Vue Weekly

Google News Untouched by Human Hands

Last week, as World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings got underway in Washington, D.C., hundreds of protesters took to the streets. That much is fact. But if, at the time, you spent a few minutes online trying to figure out why they were protesting, you'd be instantly, redundantly reminded that news gathering is deeply subjective.

The Globe and Mail piece by Barrie McKenna, for example, headlined "Protestors facing final drumbeat," contained a swath of derisive comments like "The same folks who earlier brought you tear gas festivals in Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa and elsewhere are back."

A story in the Guardian out of the U.K., meanwhile, opened with this line: "The International Monetary Fund admitted yesterday that the benefits of the increasing integration of the global economy had failed to reach the world's poor as demonstrators gathered in Washington."

And hundreds of other stories each had their own context and slant tinting the picture. Case in point: The Motley Fool's top 10 ways capitalism is fighting back: "9. Drenched and shivering on Pennsylvania Ave., several protestors are spotted heading to Starbucks for a hot double latte."

With thousands of competing mainstream news sites on the Internet, what's a busy reader to do? Who has time to troll around looking for informed coverage of a particular story from a wide range of perspectives? Well, the folks at Google, the successful search engine start-up that celebrated its fourth birthday last month, don't have time to search for you, either. Instead, they've developed computer algorithms and an "automated grouping process" to package the news. And last week the company launched a beta version of its Google News page, which gives users immediate access to hundreds of different takes on the same story, all arranged in a user-friendly format without the subjective shackles of human intervention.

Essentially, like their searching tentacles, Google's news gremlins crawl constantly through 4,000 different news sites and update the Google News page every few minutes. Stories generating a large volume of Internet "buzz" are displayed prominently, with literally hundreds of links to individual items from different sources, all time-stamped (15 minute ago, two hours ago) and organized according to the algorithms' rather democratic whims. "While the sources of the news vary in perspective and editorial approach," the site explains, "their selection for inclusion is done without regard to political viewpoint or ideology."

Google senior research scientist and Google News team leader Krishna Bharat conceived of the idea after September 11, when, like millions of other people, he found himself spending an inordinate amount of time hunting for news online. "That was a lot of walking on the Web," he says over the phone from Google's California headquarters, "and I wanted to automate that, at least for myself." Bharat noticed that while surfing for news, he frequently encountered duplicate stories. Focusing on 150 different news sources like daily papers and TV networks, he created a way to prioritize stories and avoid redundancy while searching. He showed his experiment to some people at Google, they started using it--and the company soon decided to invest in the project.

Although the beta site is up and running now, Bharat says the biggest missing component is information on how users will react. They want to get as much feedback as possible before deciding on the site's final shape. "Google is a cautious company in some respects," he says. "We like to get our engineering finalized before we get out of beta." But already, untouched by human editors, as a portal for pure breaking news, Google News has one huge advantage over sites like CNN.com and newspaper homepages: it's not limited to stories produced by one corporate family of news organizations.

"The algorithms are trying to create diversity," says Bharat, who wouldn't delve into the nuts and bolts of this propriety technology too deeply. "We're trying to be as objective as possible. The intention is to have a healthy debate, so you try to include a good mix. Some of the best newspapers, even in the U.S., have strong opinions. So you have newspapers and opinions from all over the world.... We just want to put different opinions together. It's healthy to know what other people are thinking."

Given that mix, he continues, you'll see contradictory viewpoints on many of the site's top stories, although it's not programmed to intentionally put polar opposites together. And while the source-selection mechanism seems geared strongly towards mainstream media outlets, which have their limits when it comes to diversity, at least if you're looking for the latest on the Palestinian crisis, you'll see links that will take you directly to Arabic news sources right up there with links to some of the Western mainstream media's largest voices. Or if you don't like CanWest's Canada.com story on the latest ecstasy research, why, there are more than 100 other articles on the same study to choose from. And in a few minutes, there could very well be dozens more.

Compiled completely by computers, the site is updated 24/7, explains Bharat, which means the science guys get to go home and sleep. So far they're not adjusting the site with small tweaks; they're just watching it to see what it does and listening to feedback. One of the things Bharat is surprised to hear is all the introspective talk among editors about one day being replaced by this type of technology. "We don't want to do that," he says. "We like to say that we have thousands of editors. We look at their collected wisdom and how much time and space they invest in a certain topic."

Google isn't thinking about the commercial ramifications of the service yet, according to Bharat. "We want to do one thing right first," he says. They don't even expect people to make Google News their first stop online. "We're just trying to be a hub for news," says Bharat. "People come to the site. They love us. But they leave us very quickly." And where they go is not a world of Google's creation. After all, Google's just giving us an illuminating reflection of the media landscape that's out there.

The Pulp Fiction Addiction

It was a night like a thousand other nights before it. Sitting on my back porch, I tipped back another slug of whiskey and thought: What's it all for, anyway? The wind whipped through the trees like the thoughts and regrets churning through my brain at a fevered pace. Rocko's voice still echoed in my ears: Stay away from me, see? You an' me, doll, we're nothing, see? Casting my red-rimmed eyes on one tiny tree almost broken in half by the cruelly gusting gale, I let down my guard and a single tear trickled down my cheek. I've been where you are, baby, I whispered to the tree. I've been where you are.

Before I had a chance to collect my thoughts, I had another, more imposing force of nature to contend with: a brute in black leather crashing through my yard, charging toward me with the wild abandon of a herd of mustangs. "Who are you?" I called to him. In response, he knocked the bottle of whiskey from my hands. It smashed into a million pieces, almost as many pieces as my heart had been smashed into the day before. "That was a big mistake, mister." I said, standing up.

Black Leather grabbed me by the wrist, pulling me in close to him. We stood there for a minute -- a million minutes, maybe -- staring at each other, me and this untamable stallion of a man. The smell of booze was all around us, booze and leather and... rebellion. Finally, he spoke.

"I've got something to show you, baby." He jerked me in harder, and a couple of buttons snapped off my blouse into the spreading pool of whiskey at my feet.

"What's that, tough guy?" I said defiantly. "Show me what you got."

He reached down into his jacket and thrust something toward me. "Here." he whispered. "Read this." It was a copy of "Cherry Ames, Student Nurse." I looked down at Cherry's sunny, smiling face, and felt new tears welling up. I looked up to thank my anonymous black leather benefactor, but he'd already disappeared into the night.

