Tuesday, June 29, 2010


In the past week I have...

Attended a Madison Mallards baseball game:

A bunch of coworkers got tickets and tailgated before the game.  I hadn't seen a minor league baseball game since the Kenosha Twins existed, and the players used to board with our neighbors over the back fence during the summer, and my older sisters used to scheme ways to get their attention ... anyway.  I hadn't seen a minor league game in a long time, and this was fun.  And a lot goofier than I remembered.  See guy with cape and keytar above.  He played a song between innings: winner had to identify song and artist.  Also, at Mallards games, anyone who catches a foul ball can turn it in for a free wiener at the concession stand.  The Twins definitely didn't do that.

Gone to my first Capitol Farmer's Market of the summer:

Believe it or not, it was my first Saturday morning at home since the outdoor markets began on April 17th.  The weather couldn't have been better for my first outing of the season.  My haul included fresh raspberries and spicy cheese bread, and I got there early enough to walk around without being slowed to a crawl by the crowds.

Taken part in a surprise birthday party:

I suppose that isn't a summer-specific activity, but it's always fun to get together for a celebration with friends.  Bonus points if the night includes karaoke at a bar, where friend Mark sings a Smiths song while the birthday girl does an interpretive dance behind him.

Driven down to Chicago for a free night of music in Millennium Park:

The Cultural Center hosts a series called Downtown Sound, featuring different bands each Monday.  Last night's show in the Pritzker Pavilion featured Huntsville and On Fillmore with Nels Cline.  Though some of Huntsville's material isn't exactly my thing, I found most of the performances fascinating.  It's interesting to watch Nels and Glenn and Darin work with the sheer variety of implements they bring to the stage in this incarnation.  Garden weasel wheels playing crotales, battery-powered tripod massagers on a drum head, chirping stuffed birds played through guitar pickups, and something that was possibly bamboo on a rope, twirled in the air like a foxtail.  Nels and Glenn joined Huntsville for the last 45 minutes of their set, and you know when there are two drum kits being employed, I'm happy.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ask Google

I did this once a long time ago, but thought it might be fun to try again.  Here's the deal: I chose ten questions to pose to the mighty Google search engine.  I typed in each question as it's written below, no quotation marks.  The answer to the first question [she decided] was the first sentence of the first result summary.  The answer to the second question was the first sentence of the second result summary.  And so on.  The answers ranged from blunt (see Q1) to depressing (Q2) to cryptic (Q6) but all were mildly entertaining!  Emphasis on mildly.  Forgive me, it's a slow week.  I'm enjoying it.  Minor league baseball on Thursday!

Q: Should I see The National in Milwaukee or The New Pornographers in Madison in August?
A: The New Pornographers and the Dodos.

Q: Will I ever visit Antarctica?
A: While you're here in Antarctica treat every iceberg you see as if it were your last, because there will probably never be another iceberg.

Q: Will this be the year I actually begin a quilt?
A: Do not bring your fourteen-year-old son with you to the fabric store to help pick out fabric.

Q: Why don't restaurants in other countries just ask a native speaker to proofread their English menus?
A: As a very picky native speaker of English ... Can I ask about "cat's tongue"?

Q: Does anyone look better than Jon Hamm in a suit?
A: John Hamm: Wow.  I don't know.

Q: This coming weekend: good?
A: If you're not doing so already, you can follow The Weekend Warrior on Twitter.

Q: Will the Brewers win the World Series this year?
A: If the Brewers are going to win a World Series with this batch of players, patience will be the key.

Q: How did Google get so smart?
A: I did not aspire to this lofty post, nor did I actively seek it on any level.

Q: Will I get to go to Brazil or Dubai for work?
A: As usual we will go on vacation to our sailboat in Greece.

Q: What book should I read next?
A: Something that is Vampire Free.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Tonight will be an open mic

Maybe it wasn't quite an open mic, but Saturday's New Pornographers/Dodos/Duchess and the Duke show in Milwaukee featured plenty of folks taking turns on vocals.  Between the three bands, there were more lead vocalists than I've seen at one non-variety show, possibly ever.  Despite my initial "I'm too old for this" grumpiness about multiple openers, I can't complain.

