Polyblogs in a Jar

a lot of run-on sentences about all that moves and inspires me

A Bespoke Christmas

Once upon a time, all my kid sister wanted for Christmas was “world peace.” (I’m sure this is still true.) However, she was also quite thrilled to get a Cabbage Patch Doll and the latest Babysitter Club books for her collection, in addition to world peace.

Our family has definitely shifted to the “experiential gifts” because we are truly want for nothing. That is, except for the circa 1860 Stockdale Feed Mill on Cold Creek in Frankford that just came on the real estate market today. We wouldn’t mind the keys to that place for Christmas. And some world peace. And a dozen of my mom’s butter-bomb shortbread.

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Photo credit: realtor.ca

Admittedly, I do love looking at the extreme and unnecessary like the excess of the Neiman Marcus Fantasy Line or Nordstrom’s Dream Big Gift Guide suggestions. I love the Williams-Sonoma catalogs even more. But when I look at the Kitchen Aid Copper stand mixer for $959.00 I think of Africa and rationalize that I barely mix anything beyond cocktails anyway.

I think back to childhood, when we used to make stuff for gifts from “found objects.” It’s funny that it’s ‘trending’ now—this movement of ‘repurposing’ and ‘reloving’ when we really did it all along, especially way back when. As a kid with $9.82 in the piggy bank (or reasonable facsimile) shopping wasn’t a consideration. You could SAVE that $9.82 and make things out of teasels and dry milkweed pods and pinecones. Add silver sparkles, googly eyes and voila. (As I look at a few walnuts that the squirrels have yet to warehouse in our backyard I consider the Pinterest crafting possibilities by default. Hmm, grown- up craft: pressing some black walnut oil as used in a fancy cocktail with bourbon in a swishy place our friend Heidi took us to in Nashville). Maybe next year. I’m sure there’s a youtube video on it.

Or, I could just buy into the online “Orphan Barrel Project” that Neiman Marcus has on offer. For a paltry $125,000 “You and five bourbon-curious friends will visit the legendary Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, to go barrel hunting, taste recently discovered bourbons, and create two completely unique Orphan Barrel variants to be hand-bottled with labels designed exclusively for you. You’ll then receive 24 bottles each of the remaining stocks of eight different Orphan Barrel bourbons—including the variants created by you—along with a bespoke whiskey cabinet crafted in Kentucky to house the collection, barware, and a leather-bound book about your whiskey.”

Luckily we still have some Maker’s Mark in the cupboard.

Kim and I aren’t even exchanging gifts (well, we deemed our equatorial plane tickets to Las Terranas and Las Galleras in the Samana peninsula for the first two weeks of January “Christmas”).

If we really had to buy stuff (and we don’t because we both naturally avoid eye contact when “Secret Santa” is brought up in the workplace), we wouldn’t have to look too far. Our circle of friends are oozing talent and make stuff that’s awesome, and there’s a different kind of peace felt when you are contributing to an artist and making their life and creative path a little less overgrown.

Here are five sure-fire ways to light up a room though, from Iceland to a night in a frontier tent to adopting a donkey.

A Ticket to Iceland, With Two Precocious Cats

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Our family friend (a friend of my sister first, but, we all liked her instantly and took shares), Jocey Asnong, recently published another children’s book called Nuptse and Lhotse Go to Iceland. When I first met Jocey, her Banff apartment was a spider web of clotheslines and clothes pegs—the humble beginnings of her first book’s illustrations, all hanging in sequence. Everything was colourful in her home, right down to the painted furniture that she also sold. It was like standing inside a kaleidoscope. By day, Jocey indulges her bookworm matrix at Café Books in Canmore, Alberta—but at night, her cat characters Nuptse and Lhotse take flight. They’ve already travelled around Nepal, and Iceland just made sense. Jocey seems to fly there whenever a seat sale is on, or when the glaciers move just so. Visit the land of ice and fire and see how a landscape can consume an artist and writer so innocently. If you have munchkins in your life or Iceland devotees, this gift just makes sense.

A blurb: “While digging in their garden, Nuptse and Lhotse uncover an ancient Viking helmet. Excited by their discovery, the two cats make their way to Iceland to find out more about the Vikings. Throughout their epic journey, the cats learn all sorts of new things related to Iceland: longboats, sweaters, horses, volcanoes, geysers, even local cuisine!  Nuptse & Lhotse Go to Iceland is a colourful, illustrated story for adventurers of all ages who long to travel to faraway places.”

Be Bound by the Beauty

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I met Alistair MacLellan on assignment. I had read about his new biz venture in the Waterloo Record and was instantly intrigued. I pitched a storyline to the editor of Grand magazine and she bit. Alistair was making hand-bound, hand-sewn books in his garage. Well, his parents’ garage—but, nonetheless, the journalism grad was kicking it old school and making money, making stuff. I liked the simplicity and possibility of his product. Like Steamwhistle—they make just one product, and they make it well. Alistair even sold his beloved (but never running) 1977 Honda CB550 motorcycle to help finance his business (temporarily setting his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ambitions aside). His story was not unlike Olympian Clara Hughes–she sold her crappy car (a Pinto I think) for $700 to buy her first pair of speed skates.

Alistair is all passion, the kind of guy who would try to roast his own coffee beans, learn the art of beekeeping and/or soap making, and make his own jeans if he had time. He’s the real deal and his books are nifty. At MacLellan & Baetz Publishing House, “Making notebooks in a garage in Waterloo, Ontario is our life’s work. You can fill them with yours.”

Tune up Their iTunes With Madison Violet

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Madison Violet has been the soundtrack of our love life—and they could be yours too. We became groupies early on (in the late 1990s even, back when they were Mad Violet and playing at bookstores in the likes of Dunnville, Ontario). Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac are a Juno-nominated powerhouse duo that have moved smooth as pudding from folk and fiddle to Euro pop and a distinct David Byrne meets Kate Bush meets Duran Duran electro feel. Not to be superficial, but, it also helps that they are foxy and girl-next-door-ish.

We routinely recruit cult members to their sound and concerts—some of which we’ve carried their precious cargo (guitars!) back from (i.e. Grenada to YYZ). I check out their tour schedule and send demanding emails to friends in Prince Edward Island and Tennessee and Vancouver Island to make the pilgrimage. We love them so much we flew to Le Petit Phare Bleu in Grenada to see them perform on a barge with dozens of fan-loaded dinghies lashed together at 12 degrees north latitude. Don’t miss them this April back in the Spice Island. Until then, check out their latest CD release, These Ships.

Intelligent Camping for the Lumbersexuals in Your Life

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One of our favourite sleeps this year was at the Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery in Prince Edward County. The founders, Jens and Inge, are like shook-up champagne. They’re all energy, vision and the kind of people who convince you to chase down your own dreams and make them real. Their passport stamps are enviable, and it was the Four Rivers Floating Lodge in Koh Kong, Cambodia that really put the spell on them. They knew they could create something gobsmacking too—and they chose the County and a return to the frontier life.

Before you bark about the price, how much would you pay for solitude? What’s your price tag for an original experience, frying just-laid eggs in a cast iron pan, tending to the embers of a fire that unleashed so much conversation that life had been just too busy to share? Did I mention the intensely hot open-sky shower and King bed? If you’ve grown tired of the stiff back and soggy sleeping bags of traditional camping—this is the intelligent upgrade. Jens and Inge have also planted a massive garden where you are welcome to pluck some cilantro, red leaf lettuce, veg, dill—whatever is at the ready. North Beach Provincial Park is an easy stroll away if you dare leave the fairy-tale woods. In the very near future, the hops Jens has planted will be the source of the on-site brewery the couple has planned. Be part of the dream early-on. Just pack your marshmallows and daydreams and romance 101 is waiting for you. If you want to give a true “experience” gift, this is it. A night in the woods at Fronterra.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me….a donkey?

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Nothing says I love you like a donkey. Since 1992, the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada has been a refuge for neglected and abandoned donkeys, mules and hinnies. To visit the 100 acre sanctuary is like putting your heart in a fondue pot. Which donkey you fall in love with is personal—you can read their profiles on line (each a heart crunching story) or actually visit the Guelph location and give them a good groom and nuzzle before deciding. For $50 you can become a guardian for a year. You can donate money towards specific needed products like fly masks, herbal supplements or pitchforks. Kim and I had a crush on Peter (his bangs!) and Sadie and became guardians. My mom swooned for Trooper and adopted him in a heartbeat. Which donkey will you give some festive love to? Find your donkey sweetheart now!

Make your gift-giving thoughtful, intelligent, creative and supportive this year.

