Polyblogs in a Jar

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

Camping Gets An Upgrade

There comes a time when every urban urchin needs to turn down the static of the city’s frequency and retreat to the restorative properties of terra firma at its best. Of course, at age 37, terra firma is feeling more firma than ever after three nights of camping at Pinery Provincial Park on Lake Huron. However, there is much praise for the soundtrack of such tree-centric sanctuaries: lulling waves that Mother Nature cranks to the max, the threading of the wind through feathery pine tops and the lonely call of the whip-poor-will.

Finding a campsite at one of Ontario’s provincial parks is much like booking your wedding venue. Keeners have already staked out premium spots in the dead of February and hog them for the majority of the summer. I can see why.

When we departed on Monday morning, the Saab was stuffed fuller than a pinata. My watch didn’t find its way to my wrist. For the next four days we operated on basic human instinct: hunger, thirst and sleep. Recreational reading was punctuated by tepid tall boys and picnics of various essential elements: guacamole, salty Fritos, roasted red pepper dip, jalapeno havarti and sweet potato crackers. We grazed, we dozed, we wandered barefoot.  At dusk we sauntered back to our campsite, any latent stress completely evaporated with talk of spicy sausage and Weber burgers on the grill for dinner.

The cicadas buzzed like overloaded electrical wires and petered out with the fall of dusk. Slowly, we watched the woods transform into the pages of fairy tale lore. Fireflies mixed with the suspended stars until the soupy humidity of the day thinned out and encouraged long sleeves. We piled the kindling and split ash in a Boy Scout-approved teepee-style and gave in to the sway of childhood nostalgia: eating cloying sweet marshmallows until near-sick.

We awoke to the scamper of drag-racing red squirrels. A resident pair kept close eye on our cache. I think they suspected we might be carrying Squirrel peanut butter, the one with the peanut on top. If the squirrels were taking inventory, they would see that we took no shortcuts in comfort, ambience or bomb shelter-worthy canned goods. Not to mention our booze cartel of pink Prosecco, Malbec, gin and enough beer for two college football teams. We decided to do it as deluxe as possible. Inflatable Queen mattress (not those horrible maxi pad thin Thermaphores), real pillows (not balled up clothes) and pretty much all the pleasures of home, minus the walls and roof and fridge that makes ice on its own accord.

While some people take valuable days to decompress on vacation, we seemed to be breathing in tandem with the pines upon arrival. Not that I would choose to permanently sleep on an inflatable mattress….but, there is a different awareness and heightened sensory intake when you wake up outside. The crisp clarity of the air beckons stiff coffee, banter about the neighbouring birds and drop-in butterflies. My hoodie smelled like the unmistakable morning-after-campfire bacon bits scent. Inhaling deeper, I am glad that we get to stoke up another blazing fire that night. But first, a leisurely breakfast is all we’re obligated to do for the next few hours.

Kim and I assume unspoken roles, as we do. She is quick to boil the water for coffee and I take on the whipping of eggs and dicing of red pepper and onion. We meet somewhere in the middle, well entrenched in the premeditated laziness of the day ahead of us.

We’ve upgraded our Coleman stove menu from last year–our inaugural camping trip at Long Point Provincial Park on Lake Erie. Over coffee and the last bits of breakfast blotted up with a tortilla shell, we anticipate our al dente and al fresco menu post-beach. We decide to take camping to the next level with a jar of Jamie Oliver coriander and cashew pesto, penne and pine nuts (not locally sourced). The plastic checkered tablecloth will be spread on top of the picnic table, easily transforming our campsite into a pop-up Italian resto in the pines.

Each day we return to our site famished and sighing aloud from the joy of nothingness. The sun has warmed us right to our bones. Kim and I are sheer experts at this napping, wading and beachcombing business. My surf shorts are weighted down with more than a few polished stones. We walk the length of the sandbar to Port Franks, admiring cottage architecture, impromptu lakeside bars fashioned out of driftwood, greeting wag-happy dogs and exchanging pleasantries with the beach bum set.

Another fire is lit, snapping and spitting embers in no time. We pull the picnic table closer to the flames and talk as we do: all over the map. Always scheming of where to travel next and how we might opt out of this thing called work for more of the life balance equation.

The zen of the woods is like a medicinal salve.  We solve the world’s problems each night and find solace in the stillness. I am thrilled to be away from clocks and social media appliances and obligations. I am thrilled to eat everything that causes hypertension, high cholesterol,  heart attacks and gout in a span of four days. We drink and eat and lie about like royalty. And, not to brag, but our campsite even had an en suite.

Isn’t it time for you to get away? Grab the one you love and get grounded!

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Sparrowdipity: An extraordinary ordinary moment with a bird

I work at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel on Thursdays. The stately hotel sits in the belly of all the skyscrapers, condos and shadow land that defines the downtown financial district. Having worked there for five years, I am an expert on where to maximize sun exposure at any given hour of my 3-9pm shift. In fact, I would almost brag that I am a human sundial. So, at 5:45 when I had a break scratched into my schedule,  I knew I would be heading with my book and prerequisite coffee to the south side of Front, just west of Bay, to my roost in front of Union Station.

I grabbed a cornmeal muffin from that oh-so-sinful-this-is-really-cake-not-a-muffin place called mmmuffins because I had wolfed back my entire lunch when I arrived at 3pm before my first client. Setting up my sun-intake camp I split my muffin in two, sucked back not-hot-enough coffee and creased the fold in Long Way Down. It’s a book I’ve been reading intermittently, and it’s going to take me the same length of time to finish it as it actually took Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman to ride on BMWs from Scotland to South Africa.

In no time I had a dozen pigeons bobbling around me. The muffin was like a heat-seeking missile. Toronto pigeons are brazen. I’m quite certain they would eat right out of your mouth if you didn’t shoo them away.

And I didn’t shoo. I appreciate all birds, even the scrappy, scavenger ones. I watched a few of them fight over a cigarette butt and felt pangs of unfortunate bird love. Then, compounding that emotion, a ratty little house sparrow landed beside me and I just about had a cry as I noticed its leg. He hopped about, chirping his fool head off as the pigeons milled about in a seemingly drunken stupor. My tiny sparrow friend was missing half his right leg and rested on a little nub that ended where a bird’s ‘knee’ would normally be.

I watched as he bounced about and leaned back on his amputee leg and wondered how I might be able to rescue him. Yes, this is my train of thought. How could I bring this sparrow back to the Annex with me, where I live, so I could take better care of his one-legged welfare?  I tossed him a bit of the muffin, and of course 100 pigeons descended upon me like a horror movie.

I tried again, to reach my disabled bird friend, and still, the bully pigeons edged him out of every crumb. Wisely, I placed a few crumbs above my head on the ledge of the wall that was too skinny for the wide hips of a pigeon. Sparrow friend took immediate note and chirped a thank you as he finally tasted the mmmuffin.

It was a very sweet moment that blurred out the rush hour commuters stampeding the sidewalk  in front of me. Suited, sweating men were sprinting to suburban trains. Skirted women in Asics runners kept stride with laptops and Louis Vuittons.

And I was focussed on a sparrow wondering what on earth happened to his leg. I wanted to somehow wrap up the muffin and send him home with it. The pigeons were pissed, name-calling no-doubt, amongst each other.

Finally the one-legged sparrow took flight (and he could fly quite confidently) and I returned to my book, personally distracted, but now holding the captive attention of 359 pigeons.

I thought about that sparrow a lot that night, and for many days after. And, this is where the story takes a Reader’s Digest type-turn. One of those back-of-the-book shorts about an extraordinary event on an ordinary day that makes you smile and feel good about the world.

