Friday, December 5, 2014

Have an Un-Busy Christmas

I'm reading an article in today's Globe and Mail by Zosia Bielski, which I'm reading in hard-copy but which I'm sure the industrious person could find online, about Ann Burnett, a professor at North Dakota State University, who has been collecting annual Christmas letters from all over the place. She doesn't know all of the people, and their correspondence spans the globe, but she's finding trends. The biggest trend, it seems, is that people started, over the years, replacing good news with expostulations of busyness.

Reading it reminded me of an exchange I had a couple of weeks ago with two salespeople. I was in the mall with my sister-in-law, and we were in Williams-Sonoma. I was approached by one salesperson, who started in on the classic and largely insincere exchange which greases the bearings of social intercourse: "Hi," he started, "how are you?" "Fine thanks," I replied, "How are you?" "ugh, I'm really tired," he said, nodding his head, like I should understand this or wait to listen to more of what he wanted to tell me. I did neither, and said "Oh," and moved away. In the next store we went into, the salesperson asked me how I was and after replying with the standard 'fine, thanks,' again he told me how tired he was, adding this time that he's really busy. I was rattled. What was going on? My sister-in-law, in a different store on the same day, actually got stuck in a conversation (monologue, really) with a salesperson who was telling her at length about how busy and exhausted he was from doing things in his life. I mistakenly thought that he was assisting my s-i-l, and so failed to jump in and rescue her from this barrage as I should have.

In wondering about why these people decided to skip the usual politeness and go straight to telling us about how crazy life is, a number of possible explanations occurred to me. Perhaps they were rebelling against the retail world, and forcing intimacy upon unsuspecting customers by denying them the easy introductory exchanges before telling them about daily promotions. They would have to be pretty organized for us to have experienced this in multiple stores. Or, perhaps they were in their early 20s and still totally wrapped up in their own egos, not realizing that no one else cares how busy they are. (No one cares about your band! Everyone is in a band!) This wouldn't explain why some 30-something acquaintances have fallen into this kind of exchange pattern, and not all of the people we encountered in their 20s displayed this lack of manners.

The article in the Globe and Mail gives another theory. Burnett and others who work in similar research are starting to think that though people complain (or seem to) about the crazy pace of their lives, they also accept it as if there is no other option. They also suggest that people are starting to be very proud of the hectic lives they live, where friends have to book a lunch date months in advance: "When you move fast and are productive, you are relevant." Taking time to do nothing, or even dropping commitments entirely, is unthinkable. What would you do? What would they do without you?

I think social media is tied in with this as well. Do people decline invitations anymore? It would be harder, I think, to turn down some invitations when there's a good chance that event photos will turn up on Instagram. You could say you were invited and turned it down, but no one will be listening as they flip through the pretty pictures.

I want to encourage my friends and family, who make up the majority of people who read this blog (thanks guys!), to have a very un-busy Christmas this year. I don't usually write Christmas letters, figuring that people who want to be caught up on my life have multiple platforms (including this blog) for achieving that throughout the year. However, I do want to put some qualities of Burnett's gold-star letters, as determined by her letter-coding system, into my real-life exchanges; an 'A' for 'authentic' letter-writing showed appreciation for the present, an understanding that time is finite, and the relaying of real-life hilarity rather than one-upsmanship or busier-than-thou list-making.

Let's take some time to do what matters this month, slow down and relish the moments we have with each other, and put aside the things that we do because we think we should do them, or because they might look good to someone else. I promise I won't assume that your schedule is flexible.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Adopting Animals: A Test of Zen

Two weeks ago, Drew and I adopted two kitties. They are six-year old brother and sister, Sir Barnabas Meow-Meow and Lady Marmalade. Here they are:

Aren't they cute? Barnabas is black and white, Marmalade is tortoiseshell, and both have pretty green eyes. We adopted them not long after Colbert died. Somehow, giving them a home felt right even though we were still sad about Colbie - and still are. There are moments when Barnaby and Marms help and make us feel better, and there are moments where they make us feel worse and miss Colbie more. In my post about Colbert's life I alluded to this, but adopting animals is hard. 

There are a few reasons why it's hard, but the most obvious is that animals find any change very difficult, even when it's a change from a poor situation to a good one. Even though we're giving B&M a great new home, the transition from cage to apartment is really stressful for them. They were in the Toronto Humane Society for six months, having been transferred from the Durham Region Humane Society, where they lived for about the same amount of time, so we estimate that they were in shelters for at least a year. To move to a house after such a long time is quite disruptive. 