Okay, truthfully, I suppose I developed a taste for retro and pulp novels well before I developed a taste for whiskey. And strictly speaking, "Cherry Ames" probably wouldn't even fall into the pulp category. But when I see those brightly colored hardcovers, those pocket-sized paperbacks with the lurid taglines and the tantalizing cover art, I just can't resist. For as long as I can remember, I've had a soft spot in my heart for pulp fiction. Of all types. The Technicolor covers, the musty basement smell of well-thumbed pages, the water damage at the corners. Maybe it's the bad-girl/good-girl dichotomy. Or the promise of plucky girl detective adventures that wrap up neatly in less than 200 pages. It's an addiction, I admit. But I have no plans to seek treatment.

Pulp novels, to me, are like reality television or Hollywood B-movies: churned-out contrivances with predictable plots and a vaguely confused mix of stereotyped characters, all tied together with a roots-showing-smack-on-the-ass-falling-out-of-your-dress brand of sex. Vacant and yet titillating, these glimpses at life on the wrong side of the tracks, in the glittering footlights, behind closed doors in the best neighbourhoods are a guilty pleasure beyond compare. And while it's true that I've occasionally invited Eugene O'Neill or D.H. Lawrence to join me in the tub, they're just occasional interlopers. My true bathtime companions are much more likely to be Jacqueline Susann, Helen Gurley Brown or the gang of juvenile delinquents who make up the cast of Pat Stadley's "Black Leather Barbarians."

So I'm not a purist. And I'm not the kind of collector who keeps things wrapped up in neat little plastic bags. I buy my books to read them, to display them. I suppose it's possible that visitors may cast disparaging glances at my bookshelf, make harsh judgments, shoot me quizzical looks. But when it comes right down to it, which of these two books has gotten more attention from my houseguests--my copy of "Jude the Obscure" or "Nancy's Dude Ranch"?

And despite the family strife this fetish of mine may have caused (as the child of two Ph.D.s in English Lit, my love of trashy dime-store novels was somewhat puzzling and not necessarily celebrated) I'm continuing to cultivate my collection. At thrift stores, garage sales and secondhand bookstores, these little treasures abound. Here's a quick primer for the uninitiated:

The classics

This is where it all began. They're seedy. Maybe a little bit smutty. In early days, they were tales from the bohemian underworld of the Jazz Age, of wanton women and the men they dazzled, of reform school girls, of motorcycle gangs, of hardboiled detectives, of (gasp!) lesbians. These lurid tales are a rare delight to find at your average thrift store. Whether you're reading "I Married a Dead Man" or "Loves of a Girl Wrestler," these books are worth picking up for the shelf cachet alone. Published for 30 golden years between the '30s and the late '60s, these are as collectible for the cover art as for the steamy content.

Helen Gurley Brown

Those three little words that mean so much. Now, purists would probably argue that Helen Gurley Brown isn't a fiction writer, but I have to take my hat off to someone who's worked so hard to make her own life so remarkably fictionalized. And out of all the many, many sexy advice books I've read from the '60s and '70s, "Sex and the Single Girl" is the most hilarious. Whether you're looking for advice about your gay friends ("Homosexuals... are they really monsters?"), decorating tips (Brown is chockfull of valuable tips on how to decorate your apartment to land a man, from painting your kitchen in man-friendly colors to leaving a huge bowl of loose cigarettes on your coffee table) to recipes (cooking for that unexpected breakfast guest) to just plain forcing-him-to-pop-the-question advice, Helen gets my vote every time.

Junior Miss

These books provided me with my first exposure to pulp, and in some ways, they remain dearest to my heart. Hardbound, with propaganda-like illustrations on the front cover, these books hail from a kinder, gentler time. They taught girls to yearn for the day when they too would become girl sleuths, nurses, airline stewardess or, possibly, ponies. Most often chronicling the continuing adventures of a single character, these books differentiated themselves from their pulpier big sisters by the complete lack of any sexual tension between the heroine and her male companions. Unrealistic expectations and the inescapable happy ending make these books a fun, if pulp-lite, read. They also look spectacular lined up on a bookshelf.

Some great ones to check out are: the Cherry Ames series (as in "Cherry Ames, Dude Ranch Nurse," plus 20 or 30 other nursing adventures), Trixie Belden (not as polished a girl sleuth as Nancy Drew, but she got the job done) Vicki Barr (think Cherry Ames as a stewardess) and Donna Parker (Donna actually has a fairly boring 1950s life, but reading about her nursing her cockatiel back to health somehow makes my own problems seem even more important).

A subgenre of the Junior Miss book is the Celebrity Junior Miss book. Imagine a series of novels using Britney Spears as the main character. Not buying? I'll bet if I wrote a series of "Pat Benatar, Ghosthunter" novels, they'd be flying off the shelves. That's the theory, anyway, behind the Annette series, starring Disney's own Annette Funicello. These books are just like the other Junior Miss books, but with a real person as the hero. The Annette books are fairly easy to come by these days; a rarer find is something from the Lennon Sisters series (a 1950s teen girl group who were famous for their song "Mickey Mouse Mambo" as well as their appearances on The Lawrence Welk Show).

The swinging '60s and the sexy '70s

These are by far the most plentiful at thrift shops. Stories of desperate starlets, sex-hungry secretaries, bored housewives and pill-popping fashion models, these bikini-bedecked covers are an invitation to decadent, self-indulgent reading. For my money, the must-have of this grouping is Jacqueline Susann's timeless classic "Valley of the Dolls," which traces the lives of three women (a cold New England beauty, a Judy Garland-esque stage actress trying to make it in movies and a voluptuous model with a torrid past) as they wind their way through the sordid world of Hollywood. The dolls of the title refer to the countless number of pills that each one of them takes along the way. Susann's other novels "Once Is Not Enough," "Dolores" and "The Love Machine" have never quite measured up for me in terms of sheer camp, but her first book, "Every Night, Josephine!" is worth reading simply because she wrote an entire novel about her dog.

Christian lit

These aren't so much pulp as moral warnings. In particular, I remember reading a couple of books in a series about wayward girls. The plot was fairly predictable: a teenage girl has a pretty okay life until she gets involved in crime (in the first one I read, she became a con artist, but I've also seen books where the poor dear ends up courting Sweet Lady H), which sets on the inevitable path toward addiction or pregnancy (sometimes both), before ending up at a Christian halfway house in upstate New York (advertised in the back of the novel). I haven't seen too many entries in this genre out there, but I remember that the titles were always girls' first names (the first one I read was called "Julie"). "From Witchcraft to Christ," whose title is pretty self-explanatory, is another favorite: a young woman gets herself involved in a dastardly coven of witches, but meets a kindly priest and starts a new life.