Fast forward to the next Thursday. I’m at the hotel again and gathering my things to head outside for my break at 6:30-ish. At this hour, the building shadows are extreme, and the sun is just about to leave the front of the Union Station building.

I have brie and crackers and set-up in my usual spot, all fancy-like with my makeshift picnic and pate knife, spreading triple crème brie on crackers not really designed for spreading. The pigeon mass is on high alert and thrilled that I’m eating something so crumbly. I’m reading the same book, but have moved on from Luxor and the guys are in Ethiopia now, getting socked in by monsoon rains.

I’m in the moment, so absorbed in my brie and Africa. Not so distantly, I hear a bird chatter but don’t look up. The call is persistent, and getting louder. I finish the paragraph and turn my head to the left to find my darling one-legged sparrow hollering at me.

I question my mental stability when I find myself actually saying a very excited “hello!” to a bird. I am overwhelmed. Flabbergasted. It’s been an entire week and clearly, he remembers me. This is a recognition chirp. I immediately doll up a broken cracker with some brie and place it on the ledge. He pecks away so happily, resting on his half-leg as the pigeons roll their eyes and return to the cigarette butts and a blowing Dorito bag.

I can’t believe the sparrow is back. Did he come back every day and patiently wait for me? Is it a mere coincidence? Have other people had this experience with him? A rational mind would suggest, “Well, he probably doesn’t fly far because he only has half a leg. He’s probably fed all day long by people having their lunch on the steps.”

I like to think that something greater and larger than life is unfolding though. How cosmic is it that I could run into the same sparrow on two Thursdays in Toronto in June. At different times?

Is it weird to think about a bird so much?

I’m sure I pass a dozen of the same people every day on my path to work, but I don’t take notice. How, in this city of 2.7 million people and, god knows how many birds, do I see and recognize the same bird twice?

Am I having a double-rainbow-guy meme moment? “What does it meeeannnn?”

It means that life is really cool and surprising. It means that I will be looking for this sparrow every Thursday on my break. It means that I will be slightly devastated if we miss each other.


Click here to see the hyper-emotional double rainbow dude if you somehow missed it the first time round.


Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

The World’s Simplest Scavenger Hunt: Gratitude & Inspiration

Sometimes future blog content clings to me like Saran Wrap until I acknowledge it. Often it sneaks up on me, manifesting in unexpected but repeated ways. Today began with mindless Facebook drifting, after very intense MLS searching, driving a cursor around Dundas in mad circles, wishing and willing a century home with a price tage under half a million to appear.

Kerri Minns, who I arm wrestled for the title of G Adventures Coolest Adventure Travel Intern in 2010 (she won, and talentedly so) often posts engaging and idea-erupting updates and links on her very articulate Facebook page. Sometimes they are Instamatic sugary donuts portraits, or just smartly snapped pictures of an open newspaper. Today she reposted this quote (source unknown): “In order to lead a fascinating life–one brimming with art, music, intrigue and romance–you must surround yourself with precisely those things.”


And, for a reliable creative boost and further inspiration injection, there’s always been Brene Brown and her WholeHearted Living manifesto that serves as verbal Red Bull. She is best known for embracing imperfection and saluting vulnerability. Brown’s site is dense with ideas, and her thoughts today fuelled my run through the breezy, fertilized and newly mulched suburban streets.

Brown’s post was simple, a “play list” of all that she was grateful and inspired by today from the likes of cilantro Thai grilled chicken to Willie Nelson’s latest album Heroes. And, with much credit to her, I am piggy-backing on her post.

Today I’m feeling very grateful for and inspired by:

1. Long Way Down. A few months ago I read Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round (2004), chronicling their enduro 20,000 mile ride across 12 countries on tripped-out BMW bikes. This time the macho boys are riding from Scotland to Capetown, South Africa. During my reading epidemic yesterday, I didn’t budge from my lounger until they crossed the Libyan border en route to lunch in Alexandria. Reading their impressions of the oppressive heat, obnoxious traffic and wayward camel crossings brought the carefully preserved memories of our  time in Egypt to the forefront.  The books we brag about are always the ones that successfully take us elsewhere, inward, backward, or to that high-security place in our mind’s matrix.

2. Offloading. Last week, Kim and I were on a “working holiday” in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. We were dutifully helping her parents move into an envy-inducing tony condo space (granite, stainless steel, oh my!) from their idyllic ranch of 30 years, complete with resident foxes in the woods just yonder. I’ve moved my parents once (after nearly 30 years in one house), and several friends (several times). After this recent move, Kim, Scott, Lynne (her siblings) and I came to an agreement. From now on, we are only allowed to collect our thoughts. Kim and I are known minimalists, and still, after seeing how 30 years of living can so easily escalate and accumulate, I couldn’t wait to come home and offload anything remotely unnecessary. My urban space is around 800 square feet, and after moving back and forth across Canada and sojourning to Africa twice, my cardboard box count has continued to dwindle. If something doesn’t have a story or a purpose, I am repurposing it (ie. how many martini glasses does one really need?). In the end, we are only left with our thoughts, anyway. Hopefully.

3. Banana Bread beer and a pale ale made with pinapple juice? I pick up hard copies of The Grid, NOW, City Bites, Food & Drink and Toronto Life for serious ongoing inspired eating research purposes. And, as an already avid thought collector (as witnessed on this blog–three years of blathering thoughts-strong), I like to keep these scavenged places documented in one coveted master list, mapping out all that I need to drink and eat in the city. A Gut Positioning System, if you will. It’s my version of a Five Year Plan.  I had read about the UK Wells Banana Bread beer somewhere in my reading travels and sourced it out at the RBC LCBO on Front. And in bonus beer news, Kim and I discovered Spearhead’s Hawaiian Pale Ale, brewed with pineapple juice at La Mexicana on Yonge. Tomorrow I plan to eat a Hrvati burg to support Toronto’s $5 Burger Week (Ontario beef, smoked mozza and caramelized onions on a Croatian steamed bun). It’s good to have goals. Even Burgers-To-Eat goals.

4. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Whether we are reading about or watching the intricacies, demise or foibles of other lives, it helps frame our own world in a gentle, fluid way. The trailer for this Judi Dench and Bill Nighy flick sucked me in months ago. Like the media approach of Never Let Me Go and Limitless promised, such movies are the scaffolding of coffee shop and bar stool conversations. Not total blockbusters, maybe, but, they force-feed troubled thinking and lend to mind-wandering through internal emotional forests days after. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a genuine and amusing look at an eclectic group of souls struggling to embrace their autumn years in India. The maelstrom of thoughts hummed louder than the handfuls of buttered popcorn being ingested as I watched it.  Could we? Would we? India, no. Never say never, but, no, never. But, where would we want to spend our golden years? I love how movies generate thoughts and engage constant plotting of our own life’s script.

5. Not climbing Everest. I’ve read several disturbing accounts of Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine’s death this week. I think many Twitter followers were appalled to learn via rabid feeds from recent climbers like Sandra Leduc (@sandraclimbing) of the number of dead bodies dotting the path to the summit, transforming the peak into a surreal high altitude morgue. Of the 3,000 climbers who have attempted to conquer the mammoth, over 200 have died. Due to the tangible danger and expense of removing the bodies, many remain exactly where they have last fallen. When I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air a dozen years ago, I found great inspiration in the bull-headed determination and unstoppable emotional force of those who needed to climb the mountain. But, I also found peace in knowing that I wasn’t hard-wired for that experience. I could live very happily without that pull and overwhelming need to summit.