Little Lady Marmalade
Another reason that adopting is difficult is that one never knows what kind of personality you're going to get. Lady Marmalade is an easy-going cat, like Colbert was (it turns out - I had no idea while he was alive). She has gotten used to living with us quickly, and already knows the breakfast and dinner routines. She started using her litter box right away with no trouble and has started using the scratch pad (having a carpeted apartment means they love scratching everywhere). She purred quickly and purrs easily now, and she loves playing with fuzzy toys and watching the birds at our bird feeders. She slept with Drew the first night she was home, and last night took turns sleeping on top of Drew and on top of me. I slept surprisingly well, despite the little paw-pokes. 

Silly Sir Barnabas Meow-Meow
Sir Barnabas Meow-Meow, on the other hand, is not easy-going. He's kind of timid and a little slow on the uptake. Our first challenge with him was caused by our own mistake, in thinking that these two would use the same litter box. Many cats that live together do use the same box, and we thought that because they were siblings they probably would, but that was incorrect. Having nowhere else to go (apparently), Barnaby decided to poop and pee on our bed the first night they were here (not while we were in it). The bedroom was quickly made off-limits for the rest of the first week. With a second makeshift litter box installed in the bathroom, things seemed to improve. Barnaby used it and Drew and I high-fived triumphantly. However, when I purchased a proper litter box and put it in the same spot, Barnaby regressed, and pooped on the bathroom floor. He continued to poop on the floor for the remainder of the week, though still peeing in the litter box, while Drew and I progressively tin-foiled the entire bathroom floor to try to dissuade him. This, while very annoying, was not that big a deal, since the linoleum is so easy to clean. As I said to Drew in various moments of exasperation, at least he was in the right room! Finally, after purchasing another, different style of litter box, Barnaby seems to be back on the poop-in-the-box train. I can't say that for sure, but we've had two days of positive pooping behaviours. If it continues until the weekend, I may consider taking up the tin foil. 

Barnaby playing with his toys
Both cats are very playful and active, but Barnabas has a tendency to hide. All cats hide, especially when they're in a new place, but that doesn't make it any easier on the heart, as an emotional and needy human being. Marmalade hid a little at first, but quickly came out to explore and get to know us. She doesn't hide anymore; though she likes to sleep under the bed beside the heat vent for warmth, calling her is enough to coax her out to play. Barnabas hides every morning after breakfast. He hides under the bed and under the chairs in the living room, and some days I won't see him for hours. He can sometimes be coaxed out to play, but usually he will only come out if treats are promised. He purred for the first time yesterday, which I thought wasn't too bad, since it can take four weeks or more for a cat to purr after big changes happen. Yet, purring and actually coming around to hang out are big rewards for me, and cat-owners in general I think, so it's hard to have a cat that seems to want to avoid one as much as possible.

Marmalade watching the birds
Unfortunately, I had to take them to the vet this morning for a check-up and weighing, so I think that the big trust-steps Barnabas took yesterday have been at least partially undone. He may not purr again for a few days. They, unlike Colbert, were sweet little angels at the vet. Colbert would transform into a toothsome sharp-clawed gremlin, and I'm sure his vets inwardly cringed when they saw his appointments pop up. Marmalade and Barnaby endured all the prodding and poking quietly and with outward calm (though their little hearts were hammering). Besides both being chubby, they're healthy and happy. Diets and exercise for both! 

Let it be known that though rescuing animals is extremely rewarding and wonderful, it's also really difficult and frustrating, and because humans are social animals, it's hard for us to handle it when something we love and care for hides from us or does other things that seem to spurn our attention (e.g., the cranky baby). Patience is the main resource that a person needs to have to adopt animals (probably just for life in general). Even dogs need time to adjust to their new homes and owners, and they're far less independent than cats are. Drew and I have to be calm and wait for these two, particularly Barnaby, to really relax.

It's too early for me to say that I love them, but I like them a lot, and I'm sure glad they're here. I think that over the next few weeks they'll settle in and get comfortable. They are silly and fun, and there's a lot of love to be had over the many years ahead. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Goodbye to a Good Friend

The handsome Colbert, at our Esplanade apartment in Montreal
My dearest Colbert has died. He had a heart attack last night, after coming to the bedroom door to get me. This is his story, as much of it as I know. 

