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Upcycling: Big Cig Icon Turns Over New Leaf

Nearly a decade ago, publisher Louis Rastelli was looking for a new way to distribute his zines to readers. This happened right around the time that the Canadian government banned cigarette vending machines in bars and restaurants. Given this surplus of machines, Rastelli expanded on an idea he had seen in Winston-Salem. In 1997, a US company called Artomat began retrofitting vintage cigarette machines to dispense art. As Canadian cigarette packages are nearly twice the size of their US partner in smoke, Rastelli reasoned that they could be used to dispense both art and literature, and the Distroboto was born, expanding our minds through arts and culture rather than killing us slowly with tar and nicotine.

In the back of the Expozine program, I saw an advertisement for the Distroboto and learned a few details about the products dispensed. The machines deliver miniature books, comics, mini CDs and DVDs, arts and crafts, photos and other handmade surprises. As you can see from my photo above, the cost is only 2 bucks, $1.75 of which actually goes to the artist! Pretty good percentage I'd say, and an excellent promotional tool. In addition, it's open to anyone. In other words, there's no council deciding what is artworthy.

I tried the Distroboto a few years ago. Intrigued by the novelty, I made two purchases and got a mini CD, which was forgettable, and a really cute hand-drawn comic. Now this is a bit of crap shoot, and of course, you will come across some things that don't suit your cultural tastes, but guaranteed fun will be had just the same.

I have recently heard from Louis Rastelli, and in a subsequent post, I will write about a few of the 700 emerging artists who have used the Distroboto on their butt-less path to success.

Click here to see some of the funky vintage Artomat vending machines, which today dispense les chefs d'oeuvres of 400 contributing artist from 10 different countries. Pssst, double click on the individual machines to get a better look. My favourite is from the Motor City.

New York Times Magazine
Louis Rastelli
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Review: Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan

At the recent Expozine, I found myself at the table of graphic novel publisher Drawn & Quarterly. It was not the best use of my children's limited attention span, as I could easily visit the D&Q store on Bernard Street. However, I was able to speak to the publisher's sales rep who pointed me in the direction of a graphic novel that I might like--a definite advantage. Asked about my graphic novel preferences, I replied Persepolis, the Paul series and Aya de Yopougon. The rep then showed me Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan.

I was immediately intrigued by the setting, Tel Aviv, and by the fact that the protagonist, Numi, was a very tall, plain Israeli woman. For some reason, I find stories about plain looking characters more believable; I guess I've been exposed to Hollywood's beauty standards for too long. At any rate, I was pleased to see the very average Numi enlist the help of an equally average looking cabdriver, Koby Franco, in solving a mystery of an unidentified body after a bus station bombing in Hadera. Numi believes that the unidentified victim may be Koby's father.

Koby has been estranged from his father for several years and requires some convincing before he agrees to give a blood sample for DNA testing. However, there are some unforeseen complications that take Koby and Numi to the site of the bus station bombing. One of his father's personal belongings is found at the station, but how it actually got there provides for another interesting twist. Although a relationship between Numi and Koby's father becomes apparent, a romance slowly begins between Numi and the younger Franco until a misplaced comment extinguishes the flame...but is it forever?

The reader only catches a small glimpse of Koby's father in an old photograph of him standing behind a large flower arrangement. The mysterious widower, Franco Senior, was said to enjoy his privacy, and it is through Koby and Numi's sleuthing that Koby discovers what his father was trying to hide.

In Exit Wounds, Tel Aviv is presented as a city where bombings and death are commonplace, so commonplace in fact, that every time the bus station attack is mentioned, it is often confused with another bombing that took place around the same time. Similarly, in a scene at the morgue, a young man identifies his father by viewing a videotape of the dead man's ear. He explains to the clerk that they had the same ears and then asks if he could get a copy of the video for his mother. This leads to the very unsettling question: just what kind of condition was the body in?

Did I think that Exit Wounds deserved Entertainment Weekly's "Best Comic of the Year" review? Well, I did enjoy it, and there were some great unexpected twists, and there was very little about the book that was formulaic, but it could have been much better. So my answer is no.