Science fiction

Never really having been a science fiction fan, this genre escaped my notice completely until one rainy day at the Wee Book Inn, where I found myself captivated by an entire rack of gloriously bizarre paperbacks. I bought one immediately for its cover. I haven't quite worked up the courage to read "The Fireclown," but if the book's back cover description is even vaguely accurate ("...a mysterious cosmic presence who came out of nowhere with the incredible promise to free the dying planet... Alan Powys has the one chance in a million to reveal the Fire Clown's secret!") it promises to be a crowd-pleaser. These books are immediately recognizable by the cover illustrations of scantily clad ladies surrounded by menacing tentacles.

There are other genres, of course, including westerns, and my new passion: the hardboiled detective novel. So, ignore what your parents told you: judge a book by its cover. Buy it. Read it. Because, all in all, pulp has taught me some pretty valuable lessons:

1. Bad boys get all the breaks; bad girls get what's coming to them.
2. A career is fine for a woman, as long as she gets to meet some nice men.
3. You can't solve all the world's problems, so why not have a martini?
4. Life is cruel, the streets are hard and your past will always catch up with you.
5. When all else fails... seduce someone.

Catherine Walsh is an Edmonton actor, playwright and regular contributor to Vue Weekly.

Around the World in a Heady Daze

Brian Preston is not a pothead. Okay, he won’t say no to a puff if there’s a joint being passed around at a party. He might even buy an eighth once in a while. But Preston is not a pothead. He’s a middle-aged Canadian writer who latched on to a unique idea. Why not travel around the world seeking out, smoking and talking pot with people in far-flung countries, then write a book about it?

With a Rolling Stone article about Vancouver’s affinity for weed on his résumé, Preston pitched the picaresque book to Grove Press, a New York publisher with a history of battling the censors. (Grove Press has books like "Naked Lunch" and "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" on its résumé.) The publisher bit and Preston headed for Nepal with a cash advance and assurances they’d try to bail him out if he got busted.

After arriving in Nepal, he started literally living and breathing marijuana: smoking while meeting people, meeting people while smoking, smoking while writing. Two and a half years later, his first book, "Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture," is available over the counter. (It’s also available online, but Preston thinks some people in the U.S. are reluctant to order it on the Internet because “there’s much more pot paranoia down there -- and rightly so.”)

Snickering aside -- and notwithstanding snide media potshots like “No kidding? I wrote a book?” which the revamped Saturday Night magazine used as a subhed for a recent article/excerpt by Preston, or the (positive) review on Salon.com punctuated with words like “dude!” -- Pot Planet is an engaging, entertaining read. But it’s more than a light-hearted and light-headed dope-themed travelogue.

Preston looks into the science of growing and plant genetics, the taste and “trip” concerns of connoisseurs, the politics and economics behind American’s War on Drugs, and he details the legalization and medicinal use battles being fought simultaneously on numerous fronts. He also smoked a hell of a lot of dope. And although it’s difficult to boil down his many discoveries into a single conclusion, Preston makes one concept perfectly clear: Pot isn’t nearly as dangerous as a lot of people want you to believe.

Doobie scoop

“With this book, I just dove right in,” Preston says over the phone from his home in Victoria, where he’s moved on to a novel and another nonfiction book project as the small budget “word-of-mouth, grassroots” publicity campaign behind Pot Planet starts heating up. Preston is telling me how much fun he had getting the scoop on various pro-pot communities, campaigns, organizations and businesses -- and hanging out with wake-and-bakers in a dozen different countries.

Other than getting hustled out of a few bucks in the chaotic streets of Morocco and losing his passport to a pickpocket during a ritualistic tug-of-war with an elephant in Cambodia, nothing really bad happened. Like your average marijuana buzz, the trip was pretty smooth. “I really liked Nepal and hiking in the hills with my Nepalese buddies,” he responds when asked for a highlight. “Sitting on mountaintops and pretending to be eagles. Very nice. Beautiful.”

In the countries he checked out -- Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Australia, England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Morocco, Canada and the U.S. -- Preston was able to gain a certain intimacy with people by sharing the cannabis plant. In Nepal, when he approached five twentysomething guys smoking dope in a park, they pointed out the seedlings sprouting nearby where they flick their seeds. Preston jumped down from the platform they were sitting on for a look, leaving his backpack behind with the strangers -- and when he looked back at the Nepalese men, he saw that they noticed his trust. Almost instantly, there was a bond between foreigner and locals that otherwise might never have materialized.

Pot Planet focuses on these sorts of connections between like-minded people from diverse backgrounds, with marijuana acting merely as the subtext. “It couldn’t be totally about pot without readers getting bored,” says Preston. “Pot just gave me an excuse to get into things much deeper than the average tourist. In many countries, there’s an ‘us versus them’ thing, and once you get in, you’re part of the ‘us.’ As soon as you express your love of pot and are open to people, you’re in.

“That’s kind of the attitude I tried to keep going,” he continues. “And when you throw your lot in with people doing illegal things, you throw your whole lot in.... A lot of it had to do with openness and blindly stumbling around trying to find pot. People tend to know if you’re at their mercy, and you have to show you know it, too. You just surrender to it.”

A cool grass of milk

While being welcomed into the homes (and headspaces) of strangers makes for compelling copy, the politics and economics Preston explores are equally fascinating. Much of this material is anecdotal; in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, for example, peasants grow cannabis as an appetite enhancer for cows -- a stark, sustainable contrast to our modern chemical and biotech farming methods. In Switzerland, it’s legal to sell, buy and possess pot -- you just aren’t allowed to smoke it. Other anecdotes are a tad more troubling: in England, contemplating the notion that marijuana is a “gateway” to harder drugs, Preston encounters a study revealing that there’s a link between getting busted for pot and more dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine. “I met people in England who had never seen heroin until they were in jail for pot,” he says. Details like this help propel Preston towards his investigation of American and, by extension, global marijuana policies. Farmers in several developing countries have historically relied on cannabis cultivation to feed their families, but when the U.S. gave their governments millions of dollars to make pot illegal, it just created an underground, criminal market, inconveniencing impoverished farmers and driving up the price. In the U.S., where the massive law enforcement infrastructure swollen by booze prohibition shifted its focus to pot decades ago, the self-perpetuating fight against marijuana is responsible, to a large extent, for thousands of government and police jobs and millions of dollars in funding. Throw in Ronald Reagan’s blunt determination that there’s zero difference between hard and soft drugs, ongoing hypocrisy with alcohol and cigarettes being legal while pot is banned, plus a political climate in the U.S. in which any politician who appears “soft” on drugs can jeopardize his or her career... stir it all together and you get a status quo that sends otherwise law-abiding, taxpaying citizens to jail and ignores the potential benefits of a naturally-growing organism. “It’s very hard for governments to back up on this sort of thing,” Preston rationalizes. “They can’t say, ‘Oh, we were wrong and we’ve thrown a lot of innocent people in jail for 20 years.’” Even prison guards like pot, he reports: Not only does it drum up business for the prison-industrial complex, but dope smokers tend to be docile inmates.