Colbert's kittenhood is a mystery. I think he was born and raised in Montreal. His first owner (who named him) was a lady who had him and another cat, and who died and left the two cats without a back-up care plan. They ended up at the Animal Rescue Network in Montreal, where I found him. I don't know who the other cat was, or what happened to it. 

Colbie in 2008 in my studio on Pine Ave in Montreal
I decided at Thanksgiving in 2008 that I wanted to adopt a cat. I started looking online, and came across the ARN's website. Colbie was on there with a handsome photo, and I decided to go and see him. The staff were overjoyed that someone had come to see him, and after locating him in a room full of cats (all out of cages, roaming around) in a corner, facing the wall, they thrust him into my arms. He was drooling, had a big mat of fur along his back, and seemed overall pretty grumpy. The other cats around were cute and friendly, rubbing against my legs. I had a moment of doubt about Colbert, but then I felt like I had made a commitment to him by asking for an appointment to see him, and he was in such need of a home. The staff weren't sure how old he was - between 7 and 10 they thought - but told me that he'd been in the shelter for three years. I had to take him.

A blurry Colbie tests out a shoe-box in the kitchen at our Esplanade apartment
The vet at the shelter cut off the matted fur and trimmed his nails. I ended up with an optimistic, curious, and somewhat ugly kitty. His eyes smiled, but he drooled, he smelled, he had a bald patch, and he had other mats and tufts in his fur that he really didn't like me trying to brush out. I would have to sneak up behind him with scissors while he was eating to snip out mats, and even then I could usually only get two or three before he got really mad. When I took him to my vet, it turned out that he needed to have dental surgery to have teeth removed - and that he was older than the shelter told me. My vet estimated between 9 and 12. His painful mouth was why he was drooling and smelly. He had five teeth taken out that Christmas, and after that he was much happier.

Blurry Colbie on the motel bed in Sackville, NB
From the very first night, Colbert slept beside me on the bed. He didn't sleep at my feet; he preferred to be at the top of the bed, just below the pillow, always on the left side of the bed (when you're lying in it). If I slept on my left side, he would tuck into the space beside my tummy, and curl up with his enormous earthquake purr. I called it his smoker's purr. 

Camping cat! Checking out our gear in a campground near Moncton, NB
From the first night of cuddling each other to sleep, we were besties. Colbie was invaluable company to me when I was writing my MA thesis from the fall of 2008 to the summer of 2009. He made me feel comfortable being home alone so much, because it was like there was another person around. I didn't get as stir-crazy, and could focus on my work more, knowing that there was a purring, playing creature somewhere in my apartment. He always woke me up to feed him breakfast, and he never let me work through dinner time. 

Camping cat strikes again, in a tent this time at Fundy National Park
In the summer of 2009, I went to Easton, Pennsylvania to teach summer classes at a CTY summer camp, and Colbert went to Ottawa to stay with my friend, Amy. She had offered to take him, because I didn't have anyone in Montreal to look after him. When I unexpectedly got an offer to go to Switzerland for a six-month internship, Colbie's 2-month vacation became an 8-month stay. This was too much to ask anyone but my Mum to do (thanks Mum!), so off to Fenelon Falls he went, to live with my Mum's two cats. When I returned in March 2010, Drew and I (we had started dating in the spring of '09 and did long-distance this whole time) found a place to sub-let, and Colbie came back to live with us. He loved the apartment we had, except for during the crazy heat wave that summer when he had to seek cool refuge by sprawling on the bathroom linoleum (oh, and that other time that I had to take him to Cafe Olimpico for four hours in his kennel while they sprayed our place for bedbugs because the neighbour brought them in).

Colbie is very helpful. Here, he helps me paint a picnic table for my sister's birthday
That August, Colbert came to the East Coast with us for the first time. We drove out in a rented car, and we stayed at the Tantramar Motel in Sackville on our way to Charlottetown. We had to sneak the kennel in because we didn't think pets were allowed. He was wonderful, though. He didn't mind being in the car, and he got comfortable at Drew's folks' condo in Charlottetown right away. When we got back to Montreal, it was time for all three of us to pack the moving van and head down the highway again; Drew was starting an MA in Kingston, and I was moving to Toronto for a new job. Our days in Montreal were over.