I was disappointed when Numi expressed her dismay to Koby about not being physically attractive. Until that point Numi, our gutsy, fearless protagonist, was always skilfully moving towards what she was looking for. Then we see that her lack of physical beauty actually causes her pain. This sudden focus on outward appearance killed the momentum of the story for me and reduced our erstwhile unique character, fending for herself in a tough and dangerous Tel Aviv, to run of the mill. What's worse, I had the impression that Koby was drawn to her out of pity.

I guess I would have preferred to see more action before the couple actually got together, action that would have given further evidence of Numi's more positive qualities, such as her fearlessness and resolve. Then maybe unearthing her insecurity about her looks would have been unnecessary.

Please reader, don't get me wrong. This book was good, but it could have been fabulous.

Other Reviews:
Paul Goes Fishing by Michel Rabagliati
Aya de Yopougon by Abouet & Oubrerie
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Montreal's 8th Annual Small Press Expozine

Yesterday, I took my kids to Montreal's Expozine at the Saint-Enfant-Jésus Church on St. Laurent Boulevard. I'd gone several years ago and was intrigued by all the handmade zines and unconventional narrative styles. This year, the church basement was heaving with creative, quirky and nerdy types of all ages and enthusiasm levels, which ranged from the depressed and withdrawn to the downright exuberant.

Expozine is a small press, comic and zine fair, which this year, brought together some 300 exhibitors, making it one of the largest in North America. In addition to attracting artists from Canada, the US and Europe, Expozine gives out awards for best zine, book and comic. The beauty of these awards is that high-tech is not de rigueur. One of the winner's in the zine category this year, Delf Berg for Fanzine #3, Toxico, did his work entirely by hand. A judge's comment on his work, "Very simple and low tech, the work of an obvious talent with an original voice."

I was surprised to see that the quality of the zines, comics, books and characters in all their manifestations (buttons, T-shirts, fridge magnets, stuffed animals and cushions. Yes, cushions!) had improved tremendously. I saw every type of character from sexist to feminist, cute to horrifying. My kids loved the buttons and fridge magnets and adored a certain Hasemeister bunny (see picture above). I wish they had been as enthusiastic about my comic and zine browsing. Nevertheless, I still managed to spend $45.00 before the heat of the church basement forced our sweaty bodies out into the street. We narrowly escaped some crankiness, but had the added bonus of listening to a country & western accordionist on the church steps, which gave our short trek a David Lynch kind of feel.

If I'd been on my own, I would have most certainly taken off my coat (a free hand oblige) and spent a lot more money. The young woman who'd made scary character cushions would have been my first stop. I would have also had the time to speak to some of the exhibitors who were obviously thrilled to be showing their labours of love.

Don't miss it next year!
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Review: Graphic Novel AYA by Abouet & Oubrerie

This past August, in dire need of some pure escapism, I came across the four-part AYA de Yopougon graphic novel series at the Park Avenue Renaud-Bray. I thumbed through the first volume of the brightly coloured panels of the life of Aya, a young woman living in the Ivory Coast in the late 1970s. What initially piqued my interest was finding a series taken from the point of view of a young African woman — indeed a rare occurrence. Although I had the initial impression that the story by Marguerite Abouet revolved around the bright and studious Aya, it in fact revolved around three families living in a suburb of Abidjan, which the characters refer to as Yop City. Aya is the eldest daughter of one of the families, while her two best friends, Bintou and Adjoua, are members of the other two.

Aya is different from her friends. She is serious and plans to become a doctor, while her friends prefer the nightlife of the maquis, a type of outdoor restaurant and dance bar. Aya is a friend to many in her community. She empowers the powerless, but also puts her friends in their place when they need it. Aya is not perfect, and her family has its share of problems. We discover that Aya's father has a mistress. She stirs the pot in volume 3 when she arrives unannounced on his doorstep with two little additional surprises. Not to be outdone, the skinny Koffi, Bintou's father, announces that he is going to take a second wife, the village beauty, who is the same age as his daughter. His news creates an uproariously funny fallout in the community.

One of the reasons that I enjoyed this series so much was that it looks at the daily lives of people in the Ivory Coast, rather than the problems in Africa. We see an Africa replete with intrigue and beauty (the work of Clément Oubrerie, the illustrator, is fabulous). The series tackles a wide variety of issues, such as class difference, women's rights, infidelity, homosexuality, shot-gun marriages and polygamy. Most of these issues are not necessarily what we would associate with Africa in the late 1970s, as we were dealing with them ourselves here in North America. And we mustn't forget that we are not above polygamy here in Canada or the US.

