Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Life Changes

I love the ambiguity in the phrase that makes the title of this post. 'Life changes' can mean big events, like weddings and babies, that irreversibly alter the course, feel, and decisions of a person's life, or it can be a somewhat obvious existential statement. Gloomy reflection on life is one of my hobbies, however more on that later. In terms of big event life changes, there have been so many of those this summer that my head is spinning.

Emma and Matt, having signed the register. Happy people.
My sister, Emma, got married two weeks ago, at the end of August, in a gorgeous ceremony and reception that suited her indescribably well, and it was the best weekend of my entire summer. It was a lot of work, and Emma did even more than anyone else, but it was incredibly fun, and I'm really happy for her and her partner. They make each other happy, and it's wonderful to see.

My bestie in Ottawa, Amy, had a baby a week ago. His name is Theo and he's adorable. He was a week late - he was due on the same weekend as Emma's wedding - but he's happy and healthy, and he and Amy are both doing very well. The full effect of the life-changing properties of an infant has not yet been felt by Amy, but they're starting to ripple outward. For example, when pregnant, Amy had imagined herself heading out to Folk Fest with baby in tow to check out some live music this past weekend, but when the time came she was more content to hang out at home, get some sleep if possible, and take it easy. Some pre-offspring parts of life do come to an end, and that's just part of the deal one makes when deciding to have children.

I'm having my own life change today. This change has been coming at me slowly for the past year, but nevertheless, this is my last day of employment with an organization that I've worked for since 2010. Four years have flown by so fast, I really have trouble believing that it's been that long already. I'm leaving this work behind to start on a PhD in public health ethics at the University of Birmingham. There are no courses to take, so I'll start writing my dissertation tomorrow, from Toronto. In January, I'll go to England for a few months, and then I'll come back to Canada in the spring, and I'll just move back and forth over the next three years.

Drew and me at Emma's wedding - looking pretty spiff!
I'm nervous and excited. I have a great supervisor who has already been immensely helpful in suggesting how I can get started on this massive project. My partner, Drew, is a safe harbour in stormy seas, and if it wasn't for his support, I'm not sure that I'd be taking this step. Despite the long and gradual approach of this transition from the office-work 9-5 schedule, getting out of bed every day and going somewhere to open emails and have coffee with coworker-friends, to a life of solitary effort without office or schedule, it's still a bit hard and more than a little surreal. It's like watching a fingernail grow until it's finally too long; you know the time is coming to cut it, and when you do your fingertip suddenly feels weird and exposed. Until a recent, reassuring conversation with my supervisor, my plan for tomorrow was to wake up, open my computer, and panic - panic about the work I had to do, the expectations that I face, and my decision to leave a regular pay-cheque behind. I'm fortunate to have funding from the Wellcome Trust Foundation, so I will not be broke. I will be living with budgetary restrictions, but maybe that's a good thing after being pretty financially careless for four years. (I always hope that I'll see the light, repent, and reform my spending ways. It hasn't happened yet.)

And now, the other facet. The statement, 'life changes,' is also an observation about the nature of existence. Life doesn't stay the same, it changes in constant and gradual entropy. It's almost autumn, and this country is taking the approaching change in season seriously, as evidenced by Calgary getting inches of snow (poor, poor Calgary) and Toronto's cold, rainy nights. I have a tendency to get nostalgic at this time of year. There's something about the slant of the sunlight that makes my eyes misty as the Earth careens through space and tilts its head back from the heat of the sun to warm its toes for a change. The events of the summer have reconfigured my life and the lives of my family and friends, and it's time to grow calm after the celebration to reflect on what has happened and how things will be different in the future. I can feel myself turning my face away from the busyness and excitement, toward quiet and solitude. We grow older, we love deeper, we talk slower, and we keep a watchful eye the horizon for the next changes that life will send our way. May they always be happily met.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Pannier Problem

Do you ride your bike for purposes that sometimes require you to take stuff with you or bring stuff home? If you do, you may have encountered The Pannier Problem, which is essentially that there does not exist, so far, the truly ideal pannier.

Perhaps you are not a cyclist, and so you don't know what I'm referring to. These are panniers:

I drew this!
As you can see from this devastatingly good drawing that I did in Microsoft Paint, there are different kinds of pannier. The one on the left is just a simple wire basket that hangs on the side of the back rack. This one is removable (I know you could already see that), while some wire panniers are permanently installed and can fold up to be out of the way. These are quick to use but are prone to rust, and offer no protection against the rain or snow for your stuff. The one on the right is a waterproof job, with any combination of clips or straps to hold it onto your bike rack. It's far more weather-resistant and heavy-duty than the wire pannier, but also requires more work to get it on and off your bike than a rack you simply hang on the back, and looks really utilitarian.

