Saturday, November 28, 2009

Place your bets!

The video has nothing whatsoever to do with the post. But you people deserve some entertainment.

This is for you readers who don't know me on Facebook (and why is that, anyway?)

I'm soliciting your best guess as to when the baby might arrive - the due dates are either December 9 is you believe our American doctor, or December 13 if you believe our French one. I'm running a bit of an experiment - I'm averaging all the guesses so far, and seeing how close our collective wisdom matches reality.

Closest guess wins a prize! But not a good one!

Comment away!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Be true to your school

Most of the time, the culture in the U.S. is not so radically different from that in Canada. The friendliness of the people is more-or-less, the language more-or-less the same, the merchandise on the shelves more-or-less the same.

This weekend, I had probably one of the first “I’ve moved to another planet” moments. And that was when one of Amynah’s cousins invited us out to his part of the city to watch his high-school marching band in a parade.

Of course, I was familiar with the concept of a marching band, of course – my hometown is home to one of the world’s larger military tattoos, so I’ve seen a few drum lines in my time. Not to mention, I was in my high-school’s music programme, albeit as a percussionist, thus saving me the trouble of having to learn any music.

But the American high-school marching band… that is something else entirely. It’s a quasi-military spectacle, as interpreted by a Vegas Casino – all sequins, showmanship, and saxophones.

The parade, it turns out, was not a parade but a competition, with some fifty middle- and high school bands, plus their associated drum-lines, colour guards and cheerleaders, strutting their stuff in front of thousands of onlookers and a raised stage of stern-faced judges, whose eyes were unreadable under the shade of their Stetsons.

The colour guard introduces the next band

Amynah’s cousin explained to me that the judges were scoring the musical platoon on a number of factors: music, obviously, but also the orderliness of their ranks, their stride, the choreography of their “colour guards” (these were basically cheerleaders carrying signs and banners of the school colours), the sparkliness of the uniforms, and “spirit.” This last was measured by the band shouting their school team’s name at top volume en masse.

Of course, each school had its own traditions, which were reflected in their remarkably elaborate uniforms. A number of the bands on parade came from schools that evidently had some Scottish connection, as they were in full Highland regalia: kilts all around, bearskin hats, a stepdancing colour guard, and – to my delight – bagpipes.

Now, being from Nova Scotia (New Scotland, for those of you not up on your Latin) I’ve seen more than one kilt and bagpipe consortium in my time. Most men I know – let alone high-school boys - cannot be induced to don a skirt unless they have some connection to the hills and lochs of Scotland, however generationally distant.

Not so here. The area where Amynah’s cousin lives has a very large population of Chinese immigrants, meaning that most of the kids suffering the full Scottish regimental first thing on a chilly late-fall morning were more likely to have descended from families that hailed from Dhezhou than Dunbar.

Give me an ach!

When we first moved to the U.S., people who showed us around would frequently point out some local oddball – like a burly biker on a neon green Harley-Davidson – while saying “only in America.” They were usually wrong: in my experience, there’s no country that can’t boast its share of eccentrics and obsessives. But I really think that only in America would you find hundreds of East-Asian descended high-school kids marching in lockstep to the keening cadences of “Scotland the Brave” while their sequins glitter in the early Saturday morning light. It was strange, and kind of inspiring.

Yeah, I know I already posted on this in French. I’m not going to be twice as interesting just because I’m writing twice as much.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Conan II: You really shouldn't have encouraged me

Part One of this far-too-long post is over yonder. We return to the Late Night With Conan O’Brien taping, where our hero, battered, bruised, and cowed, sits near the back of the theatre. The taping is about to begin.…

Their raid into the audience complete, the Max Weinberg’s Psychological warfare unit returned to their glittery barracks to one side of the stage. Andy Ritcher lumbered to his booth off to the other side of the stage. And then a great hush fell over the studio… Ladies and gentlemen, Conan O’Brien!

APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! Aaaargh! I didn’t notice the sign, and I’m so dazed from the abuse, I forgot to clap. A glowering page glances at me, nudges his colleague – I start hammering my hands together with a vigor that could crush a golf ball, would security had let me through with one.

Meanwhile, the curtains in front of the stage have parted, and out bounded the star of the show, a gawky mess of dangling limbs, goofy hair and dead, soulless eyes.

