This was not the highlight of the trip. M had planned to go to K-Paul's for lunch. He'd gone so far as to walk there in the heat, only to discover that they're not open for lunch. Despite the fact that we both really, really needed to go to K-Paul's and this was the last opportunity, we wound up at Arnaud's Remoulade, which is fine and all, and does have the spicy meat pie and turtle soup (and, as it happens, good hurricanes), but is not K-Paul's.

Postdinner, we wandered down Bourbon Street, stopping for frozen drinks and to-go Tigers by the Tail. Earlier in the day, some of the crazy extroverts in the group had gotten into a conversation with an embittered local who denied that anything good ever came out of Bourbon Street. He advised a trip to Frenchman's Street for "real music." We headed down Bourbon Street (and discovered that the bar at which M had first watched Bryan Lee had become a generic pop bar, despite its continued claims to be a Blues Club) and passed by a band with not one, but two guys out front of washboard. M and I, at least, noted this in the event that we didn't find Frenchman street, which seemed quite possible.

We hit Esplanade and still saw no sign of Frenchman. Fortunately, we ran into helpful natives who directed us to go left at Decatur. We did and viola! We found Snug Harbor (which proved to be too crowded, too small, [and for my purposes, too filled with Matilda-killing cigar smoke] and had musicians who'd just ended their set) and a much-needed bathroom. Given the down sides, we headed further up Frenchman and passed a very lush-looking hookah bar (also Matilda killing, alas) and wound up at D.B.A. New Orleans.

The bar (or bars, rather, as there are two, back to back in the center of the structure, separated by a wall with two doorways to permit servers to move freely between them) is quite cool. On the side with the stage for music, there were old theatre seats in the front along the walls. And, most importantly, they had a huge selection of good-to-great beers, both on tap and in bottles.

Although we'd scored seats at the bar, it was hard for us all to talk. We adjourned to an alcove at the front, which made it easier to talk. These also allowed us to watch life on Frenchman Street go by. Despite the Tiger by the Tail, I was well on the sober side of the alcohol-intake line, so I was confused when I seemed to be hallucinating a huge cart, completely covered by musical instruments, making its way up the street. Um, I don't know how else to describe it, but it was like something hatched in the mind of Caro & Jeunet . People seemed to come up and play things at random. It was . . . odd. Good, but odd.

One big downside to our alcove was that J and AKS had, for some reason, thought it was too small for six, so we were separated for much of our final evening together sadly. Also, the fact that the place filled in in front of us made it impossible to watch the band, which sucks, because the Palmetto Bug Stompers were awesome. I picked up their CD between sets, and I've been loving it, but it doesn't seem easy to get, sadly.

When I took advantage of one of the few nonweird bathrooms in New Orleans (I have refrained from including a Bathroom!Watch sidebar in these reports, but the unisex bathroom, complete with urinal at Maison Bourbon made for some of the wackier moments on the trip), I also learned that we'd missed seeing Bryan Lee there by one week, exactly.

So, anyway, a cool place, even if it is a New York knockoff, rather than a New Orleans original. We called it a relatively early night because M needed to work and we were determined to make it to Brennan's for breakfast in the morning.

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Virtue: The Big Easy, Day 4.2

I made a lame start to Day 4, partly because my morning on Day 4 was lame, both in the sense that my body refused to leave the bed in timely fashion and because I spent it grading. Lunch was not lame. It was, however, lewd.

So, J, M, and I took a cab to Jackson Square to meet up with AMB and KJ. I really was unprepared for the rage that bubbled up in me as we drove past a truly beautiful spot, and this truly ugly, hateful, pathetic disingenuous moment featuring a lousy excuse for a bag of cells flashed through my mind. Seriously, I'm usually quite in touch with my rage, as you may have noticed. That caught me totally off guard.


We ambled across the street from Cafe Du Monde to a place called the River's Edge Cafe. M could not resist the Taste of New Orleans sampler, AMB simply had to have a Half Muff, and I think KJ and J went for Po' Boys. (It is worth noting that only a day earlier, KJ had declared shrimp on a sandwich to be "weird," but it took him less than 48 hours to become a Po' Boy junkie.) I had the aforementioned jambalaya omelette, which sounds bizarre, but is really one of those "Where have you been all my life?" kind of things.

Service continued to be weird, but I do have to hand it to this weirdness: It was weird even for weird service. The server just kind of . . . forgot that AMB and KJ were there at all about half way through the meal.

There wasn't much time for dilly-dallying. That afternoon featured what I thought to be the only worthwhile sessions of the whole conference: some evolution, some straight population genetics, actually using hap maps for something, rather than just endlessly making them like some kind of gamma-irradiated scarf destined for Tom Baker. And, of course, Jstill had his poster presentation to do. AKS and I accompanied him for moral support and to secure provisions.

This proved challenging because . . . and I am not making this up . . . the Starbucks in the convention center RAN OUT OF COFFEE. Although I was adequately caffeinated, AKS was most definitely not. She was brave, though, and we conquered the snack table with the combined power of the tiny, useless T. rex hands of our ancestors. Ok, so there were some dodgy moments when it looked like there were going to be cheese-based casualties, but after they brought out the tongs, all was well.