Wire panniers that install in a permanent fashion might cost you up to $80 for a pair, whereas the waterproof kind could cost you up to $300 for a pair. You can imagine that you'd be less inclined to leave your waterproof fancy pannier outside while you get groceries or have a beer with your friends, so the likelihood that you will frequently be taking these off and putting them back on is an important consideration.

I've had a $30 wire pannier on my bike for about two years now, and because it wasn't the kind that installs, I had a tiny padlock on the back to prevent theft. While I like the wire pannier, I've been looking for something that gives weather protection, but many of the options are very industrial-looking, made of technical material, and difficult to get on and off my bike. Some of them don't even fit my bike rack because the bars are too thick. With all the different things to consider, it's taken me two years to decide what to go for. 

I eventually narrowed the field to two panniers that are a sort of mid-way point between the ease of a wire pannier and the protection of a waterproof bag. These are: 

The Linus Market bag

and the Brooks Brick Lane bag

I've been dithering between these two bags for TWO ENTIRE YEARS. The reasons are thus: they are very similar aesthetically, and I was having a tough time deciding between the various features each of them possesses. Let me break it down for you: 

The Linus Market bag: This bag is made of treated heavy-duty cotton, so provides some weather resistance but is not weather-proof. The bag drapes over your bike rack, and if you're not using one side of it you can roll it up so that it's out of the way. The bag has snap ties that hold it in place on the bike rack. It comes with a little brass ring and a small padlock so that you can lock it onto your bike rack if you're going inside and want to leave it, and it comes with a carrying strap so that you can lug it over your shoulder if you're taking it with you. Snap closures make sure the flaps don't fly around as you ride.

The Brooks Brick Lane bag: This bag is made of waxed canvas, and thus provides better weather resistance than the Linus bag, but still less than a waterproof bag would. It also drapes over the bike rack and the bags can be rolled up if you're not using them. The bag has adjustable leather ties that hold it onto the bike rack, and similar ties that hold the bag closed at the top, and hold the flap down (the version in the picture above has magnets). This bag also has an elastic rat-trap at the top for extra stowing, and the leather handle makes it comfortable to carry. 

Pros and cons: The Linus bag is attractive because it can be locked in place and carried with a shoulder strap, while the Brooks bag has neither of these advantages. However, the Linus bag is a bit of a step down in terms of the quality of the material, and ultimately, biking in rainy weather is what I want the bags for. The Linus bag prevents you from using the rat-trap on the bike rack, and while the Brooks bag also does this, they provide you with a new one that actually has better carrying capacity. The Linus bag is also tough to fit onto all bike racks. This review from Biking in Heels was really helpful in its description of how the Linus bag fit onto an older-style bike, because mine is also like this. The Brooks bag has adjustable straps, which means it can fit on any size of rack.

In addition to these considerations, it turns out that the bike stores in Toronto are engaged in some kind of unofficial Linus boycott, and all the stores that used to sell Linus bikes and gear are no longer stocking either. I still have the option of buying the bag online, but not from Linus itself; they don't ship to Canada. Buying online increases the cost of the Linus bag, so that from my position, instead of the Brooks bag being more expensive by $115, there is now only a $50 difference between the two.

On Friday I finally decided in favour of the Brooks bag. It turns out that the bag is easy to carry, and the shoulder strap may have been fairly low in utility after all. Though there is no way to lock the Brooks bag onto my bike, I have found that the four straps which secure it take enough effort to do up and take off (a 90-second job once you've done it once or twice) that I would feel comfortable leaving it on the bike if I was having a beer with friends and my bike was within eye-shot. A potential thief couldn't simply walk past and snatch it; the bag would require sufficient fiddling with straps that I feel confident that I could hurdle the neighbouring tables in time to thwart them. Ultimately, it was the quality of the Brooks bag that won out; the waxed canvas will hold up better in the rain, and the leather straps are thick and built for years of tough use. It also looks really good on my bike, and this has been a consideration for me all along.

My landlord's cat, Tortie, approves. Let's face it, once something has cat-approval, it's basically gold standard.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What if...

Imagine if the whole world was your bed? 

You'd just be able to curl up anywhere and comfortably fall asleep, with confidence that 
what you were doing was OK. You were meant to sleep there. 
There would be no obstructions, like your size, or the lack of a pillow.