A relaxed attitude towards drugs

Preston patiently heeds a longwinded question of mine about (a) John Ralston Saul’s observation that uncertainty is what makes us human, and (b) marijuana having the ability to stimulate un-empirical thinking, an openness to new ideas and, therefore, uncertainty. As far back as the 1950s, Preston says, pot was demonized by American politicians because it contradicted their nation’s nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. “On an economic level,” he says, “when you look at what globalization is all about, everyone has to work harder and it’s the triumph of capitalism. Marijuana is the triumph of relaxing. It’s not about the dominant ideology of the world at the moment. As a matter of fact, it’s opposed to it. It’s about slowing down and reflecting about things.”

Let me repeat, here, my introductory disclaimer: Preston is not a pothead. He’s simply a libertarian who believes in personal responsibility and feels no addictive physical or mental aftermath to months of regular consumption. “The plant was a great pleasure for me at the time,” he says about getting lost in the haze of Pot Planet, which he considers his now-completed “duty” to the pot world. “But I put pot in perspective, which was kind of the point of the book.”

Preston makes a myriad of other points, too. He admires Dutch-style marijuana decriminalization, for instance, because it flies in the face of American anti-drug dogma, even though the Dutch are tired of American frat boys coming over to party and barfing in their canals. (In the Netherlands, curiously, pot usage rates are lower than in the U.S.) Preston also believes in the medicinal benefits of the plant, although he says giving the green light to medical use could create a new bureaucracy and mega-industry as big drug corporations start circling like sharks.

We need another Stone(d)wall

Regardless, Preston says more pot smokers need to stand up and be counted, as gays and lesbians did when they came out of their closet en masse and fought for their rights. He thinks it’s a shame that North American laws tend to penalize the poor kids caught with little baggies and seldom touch the middle-class white guys who can afford lawyers. He thinks it’s a bigger shame that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has set up an office in Vancouver and continues to exert heavy pressure on Canadian politicians and police, even though the Supreme Court of Canada this fall will listen to discussions about recreational marijuana use rooted in philosopher John Stuart Mill’s concept that the individual is sovereign over his own person.

Ultimately, however, Preston does not endorse smoking your brains out and losing touch with the world. He’s for more meaningful toking. As he writes on the last page of the book, peace-lovers and fun-seekers should get out there and greet their foreign counterparts. “Roll one up and find the shared pleasure of the smoky communion,” he advises. “Then roll another one up for me.”

Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture -- By Brian Preston • Grove Press • 289 pp. • $24.95

In Defense of Kate Moss

Last month, a strange thing happened in the fashion world: Salon’s cultural critic Charles Taylor rhapsodized adoringly about supermodel Kate Moss (specifically about a nostalgic fashion spread in the June 2002 issue of the British magazine i-D)... and nobody wrote in to complain.

Can it be... that it’s finally okay to say you like Kate Moss?

If so, it’s about time. As recently as five years ago, you could search long and hard in the mainstream media and still be unable to locate a single person willing to admit to finding the British supermodel sexy -- let alone call her "my idea of female perfection... a perfect ’60s dream girl" the way Taylor did.

Indeed, it was much more commonplace for Moss to be discussed in terms of outright loathing. "[I have] a predisposition against Kate Moss," reads a typical Web posting, "and [think] she deserves a slow, agonizing death.... I mean, I’m not trying to be offensive to any of the skinny people, but she disgusts me."

"Hey women out there!," wrote the webmaster of a site called Heartless Bitches International. "Don't believe the hype! If we buy into the horseshit of having to look like Kate fucking Moss we are going to collectively waste the rest of our lives in a quagmire of self-perpetuated self-hatred!"

"Kate Moss and [similarly waifish French singer/actress] Vanessa Paradis are disgusting," wrote another Web poster. "Even healthy non-obsessives know this."

For a while, street posters featuring Moss’s ultrathin image became a common target of vandalism --most often, the words FEED ME would be scrawled across her belly, although I can recall seeing several posters in bus shelters where the vandal had gone so far as to scratch out Moss’s eyes and draw blood seeping from the "wounds."

Anti-Moss sentiments weren’t confined to the Internet (traditionally a hotbed of anti-celebrity sniping); academics hated her too. When the author of the manifesto for an anthology of queer commentary called "Revolutionary Voices" lists the terrible social ills she saw around her that inspired her to assemble the book, she names the rape/murder of Brandon Teena, the murder of Matthew Shepard, the lynching of James Byrd... and the popularity of Kate Moss. (Oh yeah, and also the fact that the U.S. government was building more prisons than schools.)

A video by Maciej Toporowicz at the controversial recent Mirroring Evil exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York actually juxtaposed scenes from Leni Riefenstahl pro-Nazi propaganda with Kate Moss’s Calvin Klein ads. (In other words: if you like Kate Moss, you’d probably find concentration camps sexy as well!)

There were thin models before Moss came along, of course, with Carnaby Street icons like Twiggy and Penelope Tree probably being the most famous. But while Twiggy’s unusually sticklike figure was the subject of much comment at the time, her personality was so perky and unthreatening that she tended to be viewed with more amusement than scorn. However, by the time that Moss, a much more dour personality, emerged on the scene in 1992 with attention-getting spreads in Britain’s The Face and Harper’s Bazaar in the U.S., a new wave of feminist cultural commentators had emerged -- most prominently Naomi Wolf, author of the influential study "The Beauty Myth" -- who were not about to look so kindly on the fashion industry’s celebration of superskinny models like Moss.

Some critics accused Moss of helping to perpetuate a ridiculous, completely unrealistic standard of beauty among North American women, the vast majority of whom could never hope to duplicate Moss’s petite physique. Others, including Wolf, went so far as to blame the fashion industry for turning a generation of young girls into anorexics -- a shaky, anecdotal accusation that would nevertheless be repeated in dozens of anti-Moss rants.