6. Emily Haines! I know I’m late to catch on to her after her storied history with Broken Social Scene and Metric, but, after watching Daydream Nation, I found myself listening harder to the soundtrack strains than the actors dialogue. Does anyone remember Aussie folkies Frente? Their cover of Bizarre Love Triangle? Labor of Love? Very vocally reminiscent.  Another Australian darling is also on my  LOVE-wanna-hear-more radar: Trysette. When I was in Entebbe, Uganda, I drank many bottles of red wine with Trysette’s sister Merryde at the Gately Inn. Silky Fingers is often on repeat at my place, much to the chagrin of my upstairs tenant (payback for her Yo Yo Ma and sugar pop music interference).

7. Petting some dogs along my way. I met and had a heavy pet with “Pearl” yesterday. She lives just around the corner and is the most adorable (x 1,000) beagle, ever. Petting random dogs is just all around good.

See? It’s everywhere. The world’s simplest scavenger hunt, really. From banana bread beer to wagging dogs.

Inspiration and gratitude–where are you finding yours today?

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Flicks and Muzak, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Running Away

A friend recently asked how I stay motivated to run five times a week. I’m not the best person to ask, because it’s just something that I do. It’s part of my daily infrastructure and as normal and necessary as coffee to me.

Scroll back to elementary school and ParticipACTION, an endeavour funded by the Canadian government to promote healthy living and exercise. In 1972, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau nationalized Sport Participation Canada (the company that coined ParticipACTION) in an early attempt to conquer mounting health care costs with fresh air and jogging initiatives.

For the under ten set, ParticipACTION day was ironically as popular as the legendary primary school Hot Dog Day. There was an opportunity to wear a matching cotton sweat suit (joy!), eat a chocolate bar for energy pre-race (bliss!) AND win badges which moms would later sew on to jean jackets for continued bragging rights.

I think this is when I started running with commitment. All for a chocolate bar breakfast and a gold badge. Times were simpler then. Or were they? Now I run for a cold beer and a hot shower, so, the reward scale has merely been modified.

The ParticipACTION race route was five  laps around the  school yard (pockmarked in groundhog holes) in whatever shoes you had on, or perhaps, your “gym shoes” that were at-the-ready in the cloak room. They weren’t Nike or anything with a modicum of arch support. I think I ran in blue Kangaroos with the ever-handy zippered pocket on the side of the shoe or Bullits with the laces undone. Then I could run in heavy sweatpants and my power outfit Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt until the cows came home. And, they did—directly behind our pastoral school yard in sleepy Mt. Pleasant. Recess generally smelled like cow shit, to varying degrees, but we were solid country kids, and my grandfather raised pigs. Any good country person knows that cow shit is favoured over pig shit.

Nothing says "congratulations on your run," more than a burger.

Early ParticipACTION badges inspired me to sign up for the cross-country running team circa grade 5, the humble start of my illustrious career. The best part of this team was that it involved several afternoons away from school to attend races in Brant County. They were usually at a hilly golf course or boggy conservation area; generally in drizzly, frosty, I-can-see-my-breath fall days. I loved the time off the dull school routine of learning and appreciated the rewards that came via my dad for competing. He was our biggest cheerleader—if we placed first or ninety-first, our stamina and Torti endurance was always acknowledged with the likes of Kentucky Fried Chicken one-piece dinners, Dairy Queen dipped cones, chocolate-dipped donuts, greasy fries and/or the like.

I developed a golden retriever mentality early on. Will perform for treats.

My Mathew McConaughey look.

My Matthew McConaughey look

I’ve never been too serious about running, only seriously committed. There have been many 5 and 10K races. More than half a dozen half-marathons, but no Boston ambitions. I prefer the recreational, hobbyist, sustainable version.

Running is so embedded in my life that I can tell you exactly when I took more than two consecutive days off of my regime. In 2002, the Galapagos Islands (due to being on a 40 foot boat for nine days). In 2011, Egypt (due to heart attack qualifying desert heat, political unrest, soldiers with guns, soldiers in tanks, Smart car-sized potholes and maniac drivers).

I knew I was a chronic runner when I was running with a stitched up groin, not even 12 hours after having a lymph node removed. I confirmed my chronic situation again when I was running with my head turned fully behind me being chased by imaginary awful things before sunrise on a stretch of beach in Panama (just so I could squeeze in one last run before our flight). Did I mention the armed commandos on the rooftops that I passed by with held breath and lightning speed?

I’ve been chomped on by several dogs, nearly collided with a deer being flushed out by hunters, been chased by a sheep and threatened by a runaway pig eating fallen apples in a ditch. I’ve had colossal YouTube sensation wipe-outs and was actually running so fast that when I belly-flopped on the sidewalk last January I gave myself a concussion. It took me a year before I could kneel on my right knee after the Great Highly Public Flip & Spill on Spadina in front of Le Gourmand cafe. I’ve skinned my poor knees more than 100 blindfolded five-year-olds.

Equipment check by Mikai

I’ve run with an army of flip-flopped children shouting “America! America!” in the Obama election fever days in Kenya. I’ve dodged unpredictable vervet monkeys and baboons in Uganda and only gave up a daily run due to potential lion or waterbuffalo attack (I can be rational, at times) in Murchison Falls National Park. When I was in the Congo, Chantal, the co-director of the chimp sanctuary I volunteered at, bought me a membership at the Lubumbashi Golf Course so I could run safely. Better yet, she would wait for me to finish, offering a wave as I rounded the course and let me sit, sweat and have a 10 a.m. 750ml Simba beer or two. Those were the glory days.

Banff runs with my sis always seem to be snow-bound. It doesn't matter if it's December or May. But this is May.

I’ve run in sleet that felt like daggers, rain that saturated me to my bones, high winds wicked enough to blow my shirt nearly over my head. I’ve run under such mental stress that I didn’t realize my iPod wasn’t even ‘on’ for the entire 5k route until I was doing my cool down walk and removing my silent headphones.

I’m not one to check the forecast for exact temperatures and wind chill “feels like” reports. I just go. The ParticipACTION in me is embedded deep in my marrow. If I need an ounce of inspiration I think no further than Terry Fox and I almost want to smack myself for being two-legged and lazy.

I pass several people in Koreatown with canes, walkers, humped over with osteoporosis, limping, shifting uncomfortable weight, saddled with sadness and unsurmountable pain—and I am reminded.

I run because I can. Because I want to. Because there’s a clarity to it that lends to a symbiosis of mind and body. There’s a palpable sense of having “survived” elements. Oppressive, soupy July days in Toronto. The bone-cracking cold of Banff runs with my sister. Soggy west coast runs with an even soggier dog. Wind that pushes with annoying force, making leaves and urban debris take flight into already tearing eyes. Yes, this is good! It makes you feel alive and semi-invincible!

I sometimes listen to music, I often don’t. I can run with equal speed to Florence & The Machine or some sobby Jann Arden track.


It’s half an hour out of my day. Twenty-five minutes, really. Six songs and all I have to do is cruise along. It’s balancing and essential. It means I can guzzle beer, eat cashews and heap on the guacamole with slight abandon. It means I don’t have to give up mighty carbs for a protein-enriched life.

What keeps you chugging along? Or, better yet, what’s stopping you?