Wouldn't that be nice?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Get to Know Your Cupcakes, Toronto

If you check this blog regularly, you will likely know that I've been very busy this spring planning all kinds of parties and showers for my sister and friends who are getting married and having babies. Yesterday was another such event - my sister's wedding shower - and I have officially executed all of my duties. Now I'm free to sit back and relax and enjoy the weddings and other events.

Celebratory parties are fun, but planning them always comes with stress. There are invitations to send, food to order, drinks to plan, flowers to arrange, photos to take, and ultimately, as planner and host, you are responsible for the success of the event. You must facilitate the fun. I have been feeling the stress of the various events I've planned lately, and on Saturday night I even had dreams about cupcakes. Telling Drew about the dreams while arranging real-life cupcakes in attractive formations on cake stands the next day, I realized that I've tasted enough cupcakes and placed enough orders to have become a bit of an aficionado about Toronto's cupcake scene. I'm here today to share what I've learned.

Prairie Girl's cupcakes (pink and white) with Bobbette and Belle's cupcakes
(topped with blue hydrangea) and colourful meringues.
 When taste is your primary concern (as it should be), then Prairie Girl bakery is the only way to go. Their strawberry icing is the best cake-topping-substance I've ever tasted. It's like an old-school strawberry frozen yoghurt, where they put the little square of yoghurt into the machine and pull a lever down, then add scoops of frozen strawberries and pull the lever down again, then take a waffle cone and twirl the mixture into a heaping tower with a surprise flavour at the bottom (the previous person's order), except that Prairie Girl's icing is sweeter than the yoghurt, and not frozen. Can you imagine the fresh strawberry flavour? And the tart sweetness? That's what I'm talking about. The other flavours of cupcakes are also delicious - their chocolate cupcake with chocolate icing, and banana cupcake with peanut butter icing are tied for second place in my books; the chocolate cupcake with strawberry icing is a blue ribbon winner.

Bobbette and Belle's
hydrangea-topped and
Prairie Girl's lemon cupcakes
When looks are your primary concern (as is sometimes appropriate), then Bobbette and Belle are for you. These magicians turn icing into the most beautiful edible creations, but you won't want to eat them. They're too pretty. The cupcakes themselves are good, but not mind-blowing; the cake isn't as moist as Prairie Girl, and I can't fault them for not having icing as delicious. But that's OK! When you order these, and I think you should for special times, know that you're getting an acceptably tasty cupcake that looks completely gorgeous.

If you want to get good cupcakes that are also good for your soul, then check out Eat My Words. This organization bakes fresh cupcakes (and other things) and sells them with the proceeds going to the Stephen Lewis Foundation for HIV/AIDS-related work. They're no slouches in the decorating department, either.

A Bobbette and Belle meringue, with Prairie Girl cupcakes,
surrounded by Paulette's mini-doughnuts cut into halves
If you're tired of cupcakes altogether (and I am with you there), then you may want to check out Paulette's Original doughnuts. Paulette had her own store front on Queen St. East for a little while, but has given that up to sell her amazing cake doughnuts online and through Delica Kitchen. There are doughnut flavours that you've never even dreamed of, and all of them are simply delightful. The vanilla doughnut covered in blueberry-balsamic icing is one of my favourites, followed by pecan-crunch cinnamon bun. Doesn't that sound amazing? It truly is.

Also in the doughnut-is-the-new-cupcake category, I wholeheartedly recommend Von Doughnuts. Whereas Paulette specializes in cake doughnuts, Von's are the fried kind, so come out fluffier and larger in appearance. It's hard to choose a favourite here, but chica cherry cola and mangiacake both stand out.

I have to say, as a final thought, that even after tasting all of the yummy cupcakes in Toronto, the lemon tart cupcake at Petits Gâteaux in Montreal with it's meringue icing is still my very favourite.

If you have other places that you like in Toronto, or want more recommendations (I know a good vegan bakery with great cupcakes, too), leave a note in the comments!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hazy Thoughts in June

Summer begins this weekend with the solstice, and I can feel it in my bones. The sunlight gives me energy and strength, and I feel like a tree stretching up and out into the sky. I can see the sunset in the north-west, and imagine the ring of light on the horizon in Whitehorse. I want to go there some day to experience the midnight sun in person.

Summer makes me want to take long road trips, driving with the windows down. I imagine driving through New Brunswick at dusk, with the smell of grass and trees blowing into the car on balmy air, vigilant for wandering moose. The Mounties made the perfect song for this, and I'm sad that Drew and I won't be making our annual pilgrimage to PEI this year so that I could sing along to it while flying down Highway 2.

