Saturday, April 25, 2015

In Search of the Perfect Banh Mi

I was grouchy before I even got to the birthday party last night. There were some reasons: too much exercise made me overtired; my friend forgot to tell me the location of the party had changed restaurants, meaning I turned up at the wrong one; I was in a position where I had to be polite to someone I wasn't in the mood for. None of these life-threatening events, but added up they made me feel prickly with bad-humour. 
The party (when I got to it) was fun and my bad mood faded, but it was with relief that I hit the sack, feeling the toxic mood and tiredness still in my body. I'll sleep it off, I reasoned, and wake up feeling fine
Cue this morning, and the feeling that all was still not fine. Sometimes you're just going to feel tired and groggy- could be a cold, could be fatigue. Who knows? I figured if I was stuck with a less-than-fine feeling I might as well try to distract it, and I knew the perfect distraction: head up Kingsway to find the perfect Banh Mi. 

Kingsway is Pho restaurants and beauty parlours, coffee shops and dusty little businesses that look as if no one's touched the window displays in years. Generations, even.
Nifty old appliances in the window of Y. Franks
Kingsway is also Little Saigon. Some local merchants were angry when city council re-branded part of Cedar Cottage, but it really is pretty fitting. Vietnamese restaurants, nail parlours, delis and groceries are very prevalent between Fraser and Victoria, which is as far as I walked today. 
As I walked, the weather reflected my mood: sun lurked hopefully, but black clouds kept rolling by. I was alternately glad of my thick jacket and overheated by it, sometimes in the space of a few minutes. 
I love Vietnamese food, and heartily miss living across the street from Le Petit Saigon, where I ate a Number 49 (beef on skewers, grated carrot, daikon and cucumber, vermicelli) pretty much once a week. But in all my life, I've never eaten a Banh Mi, or Vietnamese sub sandwich. Now that I live so near to Little Saigon, how could I not investigate this intriguing combination of French-influenced baking and Asian meats? 
My first stop was Ba Le Deli & Bakery, which is all of five minutes from my house, at an intersection where uber-Hipster coffee, old-school Mexican, Mexi-fusion, East Indian pizza, French cuisine, Caribbean-Japanese diner and more all meet in a glorious multicultural melange. I was all ready to order... and then I saw the Cash Only sign at the till (this would be a common theme all along Kingsway). I told them I'd be back, and started walking towards Victoria, where I remembered seeing a Vietnamese restaurant years ago with such mouthwatering photos of subs in their window that I'd wanted to visit for ages, and never got around to it. 
The stores along this stretch of Kingsway are, for the most part, small businesses that seem to cater to a loyal following and aren't that interested in attracting newbies. Many of the cafes look dark and dusty- they might be making the best food in the 'hood, but you'd never know it from the presentation. I wanted to give them all the benefit of the doubt... but I didn't want to waste my money, either. I kept going, drawn by my memories of the large-windowed and attractive cafe I'd seen years ago. 
Past Cedar Cottage Coffee, where I met my guy 6 months ago (I noticed that Crow Salvaged Goods, an interesting art/furniture store we'd checked out that day, hadn't lasted as long as our relationship, although a check of the internets suggests that it was meant to be a temporary store). Past the Tipper, where I've eaten several delicious breakfasts. Here I was at Victoria... and I couldn't find the cafe of my memories. There were a couple of Vietnamese places (including the infamous and long-renamed Pho Bich Nga), but none of them had mouthwatering photos of banh mi in the window. Either it had closed, or it was under new management. Back to Ba Le for me! 
The clouds came back, making everything look darker and more dramatic. 