According to my sources in Chicago, The Duchess and the Duke were coming off a big night of drinking and performing at the Empty Bottle.  Perhaps that's why they winced in pain when the spotlights came on.  They requested the lights be dimmed, and then toward the end of the set, requested twice more that they be turned down.  After that last request (which was just before the last song), the lighting guy turned the spotlight off entirely.  Ha!  Their finale of "I Am Just a Ghost" ended with everyone on stage singing the lyric a capella, over and over.  I'm not sure how long they planned to continue, but the end came definitively when someone accidentally kicked over a microphone and the Pabst erupted in cheers.

The second openers, The Dodos, were very percussiony. That happens to be the quickest path to my heart upon first listen to any band, especially live. The drummer attached a tambourine to his foot via duct tape straps, and there was a vibraphone player who also had a drum kit. Two drum kits!  What more could I ask for?  Well...

The New Pornographers opened with "Sing Me Spanish Techno."  Talk about setting the energy bar as high as possible.  They were more than up to the challenge for the rest of night, and I think the crowd was too.  It turns out Carl Newman loves both of the opening bands.  "I'm not usually one for watching bands.  I hate music.  But I had to watch those guys."  He also loves the Pabst, claiming he wants to change the vote he gave in a Pitchfork interview for best venue.  Sure, he probably tells that to all the cities.

I have to consider the possibility that my slightly negative impression of the last NP's show I saw in Madison might have been due to the simple fact that it was my first NP's show without Dan Bejar, after having finally seen them with Dan in 2007.  The wealth of talented individuals The New Pornos bring to the mix (including a cellist/saxophonist for a grand total of nine people in Milwaukee) notwithstanding, there's something magnetic about Dan Bejar.  Whenever he took the stage, cheers of "DAN!" - mostly masculine - could be heard from the audience.  The loafers and white pants (a look I somehow simultaneously associate with Europe and boating), the back-to-the-crowd guitar stance, the omnipresent glass of wine or beer bottle, the flourish of a bow before a quick exit after singing a song, the distinctive voice and inscrutable lyrics, the perpetual air of nonchalance ... all part of the package.  I'd love to see Destroyer sometime.

Neko Case was in excellent voice as well.  Though Kathryn Calder can more than hold her own vocally - and did on such songs as "Adventures in Solitude" - Neko's presence in the lineup shouldn't be underestimated.  (And never seems to be, judging from reviews.)  My favorite of her performances Saturday night was the powerful "My Shepherd."  During the show, I realized I was standing in nearly the same spot I sat when Neko joined Jakob Dylan at the Pabst in April.  Neko probably thinks she has a Milwaukee stalker now.  Of course, it's possible that she does.  While John Collins worked out a tuning issue, Carl announced he would take questions from the audience.  Someone: "I LOVE NEKO!"  Carl: "Could you phrase that in the form of a question?  'Why do I love Neko so much?'"  Carl suggested it was because Neko makes dog cookies that are almost good enough for people to eat.  Neko said actually, that wasn't her.

The questions continued: what does Dan do when he's not on stage?  They didn't know for sure.  Both Neko and Carl said they could guess, and put money on the fact that he was drinking beer or wine.  At this juncture, Dan appeared on stage with a bottle of beer.  He wandered over to Carl, conferred, and headed off again.  Carl joked about his mysterious manner.  "He just said something about an apothecary."  Next question: what happened when your bus broke down?  Carl: "Really?  That's news?  Since I slept through it, I'm going to say that ... the bus broke down, and it got fixed."

Dan's duo of Jackie songs - "Jackie" and "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras" - was fun to hear in the same show.  Toward the middle of the set, Dan came out for a vocal turn.  Carl demanded to know where Dan got his Spotted Cow, and whether he had a stash.  Carl requested the bottle, which was handed over.  He said this was all about giving; a good intro to the next song.  Dan looked at him.  "Isn't this 'Spirit of Giving?'" Carl asked.  "I'm not holding a guitar..." Dan replied, grinning.  "Oh, right.  Never mind."  Carl told Dan to get another beer, because it was too weird for him to be on stage without.  Dan grabbed a PBR tallboy from the stash near the drum kit.  He opened it, took a sip, and grimaced elegantly. Then began the song.