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If all else fails blend a dozen egg yolks, a carton of cream and a cup of sugar in your non-$959.00, non-copper, non-Kitchen Aid mixer. Add Mount Gay rum as family drama or (hopefully) merriment requires. Play A Jann Arden Christmas. Repeat both.

Best prescription: Watch Love Actually. Love the one you’re with.

Falalalala, heehaw, Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanzaa to you and yours and theirs.

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Turning 40 and 40 Things To Do

Langdon Hall Country Hotel and Spa is a magnet for guests celebrating milestone events. Often they are honeymoons or anniversaries, but I’ve been part of many 40th, 50th and upward birthday itineraries. My Barbara Walters question is immediate: “Any revelations, destinations or to-do’s for the year?” (*I am a big loather of the “Bucket List” term—and don’t even get me started on “staycations.”)

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I turned forty in September without hoopla, tacky t-shirt, tiara or hangover. It was a civilized and romantic night, soaking in a claw foot tub at the Naramata Heritage Inn in British Columbia. Kim and I shared a bottle of “Therapy” (yes, that’s the name of the nearby vineyard) and she gave me a card with an open-ended plane ticket to anywhere in the world. That’s how life is with her—one giant meringue-cloud dream without restriction or hesitation.

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I have plenty of hair-brained ideas (almost daily) about life as a cheesemonger, chocolate maker, cake decorator, donkey groomer and the like. Kim supports all of this, genuinely. I frequently have us flying off to places like Robinson Crusoe island (yes, it’s an actual place) or the jungles of Papua New Guinea. As rational as Kim is, nothing seems far-fetched to her.

Turning 40 was seamless, just a continuance of this life by design. But sometimes, turning a different number triggers a need to focus attention on ideas simmering on backburners (or, taken off the stove completely). Much like New Year’s resolutions, monumental birthdays are another attempt at those champagne-fogged lists of refinement.

This list certainly won’t be a chore—why would I choose to do anything that wasn’t inspiring, feasible or purely indulgent? And, as any self-helpy book would dictate, when you ‘go public’ with ideas and goals, you’re more accountable because you’ve said it ‘out loud.’

So, here’s my Out Loud List. Some of the items have been cultivated for years. Some are ambitious, complicated, others effortless. A few are brand new developments that surprised even me—and that’s the beauty of lists, you can keep refining them until they make sense. I’ve already attempted knocking a few off, but, there have been mini obstacles for some. I’m not deterred!

  1. Enrol in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Biology course. (*Note: I’ve already attempted this. The textbook required for this course is out of print and is $680US to purchase on Amazon. I love birds dearly, and want to take this course—but, in lieu, will use that $680 to travel somewhere like St. Pierre and Miquelon to see the birds in person.
  2. Sign up for the Labour Day Novel Writing Contest. This is a no-brainer, but, despite being out of school for decades, the last official weekend of summer makes me so nostalgic that I can’t imagine being cooped up inside, hammering out a book in three days. I know I could do it, but, November might be more inspiring. If the September Labour Day weekend forecast is single digits and full of rain clouds, potential is high that I’ll finally scratch this one off the list
  3. Run For the Toad. This is a neat race at Pinehurst Conservation Area in Paris (Ontario) held every October. It’s responsible running for a sensible cause that doesn’t receive a lot of fanfare (toads). It’s been on my list for too many years. It’s just a measly 25 or 50km run.
  4. Watch The African Queen (*roadblock—our local library doesn’t carry this title. I need to visit my cinephile wonderland Queen Video in Toronto). This movie is obviously a cinema staple and, Africa-centric.
  5. Read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My grade nine English teacher recently mentioned this as such an essential read, but I keep getting distracted by other titles.
  6. Read The Snow Leopard. (*roadblock—not available at the library and my sister ‘borrowed’ –which translates into ‘KEPT’ my mom’s copy. Kiley lives in Banff. I will blame her for #6 being temporarily unachievable.
  7. Go to Saugatuck, Michigan. When we were miniature, our aunt Buffer (long story) had a game similar to Monopoly called “Saugatuck.” We played it endlessly, cross-legged, sucking back cans of Coke with ketchup chip-stained fingers, awaiting our next move. It was only a few years ago that I learned that Saugatuck was an actual place. It’s lakeside and chock-a-block with art studios, quirky cafes and cutesy B&B’s.
  8. Make a gingerbread house. At Christmas of course, not now. This was always a tradition, but somehow I fell off the gingerbread house wagon.
  9. Carve a pumpkin! Also, to be done during the appropriate season. I’ve slacked on carving since moving from Toronto—and in the city I paid big bucks for an urban pumpkin ($20). We live close to so many patches now, there’s no excuse. Plus, it’s been a while since I scorched a nice batch of salty pumpkin seeds. (Does anyone bake those without burning the life out of them?
  10. Sleep in a treehouse. For my sister’s wedding gift, the Torti fam pulled financial forces together to get Kiley and Mark two nights in the “Melody” orb at Free Spirit Spheres, near Qualicum Beach, BC. We always give the gifts we want to receive, right? (Hint).
  11. Re-create mom’s shortbread. I’ve never attempted my mom’s recipe, but, her shortbread is meant to be eaten on a treadmill or elliptical.
  12. Make a batch of egg nog. I haven’t done this since I was in Africa, of all places. Even stranger, Jann Arden gave me the recipe. I paid premium for the only dusty bottle of Captain Morgan’s dark rum in Entebbe and used unrefrigerated eggs bought at a roadside stand. I thought for sure I might kill off the entire staff at the Jane Goodall Institute, but, whew, didn’t. It’s time to make a Canadian-grade batch again. Also seasonal.
  13. Pick strawberries and make jam. When I lived in the beating heart of Toronto, I had such farm and foraging fantasies. We always seem to miss the strawberry season as June is when we travel east to Prince Edward Island (and we miss their season too, which is later). Last year Kim and I actually made mustard pickles (though we didn’t pick the cukes). We’re channeling our pioneer ways, slowly.
  14. Go to a roller derby match. I’ve been meaning to do this since that movie with Drew Barrymore—Whipit? Let it be clear that I have zero interest in participating—it’s completely barbaric and I still have a bump on my lower jawbone from when a Hostess Munchie chip mascot flattened me from behind on the roller rink. It was Jeff Kellam’s 8th birthday party and I thought my jaw was broken. But, I managed to stifle my tears and take advantage of the free birthday hot dogs.
  15. Go to the Organic Farmer’s Daughter. In nearby Baden, an actual farmer’s daughter serves up organic fare and it’s as close to farm to fork as you can get. You can visit the farm before dinner and see where everything is sourced from.
  16. Do one of those Farm-to-Fork events. The price tags are usually steep ($175+), but, you get to walk around some fairy tale farmer’s field in the autumn, or traipse through the woods with craft beer or guzzle wine and make pit stops at gourmand food stations and chat with chefs along the way.
  17. Sleep in a Lighthouse. Better yet, Kim and I both have fantasies of living in one. Preferably at a southern latitude, not the wave-battered, teeth-chattery east coast of Canada.
  18. Drink pink grapefruit margaritas at The Diplomat Hotel, Merida, Mexico. My ex-boss decided to ditch Canadian winters forever and the slog of working for other people. Sara and her husband Neil, opened their fancy-pants boutique hotel last year. It’s stunning and a true showcase of their design maven ways.
  19. Go to a lacrosse game. I haven’t been in over 15 years. I love the aggression in lacrosse. Last time I went was on the Six Nations Reserve with my dad. I sat in a seat that had a giant wad of purple Hubba Bubba stuck to it, and then, consequently me. Those jeans were toast after that game. I almost had to bring the seat home with me.
  20. Go to a women’s boxing match. Who doesn’t get all charged up watching Rocky movies? Adriannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnne! Sometimes when I run in the winter in the blinding snow, huffing the wind chill, I pretend I am Sly Stallone in Russia, training for the big ring with Dolph.
  21. Make spaghetti squash. Simple, right? If I can’t do #21 then I should just quit this list now.
  22. Go ice fishing. (Typed with trepidation. Just like our stay at the Ice Hotel. And, I don’t even non-ice fish, so, maybe this isn’t practical?)
  23. Try buttertea. There was only one place in Toronto that served this Nepalese-style of tea and it was always closed. The tea is hot, oily, made with gobs of butter and salt. I know, it sounds terrible, but I read a book called Buttertea at Sunrise and it’s been on my mind ever since.
  24. Increase gin knowledge. And this isn’t some lazy half-arsed excuse to just drink more gin. It’s historic and intriguing.
  25. Learn more about beekeeping. Bees are so trendy right now. I always loved that the Fairmont Royal York Hotel (where I worked eons ago) had beehives on their rooftop. After reading Michelle Catherine Nelson’s Urban Homesteading Cookbook, I’m two steps (swats?) away from getting a ‘hive nuc’ (nucleus with Queen and drones).
  26. Make Italian Wedding Soup. It’s a rare thing to find on menus. I haven’t had it since I skipped out of some massage class back in 1997 and a classmate with a car drove us to a little tea house in Dundas that served it.
  27. Go to a Red Bull Crashed Ice event. Have you seen this madness on TV? The competitors are kamikaze—flying down an ice track on skates to the finish line. We narrowly missed seeing an event in Quebec City and instead watched the track being constructed. Competing in Crashed Ice is something you would do at age 7, when you don’t think about the consequences of not having front teeth anymore.
  28. Have an official high tea at Langdon Hall or the Empress Hotel in Victoria, somewhere authentic. I went to the Empress, but opted for a beer instead as I had discovered lamb burgers at the Pink Bicycle just an hour before. I’ve seen Langdon Hall’s tea service behind the scenes, but, it’s good to be on both sides, right?
  29. “Choose a direction to set sail instead of catching every which wind.”
  30. Go to a drive-in movie. Just for nostalgic sake. We grew up three cornfields behind one. There’s even a drive-in theatre in Aruba.
  31. Attend a life drawing class. Not as the subject.
  32. Take my Katniss double (Kim) to an archery class at Casa Loma. I’ve ‘arched’ before, but not since high school phys-ed class. And, summer camp, when half the idiot boy campers would aim at the nearby cows instead.
  33. Write my African memoirs. “I once had a farm in Africa…” Yes, they’re written, but, all over the years and in various forms—journals, blogs, postcards, beer coasters, porcupine quills, etc.
  34. Find out how I can be a James Ready Beer Cap Writer. The writing team under these bottle caps is brilliant! It’s Kim’s brand and I love popping the top to see what wit lies beneath. I really want to be a beer bottle cap writer. What a handle.
  35. Try a cake decorating course. I don’t even like cake that much (except the pear-ginger-molasses one my mom just made, wow! It was like a gingerbread man French-kissed a Bosc pear!). However, I love the cool direction that cakes are going with fondant.
  36. Check out the Arkansas Elephant Experience Weekend. I’ve already enquired about this course—it’s sold out annually, for good reason. Who doesn’t want to learn all about elephants, suds them up and scrub them down and hand-feed them? In fact, if there’s any sort of ‘experience weekend’ involving an animal of any sort, I’m in. Which reminds me–there’s a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica that’s always eager for husbandry volunteers.
  37. Investigate what it takes to be a Cicerone-in-Training. I didn’t even know there was a name for beer experts, but, this is the hoppy cousin to a sommelier. It’s the true bar exam.
  38. Get acupunctured. I’ve subjected myself to sand saunas, volcanic mud baths, Tuina, Chinese cupping, Anma-do…but never acupuncture.
  39. Go for a beer bath. The Grand Wellness Centre in Brantford has expanded its services to a more beer-centric spa menu. Clients can soak in a beer bath topped up with three pints of Ramblin’ Road Brewing beer and extra hops. And, you get to slug back a pint while you soak.
  40. Start list (ie. Maybe just delete a few of these wacky notions. Like, am I really going to start cake baking? I made a sorry batch of pumpkin cookies near Halloween that were so dense and wet that even the squirrels rejected them and ate an old foil ball and empty peanut shells instead.