A little play time with the spinny-ball-thingy
If Colbert ever missed Montreal, he never showed it. He quickly became the ruler of our apartment in Toronto. It was carpeted and sunny, meaning there was no limit to how comfy he could get in all the different areas of floor. The next four years went by quickly. Far too quickly. Colbert was always there. He woke me up in the morning, he slept with us at night. He played with his toys and napped in sunbeams, and chased squirrels outside the sliding glass door. He danced with drew, and played piano solos, and endured all of the silly songs that we made up about him (Drew was especially good at this: Play time - Kitty! Living in the city!) He came to the East Coast with us a second time, for a friend's wedding, and camped with us in Fundy National Park. He wore a bow-tie for the wedding - what a dapper guy.

Helping to open presents - mostly so that he could lie down on the tissue paper
 And now, as I face a number of new life changes, including starting a PhD program, an unexpected and heartbreaking change is sent my way with the death of sweet Colbert. His life was an adventure, and he bore it calmly. It always seemed that as long as I was with him, he could handle whatever move we were making or trip we were taking. Or maybe that's the other way around. 

Colbert and I just had our six-year adoption anniversary - just two weeks ago. It has been such a great and rewarding six years, I wouldn't have missed it. I'm so glad I didn't let myself be tempted by those other cats that day in the shelter. Colbie was the kitty for me.

I will miss you, Colbert. I love you. Goodbye.

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!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Death to Peeñata: Emma's Bachelorette Party

Last weekend was my sister's bachelorette party, and this is my new favourite thing:

This is Emma, in her high school prom dress, blindfolded, whacking a custom-Kate-MacKay-made penis piñata (peeñata for short) with two mini-sticks, and laughing hysterically. She gets it cracked with a solid swing across the top. I could watch this all morning - or for at least half an hour with coffee.

It turns out that peeñatas aren't standard piñata fare, so the only way to get one is to make it yourself. If anyone wants to make one, I can share what I learned from building this one in the comments (pro tip: start about a month in advance of when you need it). Alternatively, I may consider starting a peeñata business - new orders welcome!

Just for fun, here are some extra peeñata photos. Here it is when Emma first saw it, suspended from the upper-level deck (she knocked it off the string with one good smack):

Here's victorious Emma, having finally gotten it open, with all of its fun candy and non-candy contents spilled on the ground:

Finally, Emma decided that we should all become formally engaged to her through the symbolic giving and receiving of penis ring-pops:

I do.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Hanzell: Wines that Ruin You for Other Wine

A few weeks ago, while visiting California, I had the extreme privilege of being able to join a tour of the Hanzell Vineyard with my friend, Elaine. She was invited to take a tour and to meet with the current winemaker, Michael McNeill, and when she learned that I would be in Sonoma that week she asked if I could join on this trip. I am forever grateful that they said yes.

Hanzell is the most amazing winery that I had never heard of. I was quite shocked to learn how crucial this winery has been to the development of modern wine-making over the past 60 years, especially because I had never come across this name before. I suspect that this is partly because the excellent wines they make are sold rather exclusively, and I'll talk more about these in a minute. First, it's important to pay homage to Hanzell, and it's winemakers. Around the middle of the last century, Hanzell winemaker Bradford Webb invented stainless steel fermentation and installed the first fermenter prototypes in the world in their winery; it's hard now to imagine something that could have had a greater impact on modern wine-making. Stainless steel fermentation is so widespread, so useful, and so efficient, that I was floored to discover that I didn't know the name of its inventor, or even that it had been invented in California (for some reason I thought that Australia got this credit).

A map of the Hanzell estate's vineyards
The immediately previous winemaker, Bob Sessions, who sadly passed away this week from advanced Alzheimer's disease, was by all accounts a talented and ingenious scientist who dedicated much of his life to wine. This makes his eventual dementia especially painful; Bob's wife, Jean, who is an accomplished winery executive in her own right, has said that one day Bob just forgot about wine. We're fortunate that he didn't forget until after he'd done so much for the industry. Touring Hanzell, the immense dedication and attention to detail that Bob infused into every part of the wine production process is evident. The majority of vineyard space is dedicated to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In the Sessions Vineyard (named for and planted by Bob), a giant experiment seems to be constantly unfolding: each row of vines is a unique combination of varietal clone and rootstock, tagged and documented. The outcome of each permutation can be tracked to see which clone on which rootstock will produce the best wine grapes on this site. This vineyard seems to capture Bob's impressively rigorous approach to wine.