At one point, Carl impulsively asked for audience requests and then proceeded to shoot them all down.  "I hope someone happens to request something we actually want to play," he explained.  I called out for "Breakin' the Law," but it got lost in the shouting.  Or ignored.  Someday ... someday.

I'm now even more torn between my choices for August 4th: stay in town and see The New Pornographers again at the Orpheum, or trek back to Milwaukee for The National?  Time will tell.

Printed setlist is accurate, except they didn't play "The Body Says No"

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Many things about Africa

There was so much I didn't know about Dakar, or Senegal, or Africa, before my trip.  My head is full of new information - mostly thanks to Susanna, our hostess and resident guide.  She spent six months in Dakar in the midst of three years in Guinea, though her presence in Senegal was unplanned.  Susanna does research with speakers of Pular, but was evacuated last October due to unrest in the Guinean capital.  She wound up with a furlough in Dakar, which came to an end during our visit.  Susanna left for her old village in Guinea on the same day Lindsey and I flew back home.  Our hello to Senegal was Susanna's goodbye, and the combination gave this trip a unique flavor.  Here are some of the things I now know about Senegal.  

Senegal is mostly Muslim, which meant that the calls to prayer from muezzins around the city were part of our daily soundtrack.

Sidewalks in Dakar are not really for walking.  They're for sitting, lying down, and selling things.  Walking, maybe, when there's room.  There is sand and dirt and dust covering most streets and alleys in Dakar.  Part of it was the season - it's the end of the dry season in Senegal - and part must be the proximity to the ocean.  I suppose the rest is simply lack of infrastructure for street cleaning.  It's not a priority.

People in Senegal don't have a lot of money, in general, but can still make much more money in Dakar than they could in a village in, say, Guinea.  We met many Pular-speaking Guineans, friends of Susanna's, who are living in Dakar but planning a return to Guinea at some point.  Many have wives and children still in Guinea, and are sending them money.

It's incredibly difficult to get a U.S. visa from Senegal or Guinea, especially to emigrate.  A fee of $800 is due before your application is even considered, and if an emigration visa is not granted, you can never get a visitor's visa.  The government knows you once wanted to move to the U.S., so what's to say you wouldn't stay?  I feel guilty about my ability to waltz in and out of Senegal without any visa, while so many people I met can only dream of visiting the U.S. someday.

In downtown Dakar, and in Saint-Louis, a white person (toubab) is continually accosted walking down the street.  Mostly it's people trying to sell goods, but sometimes it's men who want to talk (or get married), men touting their services as a guide or taxi obtainer (that was mostly Saint-Louis), or children simply begging.  This is understandable, but tiring.  French is the language of education in Senegal, so everyone speaks some French.  I don't.  This worked to my advantage on the streets, because I didn't understand most of what the people were saying.  That made it much easier to reply with the standard "Non, merci," and keep walking without distraction.  On Ile de Gorée, the salespeople were more enterprising and knew a bit of English.  Because we actually wanted to buy stuff in Gorée, this was fine too.

Not speaking French or Pular wasn't so handy when meeting Susanna's local friends, but she's a good translator.  Most of the people Susanna knows well in Dakar are Pular speakers from Guinea, who also know some French.  The majority of Senegalese in Dakar speak Wolof as their first language, although some (like Gorgui) speak Serere.  There's also a Senegalese version of Pular, but according to Susanna it's very different from Guinean Pular, and she doesn't understand much of it.  Susanna's friends, particularly those we spent the most time with, had questions for us.  Sometimes it was "which one of you will stay in Senegal and be my wife?" but sometimes they were questions about our lives.  Where do we live?  What are our jobs?  (Mine was particularly fun for Susanna to try to explain.)  Is the U.S. better than Africa?  Why do toubabs never give money to beggars?      

I learned to be more flexible about creature comforts and hygiene standards.  You can't brush all the flies away from your food all the time.  If there's no running water, you can't wash your hands (or flush the toilet) every time you might want to.  If someone has cooked food for you in their home, you will eat it, even if you're pretty sure the vegetables were rinsed in tap water, or it's been sitting out for awhile, or the drinks have ice cubes.  You'll eat peanuts roasted over hot coals in their shells, mixed with sand from the road to heat evenly.