It’s easy to come up with 40 ways to engage and live out loud. Just build stuff, paint things, make things, eat superb things–learn widely, read deeply…I’m still percolating with thoughts—like, must read Farley Mowat’s A Whale for the Killing. Sleep in a yurt. Road trip to Amherst Island to investigate if it’s somewhere we could actually live merrily. We haven’t been to the farmers’ market at Evergreen Brick Works yet or that lavender farm on the way to Paris. Do I need a literary agent? Should I learn more about orangutans? Should we build a bat house?

Of course this list isn’t comprehensive—it doesn’t even touch on my/our travel ideas because that’s a different list altogether and it’s double this one.

What’s on your list? Maybe it’s time you made one!

Last minute addition. #41. Go to Aruba Monday. Check!

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Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

A Lament for Innocence: Growing up in the 70s

Last week I had an eyebrow archer-type conversation with a massage client. We were chatting about the impending March Break and she expressed disappointment in the change in kids over the span of her teaching career. “The children are just so anxious now. They don’t know how to play anymore.”

Today, I was combing through press trip opportunities on a site called Media Kitty. At Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, guests are invited to get “their wildhood back.” Reconnect with time spent in nature and the wilderness!

The resort is cashing in on our detached population and the sage ways of our terra firma-tuned in grandparents. They are the Last of the Mohicans, the ones who remember a life spent deeper in nature, void of technology. In June and September, Clayoquot Wilderness Resort’s Elder’s Package covers the cost of “the stay for up to two grandparents (when travelling with six or more adults), excluding the cost of the floatplane trip from Vancouver to the resort. Rates for other family members start at $4,750 CDN for a three night all-inclusive package, with children under 12 staying for $2,375 CDN when sharing a tent with an adult. Rates for four and seven night stays are also available.”

In a stream of synchronicity, my friend Denise sent a link to a book she’d just read about “Nature Deficiency Disorder”—Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.

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Nature Deficiency Disorder? Wildhood? Anxious kindergarten kids? The only time I was anxious in kindergarten was when we lined up alphabetically to use the washrooms and I pissed my pants (well, skirt actually. I’m a “T”—and the rest of the alphabet was dilly-dallying).

The teacher I spoke with enlightened me further. Apparently her school is ramping up their emotional awareness curricula with “mindfulness sessions.” Each morning, via the PA system, students (and teachers) are led through a mindfulness exercise, encouraging them to focus on their intention, their breathing and how to be present.

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Holy Eckhart Tolle! I recall doing mindfulness sessions in grade 10 drama class with a spunky teacher ahead of her time. I thought for sure I was ready for the hippie commune after that exercise. It was truly “out there” and something I imagined occurring in the intense heat of a sweat lodge or on a solo journey to Kilimanjaro. In kindergarten we were innocently sucking back juice boxes, handfuls of Oreos and taste-testing the Elmer’s glue and poster paint. We were IN the moment, by default. I didn’t even know the term “mindfulness” until the day I laid on the floor of the drama classroom, a bit too icked out by the carpet to be totally centered and mindful.

Do kids need mindfulness session? Shouldn’t they just be pushed outside and away from their tablets and iPhones? I know there’s probably an app for tree-climbing and grass stains, but c’mon. We need to be told to rediscover our “wildhood” and introduce kids to earth basics like dirt, worms and trees? Wow.

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I was born in 1974. We lived in childhood postcard. I had to sit down almost daily to have sticky sap cut out of my hair from perching in the pines behind our house making crappily constructed tree houses (or, dodgy ladders to wobbly platforms at least). We had chronic gouges and scrapes from endless hide n’ go seek sessions at my cousin’s farm and hiding in the belly of the combines, under greasy farm trucks in the barns. At day’s end we were ripe with pig manure, swamp mud, full of burrs and scratched all to hell from racing through the corn field rows. Our faces would be stained with orange or purple Kool-aid. Nobody was allergic to peanuts. We survived on peanut butter alone.

We were immunized because we were supposed to be. We were subjected to nit checks by some public health nurse every so often. Once a month the “Swish Lady” would appear at school and we’d gargle fluoride and chew on tiny red tablets that would reveal our tartar. At age 10, that same nurse would return and have all the girls bend over to check for scoliosis.

Nobody had ADD. If anything, you were genuinely bored and twitchy from math or history class. More often, you were a dreamer—and excited about the prospect of getting back outside to the places where all the neat things were. Where you could catch pollywogs in makeshift nets. Dig for arrowheads in the tilled fields. Make loon calls with cupped hands and blades of grass held just-so.

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Nobody was overweight—and in the 70s, whole wheat bread hadn’t even been invented. We ate our share of pre-packaged sugary things, so that can’t be to blame. We LOVED neon Kraft Dinner and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes (to which we would add even more sugar). The 70s and 80s were all about white bread, Swiss Rolls, fish sticks, Fruit Roll-ups, Pop Tarts, Jell-o everything, Freezies and iceberg lettuce. We survived.

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Our parents were responsible. They made sure we could print, read and say thank you before we started kindergarten. They made sure we were curious, interested and interesting. My dad ensured that we could swim, ride bikes, swing a bat and do a snow plow stop when we played hockey. They weren’t Dragon helicopter parents force-feeding us piano lessons, karate, dance, etc., etc. Despite my dad’s affection and accolades for baseball and hockey—we all chose soccer. We chose. My mom would be the first to recommend quitting if we weren’t enjoying something anymore. I still think quitting is great. It means you can start something better.