We spent some time lurking with the professor by his paper, and then I wandered a bit seeing some posters and talking to a few people, some of whom had research that might dovetail with ours. Eventually, AKS and I went in search of coffee. When we learned that there was not a single open coffee shop until we hit the quarter, we were very near committing the extremely tacky crime of availing ourselves of the coffee at the unguarded guest snack lounge at the Hampton Inn. But we were good. What? Stop looking at us like that.

Post-poster, we ventured back to the room to dress for dinner at Muriel's. Our cab ride actually got us to the restaurant a bit early, so we headed back to the bar. Ever-hopeful, ever-deluded, I ordered a sidecar, and the bartender (otherwise quite talented) revealed that he hadn't made one in 10 years, but he gave it his best shot. It was ok, but it wasn't Brigtsen's. He did introduce J to Pimm's cups (not my taste, but I gather they're popular with others), so his reputation recovered before we left the bar.

And, of course, we left the bar when we realized that AMB and KJ had been waiting out front for a while. Wackiness, it follows us, I tells ya. The whole building is really beautiful. Spacewise, it was a great way to round out the trifecta, being warm, but grand to Arnaud's cool, airy space, and Brigtsen's homey, close-knit feel.

But on to the menu. I was running dangerously low on scallops, having had only scallop mousse on Sunday, and I ordered my appetizer accordingly. Both the scallops and the accompanying strudel were outstandingly good, but the appetizer portion was huge, which was the start of my troubles. M succumbed to my mind control and got the duck. There is basically no way to make anything containing the words "duck" "galette" and "port wine" bad, but I can and will not damn this duck with faint praise. Port wine sauces can so easily be overly sweet, burying the main flavor. Not so in this case, where the sauce was a round, complex finish to the duck.

I seem to recall a taste of kickass crabcake making its way to my side of the table, possibly from a KJ-ly direction? No, indeed, he had the shrimp and goat cheese crepes, which were an awesome combination. It's possible that I hallucinated crabcake. J was generous with his foie gras, but I believe he had much of it to himself (with some bakshish sent AKS-ward. It horrifies me to make such an accusation, but I think AMB had a salad. In her defense, I believe it was the roasted mushroom salad, which does have aioli.

There was more data collection on the gumbo front. There was more data loss as gumbo compartments filled and gumbo core was dumped. I cannot even recall the ingredients in the Muriel's gumbo, though I do recall a general agreement that the others at the table would cover as we each licked our bowls clean in turn. And one of us, at least, sampled the turtle soup, but it was not I.

For entrees, we were all intrigued and slightly horrified as we wondered what a puppy drum might be. This may explain why we all stayed away from it. I went for the salmon from the table d'hote menu. I believe AMB was seduced by the "duck cracklins," and so our Fowls FROM HELL theme continued. I know that there were at least two big, juicy pieces of meat on the table (ahem), so I think M had the Ribeye, and it's possible that J had the Filet. My mind is a blank on the other entrees.

This is quite possibly because my body started to rebel shortly after the appetizers arrived. I had a wonderful canker sore that had started forming earlier in the day and it was completely en fuego at dinner. I'd been battling a headache before dinner and had taken my Axert, which often produces some oddish sensations. The salmon was good (although the sauce was a bit too heavy on the herb-saint for me), but about four bites in, I just. couldn't. eat. another. bite.

Unless, of course, that other bite consisted of the peanut butter mousse dome with caramel filling, which AKS split with me to save my life.
I know that there was a big push for J to have the bananas foster cheesecake, but I can't recall if he did go through with the plan to have a high-end liquid dessert in addition to real dessert, or just had one or the other. M had the vanilla bean gelato. The rest of the desserts consumed are lost to the mists of time. That's appropriate, I think, because I have a feeling that AMB had the Pain Perdu Bread Pudding.

Oh, there was also coffee. And rejoicing in the streets, because they sold their coffee, and It Was Good. It was Even Better when we realized that the "pound" came in individual packets for making a pot at a time, so we were able to hand off much-needed provisions to those not staying with us at the Marriott. (Sadly, it was Frustratingly Not Good when KJ realized the next morning that their coffee service had self-contained packets and no filters.)

We rolled out of Muriel's almost literally and sauntered up toward Bourbon, doing some window shopping in the mean time and resolving to do real shopping on the morn. Against our better judgement, we revisited the Everythinge Shoppe on Canal to obtain nonlethal footwear (in the form of sparkly flip flops) for AKS. There was a half-hearted attempt to patronize Harrah's that was aborted when all of their table games were lame in the extreme and it seemed silly to sit at machines and not socialize.

We wandered back out on to canal in search of a bar. Thinking that the Wyndham might have such a thing, we made our way through a closed-but-under-construction-and-sure-why-don't-you-wander-unsupervised-through-to-the-Wyndham mall. We found the bar, but it was tragically rather full with Avaya people. More tragically, the bar staff were really inept and out of lots and lots of things. Having risen to the level of their own incompetence, they added insult to injury by announcing last call before midnight. If that isn't the sign that the meterological terrorists have won, I don't know what is.

We finished our mediocre drinks and toddled on hotelward.

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