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

Jann Arden and the Dog Whistle Blower

photo credit: Sue Sortino

photo credit: Sue Sortino

On Sunday, every Canadian news source was belching out the story of Jann Arden getting sidetracked by VIA Rail for inadvertently boarding a train in Toronto with her ever-present Morkie in tow. Midi, her darling four pound dog became a weighty issue when noticed by a policy watchdog VIA employee en route to Ottawa. After several sightings by other staff members, Arden was told by Mr. Dog Whistle Blower that commute-savvy Midi could be caged and ride the remainder of the trip in the baggage car, or, the illegal duo would have to disembark at the next station, Oshawa (commonly referred to as the ‘middle of nowhere’ by those who live somewhere. And, blog editor’s note: When you live in downtown Toronto, anything east or north of The Pie Shack on Queen East in The Beaches is outer space).

Clearly, VIA Rail has a pet peeve. If dogs were baggage, would they not come with handles already fastened on their backs for easier carrying? This is their policy (from viarail.ca):

Only cats, dogs and small rodents are allowed aboard VIA trains. They must be carried in a rigid cage large enough for them to stand in and you must provide a padlock to keep it shut. Please be aware that baggage cars are often heated, but not air-conditioned, and so your pet may be exposed to high temperatures.

The GO Train is entirely on track and encouragingly progressive with their online policy:

We allow animals on board our trains and buses when they are in enclosed, secure containers that do not inconvenience other passengers. Containers are not needed for seeing-eye, hearing-ear, or special-needs dogs required by passengers for independent travel.

A passenger with disabilities needing a companion and/or a specially trained dog for assistance may bring either or both along free of charge. If you are bringing a companion for assistance, your GO ticket seller can endorse your single-ride or day pass as a “party ticket.” It will be marked so two people can ride with one ticket or pass.

And the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC)?

Leashed pets or pets secured in an enclosed container are welcome to travel on the TTC during weekday off-peak periods – that is before 6:30 am; 10:00 am to 3:30 pm; after 7:00 pm. A Service Animal may accompany a passenger at any time.

We are living in an increasingly dog-centric world (hurray!), and the Fairmont Hotel chain knew they were barking up the right tree when they introduced their Very Important Pooch program and brought dog ambassadors on staff in 2009. The canine hotel residents are available for traveling dog-owners needing a fur and slobber fix, or for those wanting some extra security as they walk about an unfamiliar city. Check out Gracie, Mavis and their Fairmont colleagues–proud pooches who take up regal addresses in Vancouver, Tremblant, Kenya and Scotland.

If you are toting your own dog along in your travels, the Fairmont caters to your pal by providing gourmet dog treats prepped by the Executive Chef, pet-friendly walking maps of the city and a 5% donation from your room rate to local animal rescue teams. Go Fairmont!

Isn’t this how it should be? All of this pro-pet endorsement makes Sunday’s fiasco so trivial.

But ‘all of this’ is not really the point. It was the reaction and sour uproar that ensued on Twitter and Facebook by Jann Arden followers. The feed took on a vicious momentum with cross-armed Oshawa ambassadors cranky about Arden’s “middle of nowhere” tweet to all those allergic to dogs crying “shame!” to a very vocal camp who praised any dog’s company over the presence of crying, bratty children on trains. A bitter VIA rail Service Sucks coalition emerged alongside rattled VIA staff and a mysterious mass who decided this was all a narcissistic, fabricated publicity stunt for Jann Arden’s tour. Really?

Unfortunately, social media has become an easily accessed platform for destructive mouthing off and bullying. The virtual combat inertia continued when Arden wrote a genuine explanatory piece to the Ottawa Citizen titled “Trains, Planes and Automobiles” and posted it on her Jann Arden Official Facebook page. Last check? There were 262 comments, 84 shares and 464 likes. The thread read like a ping pong game between the parties jockeying for the last word.

Apparently Facebook and Twitter have become the hotbed venue for failed high school debating team dreams. Fans rallied with steely support while naysayers lashed out, demonstrating black belts in criticism. It was like a congregation of vultures, scavenging and nit-picking near skeletal remains. Etch-a-sketch minds with one-way thinking. One comment would shake them up and they’d start all over again, right back to the beginning.

Because Jann Arden said Oshawa was the ‘middle of nowhere.’

Because she accidentally took her dog on the train, unaware of VIA Rail’s ‘no pets in the passenger car’ policy.

Because she was human and upset to be left in an desolate parking lot with a looming performance in Ottawa that very night.

What has happened to us as a society? We have become such sorry suckers for celebrity fodder, our brains have become cotton candy. Remember the media storm over Shiloh Jolie-Pitt’s haircut? Is the world really concerned that her “boyish” and “deviant” haircut is going to make her a lesbian? Better yet: Angelina’s secret plan is to turn Shiloh into a boy! Say it isn’t so!

The celebrity attack is embarrassing: leaked casket photos from Whitney Houston’s funeral, Lindsay Lohan’s hit and run details, audio of Demi Moore’s 911 call, did Ashely Judd have surgery? Dennis Quaid’s divorce details, and reports that Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds can’t stop cuddling and kissing on flight to L.A.


And it continues. In yesterday’s Toronto Star there was a cheeky Ode to Oshawa by Katie Daubs: “Mayor Henry’s 10 reasons to visit Jann Arden’s ‘middle of nowhere.’”

Who knew that Oshawa had so many ambassadors? I hope they all run for city council and proudly volunteer in their community. The Twitter and Facebook feed was rampant with rabid Oshawa fans, more concerned about their tarnished city reputation than by Midi taking a joyride on the train.

Reason #8 to visit Oshawa cited the University of Ontario Institute of Technology campus (who knew we even had a University of Ontario?), which is home to the world’s largest climatic wind tunnel. How have I not seen this?

And, apparently Mayor John Henry hands out Oh Henry! Bars as business cards. If only his last name were Crunchie or Bounty. Or whiskey.

I’m disappointed in our province and the corrosive commentary of the Twitter army. And that Jann didn’t get an invite for a wind tunnel tour or an Oh Henry! Bar.

But now, because of all this, we know that caged rodents are also permitted on VIA rail in the baggage area. And that Oshawa has “Tank Saturdays” where you can see live demonstrations of the largest collection of working antique military vehicles in the country.

Anyone want to take their rodent for a train ride to Oshawa this weekend?

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Best Places I Slept This Year

Overheard conversations went something like this:

“It’s snowing, INSIDE our room!”

“Do you want to have the camel stew in our room, or on the terrace?”

“What if we put the roasted marshmallows between the peanut butter granola bars?”


The best hotels we slept in this year were as opposite as the temperatures and the landscapes we were in. From slipping into the sausage-casing-like sub-zero sleeping bags at the Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel) in Quebec (indoor temp: -3 degrees Celsius) to feeling like we were in a rotisserie in the Siwa Oasis, Egypt (average daytime temperature in the desert? 46 degrees Celsius.)

Easily swinging between five star, no stars and shooting stars at our campsite on the shores of Lake Erie, these were the best sleeps we had this year.


Hotel de Glace, Quebec

How to build an ice hotel from scratch? Begin with 15,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice. Just 10 minutes from Quebec’s city centre, the Ice Hotel is like sleeping in a child’s dream. Each room features elaborate carvings and furniture sculpted from ice in the style of Dr. Seuss meets Edward Scissorhands.

After prowling around all 36 rooms (guests and the public are allowed to have a sneak peek during the day), choosing the premium suite with the fireplace was a brilliant move. The cheapest rooms are generic and budget-looking with no wall carvings or mood lighting. They look like amateur attempts at igloo building. Like ice hostels. For the extra dollars (really, how many times are you going to sleep in an ice hotel anyway?) go big.  If you want to go even bigger, there’s a premium deluxe theme suite with its own private hot tub. Now that’s red carpet. Bigger yet? Get married in the Ice Hotel’s wedding chapel–you’ll be guaranteed to have cold feet for sure.