Fanning the flames of the controversy were two particularly extreme photos of Moss that appeared within a few weeks of each other in 1993: one was a photo by Sante D’Orazio that ran in Allure depicting her in a sheer Helmut Lang crop top and a pair of Gaultier hip-huggers that left her bare from her ribs to her hipbones; she appears to be sucking in her stomach so that the outline of her ribcage is visible beneath her skin -- not exactly an erotic sight.

The other photo ran as an ad for Calvin Klein’s Obsession perfume; it showed a naked, decidedly un-curvy Moss lying on a couch, her figure looking more like that of an adolescent boy than the then-popular, conventional notion of a fashion model.

However, it was the very fact that Moss didn’t look like a conventional fashion model that was part of what made her so very appealing. In the ’80s, the most popular models tended to be tall, Amazonian types like Brooke Shields and Paulina Porizkova and über-California blondes like Christie Brinkley. Kate Moss has become so synonymous with the notion of "unattainable beauty" that it’s easy to forget what an anomaly she was, what a collection of flaws, when she burst onto the fashion world back in ’92.

At 5’7", she was, technically speaking, too short for the runways. Her breasts were almost nonexistent, especially compared to the overflowing bazooms of Brinkley and Porizkova. Her teeth were irregularly spaced and overly prominent. And unlike clean-living role models like Shields and Brinkley, Moss smoked too much, drank too much, liked wild men and stayed out dancing much too late at night.

In fact, that somewhat atypical Allure photo aside, the true nature of Moss’s appeal has very little to do with how skinny she is. It’s Moss’s face that’s her fortune -- those heavy-lidded eyes spaced just a little farther apart in her head than normal, those high cheekbones, that long hair, those cute, irregular teeth.

Moss’s detractors -- probably thinking of how she looked in that Obsession ad -- like to describe her expression as "blank" or "childlike," but to me, her gaze has always seemed mysterious, knowing, deeply sexual, the precise spiritual opposite of an elfin gamine like Twiggy. (Taylor describes Moss’s eyes as being "ready to surrender to seduction or signal you to fuck off... the image of a girl who’s just risen from bed and is looking at you with a frank, couldn’t-care-less provocation.") It’s truly a classic, unforgettable, irresistible camera face, and it’s the reason you recognize Moss’s name immediately but have probably never heard of other, equally waifer-thin models like Tasha Tilberg, Josie Kidd, Amy Wesson and Shalom Harlow. And it’s the reason Moss continues to be in demand as a model when other well-known mannequins of her vintage -- Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer -- have faded from prominence... along with Moss detractors like the hopelessly behind-the-times Naomi Wolf.

Indeed, I’ve talked to several young women who see Moss as, believe it or not, a role model -- or at least by far their favourite fashion icon. Skinny chicks with flat chests need people to look up to too, and it’s about time Kate Moss’s reputation was rehabilitated. (My friend Judy, a naturally thin woman with a decidedly Moss-like figure, says, "The people who hate Kate Moss always go on about how she doesn’t have curves like a ‘real’ woman. And I always think, ‘Well, aren’t I real?’")

Few women have had their physical appearance as relentlessly and cruelly condemned in the media as Kate Moss, and you’ve got to admit, she weathered the criticism and abuse with remarkable grace and dignity. And even if you prefer women with a little more meat on their bones, can we at least agree that, on the grand scale of history’s greatest forces of evil, the Nazis were probably worse?

Paul Matwychuk is managing editor of Vue Weekly, in Edmonton, Alberta.

Maxim Overdrive

And you thought the folks behind Maxim were idiots.

Their ultra-popular "men's magazine" -- and I use both terms loosely -- is base, vacuous and, logically, sells like hotcakes. It's sort of like Playboy, only the models wear slightly more clothing and the articles aren't so brainy. (By "articles" I mean the words squeezed between all those hooter pictures) Maxim's publishers and editors have proven they're shrewd businesspeople. Since the British export arrived on this continent in 1997, its readership has swelled to 2.2 million per month and issues these days weigh in at nearly 300 ad-laden pages. After all, what could be more popular to young male readers and advertisers than sex, sports, beer and babes?

But this month, as the magazine celebrates its fifth birthday, it pulled off another marketing coup. A plan so simple it's brilliant. A plan that shows just how smart Maxim's staff is -- and how easily the mainstream media can be manipulated.

North American readers of Maxim's April issue, those who peer past Blade II's topless "Chilean stunner" Leonor Varela on the cover and don't get bogged down in the complex "Chill Your Chick" feature (a primer on turning "any girl into a beer-swilling, Super Bowl-watching strip joint junkie"), will notice the mag's city-of-the-year item. This year, Maxim picked New York City as the continent's top town. And Philadelphia. And Toronto. And Dallas. And nine other cities, hoping to boost sales by boosting the egos of its hometown-proud readers with 13 city-specific versions of the April issue.

Except Maxim made a boo-boo. Copies of the edition praising New York were shipped to Philly newsstands by mistake. Philadelphians were supposed to read about how "cool" the Liberty Bell is and why anyone disputing Philly's title as "The Greatest City on Earth" should "have a bite of this cheese-dipped knuckle sandwich." Instead, the typical resident of the City of Brotherly Love saw himself described as "a lard-ass with arteries packed as tight as a Colombian airline passenger's G.I. tract" living in "a glorified piss break between New York and D.C."

It wasn't just Eagles-eyed Philadelphians, though, who saw through the distribution screw up to the magazine's multi-tasking deception. The Detroit Free Press was suspicious and asked Maxim senior editor James Heidenry about its city's number one ranking. "It has a certain cachet," he replied reassuringly, "the same way a Coupe de Ville does." Asked outright if Detroit was just one of several cities singled out, Heidenry lied. "No," he said, "we love Detroit." When confronted by the Free Press a day later with evidence (the best thing about Detroit, the non-Detroit versions of the mag quipped, is that it's not quite Canada), Heidenry fessed up. "Like a guy juggling different girlfriends," he said with typical Maxim wit, "we told them all they were number one."

Denver newspapers, alas, weren't as swift as their Motor City counterparts. Denver Post columnist Bill Husted began his item about the Maxim feature with the line "Denver, you're the best" and quoted a chunk of the magazine's glowing description of the city: "Founded by rugged, leathery gold prospectors, populated by top snowboarders and easy-to-trap ski bunnies, and set like a gem into the majestic Rockies is a city that will literally take your breath away." He mentions that Maxim praised the Post's "journalist principles" and concludes his blurb by writing "let's be glad we're not one of the 12 Worst Cities On Earth: Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, LA, Miami, NYC, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Toronto, Washington, D.C. And Maxim has plenty of mean things to say about them." In a similar column that appeared the same day in the Rocky Mountain News, Husted's counterpart Penny Parker proudly noted that "it's the town's bounty of beauties and babe-watching opportunities that snagged Maxim's vote."