The applause sign flickered madly, but it needn’t have – we knew what to do. We rose, five hundred quislings welcoming the tanks in Oslo, and gave him a standing ovation. Yet it wasn’t enough… the light kept flashing, demanding more APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! it went on far longer than the sight of a man walking into a room warranted. Finally, as Conan came forward, he raised his hands for quiet – we double checked with the sign to make sure it was ok, and slowly stopped clapping.

“Well, that’s all the time we have tonight,” he said, and we did laugh obediently, with a hint of hysteria. But wait, what was that? A flash of movement, by the camera. Is that guy holding cue cards? That was the first joke of the evening? You mean all of this – the abuse, the threats, the menacing stack of cattle-prods off to the side of the stage, all of it was in aid of using us for the set-up for a lame joke? I feel so used.

That moment would be one of the few in which Conan interacted with the audience at all. As the monologue continued, I was surprised – naïve me – to realize that he was not addressing his words to us in the studio at all, but rather to the camera now blocking the hallway through which we had entered. In the vague mental picture I’d had of late night television, I’d always believed that there were people sitting in the general vicinity of the camera, to whom the host was facing. Not so – the performance was for the camera – we were merely to act as prompts for the audience at home, creating an atmosphere of “excitement” – because after all, spontaneous applause sounds much the same as applause extracted under duress.

This was driven home for me when I watched the episode as it was broadcast later that night. At one point in the monologue, he started a joke “So, the 7/11 convenience store chain announced that they were going to start selling their own brand of wine [pause for laughter] they’re going to make it out of grapes that had been sitting in the store for three years.”

On the broadcast, this punchline got big laughs, while the set up only got a few titters. In fact, it was the other way around – the idea of 7/11 wine was funnier than the joke Conan’s writers spun from it. However, with the miracle of sound editing, the audience at home was convinced that Conan was knocking us dead.

Of course, we jumpy and gun-shy at this point, and so were inclined to make offerings to appease our sign-flashing overlords whether overtly demanded or not: other lines that inexplicably got applause, sans prompting, and before their accompanying punchlines were delivered: “President Obama is visiting China” (Yay! Clap clap! Woo!) “So, research shows that people are watching more TV” (Yay! Woo! Clap clap! Wait – is this a good thing?) “Stephen Tyler and Joe Perry have announced that Aerosmith is not breaking up,” (Yay! Woo! Clap clap clap! Yay! Wait – this is not a good thing).

On to the next joke! “There was a study done that proved that big breasted women…” at which point he was interrupted by a woman’s cry of “woo!” from somewhere behind me in the audience. I cringed: we aren’t allowed to independently “woo!” They specifically, and very emphatically told us that there was to be no “woo!” permitted outside of the context of general applause. Averting my eyes in anticipation of the crack of the Greyshirts’ pistol as she was summarily executed, but Conan was merciful: he waved them off, noting that she did possess very large breasts, which did pleaseth him.

The joke continued: large breasted women, according to this study, apparently have higher I.Q.’s than their less endowed sisters: he was interrupted again by applause from exactly half the women in the audience. I also heard some guy audibly remark behind me “but… that doesn’t make any sense.” I hope he wasn’t trying to impress his date, because in so doing he either called a buxom woman dumb or a smart girl flat. Either way, he proved that that people with no breasts are often the most intellectually handicapped of all.

Lost in this reverie, I missed the punchline (well, can’t be bothered to repeat it – it boiled down to “men are pigs”) but I was brought back to the studio through the insistent blare of the band starting up the recessional as Conan finished up his monologue.

You might remember from my previous post that I had come with Dylan, from Amynah’s lab, and his coworker Chris, and his wife. Now, here’s something about Chris that is important: he’s a Republican. A thinks-Sarah-Palin’s great, huntin’ fishin’ traditional-marriage-protecting healthcare=communism Rush Limbaugh-listening Republican. A Republican who disdained a ride to the studio in my Japanese-import Honda Civic, with it’s un-American fuel economy and conspiracy-of-the-One-World-government metric odometer, in favour of his patriotic SUV.* His kind is a rare bird in Los Angeles, and his views are alien to my worldview, but Amynah assures me he is a very nice, if somewhat argumentative guy. (*Though, granted, that might have been because he had to be somewhere else after the show).