The famed Ice Bar (one of two bars in the hotel) serves up Caribou (mulled red wine or port with whiskey and maple syrup) in a square glass fancily chiselled out of ice. This winter, the cavernous bar was transformed into a frozen underwater sanctuary with life-size whales, sharks and beady-eyed fish lurking overhead. The biodiversity theme stretched into the suites with elaborate feathers and frogs etched deep into the ice walls. Ambient uplighting and ice chandeliers added unexpected warmth to the frigid frontier. As though you were walking through the middle of fallen aurora borealis.

I thought we might perish in the night due to hypothermia, but, staying submerged in the “Nordic Relaxation Area” of steaming outdoor hot tubs and a sauna that looked like a giant whiskey barrel was a savvy survival tactic. The Celsius Pavilion also offered a warmer clime to regain feeling in numb feet, and to cradle wine without mitts by the fire.

And yes, the bed is made of ice! Buried in furs and hides and thermal sleeping bags with a real fire at the foot of your bed, you’ll barely take notice. Maybe, in the morning, when snow is gently falling inside the room through the small fireplace flue opening, you will remember that you’re sleeping in an igloo.

For the anxious:  When you book a night at the Hotel de Glace, you also have full access to a room at the Sheraton Four Points (a 10 minute shuttle from the Ice Hotel).  Guests check in at the Sheraton first as access to your room at the Ice Hotel isn’t an option until 9pm (after you have taken the strict and comical orientation of How to Survive the Night and More Importantly, How to Get Into Your Sleeping Bag).  One New York couple opted to take the 24-hour shuttle back to the Sheraton, finding the -3 temperatures a bit too disturbing. Others simply crashed out on the couches in the Celsius. Cheaters.

*The Sheraton is rather remote, so you will be forced into eating at the semi-posh hotel resto, Le Dijon, unless you order in from the slim selection of pizza & chicken wing joints or taxi into “town.” The French Onion soup is warming but not enough. And the scallops come in a shot glass with a blade of grass. Not really, but, close.

You can also place delivery orders from the Ice Hotel, and the Celsius Pavilion has a snack bar leaning more towards sugary fare and the likes of hot cocoa. Better yet, pack your own snacks and booze. And Hot Shots for your boots. And Fireball whiskey.

The 2012 theme is Northern Quebec and First Nations North. Open January 6th—March 25th, 2012.

Cha-ching: Room rates begin at $200/person including use of sleeping bag, welcome cocktail and breakfast at Le Dijon




Al Babenshal, Siwa Oasis, Egypt

There was no need for a bell hop. We had a donkey named Ali Baba!

Our accommodations at the Al-Babenshal were suitable for the likes of William and Kate. The hotel is attached to the 13th-century Shali fortress with traditional wooden shuttered windows and exposed palm-log supports. The light fixtures are carved from salt blocks and give the room, a true respite, a buttery glow. Now, this is romantic!

Getting there is a battle, as is leaving Siwa. By that I mean, once you find yourself in the cool wonder of the lodge, you begin re-thinking your itinerary, scheming how you might be able to stay longer. The bus from Cairo is a 10-hour nightmare, sardined into a bus that was colder than the inside of the Ice Hotel. The bus  driver stops at military check-points, for seemingly hourly mint tea and other unknown reasons.

But, back to Al Babenshal. The breakfast is one to linger over. The sour-sweet two-punch of lime juice, kicker coffee, eggs that have never arrived faster or fluffier and pita bread with fig preserves is satiating and greed-inducing.

At night, dinner is served on the terrace (daytime temps would leave Canadian skin sizzling like back bacon). We ordered the much-talked about camel stew with slight reservations, but, it seemed necessary and worldly of us.

The stew was the most sensational thing I’ve eaten. Exhausted and delirious from our midday trek into the dunes, sand sauna bath and hot spring immersion, that night on the terrace illuminated the rest of our stay in Egypt.

The Al-Babenshal staff are attentive and kindly allowed us to dominate their computer at reception to send hurried “we are alive” message back home. The room was bigger than my entire apartment with a sexy shower, a day bed, an adobe-style hearth and many vantage points to watch the slow movement of the world outside. In front of the hotel, whole chickens are roasted in old oil drums. The smell of fire and smoking chicken is intoxicating, and so was the fig moonshine we discovered.

Unfortunately the hotel doesn’t have its own web presence. It’s listed in Lonely Planet, and we were able to book it via expedia. If we were to return to Egypt? We would go directly to Siwa Oasis and spend our nights at Al Babenshal. Maybe even ask for jobs in the kitchen.

*Donkey tours of Siwa can be arranged simply by walking outside the hotel. There are several hot and cold springs nearby. Do find someone to take you to see the sunrise on the salt lakes. This image will never leave your soul.

Cha-ching: $130 US for two nights, $7 for fig moonshine


The Gladstone Hotel, Toronto

You don’t need to sleep in an igloo or in a hotel attached to a 13th century desert fortress to be wowed and spoiled though. Located on the hipster haven stretch of Toronto’s Queen West, the Gladstone proved to be an indulgent spontaneous romp, just 15 minutes from my Annex apartment. It’s accessible by subway even!

Built in 1889, it’s Toronto’s oldest continuously operating hotel.  In 2005, social and urban visionary, Christina Zeidler, eager to keep the bones of the Victorian hotel intact, enlisted a wolf pack of local artists to re-design the 37 rooms.  They are a mash-up of vibrant palettes, faux-fur textures, dream sequences, nostalgia and romance.

There’s an iPod docking station, complimentary fitness facility use at 99 Sudbury, locally sourced snacks, wi-fi, cable, sleek flat screens, functioning windows, high ceilings and exposed brick. The classic rooms ($165, shower-only, no bathtub) are a tight 170 square feet (unless you top out with the suites at $375-$475 per night).

Check out the Trading Post (our spot– “rural vs. urban luxury”) and for a lark, the Teen Queen: “Think purple gingham, wild horses, crimped hair, frosted lipstick, Teen Beat posters and unicorn love.” It’s a kitschy scream.

The hotel has two green roofs, a zero plastic water bottle policy and uses 90% non-toxic cleaners. The amenities include Tic-Tac-sized soap bars that look like tiny pieces of art in themselves sourced from a local farmer in Prince Edward County. Coffee is delivered to your door in the morning at the time you request. Lazy sleep-ins are permitted, and you need only slide down the wooden banister or take the old-school hand-operated Otis elevator for a pint and live music. Huge hang-over helper breakfasts are dished out downstairs too. Or, hold out for the noon bacon & cheddar burger, as it should be.

The Gladstone Melody Bar and Ballroom is an also an attractive venue that hosts live comedy, weddings, karaoke,burlesque, indie film screenings, art exhibits and deep chats with authors.

It’s local, zany and Toronto rite of passage.

Cha-ching: $160+/night plus champagne to set the mood



Media Luna Resort and Spa, Roatan, Honduras

Sometimes throwing caution (and money) to the wind can also net you a remarkable surprise. Travellers seeking the healing powers of sea salt and fiery sunsets in Roatan, Honduras can opt for the Roatan Roulette.  If you are indecisive or generally feeling Switzerland on where to stay on the island, the roulette is a cool way to have the decision made for you. The all-inclusive properties range from 3 to 4 star: Henry Morgan Hotel and Beach Resort, Paradise Beach Club, Infinity Bay Spa & Beach Resort, Mayan Princess, Las Sirenas Hotel and Condo, or the new darling, Media Luna Resort and Spa.