“Only boring people get bored” My mother tattooed that into our young minds.

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Fun was a trip to the library to get as many books as we could carry. I tore through choose-your-own-adventure novels at night (yes, under the covers, with a flashlight), inspired to choose-my-own-adventures the next day. We went to Port Dover for hot dogs, went skating at Lion’s Park, fished the Grand, stayed up past our bedtime to look for Haley’s Comet and built birdhouses at the local nature centre. Our Christmas and birthday gifts were things like telescopes, bird guides, blank journals, microscopes. Dax was always experimenting with how to make dill pickles glow in the dark. We’d grow sea salt crystals, build terrariums and attempt getting avocado pits to sprout.

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Sure, we watched TV, but only at night and barely on Saturday mornings (my brother, sister and I all chose sleep over cartoons). When my mom did a revamp of the living room and moved the console TV downstairs, we lost even more interest. However, back then, didn’t we all watch the exact same shows? Were there only six to choose from? Facts of Life, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Growing Pains, Silver Spoons?

We had one rotary dial phone that was more of a nuisance than necessity. However, my pre-teen sister was quite obsessed with it and, after clogging the home phone line in excess, she was forced into purchasing her own phone line if she wanted to gab that much. But still, she was talking, not texting. She’s still a talker and not a texter. And, I’m still without a cell phone.

When Nintendo and Super Mario Brothers was all the rage, my brother sunk money he had earned from selling produce from his garden into a play station. Wisely, he charged my sister and I to play— 25 cents a game. My coveted item was a cassette player—so I could record the spring peepers in the pond. My version of a tablet was an Etch-a-Sketch. Did we feel hard done by? Out of the loop? Hardly. We had it all. We had a Rubik’s Cube, a dog, a cat, a pond and Hostess Ketchup chips for Friday night.

Back then, we EARNED our pleasures. And they were pleasures, not demands. Kiley worked the graveyard shift at Tim Horton’s to have that fancy phone line. We picked gravel out of the grass (from the snowplows) and pinecones from the forest floor (to avoid shin shrapnel from the lawnmower). We Turtle Waxed the car and scrubbed the white walls of my dad’s Cutlass Supreme with a toothbrush for maybe $5.

We weren’t anxious. Pizza night was a treat, not routine. Going to McDonald’s was a big deal. I had three pairs of rugger pants and a pair of Kangaroo shoes. I alternated my Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt and cowboy fringe shirt. We were want for nothing—we weren’t obsessed with name brands. Everyone wore Kangaroo shoes then.

Life was innocent and simple. Lawn darts and charcoal barbecues started with lighter fluid. We didn’t sanitize our hands. Xanadu, our dog, washed our faces.

We were mindful, without even knowing it. And perhaps that’s the best way to be.

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This Old House

Buying a house runs almost parallel to an online or blind date. At face value, from the carefully selected MLS listing pictures or deceiving match.com profiles, a potential house and date present the same. As the relationship evolves, the secrets are revealed. The skeletons in the closet get dragged out into broad daylight. Physical remnants of previous relationships are etched deep into the mortar and veins—sometimes we hear the story at full-length. Often we’re left to guess.

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This particular old house stands like a nomadic camel on a never-ending caravan. Loved and mistreated in equal parts by different owners over the century and a half, each floor joist, pine shake shingle, chunk of limestone and black walnut tree represents a historical milestone in the genesis of William Webster’s homestead, the stone mason who probably broke his back making this unruly riverfront plot a home.
It reminds me of Elspeth Huxley’s memoir, The Flame Trees of Thika. Readers are introduced to a bustling colonial Kenya, rich with promise built on a foundation of hope. The book opens with Huxley’s father’s desire to create a successful coffee plantation on a plot of land he bought “in the bar of the Norfolk Hotel from a man wearing an Old Etonian tie.
“Thika in those days—the year was 1913—was a favourite camp for big-game hunters and beyond it there was only bush and plain. If you went on long enough you would come to mountains and forests no one had mapped and tribes whose languages no one could understand.”
Huxley’s family didn’t traverse that far, though, they were two days’ journey in an ox-cart.
Those were the days of gumption! Imagine buying a parcel of land, sight unseen (no realtor.ca! No real estate agent to point out the waving red flags), all with the hopes that a river runs through it and that your steed and family can survive not only the elements, but, your vision of a dream. All with pennies in pockets. And, sometimes, a piano and Pekinese dogs to bring some semblance of home to a savannah laced with coiling pythons and hungry hidden leopards and lions.

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I feel a little bit Huxley in our move to Galt. Our steed was a Saab and surely, the 100km journey from Toronto is the 2013 equivalent of a two day ox-cart ride. Instead of a coffee plantation, I was content with finding a cozy coffee shop with Frisbee-sized ginger cookies and sunny tables for spreading out newspapers. And, I did find one—a three minute ox-cart (or donkey, our preferred mode in Egypt) ride away. The Grand Cafe.

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Though we visited the house twice before we had possession (see, buying a house is really like dating! Especially if you’re talking about lesbians—you definitely have possession after two visits! And then, of course, you move in on the third).
We had drive-by’s (similar to online cruising of profile pics). We snooped via our agent for more dirt on the history and reassurance, just like serial daters. We Googled our stone mason and Galt and surmised that whatever magnetic pull Webster had in 1867 to this area, the attraction was identical to ours.
It’s a gentle conquering, to have an empire of dirt in Kenya or Galt. Despite the lack of a coffee plantation and pecking hens and Masai warrior ready with spear in hand. (or, cell phone in this case).

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There’s undeniable responsibility here, to sustain a 150-year-old home that has weathered more than just the angry floodwaters of the turbulent Grand river. To plant a tree deep in the soil here, we are contributing to the time capsule, a property that remembers each of its tenants—via crocus blooms, cobbled walkways and Japanese blood grasses and butterfly bushes.
A new massage client recently asked what prompted our radical move from Toronto. I explained our love-at-first-sight encounter with the stone cottage. I also said that a neat event had occurred with the purchase–because it was a heritage home, that we had also become caretakers of history.
“Oh, so you have a home cleaning business too?”
I laughed, but then realized, as caretakers, yes, we sort of adopted that part-time job too.
The black walnut trees, which I like to think William Webster planted, are the favoured hangout of Downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches and roosting grackles. The squirrels stake claim over the chipmunk, but in the end, it is a time share, with each bird and mammal taking turn amongst the branches throughout the day.

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Like us. It’s our turn in the branches. I imagine grand garden parties, theirs and ours. With soft fairy lights, and socialites tipsy on juleps or gimlets, a la Gatsby. I picture hot orange campfires licking at the night sky, pheasants golden on the grill, long-winded toasts and promises to do it all over again, sooner than later. Then and now.
We are learning a lot in this new relationship with our home. The now-predictable post-midnight clangs and pings of the old rads no longer give us a synchronized stroke. The lay of the bedrock in the basement is becoming familiar—I have all the potholes mapped out. (But, there will always be a token whack of the head every other time I go down into the far recesses of the basement—a reminder that I’m not 5’5).

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I love that we’ve become part of such a story. That we’re sharing turf with a stone mason and his steeds. We’re becoming quite intimate with our blind date of a house. It only took us one visit to want to make the commitment.
And, now we commit to the storied past and a remarkable future in tandem.

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The Good, Clean Country Life

I feel like I’ve been a participant in an experimental urban detox plan.

Trailed by our moving truck, Kim and I drove out of Toronto on the frosty morn of January 24th and haven’t been back since. A few weeks before the move I had drawn up an extensive list of necessities. I would definitely have to subscribe to Toronto Life and The Grid.  I doubled up on Jimmy’s Coffee beans with reassuring plots of how I could get city friends to visit and bring bean cartel. But, where would I rent my indie movies without Queen Video a block away? Where was my Bloor Hot Docs cinema equivalent to be found? Were there any Vietnamese Bahn Mi subs to be found in the 519 area code?

I knew I would miss elements of the city, because, it’s simply unnatural to not miss a place.  Despite all my whining about being rained on every day on the west coast, part of me misses the intensely heady smell of wet cedar that permeates the air. Oh, and that coconut curry stew at the Thai hole-in-the-wall on South Fraser Way that I can no longer remember the name of. Places should leave indelible marks.

I don’t miss Toronto in the proportions I thought I would though. In fact, I find myself living a more cohesive lifestyle in Galt. The list of what I don’t miss escalates. In an email to my friend Suzanne, I shared my quiet thrills—like watching the movement of the full moon through the silhouette of our black walnut trees in the backyard. Just months ago I had no moon view. From my basement apartment I had a clear knee-high view of pedestrians and the local bottle collectors rooting through the recycling bins parked outside my window.