His politics would be utterly irrelevant, except that Dylan had no idea who the guests were going to be when he made the reservations. I suspect, given that we’re heading into Oscar-movie season, that he had been hoping for a Hollywood star of some variety.

I invite you to imagine the general disappointment when Conan looked at the camera, and uttered the most bald-faced and nonsensical lie I’ve ever heard: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a very exciting show tonight – Al Gore’s here!”

The applause sign was flashing insistently, the band was wailing away, the audience was cheering. Dylan was clapping dejectedly. I hazarded a glance down the row to where Chris sat. He was scowling, his arms crossed.

Suddenly, I knew that it was going to be an entertaining evening after all.

We were now in what would presumably become a commercial break. Conan took his place behind his desk, in front of a window that looked over downtown Los Angeles (sadly, I regret to inform you, this too was fake. Were there a window in that spot, it would look over a Lovecraftian spectacle of horror – the writhing breeding colony of comedy trolls from where the warm-up comic sprang).

Meanwhile, the band continued to drive home subliminal messages to compel our compliance (why else play a cover of the Clash’s “Clampdown?”). Conan sat behind his desk, reviewing his notes, Ritcher perched perched behind his announcer’s kiosk, like a kid at a lemonade stand on a rainy day. He doesn’t look very comfortable in that APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! And we’re back!

First thing first, Conan tells us what will be happening on tomorrow’s show: “Academy Award Winner Reese Witherspoon will be here!” APPLAUSE! “Star of the new movie Precious, Gaboures Sidibe!” APPLAUSE! “And musical guest Kris Allen” (who? Nevermind!) APPLAUSE!

Again, for viewers at home, there was some creative sound-editing going on, because it turns out that while I was just happy that tonight’s guest was someone I’d heard of, my fellow inmates were less pleased. Chris, of course, was fuming that he had driven halfway across Los Angeles in order to breathe the same air as the arch-fiend, but he was not alone in his disappointment. The words “Reese Witherspoon” and “tomorrow” elicited a collective groan from the crowd: instead an evening swooning over the sweet nothings uttered by America’s Sweetheart® we were getting an evening of thinly-veiled digs about our lifestyle choices from America’s Sanctimonious Uncle®.

Zipping right along, Ritcher was allowed to grace the stage with Conan for a “In the Year 3000” segment, in which I noticed that what few funny lines there were went to the host: Ritcher strained mightily, but failed to make funny a joke about baseball player Sammy Sosa bleaching his skin to join NASCAR. It occurred to me that if it is the writers who are coming up with all this stuff anyway, would it kill them to share out the few scraps of humour they generate, instead of sacrificing their entire harvest to the insatiable maw of Conan as if appeasing some jealous god? The man’s the host after all, he doesn’t need to APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE!… and we’re back to commercial: the band is playing a salsa version of “Stay in your seats and no one gets hurt.” Ritcher has been banished back to his lemonade stand in the corner and APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! We’re back, as Conan introduces Al Gore.

APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! Us marionettes rise on our strings to give Gore a standing ovation, apparently for navigating the distance between the studio’s stage and Conan’s couch without being blocked by the Supreme Court. The elephant in the room (yes, that was a clever reference to the Republican Party logo. No need to congratulate me for my cleverness – I’ve got it covered) was sitting on his hands, his eyes shooting daggers at the stage.

The interview was a strange experience. I’d seen late night talk shows before, so I wasn’t expecting a Frost/Nixon-type interrogation. Nontheless, something about seeing it in person made me contrast it with how I conduct my interviews: a question, listen to the response, a follow-up question, maybe a clarification, then on to the next topic.

After the initial queries about Gore’s Nobel Prize win, Conan brought up the book the former VP was on the show to promote. There’s a children’s version – Conan says he hasn’t read it, then goes on a tangent about scaring his kids with predictions of climate doom. Gore makes polite noises about the youth of today solving the problems of tomorrow – I steal a glance at Chris, who is clenching his fists. No matter - Conan’s now on to geothermal power… Gore says there’s enough to power the US for 35,000 years – what? How? What happens after that? Do we run out of Earth? – no matter! Conan’s off windmills killing birds, largely as excuse to show funny looking graph in Gore’s books. The graph is duly laughed at by everyone – I look at Chris, who doesn’t want to do anything positive Gore-related, but would like to believe he’s being ridiculed. So he splits the difference, and rather than laugh, he smirks, angrily.