When you book the roulette, you pay a set price and find out three days before departure where you’ll be setting up beach base camp.

The Media Luna property was an automatic additional $250 more than the others, and its isolation, swank cabanas and intimate feel were largely seductive. I didn’t want rum-soaked nights (rum-soaked days were okay) or the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of ratty discos or activity-centric staff pulling me off my chaise lounge.

I wanted a long pier, grilled seafood as many times a day as possible, uninterrupted recreational reading, remotely cold beer, a killer view and a stunning room. This is exactly what I got.

I hoped for Media Luna Eco Lodge and the roulette spun in my favour.

There are 126 bungalows with private decks, sleek open concept glass showers, bidets and billowing canopy poster beds. It’s high romance and the best retreat for those who are happy to close the door on nightlife. The decks and Adirondack chairs along the beachfront property that overhang the surf are necessary mooring points.

*The resort is remote and taxis are prohibitive in cost. Rental cars are available, mostly standard—but the landscape is winding and hilly. The “beach” is not one that you’ll stroll along hand-in-hand. Roatan was famous with pirates who loved to hide their ships in its coves. The inlet at Media Luna allows for accessible and incredible snorkeling around the rocky perch, but not romantic sunset walks. Whale shark watching tours, diving, scuba lessons, snorkel equipment rental and other day trips can be arranged directly at the hotel through the Sunwing rep. Of special note: they sell postcards at the airport but no stamps.

Cha-ching: $1,411 (travel time: last week of February), $20 for beers and lobster quesadillas in the West End


Long Point Provincial Park, Turtle Dunes Campground, Long Point, Ontario

And, there’s something to be said for the restorative fulfillment of camping in the sand dunes on the shores of Lake Erie. Yes, I love five stars but I also love five billion stars above my head.

Firewood, a pack of wieners, a cooler of beer, some marshmallows and insect repellant have the makings of a spontaneous weekend. Far from the grinding construction and hum of the city, falling to sleep amongst tall stands of trembling aspens strips away all that clutter we carry in our working minds. Waking to chatty songbirds, reeling seagulls and climbing a dune to watch the whitecaps push in is a very spoiled way to enjoy your first cup of coffee.

Long Point is a 40km sandpit that is like a birder’s cocaine. Recognized as a biosphere reserve by United Nations, the dunes are my top camping spot—and a favoured stop-over for migratory birds as well.

There are 256 campsites (75 with electrical hook-up if that’s the way you roll). Fifty-two sites in Firefly are pull-through if you have something to pull-through, like a sleek Airstream I guess. There’s a Laundromat, park store (firewood, marshmallows, fly swatters, ice), canoe and bike rentals, and surprisingly hot showers.

I won’t divulge our Best Kept Secret location, but, you can find your own. The Ontario Parks site allows you to virtually explore the campground and specifics of the site like whether it’s shady or windy. There are also thumbnail pictures of the sites. Many of the Long Point sites closest to the beach are in the sand which makes for a sandy tent and car, but, is our favoured choice.

*Due to devastating beetle infestations, you are no longer allowed to bring in outside firewood. The park store has an ample supply but, the supply we bought was wet. We smoked out our neighbours for three hours until brilliantly trading half a bag of marshmallows for half a pre-fab sawdust fire log that helped kick-start our lame non-fire.

Further advice: Stop at the Burning Kiln Winery (http://www.burningkilnwinery.ca/) on your way through Norfolk County and buy a bottle of Strip Room. Pairing roasted marshmallows properly is a very serious thing.

Cha-ching: $26-35/night for non-electric sites, $25 for bottle of Burning Kiln wine, $25 in marshmallows, wood & wieners



So, where will you sleep first?

Categories: Passport Please, Polyblogs in a Jar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Task Uncommitted

In case you are just tuning in: I’m taking a travel writing course through Matador U, a new media school for writers, photographers and filmmakers. This week’s assignment zoomed in on social media platforms and our connections to them. We were asked to find and critique five blogs in a geographical area of interest to us. What appeals? Visuals? Design? Content? Navigability? How would we make the blog better?

After this comb over, we were asked to check the Alexa rating of each, which is a web information system that identifies internet traffic stats and metrics. The site where you can find out that .000043 of global internet users visit your blog. Wow!

The final task involved setting up a Twitter account and an additional profile on another platform such as Stumbleupon, Digg or Reddit (insert groan and nauseating feeling of hypertonic trapezius muscles here).


Five Blogs

Having just pounced upon expedia.ca sell-off flights to Belize for February, investigating blogs with a bull’s eye on manatees, quetzels, cashew wine, Ambergris and Caye Caulker seemed obvious. Finding five Belize blogs wasn’t an issue. Google matches revealed a strong presence of blogging expats, some even hawking promotional blog fan t-shirts and hats. However, the format, granny-friendly font and garage-sale advert clutter of most Belize blog pages led me elsewhere.

I decided to examine the blogs that I am already attracted and dedicated to.

Clearly, the strength of a blog’s writing is the magnetic force for me. The content can range from surviving the Burning Man Festival, Oregon’s best microbrews to chimp rescue stories to how to make sushi rolls out of mac n’ cheese. Similar to my writing force field, I read in the same manner. All over the map.

What I know for sure?

I refuse to read white script on black background, or blogs that have been brushed with too much Hollywood (flashing widgets, WIN THIS! and running scripts). I find danger in too many hyperlinks within the text. Like a magpie that spies something shiny, I too have been known to fly off, distracted, clicking a hyperlink to another page, never to return again. (Which means you are NOT allowed to divert from my page to discover my go-to blogs below. An alarm will sound.)

What appeals?

Clean lines. White space. Simplicity. Seductive, high resolution photos and engaging writing that meshes with my interests, or musings that spark interest, unplanned longer runs in the rain, another glass of wine, deeper conversation and restless sleeps.

Writers that mesh and spark:

Andrew Westoll

An automatic network emerges among those who have worked with primates. I was initially virtually introduced to Andrew via a friend in Suriname who thought we might like to share and compare our Jane Goodal-esque love and chimp sanctuary volunteer experiences. His body of work is humble and honest, showcasing the grit of a writer’s life and hope in chimpanzee crusades. A former primatologist, sometimes CBC Radio One science columnist, sometimes vodka expert, the author of The Riverbones and The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary writes intelligently here:

http://www.andrewwestoll.com/    Alexa: 13,226,465

Brene Brown–Ordinary Courage

With a PhD tucked up her sleeve, the University of Houston Research Professor poses big questions about vulnerability, courage and authenticity in a smart and accessible way. She made her rounds on Facebook in a viral way with her TED video (Ideas Worth Spreading) on the power of vulnerability. She captivates and enlarges a sentence in a remarkable way. And, I might just copycat her sidebar that spotlights what she’s listening to and what’s on her nightstand. It makes Brene Brown a little more 3D to me.

http://www.ordinarycourage.com/    Alexa: 256,306

Ryan Coelho

We were both shortlisted for a prized travel writer internship position with G Adventures in Toronto and I admired his rock solid empowerment and personal brand from the get go. He is a former aerospace engineer turned brand & marketing strategist and leadership coach. I gravitate towards his writing because he adheres to his blog mantra when he posts: Dream. Explore. Discover. Inspire.  He is also consistent with his brand via Facebook and Twitter and has a graphically tidy and splashy site:

http://ryancoelho.com/    Alexa:  7,379,662

A Bus Called Forward

A mutual friend in Mexico thought Keph (Matador U alumni) and I would get on like a house on fire with our shared passions. He thought our writing had a similar slant and groove. I was flattered and became hooked on A Bus Called Forward. Keph’s photos will transport you to everywhere she has been in a blink and her succinct words fill in the textures, temperature and tastes.