I originally read the series in French. But because the fifth installment has not yet come out, I decided to buy my favourite volume, number 3, in English and read it again. The Mile End's graphic novel publisher Drawn and Quarterly located on Bernard Street is responsible for the English version of this series. The original text is written in French as it's spoken in the Ivory Coast and comes with a glossary at the back as part of the bonus features. Part of my reason for buying the English was to see how the translator was going to address certain African terms.

The publisher chose to keep the glossary and use enough Ivoirianisms and French words to remind the reader that French is the official language of the Ivory Coast and that the setting is indeed Africa. For instance, the publisher decided to keep such terms as, maman = mom; yako = I'm sorry; palu = paludisme, the French word for malaria, but which can also mean minor infections, fever or fatigue; and côcôta = noogie, to name just a few.

While I enjoyed the series immensely in French, I did spend a lot of time flipping back to the glossary. It was only after reading volume 3 again in English with much less flipping that I discovered just how funny this series was. I shed many tears of laughter, and what makes the English version even more attractive: it's about $8 cheaper.

In short, I highly recommend this series in both French and English. See the book trailer in French here for a taste of the Ivoirian accent and music.
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Army Fatigues... on the Plateau!

On this beautiful November day, I took my kids for a long walk through the Plateau. Everyday, I bike past a mural at the corner of Villeneuve and De Bullion but only realized last week that it extended right around the corner. This was my chance to finally go and take some pictures. (You can view the pictures of that mural below on my photostream.)That was our destination point this morning. As usual, we discovered something new that my children found exciting. Of all things, we came across an armed forces paramedics simulation.

Across from the building that once housed the CLSC St. Louis du Parc on St. Joseph sits a building called the 51st Field Ambulance. This is apparently where local troops of the Canadian Armed Forces get their field paramedics training. We witnessed a group of young women and men in their military fatigues open the back of a military truck and pull out a young woman on a stretcher. One of the people carrying the stretcher quickly asked if there were any spinal injuries and a few other questions and then they hauled the stretcher with the injured party into the building. I asked them if this was training for Afghanistan. I was told that it was training for there or anywhere in the world.

I was surprised to see the army's presence in our neighbourhood. Our exposure to the Canadian Armed Forces is limited to reports on the news of deaths in Afghanistan. There was a number of things that surprised me about these eight or so people. First of all, at least half of them were women. Secondly, they were extremely efficient, and finally, they were friendly and didn't mind us asking questions or taking pictures.

As we walked away, I realized that our troops in Afghanistan rarely had a human face until one of them died. In addition, these youthful, enthusiastic people whom I'd just spoken to might very well be shipped out for a tour of duty. I had an unsettling feeling for a few minutes when I realized that these same people might never return. What a colossal waste of youth, talent and life that would be.
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Being a Woman: A Pre-existing Condition

How would you feel if you discovered that your health insurance did not cover maternity or reproductive care? How would you feel if you were denied health coverage for the sole reason that you had had a c-section. How would you feel if you paid higher insurance premiums than your husband or brother?

Sounds to me like women are facing sex-based discrimination south of the border. Although we have universal health care in Canada, there are many things not covered. For instance, in Ontario, universal health care does not cover prescription drugs. All across Canada, we, too, have grown accustomed to being told that our insurance company doesn't cover some essential item. For instance, I recently learned that my insurance company covered only the first $250 of my prescription glasses. They cost $750 dollars. It's time for all of us to get out our magnifying glass and read the 4pt font at the bottom of our insurance policies, particularly upon renewal.

The following is an emailed comment from a dear friend, which I thought was very a propos:

...I'm not surprised that being female is once again being viewed as some kind of liability, if the last few thousand years of discrimination have been any indication...

To find out more what women throughout the US are doing to protest the pre-existing condition go to The Undomestic Goddess.

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Halloween in the Mile End

On Saturday night at about 6:00 pm, I took out a lamb and ninja warrior for some trick-or-treating in our hood. It was a cold dark moonlit October 31st with a wind strong enough to whistle and stir the leaves. Some of our festive neighbours on Drolet Street had created a haunted walk for passing ghouls with a spooky soundtrack in the background. The lamb clung to my thigh, as did my otherwise brave ninja, but the lady with the cape and Freddy Kruger mask was more than my lamb could bear. We had to back out into the street at the last minute--to hell with the candies, she was scary. My ninja was also frightened, but she was still reeling from the embarrassment of coming face to face with her first crush from daycare. Just minutes earlier, we had run into the rocker with his mother. Now aged 10 and 7, our kids stood beside us looking sideways so that their eyes wouldn't meet.