I kind of wanted to try the Dragon Lord Cafe, which has a powerful name that doesn't match the cutesy cartoon animals on its awning, but it was closed. Since I was feeling fuzzy-headed and tired, I decided that Vietnamese Coffee, swimming with condensed milk, would cure what ailed me. I dropped in to another cafe that was painted lime-green inside, and ordered one to go. Sadly, I picked the wrong cafe... and the wrong coffee. I forgot to ask for it hot, so I got a cold one, the condensed milk glomming sulkily onto the ice cubes and the coffee bitter. Four bucks wasted. 
Ba Le smelled of fresh bread and I was intrigued by the dumplings, leaf-wrapped rice, and dessert-like things at the till. Since I don't know my way around Vietnamese deli meats and the word "headcheese" does NOT do anything for my appetite, I stuck with a safe sandwich option: grilled pork with veggies... and more coffee. "It's very strong and very sweet," the woman at the till warned me briskly. "Perfect!" I replied, and sat down to wait. It took a while, but when the sub arrived it was everything I'd hoped for: tender pork with just enough sweet sauce, the lightly-pickled trio of carrot, cuke and daikon; cilantro and spicy peppers, packed into a warm, toasted baguette. Heaven. 

I wolfed it down, along with the coffee, which was- as promised- very strong and VERY sweet. It didn't totally wake me up, and whatever bug I'm fighting is still lurking, but I think I've found a Vietnamese treat to rival my old love, the Number 49. And since it's five minutes from my house, and a mere $4.50, you can bet I'll be back. 





Thursday, April 16, 2015

Just Another Little Gig

You might not think it was much, if you walked by.
Just a quiet night at a local restaurant, music spilling out of an opening door into the darkened street.
Folky and sweet; a small group of listeners at tables, laughter and chatter swelling and hushing again.
But this is my life- these people, this music.
Playing our songs, fingers fumbling at times but harmonies sure and true. Listening to our friends play a set after my band finishes; the crowd grows smaller as it gets later but we stay and watch til the end.
My lover sketches the old-fashioned microphone on stage, his deft fingers turning it into a comical skeleton figure in his notebook. My ex and his girl sit just ahead of us; my mother and my guy's mother are sitting opposite us at the table. Years of love and stories, all around me. An old friend from out of town came through the door earlier tonight, making my jaw drop in delight as I played a song. Other friends came by to celebrate the night with us.
We may have only walked away with a few dollars each; we may have battled a bad sound system and our own musical mistakes but the songs we sing, the friendships in this room, the history we have- it means everything.
Nights like this I remember why I am a musician.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Fear of...Success?

     I've just spent the last couple of days hammering out some plans for a big project with someone I love, and guess what? It was exciting and stimulating and also damn hard and kind of awful, too. 
     Here was the best part: Sitting on the couch, with Gangs of New York playing in the background (because I've never seen it); he was drawing, I was writing. Each of us, working side-by-side in the mediums that best suit us, being creative. 
     Here was the worst part: trying to talk about this project together and feeling a negative response in my body, a physical rejection. Squirmy, uncomfortable tension. What was this? Are we not suited to work together? Nope, don't think that's it. Are we communicating well? Could use some work, but no, that's not it either... Do I believe that the project has potential? Actually, yes. Do I believe that I deserve to spend large amounts of time and money (preferably other people's) on this project? To risk failure in the pursuit of success? Wait: To risk actually being successful?
     AH. 
     Dreaming is comfortable. Imagining is easy. Coming up with the concept for this project is fun. What's not fun, at least for me, is starting to hammer out practical details, especially budgeting. Partly because this drags the project from the safe confines of my "wouldn't it be nice if..." imagination into the arena of actual hard work. And also because to put this much time and belief and hard work into a project that's based around my creative work means that I'm making a bold statement. I'm saying:

"I believe in my work and I believe that it's worth showcasing. I believe that it deserves to be seen and heard by a larger audience and I believe that time and money should be sent in order to make that a reality. Not only my time and money, but that of someone I love, and also the time and money of complete strangers as well. I have not only the creativity to come up with the original concept, but the drive and ambition and hard-headed stubbornness to see it through to completion. I know that it will be hard, that we will run up against stumbling blocks, but we will keep going. And we will embrace success, and strive for it, and not be comfortable with safe mediocrity."