“When she was 28 years old and I was only 5, my mother bought a renovated 1950s school bus and named it Forward. We left Toronto in the spring, driving westward towards the Pacific. Her incomprehensible plan was to drive to New Zealand but Forward blew a radiator hose in the mountains in the interior of British Columbia. Ever pragmatic, my mother sold the bus for $500 and a wheelbarrow, and started a garden. I haven’t stopped moving, but my mother’s still there, still gardening.”

http://www.abuscalledforward.com/   Alexa: 4,315,987

Julia Dimon: The Travel Junkie

A few years ago I was velcroed to an OLN (Outdoor Life Network) program called Word Travels that followed two scrappy travel writers pitching and landing gigs as fast as their planes around the world. Firecracker co-host Julia Dimon has visited 80 countires on all 7 continents. She is hopeful, insightful and a writing dynamo. Her site is glossy, enviable and the ultimate time-sucker. In a good way.

http://juliadimon.com/julia/blog.php  Alexa: 4,611,331


About the Alexa Ratings

My blog currently perches at 3,206,262 in worldwide blog rankings. Is this good? How many jellybeans in the jar does that equal? This does not change my life in any way. Do I really care that 3.55% of visitors keyed in “he farted in a hermetically sealed suit” and were led to my blog? Did I ever mention farting in a hermetically sealed suit? Should I take note that high impact search queries were tagged on the following terms: cat crap coffee, chips with gravy, bug bite soup, rotten confessions, Czech beer and chocolate covered marshmallows?

The Alexa rating serves a purpose to someone, but, it won’t influence my writing enough to narrow my niche to farts and marshmallows.

About Twitter, Stumbleupon, Digg, Reddit

I just can’t. I can’t be responsible for another social platform. I feel like I’m trying to barf up content in too many places already. Facebook obligations alone have angry “friends” upset with my lack of communication (interpreted as “ignored”). I drop off the face of Facebook for a few days to enjoy life as it was before the Techno Whore Wave of the 2000’s and I am berated. I can barely remain verbally active on Twitter. I refuse to Tweetchat or Twitpic. I don’t want to Stumbleupon anything else, there are enough viral videos and cuddly kittens and tsunami dog love stories on Facebook.

If shunning more social media platforms will be the detriment of my writing career, I’m okay with that. I’m not Twitter-friendly enough because I don’t have a cell phone. And I don’t have one for a reason. I would disconnect my home phone if I could. I never check my home phone messages when I’m at work, or away—mostly because I don’t know how to, but also because I don’t need to. I’m not that important, and socialites have to move in mysterious ways sometimes.

So what?

Social media is an accessory, not a necessity in my life. It has its place like shortbread for breakfast, Kobe beef and champagne. I can’t do it all the time. I will commit to my blog, the established blog writers that stretch my static thoughts, to intermittent Twittering and near-daily smartass Facebook updates.

That’s it.

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tarra & Bella: Love Conquered All

In the olden days (the 1980s to me), I imagine people played records, maybe even cassettes to fully engulf themselves in an emotion. It’s easy to entrench ourselves in despair by cueing up music, that’s universal. There are movie titles that are guaranteed to stir up the quality of weeping reserved for weddings and funerals (Beaches, Fried Green Tomatoes, Love Story). Some books can trigger laughter, but, more easily, melancholy (The Art of Racing in the Rain, Marley & Me—okay, any book about a dying dog).

Sometimes we want to find that emotional rock-bottom place, and dwell in it. We put Jann Arden on repeat and watch reliable broken-heart movies like Out of Africa or Love Affair on Christmas Day. It’s easy to encourage sadness and hopelessness. Rain helps too, a lot.

Now we can go a step further, and instigate crying jags instantaneously with the help of viral YouTube videos.  Who hasn’t found themselves in a sporadic sleep pattern, typing in the words “Christian lion reunion” or “Damian and the gorilla”? How about “orangutan & dog best friends” or “dog and dolphin”?

If you have watched any of this sob-inducing footage on repeat, surely you have also put “Tarra and Bella” on your “I feel-like-drinking-more-wine-and-having-a-good-cry” list.

Masai Mara National Park, Kenya

 The relationship between a stray dog (Bella) and an elephant (Tarra) at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee found instant fan fare on YouTube. If two species, divided by size alone, could embrace each other, what was our problem as humans?

Tarra was one of the sanctuary’s first elephants. Her devout canine sidekick, Bella, found her comfortable place in Tarra’s shadow in 2003. They were inseparable and appeared like lovers from another lifetime.

The viral video that had viewers wiping tears from their necks showed a distraught Tarra, grieving for the company of her dear dog who had suffered a spinal cord injury and was unable to walk. As Bella was recovering in the sanctuary office, Tarra kept vigil for three weeks, until her best pal was carried down to her enclosure. Tarra’s exuberant trumpet, and her trunk gingerly touching and reassuring injured Bella was heart-splitting. I have probably watched the video 30 times.

Today, my friend Karen sent a link about the tragic news of Bella. Tuesday morning Bella was missing, and sanctuary staff initiated an immediate search that continued until Wednesday.  Her body was found near a barn that Tarra and five other elephants share. The Sanctuary’s vet, Dr. Scott , determined that Bella was a victim of an animal attack, most likely coyote.

But there’s more.

Due to the extent of Bella’s injuries, staff believe it would have been impossible for Bella to be found where she was, without any evidence of struggle around the area. Tarra’s trunk had blood on the underside, which led sanctuary personnel to wonder if she had found her friend and carried her back to a safer resting place.

There are parts of the story that will never be known. Did Tarra witness the attack? Did she arrive too late and in her desperation to protect Bella, carry her from the awful scene? I can’t imagine how heavy her heart felt. The anger she would have in herself for not saving Bella. The rage she would have that a precious life and friendship could be severed so unexpectedly.

Concrete evidence exists that elephants mourn. They experience debilitating sorrow and have their own funeral rites. National Geographic has documented elephants in Kenya as they discover matriarchal bones by a water source. Silently, they created a defensive circle and then elaborately touched the surface of the sacred bones before them, every crevice and notch. They held the bones in their trunks and touched them gently with their hind feet.

Similarly, a BBC documentary showed a herd that happened upon an elephant corpse. It was as though they were paying homage to the deceased with closed eyes and complex thought. They fondled the bones in a way that indicated they were fully aware of not just life, but death.

Tarra was given the opportunity to pay her last respects to Bella, but showed little interest. This is why staff suspect that she may have already said her goodbyes, having endured the night with the knowledge that her friend had passed on to another world.

Their relationship is a confirmation that regardless of our species, we are intimately connected. It would be ignorant to think that only humans could experience the crisis and hollowness of a life lost.

Dog, elephant, man—we are sharing a fragile planet. Our relationships to and with each other define us. They evolve and present a continual opportunity to change, and be better. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, remarkable things can happen.

Bella’s life should be a reminder of just that.



Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Arthur Side Road

“Brantford depresses me. There’s no Starbucks and people hang bed sheets and flags for curtains,” my brother, Dax, observed last Christmas. Insert melancholy Springsteen “My Hometown” kinda lyrics here.