If you're walking through acres of fish-smoking tables on the sandbar in Saint-Louis, led by a local resident among fish and fires and goats and children, you can't be too concerned about what your sandal-clad feet are walking through.  If Susanna's friend Mamadou prepares the traditional three-round Senegalese attaya for you and five other guests in the small room where he lives behind his shop, as you all sit on a bed and small wooden bench with knees touching because that's all the room there is, then you will drink the tea and be thankful for the warm hospitality he's showing you; it doesn't matter if the water isn't boiled for the standardly-recommended 15 minutes, or that there are only two small cups that everyone is sharing.  And you'll be all the better for this.  (Somewhat miraculously, I was not afflicted with any stomach issues during the trip.)

We ate poulet or poisson yassa; a lemony, garlicky rice with onions and spices and either fish or chicken.  There was also the standard ceebu jen; rice and fish.  (A waitress in Saint-Louis gave Susanna an incredulous look when she ordered ceebu jen without jen for Lindsey the vegetarian: rice and fish without the fish.)  We drank local juices like bissap, made from hibiscus leaves (best with mint), and bouye, from the fruit of the baobab tree.  Vendors sold little bags of both water and bissap, which people drink by biting the corner.  Bags of bissap also make popular popsicles for kids: freeze them, have the child gnaw into a corner, and suck as the popsicle melts.  Gorgui's little boy Babou was working on one of those when we visited his village.  Not so traditional, but also delicious, were widely-available crêpes (sucre, beurre, citron) and pastries.  The pain au chocolate was good, but Lindsey and I became addicted to beignets à la crème, which seemed to be available in every patisserie.  French Colonialism does have a tasty upside.

It's easier to get a cab at a moment's notice in Dakar than anywhere else I've ever been.  It doesn't hurt that toubabs are like catnip for cabbies.  Fares are negotiated before the ride, and Susanna often employed the standard "walking away now" routine before a driver coasted forward and agreed to her price.  Even their first offers are cheap by American standards, but locals would pay less than half that for the same ride.  The cabs themselves, with a few exceptions, are also in worse shape than any I've seen still running anywhere else.  Except maybe a brief foray into Mexico in 2006.  Often there are no door handles inside, sometimes the doors themselves are about to fall off, there are usually wires sticking out below the steering wheel.  The window crank handles were missing more often than not.  The handle is known as the clef de fênetre, or window key, and one is often shared between all the car windows.  

There are other transportation options besides standard cabs in Senegal.  The big blue city bus with standard routes is the Dem Dikk.  There are also smaller local buses; really, large vans.  They're brightly decorated, always full, and usually have one or two men hanging off the back from open doors.  Anyone can ride, but you must know where they're going, and they don't always follow a standard route.  For travel between cities, there is the sept-place.  Sept-places leave from a transit depot, always teeming with vendors.  You arrive at the depot, and are led to the nearest car departing for your destination.  These are typically old Peugeot station wagons.  They seat one in front, three in the middle, and three in the back, plus the driver.  You don't want to sit in the back of a sept-place.  Once the car has seven passengers, it will leave.  If you're not going to a popular location, either be prepared to wait awhile in the car or pay the driver extra to leave with fewer passengers.  We thought the sept-place was crowded, but Susanna told us that the same system exists in Guinea ... only in Guinea, it's a neuf-place.  Two passengers in front plus the driver, four in the middle, and three in the back.  Plus children and animals.  We took sept-places from Dakar to Saint-Louis, from Saint-Louis to Thiès (pronounced "chess"), and Thiès to Mbour.

Sheep and goats are everywhere in Senegal, and baby goats are universally adorable.  We saw many cows and horses, and lots of crazy birds in the Siné-Saloum Delta.  A few giant cockroaches.

The buildings in Saint-Louis and Ile de Gorée are brightly painted, and their various states of disrepair manage to look artful and intentional, though clearly they are not.  We ate dinner at a crêperie in Saint-Louis across the street from the only building we saw with air conditioning units ... the morgue.

A jewelry seller named Elisabeth on Gorée gave Lindsey, Susanna and me our pick of free necklaces after learning Susanna has a sister named Elizabeth.

Senegalese women carry babies wrapped against their backs.

Acacia trees have big thorns.

Palm oil is bright red.

I'd like to go back to Africa someday.