065Here, we have front row seats to unbridled nature. The path behind our house connects to the Grand Trunk Trail which winds along the river to my workplace, Langdon Hall Country Hotel & Spa. Though my commute has doubled to a 16 km route on foot, there is a delicious pleasure in walking along the Blair road and spotting eight deer and passing by wetlands vibrating with spring peepers and red winged blackbirds. The chatter of chickadees is the best noise pollution around.

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As of late, my morning commute has involved dodging nesting Canadian geese. Vocal and hissing, the male is not so pleased that my path crosses his. But, this is a far cry from downtown crackhead encounters, oblivious texting-obsessed pedestrians and dodging piles of post-nightclub barf on King street sidewalks.

Living on the Grand river brings such welcome intimacy with nature. My new reality show is the watching the drama unfold between the black, grey and red squirrels seeking backyard domination. I can bird-watch from our en suite toilet for crying out loud (which might be too much information to share). But, I am in my birding glory with all the white breasted nuthatch and cedar waxwing fly-bys. The machine gun-like chatter of kingfishers induces an immediate smile.With the returning migrations, our gardens are finally giving way to a greener palette. The snowdrop blossoms are holding their heads high despite the monsoon rains of late. Purple crocuses and irises are pushing the mulch aside to show off their spring pride.

There is such primal joy in getting grubby in the gardens with soiled denim knees. For those of you who are unaware, beer tastes even better outside, chugged with a dirty work glove on, with thorn and rose bush lacerations burning your forearms.

015The previous owners of this house apparently never raked. We thought we might uncover buried treasure (or buried bodies for that matter) under all the debris. A dozen stuffed yard bags later, we’re still trying to make headway.  I’m patiently waiting for warmer temps so I can finally pull out the hula hoop that is frozen inside the compost pile.

Having a yard is so paramount to happiness though. In the Annex, though there was a backyard per se, it was the home owner’s domain. I’d have to find my green a few blocks away at the local parkette—and, given the shadows of nearby buildings, the sunshine timeline was at a premium.

Now? Sunshine, no shadows. Green = ours. Coffee outside? Just a step away. Yes, small but hugely gratifying pleasures, indeed.

I routinely read the entire newspaper now—a miraculous feat. In fact, I read not only the local rag The Cambridge Times but The Waterloo Record, and courtesy of Kim’s sister, I also have The Ayr News delivered to my house. Even the news is better here! The Ayr News reports on all the ham suppers and spaghetti dinners in the area. And, there is amazing journalistic coverage of euchre tournaments and tundra swan sightings. Oh, and how ‘bout so-and-so’s daffodils! They’re up two inches already!

Somehow, we’ve found more time in Galt. Time to entertain, read, cook, take long walks without watches.  Time to be present. I’ve read more books in the last two months than I did in nearly a year in Toronto. The librarians know me by name…just like Cheers, but, different.

Not working until 9 or 10 o’clock at night has introduced me to a brand new world of eating at a respectable hour. Before,  I convinced myself that I was simply very European in my habits. Surely other people sat down for dinner at midnight.

Now I’m actually working my way through the pile of recipes I’ve clipped out. I’ve found my inner Julia Child in Galt and have wooed guests with stuffed lasagna rolls, turkey pot pie, jambalaya and French onion soup. And, while in the kitchen, I have a view and natural light to boot. Not to trash talk by previous digs, because, the place had its merits, but—one could have fried eggs atop the non-energy saver pot lights. The oven was the equivalent of cooking over an open fire with unreliable random broil-like temperatures. And, any cooking was always performed under the duress of the lead-foot tenant upstairs who made the above-mentioned pot lights flicker with her footsteps.

Ahh, yes, the good, clean country life.

013I work more reasonable hours now and don’t feel like I’m financially treading water. In Toronto, I worked more than I ever had, somehow earned less and forked out more just to live. I felt like I could have cut my paycheques into confetti and tossed them in the air. I’m not in that same fatigue fog that the city seemed to facilitate.

If this is urban detox, I would like to be the poster child. It’s so nourishing for the soul.

Please, come visit us and experience life as it should be. Though, we might hand you a rake upon your arrival.

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Sifting and Sorting: The Emotional Attic

Any traveller will nod in agreement with this statement: when you are away from home for more than three weeks, you can quickly define what’s essential in your life (lip balm and Q-tips, really). When you have a house for more than three weeks, you can easily be persuaded into different thinking because the space is there and it’s not being hauled around on your back. Having a home base facilitates collecting, gathering, storing/hoarding. However you like to classify it, it’s easy to cloud your streamline stance on “essential” when there is enough square footage to allow for all whims and wants.

Not that Kim and I have become collective since we moved in. On the contrary (we’ve been hawking excess wares on Kijiji)—in fact, the only hoarder on our property is the black squirrel who has turned our backyard Bunkie into a black walnut cache. For any other squirrel who happens upon that shed, they will definitely think they’ve gone to The Other Side with the heavenly hoard inside.017

With serious thoughts of moving from the home they’ve been in for 13 years, my parents have a serious winnowing process underway. We’ve passed our house-hunting/moving baton on. Name an obscure place anywhere in Ontario, and my mother has found a house listing there. They have been renting cars for recent house pilgrimages because the mileage they’ve covered already would have taken them to Anchorage, Alaska had they been driving in a straight line.

My parents moving translates into the great-unearthing-of-nostalgia, buried for a solid decade in their attic space. At first the queries came in a phone call format. “We’ve got your old trophies. You still want them don’t you?” Even though I have more square footage than I’ve had in a long while, I still don’t have space (or desire) for trophies. My dad seemed disappointed when my response was so immediate. “Oh god, no! For what?”

And, so, despite my firm “no,” my dad thought I still might like the engraved plaques from each of the trophies, illuminating my soccer, badminton and running career. Surely I’d want the mini-plaques. They wouldn’t take up much space at all.

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Next came the call about the papier-mâché collection. I didn’t even realize my parents still had them holed away. And, by papier-mâché, I don’t mean a misshapen grade 3 heart-shaped ashtray and miniature swan. We’re talking larger-than-life size creations: an orange octopus, a hamburger (as big as a coffee table with foam dill pickles to boot), a panda bear and a mosquito with a lethal chicken wire proboscis. “You want them, don’t you?” (Insert melancholy here: part of me will always be disturbed by the anthropomorphism of the Toy Story toys. But, at least the papier-mâché family travelled together to the local dump after one last photo.)

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When I calculated the age of the papier-mâché collection, I pegged some of them to be vintage 1987. The hamburger and mosquito were high school art camp creations carted back on a bus from Camp Walden in northern Ontario. Too bad there wasn’t a Mâché Hall of Fame to donate them to.

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Then came the cardboard boxes of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume paperbacks, my dog-eared Golden readers and Beatrix Potter hardbacks. I picked out my all-time faves (Runaway Ralph and Ralph S. Mouse, Pepper, Flicka) and displayed the Golden Guides that were my flora and fauna bibles as a kid. But, to keep all of them? My mom insisted I return the ones I didn’t want. Which still makes me feel like guilty for adding to their nostalgia cargo.
I struggled more with the grainy old pictures of school chums and road trips to the Grand Canyon. I’ve carted around my own stacks of pictures for years—the stories diminishing and the faces losing familiarity. I had to do a Facebook poll. The verdict? If you can’t name anyone in the photo, it’s safe to turf the pic.

But the newspaper clippings–those were an easy keep. My parents had saved the complete history of my early writing and sporting career as documented in The Brantford Expositor—skipping fundraisers, soccer goals, badminton tournaments, cross country runs. I tell you, I was at my peak at age 11. Hell, I even won a city-wide April Fools joke contest and $25 bucks which must have seemed like a bazillion dollars then. Apparently, I was also the national grand prize winner in Cappy Dick’s cut-apart puzzle contest (no cash– I won a Marvin watch and an Owl Pen according to the article). The Nobel Prize for puzzles I’m guessing.

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For several years I was a member of the very prestigious (cough-cough) Expositor Jr. Reporter Club and all my amateur drawings, poetry (oh, ugh) and pre-teen stories of wisdom were highlighted here. I’ve kept these gems for comic relief—and when I eventually get around to writing a memoir, I’ve got proper sources to cite!

Through this whole process of my parents’ attic being brought to life, I’ve realized that living is all about continually sifting and sorting. Emotions, stuff, homes, jobs, friends, lovers. Always refining, reconsidering, choosing the very best of all categories to move forward with.

I’m glad my parents have kept all the treasures they have. (But where is my Owl Pen? I have zero recollection of this one.) Our childhood is well-chronicled, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to graze through my past with so many tangibles.