     This is fucking terrifying. 
     I'm realizing that I don't believe in myself deep down as much as I thought. And now I've met someone who thinks that our combined skills will create something amazing, but he's in it to win it, as they say. So goodbye comfort zones and hello risk. It's not that we're betting the farm (we're applying for a grant of sorts, so the risk isn't financial); the risk is in taking the leap of faith that we are worth it. This little fish is going to dip her fins in bigger ponds if she's lucky. And I'm realizing that sharks aren't the problem in these deeper waters (if I may continue with the fish metaphor for a minute). The biggest problem could be me. 
     Here's where uncomfortable self-awareness is a good thing though; at least I can pinpoint the problem. When I feel myself getting tense I know why it's happening and I can take steps to relax. Today that meant going for a run- no better way to work off tension than to tire yourself out. Stop thinking: turn on some hip hop and wear out your muscles for a while. Building good exercise habits also builds more pride in myself: if I can accomplish a workout I can also accomplish other things. Focusing on small goals rather than getting overwhelmed by the big picture is also important. 
     It's a big deal, believing in yourself. And it's never easy. I'm actually really glad that this project has highlighted how much I still need to grow, because I'd gotten a bit complacent about it. 
     Maybe we won't get everything we're hoping for out of this project. But if I don't start believing that it's worth trying for, it'll sputter out like a hundred other half-baked ideas and dreams have done. I want to at least go down fighting this time. And if I commit to that, if I believe that I deserve to put time and energy into my creative work then who knows what could happen? It's terrifying and exhilarating to think about. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rats in the Basement

     My love and I are sitting on the sand at Wreck Beach. There are maybe fifteen other people down here and only one of them is naked at this clothing-optional site, so I mischievously suggest that we remove our clothes. The day is surprisingly warm for March and we've just biked here so we're sweaty: seconds later we are naked in the sand, comfortably propped up against a log, gazing out to sea.
     From Wreck Beach you can see water spreading out before your eyes; you can also see planes taking off from the airport. I wave saucily at one. The planes and the beach are uncomfortable reminders on this happy day with my guy: reminders of planes that didn't make it, and of starving sea lions not so far from here.
     "I just want to die happy," I say. "I want to die 20, 30, 40 years from now not trying to remember how life was before some kind of cataclysm." I nuzzle my nose against his cheek, where I go to imprint his smell in my brain. "And I don't want anything bad to happen to you."
     "I just want to live happy," he answers, my guy who is practical and funny and kind and loving and tough and infuriating and stubborn and gentle and smart.
     Are we hurtling towards the end? Guess what: we all are, whether the ice melts or not, whether our water runs out or not. I try to keep a balance between burying my head in the sand and knowing what's going on in the world because too much news is bad news and too much bad news is like opening your basement door and seeing thousands of rat eyes staring back at you. When 9/11 happened I remember literally wanting to stop the world and get off, because nowhere felt safe.
     This is it, this is the world we're stuck with. I scrunch my toes in the sand and send up a silent prayer of thanks that I have the luck to spend a lazy Saturday with someone I love. We brush off the sand and don our clothes again and I challenge him to see how many stairs we can run up on our way back to the bikes. We are alive, we are in love, we are healthy. For now that's plenty, that's enough.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

On "I don't know", the power of Yes, and Fake-It-'til-You-Make-It

     This afternoon I walked the short walk to work, and a slight first-day-of-school feeling nagged at my stomach. Today was my first day in my new permanent position as a Junior Piano Class Assistant Instructor. I'd done some subbing last Monday (and indeed, I've been hanging around this music school in various different capacities since last year), but today I'd be working with the two classes and instructors I'll be with until June. There's a fair bit riding on this: If I do well in these classes (and in my other job as an outreach assistant) there will probably be more jobs there in the future and I will have regular work close to home. I keenly want to make a good impression.

     On the other hand, although I was a bit nervous I could tell I was feeling a lot more calm about my new job(s) than I would have felt even a year ago. And although I wanted to make a good impression I was cutting myself some slack too: I would make some mistakes and I would improve, but no one was expecting perfection from me all at once. So what changed? Why am I generally not the nervous wreck I used to be when starting something new? I've been thinking about it a lot in the past couple of years and I believe it really comes down to one thing: I care less about what people think about me. 

     A sensitive older child, I practically tumbled out of the womb wanting to please. My parents' (infrequent) anger or disapproval upset me deeply, even though I would stand up for what I believed in (my mom claims she could never get me to go to my room because I would argue vehemently against it every time). In some ways I was tough and independent: I didn't care what other kids thought and I went my own way even if it meant being thought "weird" or "different". But I've always hated, hated having people be disappointed, angry or disapproving of me, and it's made me timid about some of my choices because I've been afraid to fail. Fail and incur those bad thoughts in others. 