It couldn't have been a better night for Halloween, and I couldn't help myself from adding a little more scare in the air, asking my little companions if they'd just heard that scary noise or turning around quickly to see who was behind us. My tactics were effective, but I started to annoy my ninja. Little did I know that she would soon have the last laugh.

The lamb called it quits early, and the ninja and I carried on to St. Dominique. There were still lots of treats and plenty of monsters to come. I was looking forward to my last trip up the stairs to a triplex when I heard a little witch say to a ghost that the snake gave her the heebie jeebies. The ninja arrived first at the top of the stairs and I heard her say, "Oh, can I pet him?" I was looking at our next triplex on the street, as I took my place beside her at the door. I looked down to see what I expected to be a cat, but instead saw a five-foot long boa constrictor hanging from a man's arm. I let out a scream, which scared the snake, causing it to coil around its handler. I managed to take a picture, albeit a shaky one, and was immensely relieved to get away from there, much to my ninja's amusement.

As I climbed the stairs of the last triplex, I was still feeling shaky from my fright. I told the ape and witch who answered the door about my experience and showed my picture. I couldn't help but notice the witch's facial expression turn from surprise to dread. I would feel the same way if the boa were my neighbour.

It made me think of a funny anecdote told recently by Alice Cooper on the French-language variety show Tout le Monde En Parle. The rocker was famous not only for his smudged mascara, but also for bringing his pet boa on stage. However, one evening his pet got away in a Las Vegas hotel. Alice Cooper alleges that the boa somehow got into the hotel's plumbing system and resurfaced in country and western singer Charlie Pride's suite via the toilet, apparently while it was...ahmm, in use. Now imagine how terrifying that experience was. It also makes me feel slightly uneasy to consider how we may all be interconnected through plumbing and sewage systems....
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Teaching An Old Brain New Tricks

As my readers may have noticed, I only posted three times in October. I was busy taking two online fiction writing courses with Jordan Rosenfeld, and while I enjoyed them, they consumed all my energy. To date, my previous writing has been dependent on research and facts, whereas fiction writing draws heavily on your own personal experiences and interpretation of events. In essence, these experiences help you to determine how your characters might feel and react in a given situation. This new way of thinking required a lot of energy and a person to bounce my ideas off of (Thanks husband!).

The central event of my writing this month involved a very clear childhood memory of a neighborhood teenager who had been the victim of an attempted rape. It happened right around the time we were watching the first man on the moon (July 20, 1969).

From a street away, I heard a teenager repeatedly scream "rape" and ran over to see what was going on. I saw a young girl running down the street in her underwear with her arms in the air in obvious distress. What shocked me the most was the fact that everyone, children and adults alike, stood on the side of the street watching her, but no one reached out to help her. Obviously, the slack-jawed adults were all stunned, but the young girl's distress marked me for life.

I went home immediately to tell my mother. I asked her what rape was, and I watched her eyes widen and then she quickly turned around and went back to washing the dishes. She eventually told me that rape was when "someone was forced to do something that they didn't want to." The subject was then dropped. Although the neighborhood children continued to use the word rape, which eventually morphed into "rake" (as in, she was raked, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out how you rake someone), no one in the neighborhood ever mentioned the event or girl again. I always wondered what happened to her and if she got the counseling she needed.

I tied this theme in with my first experience with feminism: my mother going back to school in the late sixties to become a nurse. I often remember her and her friends sitting around our kitchen table discussing the very short "or goddamned" uniform they had to wear, even in the winter, and the unwanted attention it garnered, which came from everyone, including authority figures. (Click here for a picture of a vintage nurse's uniform pattern. For the record, I remember the uniforms being much shorter.)

The following is the third draft of a scene I wrote for one of my classes with Jordan. I discovered that fiction writing starts as a skeleton (and sounds a little like a court report), and then details, or layers, are added with each subsequent draft. As you will see, this scene is still stiff and if I were to revise it again I would add more details to give it more of a sixties feel.