What have you kept? What do you wish you still had? How big is your emotional attic?

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14 Predictions for the Torti Christmas: 2012 Edition

025 The Torti Christmas is always a lovely orchestrated chaos of champagne, pant-wetting laughter and storytelling. Are we becoming predictable? I know these things to be true, and everyone in attendance will no doubt agree that:

1. My father (who we nicknamed “Flo” eons ago) will nickname my brother’s Romanian boyfriend after 15 mispronunciations of “Dragos.”

2. My sister Kiley (via satellite in Banff) will be put on speaker phone and have the distinct pleasure of deciphering six people talking at once. Speaker phone conversation may also include one of the cats (Izzy or Chloe) if they are cooperative and interactive.

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3. Dax will (conveniently) disappear to “delete cookies from Mom’s laptop web browser.” This will occur when the dishes need to be done.

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4. All of us will intermittently disappear to delete the cookie supply in the sunroom where the Tupperware and tins moan with sugar and butter. Here, layers of Nanaimo bars snug up with pecan shortbread, macaroons and butter tarts. This is precisely what I dreamt of in Africa in 2008 as I ate stale vanilla wafers and slugged back potentially salmonella-laden unrefrigerated egg nog.

5. My dad will be in charge of washing/drying the dishes because my mother goes all Iron Chef in the kitchen with delegation. As per every year, my father will leave all the dried dishes and pots on the countertop, because, after 10 years of living in their home in Terrace Hill, he doesn’t know “where mom keeps them.”

6. My mother will remark “did everyone see Flo’s museum display?” This comment will be in reference to my dad’s display of dried dishes which will take up every valuable inch of countertop space.

7. Before the traditional bird dinner, Flo will eat six consecutive slices of buttered toast in complete dire straits, patiently waiting for dinner to be ready.

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8. Mid-afternoon, my mother will prepare an ooh-ahh worthy platter of fine cheeses, charcuterie and artisan crackers. She will prep a separate plate or delineate the tray for my dad: “This is your section. You won’t appreciate the expensive stuff.” My dad’s section will include Cracker Barrel cheddar and mozzarella cubes which he will enjoy in his usual Pac Man fashion. He will be served a thimble of wine because he won’t appreciate the value of the wine either.

9. Somebody will re-tell the story of the Great Unicycle Incident of 1985. This is when Dax decided to test drive his brand new unicycle in the livingroom and pulled the mantelpiece and miniature Grandfather clock off the mantel, nearly killing my dad and the family dog.

10. Somebody will reminisce about Nan’s Nordic knit sweaters. In the summer of 1987 our grandmother sneezed and wheezed her way through four sweaters (despite a lethal allergy to wool). Nan’s sweaters were a force to be reckoned with. The stovepipe arms narrowed and cinched so closely in the armpit that they threatened to cut circulation off. The waist ballooned out to allow for teenage pregnancy. The sweater’s neck was either large enough for two necks or required three people to assist in the pulling-over-the-head process.

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11.My mother will periodically crank her favourite Paul Potts, Il Divo and Pavarotti songs on the stereo. My father will attempt to sneak in and turn the volume down when my mother is distracted with julienning or basting. She will notice. The volume game resumes. Repeatedly.

12. My dad will retreat to the “TV room” (with buttered toast) where he will use my girlfriend as a pawn. “I’m just keeping Kim company—she wants to watch the World Junior Hockey action. Hey Kim, can I get you a beer?” (Flo disappears into the TV area with a beer for Kim and a rye and ginger for himself with a thumbs up and wink). My mom will re-crank Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma. Kim will remain seated to help facilitate sport-watching time for my dad.

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13. When it comes time to unwrap gifts, Dax will use his traditional wrapping. “Close your eyes and hold out your hands.” Dax has never wrapped a gift in my Christmas memory.

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14. While unwrapping gifts we will make fun of Kiley until my dad will say, “Now, don’t make fun of your sister, she’s not here to defend herself.” But, I know Kiley won’t mind. I will re-hash the story of Kiley and Her Gift-Giving Saga. Dragos doesn’t know all the Torti tales, so, we have renewed opportunity to share nostalgic stories. Kiley’s gift-giving has included:

a) A $200 autographed hockey stick that she bought on ebay for my dad (and convinced us to chip in on). Flo couldn’t recognize any of the signatures and thought it was a fake (insert Kiley’s pout and official ebay document of authenticity here). Further investigation reveals that the stick is signed by real players, from the Leafs farm team.

b) The $200 bird. Kiley buys a heron that is made out of rock and iron at an art show in Canmore, Alberta in the fall. Would Dax and I like to chip in on it? Chipping in on the bird for my mom will also cover the expense to ship the 100 POUND BIRD across Canada in time for Christmas.

c)The present for Dax that was “in the mail” that never arrived because there was no gift ever sent. (Love you Kiley!! And, I’m so glad nobody else in the family writes a blog).

This is just a prediction. Soon I may have to get my family members to sign a media release to protect myself from defamation charges.

But, then my dear family will be reminded of how grateful I am to be part of such a family. Eccentric, yes. Adoring, tenfold. I am so lucky to have a solid gold foundation.

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We will miss having Kiley and Mark with us this year, but, via speaker phone and champagne stories, they are with us! Oh, and this is where the 15th prediction comes in. One of us will reminisce about that stupid Cabbage Patch Kid that Kiley got for Christmas. That doll with the head and booties made out of CEMENT that she beat us SENSELESS with.

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Merry Christmas everyone. Love the ones you’re with.

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Noise Cancelling: The Plight of the Urban Refugee

We’re ready. Pacing. Mentally moving furniture. However, we have another month and a half to do so with our mid-January closing date. On the flip side, Kim and I have maxed out our days off with recreational window shopping. We’ve sized up bar stools, sketched out kitchen islands and sourced salvaged wood warehouses for the perfect planks for our tabletop. This is monumentally more enjoyable than the highs and lows of scouring MLS listings for our dream house.

Now that we have the house part secured, we can indulge in the fun elements of moving into a new (150-years-old/new) place like listening to Bose home theatre sound systems, finding the perfect mill cart for a coffee table and eyeballing wooden wine crates for a project we have in mind.

As the date approaches, we (mostly me) are beginning to let certain annoyances become amplified. Once you have a deadline for annoying things coming to an end, it’s easier to bitch and complain about them. I know that it’s now temporary. However, my normally high patience threshold is becoming increasingly challenged. All of this is the ammunition that is propelling our move out of the city. Largely, it’s the noise.

I have lived above, below and between people for too many years. I cannot wait to crank Madison Violet at any time of day or night, just because I can. I no longer have to be courteous or ever-conscious of those above or below or between. Soon we will be able to watch movies at MOVIE THEATRE SURROUND SOUND LEVELS. Currently, I find myself letting Tostitos dissolve on my tongue during the dialogue bits of movies because crunching the chips will mute out the church mouse-friendly sound entirely. We’ve taken to renting sub-title flicks for this reason. Hyper-aware of the early bedtime of the upstairs tenants, we can still watch movies without disturbing them.  A pesar de quetenemos que leerlas películas. رغم ان لدينا لقراءة الأفلام.

Not that I’m a loud person to begin with, but, I like knowing that I can be. I like to do dishes at midnight and shower at 2am if need be. Sometimes my best sweeping is done around 3:30am. Being respectful of other tenants has been doable, but, trying.  And, yes, I know that I have probably miffed them off in equal measure—especially when the dryer buzzer lets out its heart-attack-inducing end-of-cycle BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzz in the absolute dead of the night.

Photo credit: Tommy Vohs www.bloodshotmirage.com

Photo credit: Tommy Vohs http://www.bloodshotmirage.com

Living and renting in the city naturally equates noise. However, my initial concern of living on the subway line that barrels past every two minutes at peak service subsided immediately. The subway and its mild vibration felt in my apartment is white noise now. The only time I am aggravated is around 5:40am, when I hear the system start up again. Which means I’ve usually only been asleep for two hours, and I don’t have much sleeping time left.

What does not constitute as white noise would be the very energetic tenants upstairs who do morning wind sprints (Kim recognized and identified the rapid back and forth movements as such). They’re not late night revellers, but, worse, they are morning revellers. They are firm believers that the early bird gets the worm.  Shortly after the subway lurches along the Bloor line at 5:40, the tenants begin wind sprinting. They stop moving when we get up. It’s a very perplexing timing syndrome.