The graph purported to show windmills were not – as some opponents claim – as much a threat to ornithological life as your average housecat or tall building. “It’s not a real problem” asserted Gore confidently. “Wait” thought I, “Windmills are usually located in different ecological zones than housecats or skyscrapers – we can spare a few million pigeons, after all, but not so many whooping cranes.” No matter! Conan’s off to Afghanistan now – should we invade them for their geothermal stores when we run out in a few millennia? No, it’s something about Obama’s current choice, and Gore’s diplomatically saying he wished Johnson (wink wink) had figured out an exit strategy when he went into to Vietnam (wink wink) all those years ago. Chris’s wife is restraining her beau with a whiteknuckled grip, as his face turns purple from the effort of not screaming “Liar” when Gore suggested that perhaps the presence of American soldiers might be resented by the freedom-craving citizens of Central Asia, and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! We’re done with Gore, and now on to our next guest – some dude from a sitcom I don’t watch. He’s amusing, but he’s clearly terrified of by the juxtaposition of Conan’s idiot smile and his pitiless stare, as he’s squirming like a five year old with a bladder disorder. They pretend to joke about Star Wars, and then the guest (Jim Parsons) oh-so-casually mentions he used to do a commercial where he had to pretend he was raised by wolves and oh what a coincidence we happen to have that commercial right here says Conan. They ran the commercial, which featured Parsons pretending to nurse at a wolf’s teat. The APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! sign made its demands above me, but by now I couldn’t be bothered. I was wrung out, wearied by the sham. We in the audience were clearly key to the feeling of spontaneity a show like this required. But couldn’t they give us a little credit? Did they seriously believe that we didn’t know this was discussed and possibly rehearsed ahead of time? Stop lying to me, Conan!

“Well, we’ll have to have you back, you’re so much fun to talk to,” said Conan to his horrified guest and APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! we’re off to commercial.

Now, despite having just said how much he enjoyed talking to his guest, during the intermission, while we waited for the musical act to set up, Conan – despite sitting right next to Parsons – did not say a word to him. That menial task he left to Ritcher. Instead, he got up, wandered to the front of the stage, surveyed the huddled masses arrayed before him with a sociopathic blank expression, wandered back behind his desk, and stood for three minutes next to the apparently animated chat his supposedly buddy-buddy sidekick and “so interesting” guest were having, while making no effort to participate or even feign interest.

Observing this strange non-interaction, I was inclined to chalk it up to our host’s focus: he was clearly psyching himself up for the last part of the show, preparing his lines and delivery in his APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! and we’re back!

“Ladies and gentlemen… Jason Mraz, the Tonight Show band, and the San Diego Gospel Choir!”

That was it. So, apparently, not psyching himself up so much as being a bit of a jerk. But no matter, we had the musical guest to endure! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE!

Again, having re-watched the show after the fact, I can assure you that the song that was broadcast was not at all the song I heard in the studio. The song that was broadcast was a low key, happy little number with an uplifting chorus. Such are the wonders of mixing boards and sound engineers. Lacking those ameliorating mediators, what we experienced, in that over amplified echo chamber of a studio, was a man miming at playing guitar while occasionally signaling his distress via an improvised semaphor system – that being the only way he had to communicate over the cacophony emanating from behind him. If you watch the show online, you can see the panicked look in the eyes of the choir members behind them – they can’t hear themselves think, let alone sing, have no idea if they’re in the same time-zone as the song’s key, and are clearly unsure as to whether they’ll survive the racket long enough to see their loved ones again. It was an auditory horror show – if a jet engine opened to full throttle been added to the mix, it would have not been out of place, and in fact might have been an improvement.

The song mercifully clanged to an end, and we all shifted in our seats – finally, now we could leave. Right? No, not quite. Conan leaped on stage, shaking hands with the musicians as we pounded our palms bloody at the behest of the sadistic bastard running the APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! sign. But still, they would not let us go. Eventually, our arms tired, and the clapping petered out. Conan came forward, and sang a comical little ditty to thank us for showing up. Then, in a puff of sulfurous black smoke, he was gone. Andy Ritcher walked out a side door, Jim Parsons went through the back stage. The musicians chatted amongst themselves, packing up their instruments. And still, they would not let us leave.