Scene 10

(Main protagonist has arrived at a child psychiatrist's office at the hospital where she is a nurse. She wants to speak to a psychiatrist about a delicate issue involving her daughter.)

A few minutes later, the doctor came out of his office wearing a white lab coat. Tall, gaunt and balding, the psychiatrist ushered Ann into his office.

As she entered the room, Ann was immediately struck by the smell of stale coffee and cigar smoke. The venetian blinds were coated with dust, and the windows were smeared and cloudy. When she looked at the psychiatrist, he was swiveling in his chair, leering at her legs. He motioned for her to sit down in the chair across from him. As she took a seat, she glanced at several diplomas displayed on the wall. Seeing that his focus of attention had not shifted, Ann pulled her uniform dress down as far as she could over her knees.

“I see you work at the hospital,” said the doctor.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“You’re husband doesn’t mind you working?”
“Sir, I’m here to discuss my daughter.”
The psychiatrist interrupted Ann, “What’s your name?”
“Ann Meadows. My six-year-old daughter,” she started, “ recently witnessed a crime.”
“What type of crime?” asked the psychiatrist.
“A teenage girl was attacked in front of our apartment a few nights ago. My daughter was out of bed, and she saw some of it from our kitchen window.”
“And where were you?”
“I was doing laundry across the hall.”
“You mean you left your six-year-old daughter unattended? A mother shouldn’t be out gallivanting.”

Ann paused for a moment to compose herself. She could feel a mixture of guilt and anger well up inside of her chest, but she pressed on.

“Doctor, I don’t want to waste your time. We aren’t sure what my daughter saw exactly, but the police want to talk to her, and we want to ensure that this will not make it worse for her. Is there anything we can do to limit any further trauma?”

“This ‘we’ you’re talking about is your husband I gather.”
“Good. I’m glad this girl has a caring father. Now, tell me. Has your daughter exhibited any regressive behavior since the incident?”
“Well, she has become clingy and wants to sleep with the lights on.”
“Then she is going to need a lot of reassurance from both you and your husband. Let her follow you around, and let her sleep with a light on in her room. You could even let her sleep in the same room with you for a little while. I know that this might be inconvenient… but if she has the necessary assurance then these behaviors should cease.”

Ann fidgeted and shifted her legs completely to the right.

“I also wanted to know if we should let the police talk to her?”
“I’m not sure. That would be up to you. Do you know exactly what she saw?” asked the psychiatrist with his gaze squarely focused on Ann’s legs, which she shifted to the left.
“Very little. We live in the basement, so she could only see their feet and legs, and hear some…noises.”
There was a long pause. Ann pursed her lips and deeply inhaled and exhaled.
“Did your daughter know the teenager who was attacked?”
“Yes, she recognized her from her shoes.”
“Did she recognize the attacker?”
“We don’t know. We never thought to ask.”
“Well, if you decide to let the police question her, ask to be present and reassure her throughout the interview. If she doesn’t answer the question then put it into a child’s terms. For instance, she may have thought they were just fighting, like what she would see in a schoolyard. She doesn’t have to know what type of assault was really going on…Ask her simple questions about what she saw. For instance, what colour were the man’s shoes or if she has ever seen shoes like those before?”
“Okay. That’s helpful.”
“Is the girl who was attacked all right?”
“Yes, a little shaken, but she’s fine now.”
“It’s not safe for women to go out alone at night. Anyway, make sure your daughter knows that she’s all right now. That’s important.”
“Thank you,” said Ann. As she stood up, she saw the doctor looking again unabashedly at her legs.
“And Mrs. uh…”
“Mrs. Meadows,” said Ann baring her teeth.
“Yes, you were wrong to leave your daughter alone.”
“Doctor, I came here for advice on my daughter not to be morali…”
Ann was interrupted, “I’m a professional, and if I wanted to I could report you to Child Services. If you were doing what you were supposed to, you….”

Ann didn’t let him finish his sentence. Choking back tears of rage, she walked out the door without saying good-bye. She followed the worn carpet marks through the office without looking up. She needed some fresh air to get rid of that foul cigar odor that seemed to linger on her uniform. She would also make sure to scrub her hands a little longer before she started work. She had paid more than enough for this information, but at least now she and Ward had what they needed to make an informed decision.

If you're interested in taking these online fiction courses with Jordan Rosenfeld click here. I highly recommend her Method Writing class.
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