Instead, we're going to Chicago for five days in August, and we're going to spend a lot of time celebrating happy occasions with friends. We will be dancing at weddings until the early morning hours, with stars in our eyes and cocktails in our hands. No coats, no socks, open air, and dewy grass.

We're going to picnic, and frisbee, and bike, and lie by the water. We're going to work, too, but we're going to be watching out the windows until we can get back outside. We're going to wear sunscreen and get tan lines anyway. We're going to sleep with the windows open, and drink coffee on the roof. We're going to pick strawberries and eat them until we don't feel so good, then freeze the rest to make jam in September. We're going to drink much beer on many patios. We're going to wear sandals and tank tops.

We're going to wish summer lasted forever and lament how fast it goes. We're going to look forward to autumn and anticipate the change it brings.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Rooftop Garden - Third Time's the Charm

a view of our plants in their raccoon protected safety zone
This is the third summer that Drew and I have been in our apartment, and for the third time we're testing our green-thumb skills. The last couple of years yielded mixed results, but we've channeled those into improving the plant choices and arrangements.

parsley and oregano, in a brief moment of shade
We're repeating a few things that we had last year, like tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, and dill. We did not get onions this year, though they did well, and we didn't get a few herbs, like sage. The reason for not getting onions and sage is primarily that we don't use them enough. The onions didn't have quite enough space and so they stayed quite small. That was OK in the end, because I decided to make cocktail onions with them, and they turned out really well, but without the space to spread out the onions and let them really grow, they're not as desirable. When it comes to sage, that stuff grows until it resembles a small conifer unless you're constantly trimming it and using it, and we just don't make enough food with sage. Some of the new things we have are Italian oregano, which is growing like crazy, and kale, which was a bit of a gamble but is paying off so far.

I've learned a few things about the unique conditions present on our roof. It's very sunny, very hot, and very humid through most of the summer. Tomatoes love the sunniest spots, which afford 15 hours of sunlight in June, but last summer the pots they were in didn't drain well enough. The plants grew tall and spindly instead of thick and lush. We still had a bunch of tomatoes from them, but not as many as we'd get from a healthy plant. This year we've drilled extra holes into the bottom of the pots, and I can see that there's already an improvement.

baby dill plants, enjoying a cozy 10L bucket
The dill did not do well last summer. It was in a trough-style planter with other herbs, and did not like it, so this year it's living in a much deeper pot with no other plants around. It's also doing much better than last year even at this early stage.

The kale, which currently feels like my gardening crowning achievement, is doing great. It loves the sun, and it needs a lot of water - more than the tomatoes even - but we've been diligent and have already harvested leaves off of the four plants we have twice. I'm not sure how they'll hold up over the entire summer because they apparently grow quite tall and like to have lots of root space, which unfortunately isn't possible in container gardening. I hope that the limited area for rooting won't stunt them, but will report back.

We have planted our standard array of sun-loving herbs - thyme, lavender, and basil - and of course we've got mint growing off in a corner by itself. As many people who have tried to garden with mint know well, it does not play well with others.

Finally, we've got some flowers, just to add colour to our garden. Petunias, delphinia, dusty miller, snap dragons, and gerbera daisies soak up the sun and give back their colours. On the roof among the plants is my very favourite place to be.

sorry, mint. you have to stay by yourself.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Great Expectations

Shower flowers, in Amy's yard
My best friend, Amy, is going to have a baby. It's the first baby among my close friends, though in my extended friend group there's already some babies and toddlers. It's very exciting, and also very strange because suddenly someone I'm close to is going to be a mother. I still don't feel like I'm at the right age for that kind of responsibility, but maybe no one really ever does - they just go ahead with it anyway. That seems like the right idea. Initiation by fire. 

Last weekend we had a baby shower for Amy, and held it in her back yard. Fortunately, her middle sister and a couple of her friends are also expecting, and have babies already, so she is surrounded by women who can give her lots of advice and tips, and prepare her for what's coming (a la lightening crotch, which sounds terrible. 

She got a lot of really adorable presents, and we ate delicious food and drank delicious drinks. The shower may have spurred on a little more anxiety than we'd bargained for, but that's OK too. There's A LOT of stuff that a person needs for a tiny baby (or allegedly needs, according our particular culture, though we all know that many millions of women have and raise babies without all the junk we call essential). It's actually mind-boggling. 

I'm so excited for Amy to have her little bambino! It's due in two and a half months (a Virgo). I can't wait to meet it and shower it with love. 

Me and Amy - she's 6.5 months pregnant and
you can barely tell!