Does it matter to Maxim that they fooled some readers and newspapers while others caught on? Probably not. The adage that no press is bad press holds true here. Maxim knew that by singling out a city as the world's best, they'd get their name into the boosteristic local dailies and onto local newscasts. (Heck, if the Foundation for Plastic Bags Stuck in Trees picked New York as the top city for plastic bags stuck in trees, the Big Apple's press corps would be all over that story.) Maxim likely figured that if somebody discovered them courting 13 different girlfriends at the same time -- which they probably knew would happen sooner or later, or indeed hoped it would -- its image as a frat boy prankster, T&A glossy wouldn't suffer.

They're right. Those who despise Maxim can't possibly think any less of it. In fact, I kind of appreciate how they've exposed papers like the Denver Post, which are willing to repeat any praise their city gets, regardless of who it's coming from and what it's praising. The Post may be upset it was hustled by Maxim -- well, that's what you get! Because even Maxim knows we all like to be told we're number one.

Dan Rubinstein is the news editor at Vue Weekly in Edmonton, Alberta.

Fudging Books by their Covers

When they were released back in 1994, the Tim Robbins prison saga The Shawshank Redemption and the Robert Redford-directed morality drama Quiz Show were the object of much speculation by Hollywood pundits, who expressed puzzlement over the fact that two such universally well-regarded films (both were nominated for Best Picture Oscars) could have performed so poorly at the box office.

Most people blamed the films' misguided marketing campaigns -- and coming in for particular ridicule were the two films' posters, which depicted their main characters from the back, hiding their identity from potential moviegoers. (The Shawshank poster, you will recall, showed a rear view of star Tim Robbins, his arms outstretched in the rain; Quiz Show went with an imposing image of the back of Ralph Fiennes's head, headphones over his ears as he stood in a game show isolation booth.) To this day, Shawshank and Quiz Show are regarded as two of the most ineptly marketed films in Hollywood history. How are you supposed to engage people in a story, the conventional wisdom went, if you don't show them a human face?

That wisdom still hasn't spread to the publishing industry. You literally almost never see a human face on the cover of a literary novel -- and if casual readers feel a little alienated from buying literary fiction, well, given the way these novels are packaged, I can't say I blame them. I spent a recent afternoon browsing the fiction section at the local independent bookstore, and was stunned to observe how deeply ingrained the notion that faces must be avoided at all costs has become among publishers and graphic designers.

Sometimes, publishers will simply use a blurred photo that renders their subjects' appearance either subtly indistinct (as with Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost), intriguingly murky (Anne-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees) or completely unrecognizable (Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans). A much more common tactic, however, is to use a photograph or a drawing in which the person's back is to the camera, Shawshank-style, viz. Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Doris Betts's Heading West, Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces, Anne Tyler's Back When We Were Grownups, Kelli Deeth's The Girl Without Anyone, Alice Mattison's The Book Borrower, Gwyn Hyman Rubio's Icy Sparks, Emma Richler's Sister Crazy and Paul Theroux's Hotel Honolulu. Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room features 15 people with their back to the camera! (The most absurd example of this trend is the cover of Joyce Carol Oates's book Blonde, which features a photo of a woman posed mysteriously and anonymously with her back to the camera, even though everybody knows the book is about Marilyn Monroe!)

Then there's a whole host of books that combine those two techniques and use blurry photos of people with their backs to the camera: Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Paulo Coehlo's Veronika Decides to Die, Alice Elliott Dark's In the Gloaming, Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, Helen Dunmore's The Siege, Sebastian Faulks's On Green Dolphin Street, Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Regina McBride's The Nature of Water and Air, Jon Redfern's The Boy Must Die, Gayla Reid's All the Seas of the World, Julian Rios's Monstruary and John Wray's The Right Hand of Sleep.

Even if designers do take the bold step of putting a classic painting or a photographic portrait of a person on the cover, much more often than not, that image is severely cropped or chopped in half -- in effect, disguising their appearance as much as a blurred snapshot would. I'm thinking of books like Giles Blunt's Forty Words for Sorrow, Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband, Susan Cokal's Mirabilis, Nick Hornby's About a Boy, Helen Dunmore's Ice Cream, Justin Hill's The Dream and Drink Teahouse, Brad Leithauser's A Few Corrections, Heather McGowan's Schooling, Kenneth Radu's Flesh and Blood, William Safire's Scandalmonger, Greg Hollingshead's The Roaring Girl, Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, Todd Babiak's Choke Hold and Thomas Wharton's Salamander.

And there are other tricks, too: on the cover of Tim Pears's In a Land of Plenty, there's a picture of a young kid holding a camera over his face; Dave Margoshes's I'm Frankie Sterne uses a photo (blurred, naturally) of a guy tipping his hat over his face; the guy on the cover of Michael Dibdin's Thanksgiving has his hand over his face; the guy on David Czuchlewski's The Muse Asylum has his back to the reader and a giant book covering his head and the features of the handsome guy on Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho can't quite be made out from behind the giant lettering spelling out the book's title and the name of the author.

That's a long and tedious list of titles, but I wanted to emphasize just how widespread this trend has become -- the "no-face" dustjacket are as predictable and boring as the fake-looking double-portraits of smiling co-stars that decorate so many unimaginative video boxes. During my admittedly quick safari through the Greenwood's shelves, I was only able to locate four significant examples of literary novels that actually used unaltered, uncropped photos of recognizable human faces on their covers that weren't simply portraits of the author: Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry, Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy, David Ebershoff's The Danish Girl and, most memorably, Bruce Robinson's The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penham.

I've heard it argued that publishers use these anonymous kinds of covers because they don't want to impose a specific image of what the characters look like upon the reader's imagination (in much the same way that it's hard to read a book after watching a movie adaptation of it without thinking of those actors saying all the lines). I don't buy it. I think it's a copout. First of all, I don't think that's how people read books -- I think people's visual impressions of characters tend to be a lot foggier than that. And hell, I know I had no trouble at all getting through, say, my old paperback copy of A Confederacy of Dunces without having my own mental image of Ignatius Reilly colonized by the cartoonish drawing on the cover.