Hanzell has some of the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir vines in the United States, with 61 year old vines in the Ambassador Vineyard. The original winery is still standing, though production has moved into a new building after the original was found to be tainted throughout with TCA - the chemical compound which makes wines taste 'corked'.

The original stainless steel fermenting tanks at top,
the Chardonnay and Pinot that we tasted at the bottom
Tasting Hanzell's wines was a life-changing experience. I've never tasted better Chardonnay in my whole life, and I have sincere doubts that I ever will. The purity, freshness, energy, and expression of the wine was just unspeakably gorgeous. It defies adequate description. It tasted like sunlight filtering through tender new leaves on a warm spring day. We tasted three vintages, the 2012 Sebella and 2011 and 2009 Hanzell. The 2012 Sebella hadn't gone through any malolactic fermentation at all, and was a laser beam of lemon drops and granny smith apples. Michael was especially pleased that he'd captured the scent of Chardonnay flowers in bloom in this wine, and since I've never smelled that, it's my goal now to find some flowering Chardonnay (not yet too late in Ontario!). The 2011 and 2009 were equally crisp and lemony, with a touch of buttery richness on the palate.

The Pinot Noir was also the most amazing of its kind that I've ever been lucky enough to taste. It was very special to be able to join this tasting because Michael poured a 2011, a 1994, and a 1975. I'm quite sure that the 1975 is the oldest bottle of Pinot that I've tasted so far. It was remarkably fresh and vibrant. The brawny 1975 was actually more forward and open than the graceful 1994, which was a little more shy and serious. All three wines were sublime. Beyond the pure expression of Pinot Noir, in which cherries, cinnamon stick, tea, and orange rind were present, there was a mouth-tingling coolness that Michael attributed to the influence of Bay Laurel growing around the vineyard. Laurel contains a chemical compound called eucalyptol, which has been studied extensively because of its ability to infiltrate and intermingle with the naturally-occurring flavours of wine grapes (lots of work on this has been done in Australia).

So, to sum up, I can't believe how fortunate I am to have been able to taste these wines, and I can't thank Elaine, Michael, Jean, and Tia enough for permitting me to horn in on Elaine's tour. I will forever dream about the wine we tasted together - it's the Holy Grail of Burgundian varietals.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Wedding Season

the making of Emma and Matt's buck and doe sign
The weather this week has made a definitive turn towards summer, and with this, the season of nuptials is upon us. Last year, Drew and I made it through the summer unscathed; we had only one wedding to attend, and it was in October. This year we're facing a tsunami of matrimonial happiness and well-wishing. Not only do we have a bunch of weddings to attend, but this year, for the first time ever, I'm *in* a wedding. My sister, Emma, is getting married at the end of August, and I'm her Maid of Honour.

I'm extremely excited about this. I have a dress, and jewelry, and boots (we're wearing cowboy boots), and great plans for her bachelorette party. This past Saturday night, the wedding party threw Emma and her fiancé a Buck and Doe. This also goes by the name of a stag and doe, or a jack and jill, and for those who are from urban centres, the Maritimes, the west coast, or anywhere outside of central rural North America, this is a big party that also functions as a fundraiser for the couple who are getting married. You could think of it as an engagement party plus a co-ed wedding shower - no gifts are given, but money is given to the couple to help them with either wedding costs or getting started in their life together. There are games, and raffles, and, in our case, a silent auction as well. As I can attest to from my time spent working at the front door, people walk in prepared to drop a stack of 20-dollar bills on the table and take whatever you can give them, whether it's drink tickets, raffle tickets, insurance in the form of a stamp that protects them from having to take a shot of whiskey out of the groom's dirty jock strap (not kidding), or whatever the case may be. People are generous.

The buck and doe was a big success, and we'll all be eating left over sandwiches for the next week or so. In two weeks, we're going to be whisking Emma away for her bachelorette party, and a few weeks later we'll have her wedding shower. Between Emma and a couple of close friends who are getting married/having a baby, most of my weekends for the next four months are full of parties to celebrate their life events. I'm going to say now that I predict that September will come and I will have no idea where the summer went. I better start barbequeing while there's still time!

I'm not about to turn this blog into a wedding site, but since so much of my time over the next little while is going to involve planning and attending wedding and baby related events, I will certainly end up writing about them here. Be warned. And just in case you wondered what it looks like when someone takes a shot from the cup of a jock strap, this is it. Matt, the groom, is administering the deadly blow. This man should have bought insurance.