When will they let us leave?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

No, I'm not writing about Twilight to drive up my traffic.

The Bruin Theatre, with red carpet

Ah, another lovely California morning. As I meander through the Westwood Park on my way home from walking Amynah to work, I pause to take in the scene: behind me, the pok-pok-pok of socialites on the tennis courts behind me, in front indignant pigeons glare at me for interrupting their bath with my camera. Off in the middle distance, on a spot carefully chosen to avoid the sweep of the jets coming from the water sprinkler, an elderly Asian woman practices her Thai-Chi, her movements apparently undisturbed by the throbbing of the helicopter above, which is monitoring a possibly dangerous cloud of estrogen developing two blocks north of Wilshire Boulevard.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have seen the face of madness up close, and it looks like a Twilight fan.

The second movie in the Twilight series had its premiere last night at the Bruin theatre. Ordinarily, I would not be aware of this development, and would not have come prepared with my camera, except that that theatre is on the way to Amynah’s work, and there were people camped out for the premiere five days ahead of time.

Five days.

Now, I won’t comment on the literary value of the books, nor of the cinematic value of the books – I’ve consumed neither. And in my day, I’ve been known to camp out in far less hospitable conditions for cultural phenomena for which I had an embarrassing zeal (cough… Aerosmith).

Of course, I was 19 at the time, and it was only one night, in my hometown. The woman in the front of this line – according to the Los Angeles Times – was 37 years old, and had driven all the way from Arizona. That level of fandom – be it for glitter-vampires or pseudo-Buddhists with laser-swords – is utterly beyond me.

Cardboard cutouts at the head of the line. Insert your own joke here about Robert Pattison's acting here.

According to the article, and my own observations, the crazed Arizonan wasn’t all that unusual – at least one other person interviewed in the Times story was in her mid-thirties, and evidently willing to spend over 100 hours sleeping on concrete in order to show their devotion to fictional characters half her age (or perhaps the actors portraying those characters, also roughly half her age). However, as one traveled further down the line, the average age of the fans descended out of the pedophile zone and closer to what you’d expect to be the target audience for a movie based on young-adult novels. Roughly half, for reasons that are a mystery to me, were wearing branded cardboard crowns from Burger King.

I stopped to get some pictures, and as I did so an old man on a bike stopped to ask what was going on.

“It’s the premiere for New Moon,” said one of a quartet of black-mascara wearing girls applying the final sprinkles of glitter to their handmade “Team Edward” sign.

“Oh, that’s… good,” said the man, obviously no further enlightened.

I will confess I do not at all understand the logistics of camping out for an event like this. Presumably, one wants to get closer characters/actors that moved you. But if you want to impress “Jacob” or “Edward” (or “Bella,” should you be that way inclined) do you really want to do so smelling like someone who’s been sleeping in the same “Edward ruined it for men” t-shirt on a sidewalk for the better part of a week?

The line stretched all the way around a city block.

In any case, I got whacked with the second-cousin of all migraines last night, and therefore missed the excitement of the actual premiere. Amynah (Team Jacob for those wondering), specifically timed her departure from the lab to check out the madness.

Parking, which that morning had been $8.00 for the day had gone up to $30.00 for the evening. Helicopters clattered overhead. Traffic was chaos, as half the streets in Westwood were either blocked by the police, thronged with fans and stages for the television crews, or slowly draining a thick stream of black stretch limos. There was also a line of young women Amynah described as "VIP party girls" - done up to the nines in short dresses and heels, apparently there in some official capacity, presumably hired to inject some glamour for the television cameras that could offset the tediously unfamous, average-jane fans lining the security fences.

Undisturbed by this the girls – and let me assure you, there was nary a Y chromosome to be seen in that line – were screaming at the blackened windscreens of the limos, waving their signs, clutching laminated pictures of their heroes on popsicle sticks. Sadly, the big stars were in the last limos, so when Amynah went by, no one recognizable was on parade.