"I haven't an enemy. What a spineless thing I must be not to have even one enemy!" - L.M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle

That quote has stuck with me for years. 

     But that's the marvelous, liberating thing about getting older: you just stop caring as much about what people think. I can remember walking self-consciously through the bookstore where I used to work in my teens and twenties, a rictus grin pasted on my face because I felt awkward in my body. I can remember bursting into tears because I'd gotten my schedule mixed up and missed a shift at work. I can remember getting all twisted up inside because I had to get mad at a cast who wasn't practicing their music hard enough. 

     But we condition our brains, through years of repetition: we succeed, and we enjoy, and we succeed again. And we fail too, and we learn that it will not destroy us. We make a few enemies along the way, and we grow the balls to stand up for our side of the argument. We learn a few useful things:

  • Doing your job well is more important than trying to be well-liked.  Sometimes you have to get tough. Sometimes you have to be a bitch. I've learned a lot watching my friend Gord with his piano students. He's tough on them, he doesn't take any shit, and they adore him. Being popular doesn't always get results or respect. Actually, being tough will get you respect. My new job is about helping to enforce order and attention in the classroom, and I'm not always going to get to be nice. That's ok. 
  • It's okay to say "I don't know". My sister-in-law and I were having a conversation about this today. She said that when she's teaching and a student asks her something she doesn't know, she'll use that as a tool to see if they can go and research the answer on their own. Being the teacher doesn't mean you know everything... and that's ok. I used to think I had to have all the answers; now I know I can relax a bit. 
  • People will make assumptions. And that's awesome.  As teachers, directors, whatever, we are "gifted" with a certain amount of authority. Unless you really screw up, having the title of 'teacher' or 'music director' helps set you in a certain place in the hierarchy. I'm not saying you should abuse that, I'm saying that you already have some authority. People will assume you know what you're doing! Use that as a natural confidence-builder. You probably got this job for a reason. 
  • Fake It 'til You Make It! I know a guy who bluffed his way into teaching a course on a subject he knew very little about. Every night before the class he would read just enough of the textbook so that he would stay ahead of the students. Now he's winning awards in his field. He had the confidence to bluff his way through until he really was an expert. I refused to teach for years, saying "I don't know how to teach." What a cop-out! Now I've got a few accordion students and I'm learning how to work with kids in a group piano class setting as well. I don't always know what I'm doing, but so what? I'm a good musician and I can pass that on to other people. The technique of teaching itself is something that will only get better the more I teach. And I'm discovering that I love it! 
  • Say 'yes' to things that scare you. Nowadays, if I feel a little frisson of fear when contemplating a job offer, I try and say yes to it. Why? Because I know that it will stretch me, challenge me, and make me more experienced. The reason I feel so much more confident these days is that every job has been a new challenge that's made me grow. Even if the growth was sometimes painful. 
  • Failure isn't the end of life as you know it. Every time I've gone in for some post-secondary education I've absolutely hated it. Bad timing, wrong course, you name it... I don't really know why it hasn't gelled for me, considering that I'm reasonably smart and usually pretty sociable. I really didn't like a lot of the time I spent at Cap a couple of years ago, but it taught me that I was a musician even if I hated music school, and that I wouldn't die if I didn't succeed. I've heard terrible stories and rumours about certain actors, directors, you name it... and guess what? They're still working. If they can still collect a paycheque after the things I've heard, I'll probably be ok. 
  • Know your limits. When I was interviewing for a job at this music school, my friend Gord (who had basically done such good PR on me that they couldn't not hire me) told the powers that be that I would be a perfect piano teacher... and guitar teacher. When my future boss asked me if that was true, I laughed and said no. I can mess about on the guitar, but I have no business teaching it to beginners. Same goes for singing- although I am a good singer I have little knowledge of the science behind it. I have a strong voice and I know how to use it... but I don't want to be responsible for teaching a faulty technique that could harm someone's vocal chords. Until I know more about how voices work, that's off-limits. 
And finally...
  •  Don't compare yourself to others. When I work with some of the incredibly self-assured and confident 20-somethings in this business I can't help but die a little inside. If only I'd been that confident at their age, I sigh. But we're all tied up in knots about things, we fear failure and the things that we take for granted can be terrifying to someone else. A lot of what we see in others is a facade anyway. 
If only I could go back in time and tell Younger Me to just relax a little more and stop worrying so much! When I think of the energy I wasted worrying... But that's part of the journey, and I wouldn't have believed it then. I can only hope that Future Me is a defiant old woman, shaking her fist at nay-sayers and making a few enemies just for the hell of it. Because it will have been a long time coming. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