More importantly, I think these book covers betray a very dangerous and even snobbish attitude on the part of publishers (and readers) -- an attitude that views reticence and anonymity and abstraction and emotional evasiveness as being inherently more "literary" than shock, force, impact, punch, vividness and emotional directness. A lot of these covers I've been complaining about are quite beautifully designed in and of themselves, but taken as a whole, they embody a kind of kneejerk, genteel middle-class tastefulness I find suffocating. All those heads turned away from me, all those blurred backsides seem symptomatic of a literary world whose unreasoning fear of The Image has inspired it to turn its back and retreat farther and farther from its former place at the center of North American cultural life -- a world, moreover, that seems perfectly content to go on playing the wallflower. Many of these book covers seem to shrink away from you even as you look at them, as if the idea of making someone actually want to buy them had been rejected by publishers as being so outmoded as to be positively gauche.

If literature is the art of translating abstract ideas into vivid characters, clear stories and concrete language, surely publishers are exhibiting a failure of imagination and nerve on the part of their authors by refusing to put a human face on their creations.

Big Brother Is Spell-checking You

A funny thing happened on the way to an article the other day. I was writing an innocuous story -- a feature about flying disc golf, no less -- and happened to mention Wal-Mart in a sentence describing the horror of suburban big box blight. Except, in my haste, I uncouthly typed "Walmart" by mistake. Thankfully, I was saved from sure embarrassment by the indispensable spell-checking function of my word processing program, Microsoft Word. It knew "Walmart" should in fact be "Wal-Mart" and clinically, confidently told me so.

Whew, I thought. Nearly had to flip open a phone book to make sure my copy was correct. But then I started to contemplate the ramifications of a proper corporate name being considered proper usage in what must be one of the world's most popular computer programs. I mean, they're overlooking the most important rule of Scrabble: No proper names! If Wal-Mart is now part of our official electronic lexicon, I wondered, then how many of its brand-name cousins have joined it?

So I conducted a little experiment. Type "cocacola" in Microsoft Word and you're informed that "Coca-Cola" is the only recommended replacement. Lower-case "coke," however, is okay; I suppose the word is so familiar to us that we needn't bother capitalizing it anymore. Lower-case "nike," on the other hand, is wrong. It should be "Nike," I'm told, or a slew of similar-sounding words, from "Nikka" to "nice" to "pike." Likewise, "pepsi" should be "Pepsi." But buried amongst the list of amusing suggestions, like "peeps" and "papoose," we're also told that "PepsiCo" is an acceptable English (United States) word.

Surveying the various brand names visible on items in my office, I decided to do some willy-nilly spell-checking. "Timexx," I discovered, is incorrect, but "Timex" is fine. "Toshiba," the company that makes the computer on which this rant is being composed, is in there, too. My basketballs aren't so fortunate. "Spalding" garners the suggested spellings "Spading," and though "Wilsonx" does net me "Wilson," that's likely because Wilson is also a popular name for people.

Leaving the confines of this room, I threw in a few more terms. "Prozac" is in the dictionary, as are "Sony," "Hitachi," "Mitsubishi" and "Honda." (So are "Chrysler" and "globalization," by the way.) Other finds: "Samsung" apparently doesn't measure up to its electronics-company brethren, nor does "JVC," but "IBM" is okay.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Relax with a "Gatorade" -- and with Word's help you'll never misspell this tasty, thirst-quenching beverage again.

Now this is where things get complicated, because International CorrectSpell by the INSO Corporation -- the standard spell-checker for Microsoft Word -- includes thousands of proper names. Countries, cities, people... they're all in there. We've been using these words for centuries. Brand names, by comparison, are a relatively recent phenomenon. Yet they've managed to quickly find their way into what's arguably the framework for much of the communicating western society does today. What gives?

To get to the bottom of this, I put in a call to the INSO Corporation. Apparently they recently changed their name to EBT. (In an unexpected display of modesty, neither INSO nor EBT is in the spell-checker lexicon.) And EBT, unfortunately, is currently in the processing of liquidating.

"Everyone's been terminated," the woman who answered the phone told me before giving me the number for Chicago-based IntraNet Solutions, which purchased much of EBT's software before it went under. Calls to that company's public relations staff didn't conjure up a willing interviewee, so I went to the top and hooked up with Microsoft spokesperson Mark Thomas.

"We don't view ourselves as dictionary makers or experts," he tells me over the phone from Seattle, "so we work with companies that are and license content from them. We find experts and work with them. We try to find the best people to supply our content." Microsoft staff do oversee initiatives like spell-checker development, Thomas says, to find the right "balance" of words and ensure that decisions are intelligent, smart and made in a responsible manner.

"I'm sure at some point there's a subjective line that says 'Wal-Mart is a big enough institution and is written about enough,'" he responds when asked specifically about the inclusions of corporate names in spell-checkers for Word (which is indeed the most popular word processing program in the world, he confirms). "It's a decision we make. A tool like spell-checking is something we've created with help from customers, from identifying their needs. They're designed to help people be more efficient, to be more productive, so they don't have to stop working." As for the ramifications of enshrining words like Wal-Mart in our lexicon, Thomas says, "I don't think we're looking at cultural annihilation. It's not going to overrun western civilization."

John Considine, an English professor who focuses on the cultural history of dictionaries, doesn't think we're heading towards cultural annihilation either. But Considine, an Oxford English Dictionary consultant and former OED contributing editor, isn't entirely comfortable with the Wal-Martization of our language. "I try to avoid describing any language phenomenon as troubling or sinister," he says, "but I certainly do wonder if this is at least potentially quite manipulative."

Historically, according to Considine, lexicographers have run into difficulties when attempting to include proper terms in dictionaries. The company that makes (and copyrighted) Velcro, for instance, didn't want its product in the dictionary; that would move them one step closer to losing their trademark on the product. But names of companies are different. "The fact that such words are now appearing in spell-checkers is very interesting and surprising," says Considine. "It's almost like product placement, isn't it? What I'd never thought of is, of course, a spell-checker is a kind of dictionary. I've always thought of dictionaries having print versions. I wonder if a spell-checker can be a more irresponsible kind of dictionary."

As for Microsoft spokesperson Mark Thomas's logic that spell-checkers are designed to help people write more efficiently (so they don't have to stop and look up the spelling of words) Considine says, "If somebody wanted to type without being interrupted, then they should turn the spell-checker off. With the spell-checker, you're a more passive language user."

It's at this point that I bounce a sci-fi scenario off Considine -- that one day, in the not-too-distant future, word processing programs might replace the word "cola" with "Coke," suggest "Evian" instead of "water" or recommend you type "Macintosh," not "computer." Considine pauses. I await his academic admonishment. "It's certainly not implausible science fiction," he says. "Spell-checkers can exert a lot of control over the usage of the person typing on the computer."