Amynah reports that even the hardcore fans were sometimes confused as to who was who, although always retaining a firm grasp on their importance in the canon: “Who’s that?” “Oh, he’s one of the Vulcani. He’s really cute.”

* Part II of my Late Night with Conan experience is coming soon, though I don't know if I can muster the same bile. I'll try.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Conan is at war with Eurasia. Conan has always been at war with Eurasia.

This image most likely belongs to NBC.

There is a technician in Amynah’s lab who arrived in Los Angeles at roughly the same time as we did. Dylan’s originally from Reno, Nevada, and was unsure how long he was going to stay in Los Angeles. He had therefore promised himself that he would ensure himself at least one “showbiz” experience, and so booked himself four tickets for the Late Show with Conan O’Brien. He offered a ticket to Amynah, but her brother and sister were scheduled to be in town at the time. Not to mention, the tickets contained dire warnings about highly restrictive toilet-access conditions to which Amynah's current pregnant state would not permit her to comply.

So her ticket went to me, and the other two went to her other co-worker, Chris, and his wife.

We’d been instructed to be in line no later than 3:30. Apparently this was so that we could go through the essential audience-softening technique of standing around in an iron cage for an hour in the hot sun. Once we were properly dehydrated and footsore, the NBC pages released us from our paddock and herded us, single file towards the studio. And lest you think I mean “single file” in the sense that most grown-ups understand it i.e. small groups of people walking behind one another, let me assure you: they meant single file, like we were in kindergarten lining up for gym class.

After one particularly officious page ordered Dylan and I to separate – one behind a tree, the other in front of it because if one of us stood beside a tree it wouldn’t be single-file anymore I mentally dubbed them Greyshirts. I wasn’t alone in this assessment – the guy behind us said “Jeez, I’m looking around for the guard towers.” He whispered it though, because he didn’t want the Greyshirts to hear.

As we approached the studio, a Greyshirt explained that we would have but one chance to use the bathroom before entering the studio. After that – assuming they were satisfied with how we made it through the metal-detector and frisking - you would have to hold it, until such time that we were released from the confines of the studio.

The Greyshirts directed us to our seats in the very back of the first tier of seats, to the right of the camera above the entrance in this photo. Not bad.

The auditorium filled up, and then we waited. Janitors vacuumed the set, technicians wandered to and fro, music blared at a level that pretty much forbade conversation amongst audience members. In retrospect, this was clearly because they were worried we were formenting a plot. Clearly they were concerned that our previous humiliations had not left us docile enough – the stage was defended by four beefy security guards, arms crossed, glaring at the crowd in front of them. Greyshirts patrolled the aisles, keeping a gimlet eye out for potential transgressors of Order.

More telling than the puffed-up martinets with the peacock badges was the two producers, standing near the stage entrance. They stood, a man and woman dressed with a casual sloppiness that spoke to their authority on the set, surveying the crowd ranged in front of them with hard eyes and distrustful expressions. Even when they spoke to each other, out of the corners of their mouths, they never once dared take their eyes off the rabble.

Clearly, constraining our movements and asserting their control over our bodily functions would not be enough for them. And so, they brought out the warm-up comic to destroy our souls.

“So, any of you Twitter? Yeah? You’re stupid. Go suck on a muffler.”

There was a murmur of protest at that “joke,” but after ten minutes of similar abuse (“You’re name’s Tannis? What, your doctor not know how to spell Janice?”), we were beaten, emotionally drained, unable to resist. It was Stockholm syndrome. We were ready to laugh maniacally when told, sit when told, stand when told, and applaud until our palms bled as long as the flashing white sign told us to.

To test our Pavlovian conditioning, the producers then brought out a test-celebrity, to make sure that we would behave with the appropriate docile mindlessness when a real one arrived. And so Conan’s sidekick Andy Ritcher was brought out to introduce the show.

It was at this point that I realized that NBC was even more evil than events to date had made me believe: when Andy took the mike from the warm-up comic I saw what the distance and strange dimensions of the studio had hidden from my perception before – the warm-up comic was, in fact, a homunculus, probably purpose-bred in a studio backlot, raised to loath humans, nursed on bile and posion. Either that, or Andy Ritcher is a giant of Himalayan proportions, because he could have crushed his colleague with his thumb. In fact, his distaste for the gibbering goblin before him was plain, and the temptation to do just that must have been great. I suspect the only reason he didn’t is because purpose-bred comedy-trolls don’t come cheap.