For Love AND Money.

     It's been one thing after another today. I just had a crying fit all over my poor boyfriend, who had just dropped by for a quick coffee, because I've decided to accept an out-of-town gig for two months this summer. On the plus side: the job sounds tailor-made for me (music directing and getting to perform, which is all too rare); making a connection with a talented Vancouver director (a BIG plus); getting to travel to a place I've never been. On the minus side: having to leave town for 2 months- granted it's better than the 5 months I'm usually away and it could lead to more work here in Vancouver, but I have to leave my band, my home and my guy, and with his erratic work schedule there's no guarantee he'll be able to make it out for a visit, much as he wants to. I can't shake the nagging feeling that I've failed in my commitment to stay in town, but the truth is... there's just not enough work here right now. I've put down some roots, made some connections, and I can truly say that my entrepreneurial side has blossomed since I've been back, but still. Not enough work.

     Paid work, that is. A director called me up today, wanting me to do some work with the cast of a musical she's directing. She's been trying to pin me down for a while but it was a seven-week rehearsal period, which should've been my first clue... "I do have to mention that it's a volunteer position," she said matter-of-factly. "I mean, I'm not even getting paid."

     "I've seen the stuff you guys do and I love your work," I answered, "but I can't commit to another project where I don't get paid right now. I'm freelancing to make a living and I'm struggling. I just can't." This would have been seven weeks of unpaid rehearsals on Sundays and Wednesdays for me; god knows how many hours that director is going to be putting in. 
     Tonight I close a show that I've been working on- as a performer and music director- since before Christmas. Almost three months since we started, and my total pay was less than a professional stage performer typically makes in one week. It's a quirky young company which is trying very hard to rise above its non-pro status and do some good shows... and against all odds, with a skeleton budget and a can-do spirit, they are doing good work. Most of the performers are a good bit younger than me, but not all of them. They work hard at their day jobs and then they come and do this show for the love of it and for a small honorarium. For most of them, it's a small bonus on top of their regular work; for me it's my rent money. I'm glad I worked for them and I'd do it again, but I simply can't afford to very often. 
     
     In contrast: Last week I was in Whitehorse, staying at the Best Western Hotel with a room (and two beds!) all to myself while my friend Russell had the room (and two beds!) next door. A friend and bandmate of ours had gotten a grant to fly us up there, put us up, pay us a per diem, pay her mother a fee to look after her toddler... all so we could rehearse and workshop some pieces of music she'd composed. It was glorious. No big report to fill out, no performance necessary (although we did two shows for the fun of it); seven days to make music and live comfortably while we did it. All thanks to my friend's initiative, and the Yukon government, bless them for nurturing their local talent. The luxury of getting up every day of that week knowing that I was being paid to do the thing I love most! Of being able to concentrate on one job and one job only instead of doing the usual job-juggling! 
     While we were up there I had a message from a musician I've worked with a lot over the years, a lovely man who pays a fair rate for all the recording sessions and concerts I've done with him. So-and-so wants me to play at an event to raise awareness for a bunch of social justice issues. Would you be available to play this gig with me? It's a voluntary thing but I can pay you twenty bucks. I took a deep breath and wrote back: I think I'll respectfully decline. I have a bit of an issue with social justice groups who can't pay performers. It's not just me who thinks this is wrong; I've had this conversation with some friends of mine who are far more left-wing and socially aware than me and they say the same thing: how can you be part of a left-wing organization and not see the irony in asking performers to volunteer their time and talents? 