This of course is nothing compared to the Legend of Stompy. Remember the tenant with strong affection for Yo Yo Ma and wearing cement blocks on her feet? Who left her clothes in the washer for three days so they’d be so sour and ripe she’d have to start the cycle all over again—only to leave them in the dryer for another three days? Now, that was loud and obnoxious at its best. She once gave me a slice of slightly burnt banana bread as an ironic “peace” offering. Even a weekly loaf of banana bread for the rest of my life wouldn’t suffice. My cortisol levels were at a record count until she moved out and stomped on to ruin someone else’s peace and quiet.

I was beginning to have dangerous flashbacks of the 2004 pyscho drama Noise with Ally Sheedy and Trish Goff. Let’s just say the plot didn’t involve such niceties as banana bread.

And don’t even get me started on the fridge. My landlord replaced the former behemoth that was moaning so loudly I had to start shutting my bedroom door at night because it kept me awake. I don’t have the heart to tell him that the new fridge is actually louder than the last. When did they start making them with Boeing 747 motors? When it finally stops its chill cycle (it’s not even busy making ice cubes, it’s just maintaining itself and our shelf of beer and five blocks of cheese), I can feel my shoulders relax. My heart rate returns to normal. Even when I’m alone I find myself saying “finally!” out loud. The fridge actually interrupts conversation. Don’t even try to whisper sweet nothings in its vicinity.

I want the quiet pollution of a small town. Life on the river with real, live birds as a soundtrack—not ringing cell phones and car alarms and horns and sirens and jackhammers.

When Kim and I were in Egypt last year, our pal Mohammed picked us up at 4:30am so we could drive out to witness the most serene sunrise over the salt lake in the Siwa Oasis. It was so quiet there that our ears almost hurt, straining to hear something. The stillness was startling.

It was quiet as a tomb in the White Desert as well. As comforting as certain sounds can be, the absence of sound in the desert is a remarkable experience.

It will be as remarkable as not having to listen to this fridge, the subway and morning wind sprints.

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“Home is the nicest word there is.”

Writers do have a license to exaggerate, but, when I say that my partner and I looked at 3,489 house listings on MLS, the truth is hot neon pink.

Since April, we have combed every neighbourhood in Dundas, Waterdown and Guelph. In weaker moments, we (mostly I) looked at prospects in St. George, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Paris and even Dunnville (lakefront!).

I turned my nose up at Burlington because it was too generic. Kim put the brakes on my escalated searches in Westdale, the fancy-pants area of Hamilton. “Babe, it’s Hamilton! We don’t want to live there.” Kim grew up in Hamilton and I grew up in Brantford. I didn’t even breathe a word about checking out Brantford properties, so, we called it even.

Our initial MLS prowling was casual and happy-go-lucky. We cruised around Waterdown and Dundas, slowing down to marvel at houses that weren’t for sale—but ideally what we were looking for. The first two-storey stucco charmer (with a For Sale sign) was on Melville Street in Waterdown. It sold before we even had a chance to get a sneak peek at the interior. We kept tabs on a few Dundas properties and discovered Collins Brewpub and Detour Coffee Roasters in between. I was set in the critical beer and coffee department.

We didn’t become die-hard buyers until Kim sold her Bronte home in June, after just five weeks on the market. We’d heard and read horror stories about carrying two mortgages and come May, the real estate market was already beginning to flat line. Once we had the green light to buy, every morning coffee was downed in front of my laptop, driving around the MLS map. I considered commuting back to Toronto for work, and with some clever transit-hopping, I could probably do it from Dundas. Kim liked the prospects of having a sub-twenty minute drive to her job.

Fast forward to the end of July—and then the end of August. We hesitated in booking a planned trip to Iceland in the fall thinking the September market would be hot. We willed ourselves to consider a house in Morriston (which I had never even heard of), because it was a bloody gem. But, my pedestrian-friendly lifestyle would be void. The job prospects for me were relatively zero. Kim and I drank cheap beer on the deck of the token Morriston Chinese restaurant, reading our fortune cookie messages aloud. Mine alluded to buying the house (that we could see from the deck of the restaurant). I figured I could work in the kitchen and learn how to make those really tasty pineapple chicken balls once and for all.

Boo to the Highway 6 traffic that took this Morriston gem out of the running.

Of course we loved the Morriston house. It was a jaw-dropper by all accounts, but, the annoying drone of Highway 6 traffic and the airbrakes of trucks at the only stoplight had me agitated in under five minutes. It’s not that we were being picky, but, noise pollution was not going to be tolerated—even if it was a really dreamy dream home.

I sold Kim on the idea of Guelph. It had all the pizzazz of the big city because it was a university town. There was Thai food, hiking trails along the river, a covered bridge just like the one in Bridges of Madison County, a bookstore with an arty movie theatre, golf courses galore (the way to my gal’s heart) and, c’mon—a donkey sanctuary(the way to my heart)! We spent a night at the swank Norfolk Guest House to fully immerse ourselves in the city. Could we live in Guelph? Yes! We picked up a 6-pack of the local Wellington Arkell Bitter craft beer. Kim adopted a donkey from the sanctuary for me for my birthday. It all seemed to be falling in place.

First there was the brick home on Tiffany. The stunner on Suffolk. The sweet serenity of the 1920s cottage on King.. The cozy spell of Powell. I was certain we’d be calling Guelph ours in no time. I was ready to ditch my massage therapy career for any kind of job at the donkey sanctuary.

We drank more Wellington Arkell so as to not jinx anything.

Tiffany had a suspicious bow in the exterior wall. Suffolk had a conditional offer seemingly overnight. The King cottage had nowhere for a hockey bag, snow tires, golf clubs or, overnight guests for that matter.  Powell had a basement designed for Smurfs (and a dodgy foundation to boot) and a backyard  that had a view of the adjoining neighbour’s sloppy carport and the unfinished siding of the adjacent house. Too close for comfort.

With our opposing schedules, Kim and I had to capitalize on our days off (which seemed to be falling every other week), madly texting MLS numbers to our no-holds-barred agent, Jane Gardner, to arrange viewings.

Kim took advantage of weekend open houses while I toiled in the spa, wondering—could this be the one? I gave her full permission to buy on the spot. I’d read enough about bully offers and bidding wars in Toronto Life and The Grid. HGTV Realtor Sandra Rinomato was our gospel. We knew we’d have to act pit viper-quick and go in with a killer offer.

Falling in love with houses (repeatedly) was like playing dodge ball with an emotional wrecking ball. We gave up on Guelph and decided to take off to Texas. We needed a house search sabbatical and the balm of a beach and some serious sunshine.

We’d been through over 20 houses and the cons of each sunk the shining pros. Yes, we were becoming disenchanted.

We joked about my near-career at the Great Wall Chinese restaurant. But, it was beginning to look like the most promising option. Kim reminded me that we had to stick to our guns and not sacrifice what was most important to us: quiet, privacy, personality, possibility. We wanted a home that was “us,” and my mom insisted that we would know. “Your knees will knock and your heart will stop.”

Kim was still waiting for the knocking knees. I amended my mother’s statement and suggested that knee trembling could be the sign too. Were we being too picky?

I started looking at industrial lofts—really gorgeous spaces with exposed brick and cathedral ceilings but no outdoor space and $600 monthly maintenance fees. Kim gently axed the lofts and a fixer-upper in the Grange in Guelph when we did the Google map street view. Unless I was eager to start dealing drugs, the hood was more grunge than Grange. Another gem was immediately shut down when we learned that a high-rise sat to the left.

There was always something. Barrie street had a pool (ugh, no and groan). A hot tub (even worse!).The Park Road one-bedroom in Dundas would be a bitch to re-sell (but, it was a magazine spread with a fairytale creek in the backyard). There was urea formaldehyde foam insulation. There were train tracks too close to the house. Bulldozers clearing the land for a new subdivision. Neighbours with a jacked up 1992 Tempo with no wheels in the driveway next door. Listings for $449,900 that still needed massive kitchen renos and bathroom overhauls. What, no shower? At all? Or, the house in Guelph with so much wood panelling it could have doubled as a sauna.

And, I’m not even addressing the state of “decor” in many of these listings. When was red carpet ever okay? Why have flowers thrown up on every wall in the house? Why the Pepto pink tiles on all surfaces of the bathroom?  Why are you collecting rocking horses??

Kim and I can easily scare the life out of each other with some detailed accounts. Like the bathroom with eight light fixtures and Roman-esque pillars. Or the basement with the “tomb” at the end of it. Or the other basement with the dirt floor covered in mysterious tarps. The floors of the house on the hill in Dundas that tilted every which way but level. And, don’t even get me started on the knickknacks.

By October, we were ready to call the house hunt quits for the winter. We digested the idea of staying in my Annex apartment until spring—the market would kick-start again by the end of March. As Kim sleepily printed out another street parking pass, I hoped she wouldn’t have to slog from Toronto to Hamilton for work much longer.