Now excuse me. Time to spell-check this column. Let's see how much survives.

The Other Gay Barebacking

Hank is torn. In theory, he should adore k. d. lang for coming out proudly and defiantly. But Hank, a gay cattle rancher, has other priorities. "I won't buy her CDs anymore because she stopped buying beef," he says. "I think she'd enjoy the rodeo, though."

Growing up in the central plains, Hank was a frequent rodeo competitor. That's what praire kids did. Bulls and bucking broncos were left in the pasture, however, when he ran off to college and grad school; he figured he'd become a city slicker.

Then, in 1992, Hank attended his first gay rodeo in San Antonio, Texas. "That was where I felt, 'Oh my god -- I'm not alone!' There's a whole community."

From delayed, hardscrabble origins in Reno, Nevada in 1976, the gay rodeo circuit has swelled into a flourishing North American tour with as many as two dozen stops in peak years. In mid-January, the Road Runner Regional Rodeo in Phoenix kicked off the 2001 calendar, which will feature 18 rodeos, including unlikely destinations like Salt Lake City and Little Rock as well as the seventh annual Canadian Rockies International Rodeo in Calgary -- the "international" dimension of the parent International Gay Rodeo Association.

A veteran of six rodeos, Hank (no last name, please) is already jacked about the upcoming hoe-downs. With their three-day schedule of dances, prime-rib-and-baked-potato dinners, concerts by country stars, total attendance approaching 2,000 and a full slate of traditional rodeo events -- from chute dogging to barrel racing, plus camp events like the wild drag race devised to encourage beginner participation -- the gay rodeo is a celebration of western heritage with an inclusive, machismo-free twist.

"There's such a sense of freedom," says Hank, 44, who refused to go to his boyfriend's aunt's wedding last summer ("maybe if it was her first wedding") because it was the same weekend as a rodeo. "I'd experienced that feeling before at the Gay Olympics," he continues, "but these are my people, people from a rural background who happen to be gay. If you're young, gay and rural you don't have to run off to the city and become a hairdresser."

To engage part-time, wanna-be cowboys, gay rodeos generally feature a wide range of events guaranteed not to cripple participants. (For instance, goat dressing, which involves, naturally, dressing a goat in a pair of jockey-style underwear.) But overall, with bucking half-ton bulls to be conquered, events are challenging enough for professionals. "It's not a sissy rodeo," says Robert (not his real name), a gay rodeo regular. "You've got to be tough. You're working with real live animals. There's danger in it -- I've seen quite a few people get injured and packed out."

Accordingly, the greater the danger, the greater the stakes. A handful of old school cowboys who make the gay rodeo rounds, travelling from the Southern Spurs Rodeo in Atlanta to the Sierra Stampede in Sacramento, earn a living from their winnings. Of course, they have to supplement earnings by competing in mainstream rodeos. But if there are closeted gay men playing in the NHL (and there are), then the pro rodeo world -- one of the 21st century's last bastions of machohood -- is certainly no exception.

For Robert, 37, the gay rodeo circuit has offered Stetson-capped salvation. Still dealing with his recent homosexual awakening, he's found community and acceptance on the tour -- and won some prize money, too. He almost broke into the Top 10 last year against some tough competition in Phoenix in January. Not bad for a guy who, as a teen, watched from the sidelines while friends and family members competed.

"It was very intimidating," he says about the traditional rodeo atmosphere he was surrounded by while growing up. "I didn't feel comfortable there. I had all the opportunities in the world ... my closest friends and neighbours rode rodeo, so it wasn't that I didn't have the right connections. I just didn't feel comfortable."

Two years ago, when he came out to his family, a lot of things changed for Robert. He began attempting to reconcile his rural background and demeanor with a sexual orientation considered (at least stereotypically) to be very urban. Support from his family helped -- after Robert explained that he was gay to his mother, his mom told his father, who surprised Robert by saying "nothing's changed. You're still the same person you were before. We accept you the same as we always did."

But there was still that disconcerting rural-urban hurdle to clear. And taking in his first gay rodeo after stumbling upon the scene through a friend has been a tremendous confidence booster for Robert.

"I'm more at ease with myself now," he says, reflecting on his fledgling stint on the tour, which began last year at the annual Las Vegas extravaganza. "I don't feel as intimidated by other people. I'm more sure of myself."

Though rural communities have a reputation for homophobia, Hank considers the countryside a tolerant environment. As long as you're a contributing member of society and rein in the outlandish behaviour, he says it's relatively easy to be a gay rancher. "I'm not going to walk down the road holding my boyfriend's hand and kissing him," he says, "but my neighbours don't walk down the road kissing their wives, either. People are accepting of you as long as you carry your own weight. Don't put rural people down. Most have satellite TVs and they get Will & Grace."

Of course, there have been a couple of homophobic incidents at gay rodeos. Some yahoo fired off a few rounds outside the Corona ranch in Phoenix a couple years back, according to Calgary rodeo director Kevin Murray, and organizers of a rodeo in Washington state's bible belt once received a telephone threat.

"It was a wonderful setting," laments Murray. "There were beautiful hills. But there might have been snipers in the hills." (Last year's Calgary rodeo also sparked some controversy: members of a Denver-based gay clog dancing troupe say they were harassed and denied entry into Canada by customs officers at the Sweetgrass border crossing after a vehicle search turned up wigs and female clothing that female impersonators planned to wear while performing at the rodeo.)

Yet those anecdotes are exceptions. Heck, at the inaugural Salt Lake City rodeo in Mormon-soaked Utah last year, the mayor served as the grand marshal and media coverage was positive. "If Salt Lake City can host a gay rodeo and be wildly successful, there's nowhere we can't go," says Doug Graff, the IGRA's California-based spokesperson, 1999's "Mr. Gay Rodeo" for fund-raising purposes, and a talented bull rider who'll be back in the saddle whenever his torn rotator cuff heals. "That's our mission,' he continues, "to support country-western heritage and lifestyle in the gay community.

"I can't tell you how many times I've gotten choked up about doing what we're doing and loving it so much," Graff adds, describing a transcendent moment in Albuquerque where a rider from Utah rode a bull that had never been tamed before with jaw-dropping grace and beauty.

With Bud Lite on board as a sponsor, gay rodeo is growing, another example of the mainstream world accepting the legitimacy of gay culture and the gay dollar. "We've worked with some major redneck stock contractors," says Graff, "but thank God for the almighty green dollar."

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.