     I could make the list longer: The singer who didn't pay me anything for hours of session work; the restaurants (and they are legion) who get bands to "pass the hat" for money and don't even give you a free meal; filmmakers who "have no budget" for music (but hey! It'll look great on your resume!)... But I also want to acknowledge the people who tried really hard to be fair: the singer who paid me my hourly rate for doing session work on his album, even though he's clearly struggling to scrape enough money together to get it finished; the radio personality who always pays generously for the session work I do for him; the small theatre company who only had "an honorarium" to pay me... an honorarium that turned out to be more than generous; every struggling restaurant and musician and theatre company who paid something, even if it wasn't much, because they know how hard it is. 

      I love what I do. I love playing for theatre companies, seniors' homes, and other musicians. I love writing songs, I love recording, and I love performing. I'm learning how to better exploit my skills to make money, whether it's teaching accordion privately, getting work at a music school or developing a custom-songwriting business (stay tuned for how that works out!). But let's get this straight: it IS work. And when I give you my time and my skill-set, you need to pay me. I can't say no more freebies, because every once in a while there's something that's impossible to resist, either because it'll pay off in the future, or because it's so fun/interesting/unique that it's worth doing. But in general I will no longer do work for nothing, and I will be very careful with how much time I give you if you can't pay much. We are all struggling, I get that. But your show/movie/album is not so important that it's worth exploiting me for. 
     The company I'm going to be working for this summer in the prairies contacted me tonight to work out contract details: without even having to negotiate I got a reasonable paycheque, a return flight, free accommodation and an assurance that there would be room for my guy to stay, should he want to visit. Although I'm still sad about leaving town I'm relieved that I'll be earning a decent living doing what I love. 
Too bad there are so many people who seem to think that artists should be happy to create things for love, but not for money. Too bad that we artists are often the ones most guilty of perpetuating that idea. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Life More Ordinary.


Yesterday I sat with my lover for almost 8 hours, working on an e-commerce website for a client of his. At the end of it I felt as though I had developed tunnel vision from all the screen-staring; I had almost broken down in tears several times and yet somehow we muddled through, learning just enough to do what we needed to do... Learning, also, to work together and come out at the end of the day still making each other grin even though the work was frustrating and boring. 

I'm also learning that I'm not good at buckling down and doing stuff I dislike. Performing in front of hundreds of people? Not remotely a problem. Practicing my instrument on the other hand? Ugh. Taking over a rehearsal when the music director is sick? Ok, no problem. Plugging away for hours at an e-commerce site that yields its secrets slowly? Makes me teary and stubborn almost right away. Typical bright-child syndrome: I'm used to 'getting' things right away so having to actually apply myself is difficult. My brother, who wasn't as book-smart as me, learned how to study. I never did. Now the bright older sister is living in one bedroom in her brother's house wondering how she managed to get to 40 without a degree, a real job, or any money in the bank. Well no, actually, I know. Some of it has to do with the fact that I never learned to apply myself, to stick with things even when the going got tough. 

Don't get me wrong; I love my life. I have wonderful friends, a family who supports me (sometimes literally), and many jobs that are exciting even if they leave my bank balance somewhat low. And I work hard, in fiery bursts followed by periods of aimlessness. But after so many years of scraping by, something has got to change. I made a decision this year to put more roots down again in my city, and as I said in my last post, it's paying off. Love came into my life again. Friendships and bands have blossomed. And in my downtime I buckled down and applied myself a bit more: resumes, websites, an increased social media presence. Songs written, songs recorded. Job applications, job interviews, job prospects. This month has been good to me so far, even if my wallet is slim. I landed some jobs and I await news of more. 

It's been a long time coming, this knowledge. And I haven't mastered it yet by any means. But I feel the shift within myself and I'm proud that I haven't been idle this month by any means. 

Today, my guy and I ate our bacon-and-eggs together and talked about our dream projects: a song of mine he wants to animate, a children's book we want to create together. We are both going through some intense transitions right now, both struggling to make a living. But his work ethic inspires me to try harder; my talents as a songwriter and performer inspire him to draw more and think outside the box. We can be good for each other, I think. 

Can I combine living-the-dream with making-a-living? It's still a work in progress. But I feel as if the first tentative steps have been taken, and damn, it feels good.