And then, it happened, when we had really resigned ourselves to a spring market. We were going to visit Kim’s sister (who, lucky dog, looked at ONE house and bought it, just like that) in Ayr, and had decided to scan the nearby Cambridge listings to coincide with our visit. Maybe we could find a home on the Grand River? Why not Cambridge? We’d scoured everywhere else.

We booked a day of four showings and fell for the first one. The 1861 stone cottage had to be ours. The exposed stone, studio carriage house (with a tie-up on the exterior for the horses), deep windows, wide plank flooring, leather-wrapped granite counters and 12 -foot ceilings…screamed us. Kim was sketching designs for a kitchen island that night. I was already set up in the studio, sipping French press coffee and writing about St. Lucia. We could see our friends in the backyard, circled around the bonfire. Our joined family clinking glasses at Christmas as the golden bird emerged from our double-oven (Mom, you’ll do the turkey, right?).

For a week we mentally moved furniture in but reserved our excitement for the inspection. We paced back and forth to the FedEx on Bloor, scanning documents and agreements to our realtor. We drank wine until we got the go-ahead to pop the champagne.

And then, 3,489 houses later, we had found ours.

Home.

As Laura Ingalls Wilder said, “Home is the nicest word there is.”

 

Editor’s note: Want to buy or sell a house in the K-W region? Check in to Jane Gardner’s site at Royal LePage. (ps. THANK YOU JANE!)

Categories: Home Sweet Home, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , , | 8 Comments

#Trending In My Life This Week

Sometimes there are a lot of things and thoughts that collide at once, that all deserve their space, but are more suitable for a bar stool conversation. Semi-related, but not really, this week is a bright spot: an awesome movie find, the close of an exceptional book, a new downtown patio to drink upon and the ongoing obsession of finding a house to call ours.

In no particular order, this is what has been trending in my week.

#Jeff, Who Lives At Home

Any film with Susan Sarandon listed in the credits is a shoo-in for me.  Jeff (Jason Segel) is an authentic  30-year-old slacker inspired by the movie Signs. Consumed by finding and following the semi-obvious “signs” that appear to him in his mother’s (Sarandon’s) basement, Jeff is certain that he is within reach of his destiny.  His brother, Pat (Ed Helms), opposite in all possible ways, is a twitchy paint store manager blow-hard who thinks a new Porsche will cure his tanking marriage. The brothers ram heads like rutting elk and can find little common ground outside of a blood tie. Their lives tangle into a fisherman’s knot when they witness Pat’s wife obviously in the throes of an illicit affair.

While the boys duke it out, Jeff’s awareness and perception—often lost in the haze of his chronic pot smoking, begins to make sense to Pat. What happens next unfolds without a sign for the audience. The emotional impact of the final scene is wholly unexpected and will leave even the steeliest of hearts feeling like they’ve swallowed knives instead of popcorn. Yes, you will cry. Like a child with a skinned knee. You will ache for Sharon’s (Sarandon) lonely existence, longing for attention and affection despite her brave exterior and I’m-just-fine-on-my-own stance.

The writers weave in surprising twists and earn kudos for a tight and realistic script. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is an honest portrayal of how easily relationships can dissolve—whether it be with a spouse, brother or mother. And the signs, well, they’re everywhere. You’ll see.

#One Bird’s Choice

On my list of (probably) 138 books To Read, One Bird’s Choice by Iain Reid was chosen primarily for its portability. I have finally caved to the sensibilities of my right shoulder.  I am a firm believer in “fashion hurts,” and I insist on carrying my oh-so-cool shoulder bag from Amsterdam because it is oh-so-cool. What I refuse to carry now is hard-copy books. I can’t. Unless I skimp on the weight of my lunch, I just can’t tote hardcovers anymore in my sub-5K walking commute.

So, One Bird’s Choice was the likely choice due to its featherweight category designation—in addition to the rave reviews and firework displays it received for his porcupine quill-sharp writing.  I packed the book for our getaway to The Pinery Provincial Park. I read the entire book (nearly) to Kim, out loud on the beach.

Apparently I’ve got a trending theme of slackerness this week. One Bird’s Choice chronicles Reid’s decision (and aftermath) to move back in with his goofball parents on their serene “Lilac Hill” hobby farm in Ottawa.

As the seasons shift from the winter of Reid’s discontent to a spring fever of renewal and gratitude, life with his parents is a quiet riot. There are generous doses of melancholy, comic encounters with the resident guinea fowl Lucius and a gentle meditation associated with life on the farm. His initial resistance to admitting to his permanent covert accommodations eventually twists into what life should be. Time spent wholly engaged in conversation, petting cats, drinking coffee, musing, napping, observing, Hockey Night in Canada, digging the shit out of sheep barns, eating mom’s lemon loaves (and cookies and apple walnut cake) and just being. And, lucky us! We get to eavesdrop on all those conversations and cheer the emergence of a wayward urban refugee writer finding solace.

#Poetry Jazz Cafe

As much as I adore the beer taps and smart handle of the place, Thirsty & Miserable in Kensington Market smells like a dog that has swum in brackish water. The wet dogness doesn’t dissipate, even after 3-4 pints. I know, I’ve tried. However, just south of the great-named-bar-that-smells-like-the-fish-market-next-door, there’s Poetry. Dark as a carnival haunted house, it has groovy by the neck. Kim and I feel our way to the back to where we’re meeting my friend Keph. Earlier in the day I had read online about their intimate patio. From here we can still here the jazzy beats, but at a level that still permits conversation. Weathered mill carts, makeshift benches, Adirondack chairs and bistro tables fill the tidy pea-gravelled space that is bigger than any Toronto backyard. The tall boys (Guinness , Stiegl, Strongbow), and the pints of Steam Whistle, Keith’s and Hoptical Illusion (Flying Monkey’s Brewery) fuel an easy night of chatter. We chatter even longer when a bowl of super-salty popcorn arrives by surprise. Which, in turn, encourages another pint.

The patio fills before dusk. Unpretentious and as relaxed as hanging out in your own leafy space, this place is going to be a future soupy night go-to for Friday night flat-lining.

 

#Banh Mi Boys, 392 Queen West (at Spadina)

Their lemongrass pork sub stuffed with daikon, pickled carrot, cuke, mayo and cilantro gets kicked-up a few infernos with three different hot sauces. Bahn mi subs from this joint (the 5 spice pork belly with pickled relish is love in a bun) make me want to wear only sweat pants, watch thirtysomething re-runs and eat only these. For breakfast even. Less than $5 bucks a pop and paired with a blood orange San Pellegrino, they push Subway to the curb.

MLS

Boo to the Highway 6 traffic that took this Morriston gem out of the running.I think Kim and I have looked at over 548 MLS listings. I “drive” around Guelph in circles (I could find a quick job as a cabbie with my new found directional sense of the city), waiting for the dream house listing to FINALLY appear. We have moved our initial search out of Dundas, Waterdown and south Burlington. We want a place with personality that bleeds charm right out of its brickwork. We’d be smitten with anything that ticks off 97% of this checklist:

No pool (due to previous experience and severe novelty worn-off-ness)

Absolutely no hot tub (due to previous nightmares)

No finished basement (we are both basement-haters)

Pedestrian-friendly location: just far-enough from the traffic hum but close enough to find a pint or Americano

Preferably old hardwood, exposed brick, wainscoting

A backyard suitable for bonfires and plein air dining

Kim would like a furnace that doesn’t tick

I would like a fridge that doesn’t operate at the decibel level of a Mack Truck

NO TENANTS (especially the type that re-enact Jurassic Park scenes from above)

No white-fluffy, ribbon-wearing, below knee-level barking dogs in a 100 foot radius

A Wolf stove would be really nice

A workshop space so Kim can be all handy and build remarkable things with her tools and saws that every man envies

Front balcony for morning coffee-drinking and nosey-neighbour-type spying

Barn board, exposed timber beams—bonus: attic space for writing the Next Great Novel

Century home or raw loft space WITH balcony (no concessions)

A scalding hot shower with endless water pressure unlike my parents (the equivalent of being pissed on by a horse). Clawfoot tub separate. No wrestling two shower curtains around claw foot. Been there.

Gas fireplace for wintry nights and wintry wine-drinking. One in the bedroom too, best yet.

Kim’s request: “no messy trees” (i.e. wind-weary willows or berry-bearing trees that attract birds that shit purple bombs on her highly-polished black Saab

That je ne sais quoi. The kinda place you walk into, close the door, breathe deep and contemplate never leaving.

 

What’s trending in your life?

 

 

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Flicks and Muzak, Home Sweet Home, On My Bookshelf, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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