We renamed the city “Blahford” early on. Often confused with Brampton, Bradford, and Bramalea (and any other southwestern Ontario town that started with “B,”) we did have bragging rights in claiming hockey legend Wayne Gretzky as our own. Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone, had a smaller fan base, but was ours too.

The only redeeming landmark for us was George’s House of Spuds. Once a week my mom would wheel the ’74 Pinto into the Calbeck’s parking lot and we’d be allowed to split a large fry from the flat-tired food truck. The grease and vinegar bottomed out every cardboard box into our laps–and no wonder, the fries sat in your gut like wet cement for two days.

To me, our hometown was Arthur side road, not the city of Brantford. Hell, we were related to everyone on our road. Our property had a stand of sturdy pines, raspberry bushes and railroad tracks that split the acreage. Horseradish, canteloupes or wheat grew in the field to the left. My great-grandmother grew puffballs and her prized roses to the right. Directly behind our house, there was a lily-pad dotted pond which served as a magnetic force, regardless of the season. It was a perfect swimming hole (full of leeches), a private hockey arena come winter, and the soundtrack that we fell asleep to. Hundreds of spring peepers embracing a still March night in chorus? This sound alone is home.

Our hometown perimeter was as far as our mighty BMX and banana-seated bikes could take us, and we found everything we wanted in that circumference. Nan always had C-plus or Tahiti Treat in her wormy smelling root cellar (and she was usually distracted by Another World from 2-3pm). My grandfather’s pig barns were a constant source of amusement, stink and accidents requiring band-aids and peroxide. The pig burial grounds took years to properly excavate and sundown permitting, there were shotgun shells and arrowheads to collect.

We sat in the retired GMC Sierras my grandfather parked by the pond to “rest.”  After intense de-cobwebbing we’d pile in and huff the discarded Skoal tobacco containers. Kiley would pretend to drive (erratically) and I’d root around the glove box, detective-like, until we remembered that there were probably some catfish that we could poke with sticks. The days were epic: picking scabs, sunburns, wild cucumber fights and surviving on surreptitious handfuls of Chips Ahoy! cookies. We couldn’t bear to come inside until dark.

Our hometown was us. Dax, Kiley, our parents and wonder dog. Xanadu’s schnauzer coat, better designed for urban life, was a catch-all for burrs, manure and/or duckweed from trailing us. We sometimes thought we wanted a swimming pool and a corner store, but we were the spoiled ones. We had two acres of the best hide n’ go seek hiding spots and a drive-in theatre three cornfields in front of our home.  Plus, we had real curtains, not bed sheets and flags.

Did we miss out on anything?

(*Nostalgic note: After writing this I Googled “Spring Peepers YouTube” and am now listening to them in downtown Toronto on the first night of November: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhBsNqF7Hkk)

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

From the Pitcher’s Mound: Lessons Learned in Freelancing

I’m not sure if it was steely confidence or complete naivety that sparked my initial foray into freelance writing. I was 18 with dissolved enthusiasm to spend four years at university. Instead, I wanted to move to the west coast and live there, just because. How I would survive and finance the venture was secondary.

I had recently attended an environmental conference in Ottawa with the likes of David Suzuki, Raffi and a young Penan native named Mutang from Malaysia. I knew I wanted to be an eco-warrior-slash-writer of sorts, of Suzuki proportions, and preferably a paid one. At the conference I picked up a skinny magazine called Cockroach that targeted hopeful, earth-conscious youths like me, eager  to put a stop to the bear bile trade, the destruction of Clayoquot Sound and rainforest slaughter worldwide. I wrote to the editor, Sam Roddick (whose mother was the founder of The Body Shop), and begged for a job of any sort. I could write, I could draw. I’d work for free if she could provide accommodations.

And that was my first gig—sometimes all you have to do is ask. Sam provided accommodations in a household of eclectic, empowered sorts, complete with a dog, a Persian that slept in a shoebox, a cross-eyed Siamese and a $400 paycheque to boot. I’d never felt so rich.

The magazine folded some nine months later, but, I had writing chops now! Watch out world!

With my Cockroach experience I was ready to take on the giants: Chatelaine and Maclean’s. I wrote a power piece titled “The Female Who Doesn’t E-mail.” It was 1996, and I thought I was Last of the Mohicans without an email address (I am still a Mohican but changed my moniker to The Female Who Doesn’t Have a Cell Phone). The manuscript wasn’t properly indented or spaced. I had no query letter—I didn’t bother to read the writer’s guidelines (I don’t think I even knew such things existed). I hadn’t even read an issue of either magazine for years. The content was totally inappropriate for both magazines, but, I was on my Cockroach-cocky high and mailed both manuscripts with remarkable novice anticipation.

I was rejected by Chatelaine and Maclean’s. They each sent a polite stock letter saying they appreciated my interest and contribution, but it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for at this time. Or ever, probably.

Fast forward fifteen years or so. I’m sure that initial manuscript is pinned to some corkboard in the Maclean’s lunchroom as an example of what not to do, and, what the hell was she thinking?

Naturally, I’d still like to see my work in Chatelaine, it was a staple in our home for decades. I might need a political science degree to write for Maclean’s though. In star-speckled dreams I see my bylines in Toronto Life, enRoute, gridTO, Zoomer—any magazine that will have me really.  I’m a little savvier with the writer’s guidelines now, having realized that a critical component of writing is researching compatible markets for your style and niche.

For my writerly friends, vets or virgins, who are ready to take a stab at the market, you’ll find the submission guidelines for my favourite mags below.  It is essential to know the magazine intimately, and to have read several issues to grasp the foundation and purpose of the publication. Otherwise, you might as well be on a blind date.

See you in the centrefold?


Toronto Life Editor: Sarah Fulford

A glossy, snappy expose on what makes Toronto vibrate and hum, Toronto Life is the perfect resource for insiders and outsiders who want to know the best places to be and be seen.


Article submissions and questions about articles should be sent to:

Editorial Department
Toronto Life, Urban Group, St. Joseph Media Corp
Queen Richmond Centre
Toronto, ON

Or send an e-mail to: editorial@torontolife.com

No simultaneous submissions or material that has been previously published. Not responsible for the return or loss of unsolicited manuscripts. They try to respond to all submissions as quickly as possible. However, due to volume, the process may take several weeks.

ZOOMER Magazine Editor-in-Chief: Suzanne Boyd

My mother keeps the back issues for me (I trade her for my Toronto Life subscription). The intended audience is for the 40+ set, but the focus on lifestyle, retirement and its associated indulgences makes for an engaging read.


Writers guidelines


Please note that you will only hear back from us in the event your query is being considered for publication in Zoomer Magazine.

The Grid Editor-in-Chief: Laas Turnbull

Formerly the eyeweekly, GridTO is a necessary cultural and nocturnal map for Toronto’s scene. You’ll know where to eat, sip, lounge and gather because this mag knows the pulse of the city and all that makes it thrive.



enRoute magazine Editor-in-Chief: Ilana Weitzman

The bible of Air Canada, enRoute introduces our already vacationing minds to other destinations with teasers on fab restos, gadgets, festivals and must-do’s around the world.



Chatelaine Editor: Jane Francisco

As Canadian as apple pie, poutine and Jann Arden, Chatelaine has been with us as long as our best friends from elementary school. It is a best friend—reliable, thought-provoking and all-knowing.



DWELL Editor-in-Chief: Sam Grawe

Pure design and architectural porn that is relevant whether you find sanctuary in an urban condo, rental basement apartment or a palatial pad with acreage. It generates ideas and dreams simultaneously.



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