Andy then introduced the Max Weinberg band (performing without its eponymous leader) which proceeded to further reduce our capacity for resistance, by overwhelming our sense of balance and hearing via a very long, very loud, trumpet-heavy jam session that demanded… I choke on the horror of the words… audience participation. Like the agents of many a totalitarian system before them, Colonel Max Weinberg’s melodic shock-troops ensured compliance of the herd through randomized acts of terror. Shoot one, and the rest will fall in line. We did not know, in that darkened studio, who they would come for next – a neighbour, a loved one, but please, we prayed to our indifferent gods, do not let that iron fist point the microphone at me. Clapping fearfully, shocked under the barrage from the brass-sections, we sat sweating as one by one our comrades were plucked from our number to squall “Baby baby baby” into a mike. It was awful: there were no mercy, no regard for age, race, handicap. It was relentless, cruel, and effective: “Please, take my neighbour, don’t pick me! I’ll tell you anything! Laugh at anything! Just let me live!”

Our capitulation was complete. We were ready for The Presence Conan.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Besides, think of how much cheaper gloves will be!

Does anyone need more baby-related blogging from me? Well, tough, it’s the only thing I got going on in this town until I go to a Conan O’Brian taping on Thursday.

Amynah and I have been slowly acquiring the considerable infrastructure seemingly required by babies – dressers, clothing, bassinets, car seats, diaper pails… the list is endless. While diaper pails, changing tables and bassinets are all very important, there are specific items I see as being relevant to Dad-specific-tasks. Strollers are one, largely because they have wheels, and therefore belong in the domain of things governed by the Y-chromosome.

In preparation for this purchase, both Amynah and I have been accosting random pram-pushing strangers on the street and asking them what they like and dislike about their wheels.

It’s been an interesting experiment in gender perceptions. Most of the women we’ve spoken to recommend strollers based on how easily they fold, whether they have a storage basket, and how heavy they are. Men, on the other hand, seem to like cup holders.

Personally, I seem to be attracted to carriages with big wheels, the better to go hiking in the local mountain parks. The other day, I stopped a woman pushing a stroller that seemed to match what I’d like – not too big, large wheels, fairly stylish. I asked the woman about it, and she said “Yeah, it’s great! Except it doesn’t fold very easily. And it isn’t car seat compatible. And my first child outgrew it very quickly. And it’s way too heavy for me.”

Needless to say, her husband had bought it for her.

I didn’t want Amynah transporting our child on a white elephant. Her choice of stroller, after polling friends and strangers, was the MacLaren Tech XT. I can’t help but laugh at the model name – whenever I hear it I can’t help imagine it in a commercial, zipping in slo-mo over the Salt Flats trailing a dramatic plume of dust.

Image from

Saturday we drove out to the Babies R’ Us store to pick one up: no luck – they don’t carry it. This was deeply frustrating to me – I had decided to get a stroller, so goddamnit, I wanted to come home with a stroller. So yesterday, I headed out again, walking this time to a baby matériel depot.

I walked in and told the friendly woman at the desk the model I was looking – refraining from using my Monster Truck rally voice (“Maclaren Tech XT …xt… xt… xt… Versus… The Bugaboo Brawler! This Saturday! In the Diaperdrome!”) She immediately pulled one out for me, showed me the various features (it holds a baby… and rolls. No cupholders, iPod stations, or DVD players). Apparently, the promotional material for this particular stroller boasts that it was designed by aircraft engineers.

I would have been happy to have paid and wheeled it out of there on the spot, but she told me that the store had received a recall notice on the stroller just an hour before. Being more irritated at having had walked twenty blocks* only to be thwarted again, I didn’t ask why. The saleslady took my name and number, and promised to call when the strollers had been fixed.

It wasn’t until that evening that we learned what the recall was about. Amynah’s uncle called us in a tizzy, telling us that the MacLaren strollers were being recalled in their millions because they are apparently amputating the fingers of their passengers. Somehow, the saleslady neglected to mention this.

Now, there’s a certain amount of panic about this online , with plenty of people saying they’ll never use MacLaren strollers again. For our part, we’re still going to buy ours.** The defect is only relevant if the child sticks their finger in the hinge while the stroller is being folded – in other words, if they’re doing something they’re not supposed to do, something happens that isn’t supposed to happen. It doesn’t strike me as particularly onerous to keep an eye out to make sure that infant digits are out of harms way when folding the stroller, especially as the problem is now being fixed. Other things that will hurt your fingers when you stick your fingers into them include bagel cutters (me, age 22), car doors (my younger sister, age 3), and dogs (me again, age 7, 9 and 18). Not to downplay the trauma suffered by the parents and children involved, but the world is full of risks and, quite frankly, 12 non-fatal injuries out of the millions of buggies sold over the last several years is a better safety record than pretty much any other household item I can name, including telephones and houseplants.***

Nonetheless, I can’t help but be somewhat concerned. If the MacLaren was designed by aircraft engineers, I’m not quite sure that I’ll be comfortable flying ever again. Maybe next time, they should try using baby-stroller engineers.

* It would have only been 12 blocks, were it not for having to circumvent the iron fencing defending the enormous Mormon temple complex between my apartment and the store. That is, the enormous complex for the Mormon temple – it isn’t a temple complex for enormous Mormons. I think.

** Nonetheless, in honour of its monster truck heritage, I’m going to call it “The Mangler.” Take that, Bugaboo Brawler.

*** Besides, don’t babies’ fingers grow back?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Arguments for helmets

Two years ago at roughly this time, Amynah and I were still rubbing the soreness out of our legs from our 160 km bike ride from Strasbourg to Basel, a trip we undertook, in retrospect, largely so that we could have a crazy story to tell at dinner parties. It was the first trip we had done of that length, and it really opened up the region to us: after that epic, the prospect of pedalling to Obernai, Offenburg or Baden Baden wasn't so forbidding.

We put on a few thousand kilometers on our bikes in France, and desperately wanted to maintain the habit here. So, we bought a rack, roused our Canadian bikes from their three-year slumber in a Montreal friend’s basement, and carted them all the way to Los Angeles, visions of beach-side bike paths dancing in our heads.

When we told Amynah’s Mom we were doing this she laughed, promising us that if we ever used the bikes, she would buy us a baby carrier, in the same way one might say “I’ll eat my hat.” So far, she has nothing to worry about: with Amynah’s pregnancy, she’s been unwilling to hop on her bike, and I’ve little incentive to explore the distances this city requires of its commuters on my own. So the bikes are gathering dust (well, greasy smog residue) on our balcony.

We’re actually not in a bad neighbourhood for biking by local standards – there are dedicated bike lanes that actually go places. Unfortunately, as with most North American cities, motorists tend to see cyclists as their enemies. In our short time here, we’ve met two people that have come out on the losing end of run-ins with cars while on their bikes (to say nothing of someone we know who was run down by an SUV while at a crosswalk).

Earlier this week, a Los Angeles doctor was on trial for aggravated assault, for an incident in which he cut in front of a pair of cyclists and deliberately slammed on his brakes, causing them to smash into his car. He told the responding police officer that he did it to “teach them a lesson” because they were biking side by side, so that he couldn’t pass them.

Now here, as in most jurisdictions, bikes have all of the rights (and responsibilities) that cars do on the road. If you can keep up with traffic, you’re allowed, as a cyclist, to occupy a car lane.

The cyclists had GPS equipment that proved they were traveling at 30 mph when the incident occurred, which was the posted speed limit. Meaning the driver’s defense was, essentially, that he attacked them because they weren’t letting him speed.

He was found guilty.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Anarchist with an accordion

My friend Félicie sent me an email the other day, recommending I watch this video of Renaud's "En Cloque - Renaud is a French singer that Félicie described as "half rocker, half anarchist but very sweet." He made his name writing political protest songs.

"En Cloque" is a French slang terms for pregnant - this tune is about watching his wife progress through her pregnancy. I really have no idea what he's singing about - the lyrics riddled with slang terms I can't follow even with Félicie's helpful translations - but for some reason I can't stop watching this and getting bewilderingly emotional (it is a pretty little tune).

French anarchists obviously are a bit more multi-faceted than their English speaking brethren - I don't see Johnny Rotten sneering his sentimental way through an accordion based-tune about the miracle of childbirth.