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Camping at Bon Echo…Echo…Echo

The camping gods were really smiling down on us this week. Somehow in this thunderstorm-bashed soggy summer, we picked the only stretch of five rain-free days to set up a tent and get woodsy. Bon Echo Provincial Park had long been on our list to visit, but, the five hour drive from Cambridge always deterred us. There was also our undeniable love affair with the dunes of Long Point where we had migrated every summer.


What Kim and I were rewarded with was a Group of Seven landscape. Campsites designed with the discreet camper in mind. We’ve been to parks that seem more like suburbia with radios blaring, blinding floodlights, car alarms sounding off at all hours and competing cell phone ringtones.


Bon Echo’s soundtrack: The Barred Owl’s infamous “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” call through the tall stands of beech. The maniac laugh of loons on Lower Mazinaw. Pileated woodpeckers at 6am, like a construction crew framing a house. Birch logs snapping and sizzling in the fire ring.

Bonus: Radio-free zone camping.


Mini history lesson: Bon Echo became a provincial park in 1965. Situated north of Kaladar (home of a Philly cheese steak and poutine food truck and designated dark sky preserve), the park’s Instagram backdrop is Mazinaw Rock, an unexpected and startling 330-foot cliff. It gets better: this rock face doubles as a historical canvas of over 260 aboriginal pictographs (rock paintings—now designated as a National Historic Site of Canada). If you hop in a canoe, you can paddle through the Narrows and J-stroke along the length of this gallery.



Prior to being a coveted park to pop a tent, the land was owned by a lumber baron (Weston A. Price) who built the Bon Echo Inn, a boutique hotel before boutique was a thing. The desired clientele were wealthy, God-loving teetotalers. That is, until the property was sold to Howard and Flora MacDonald Denison who spun the hotel on its heels and turned it into a retreat for thinkers, social drinkers, painters and writers. Flora was a Toronto writer and suffragette with a literary crush on Walt Whitman. The crush is evident in her open chiselled tribute to him smack dag on Mazinaw Rock. In the summer of 1919, two Scots stone masons chipped away lines of his poetry in foot-tall letters.


Flora’s son inherited the inn after her death in 1921, and in 1936 the bake house was struck by lightning and a fire destroyed many of the outbuildings in its hot path. The inn was never rebuilt but her son continued to summer at Bon Echo. His conservation interests led to the in demand land being donated to the province for the purpose of a provincial park.


Flash facts:

Mazinaw is the second-deepest lake in Ontario.

Bon Echo is home to Ontario’s only lizard, the five-lined skink. (*Photo below is of a red-backed salamander, not a skink.)

Red-backed salamander--not a skink!

A tin of tuna and tzatziki with a little kale rolled up in wrap is pretty sensational. Is it weird to segue from skinks to tuna + tzatziki?

Flora, Fauna, Fungi

Dotted along the India ink waters of Mazinaw Lake, mushrooms abound.  Egg yolk yellow mushrooms sit in the ferns. Beatrix Potter toadstools list in the long grasses and lichen.


At Bon Echo, many of the sites are walk-in (versus pop the trunk and empty contents two feet away), allowing for a thorough Thoreau experience.


The bird life abounds, and in Hardwood Hills, even the deer flies are the size of hummingbirds.


There’s a guaranteed firefly convention each night and we counted four falling stars whizzing towards the earth. Be sure to check your log pile for red-backed salamanders too!

Blackboard Menu Highlights

Buttermilk pancakes with dollops of vanilla yogurt and genuine Mennonite maple syrup

Caberneigh scrambled eggs and Bush Beans (Bush is a sponsor of Ontario Parks and donated pyramids of free cans for campers)


Falafel balls with red-wine reduced sweet onions, red peppers and yogurt tzatziki

Sirloin burritos with salsa and mosquito-flecked sour cream

Basil pesto penne with sundried tomatoes, sausage and sunflower seeds pinch hitting for pine nuts

Suggested Road Trip: We decided to check out Bancroft (1hr and 15 minutes from the park) on the only temporarily cloudy morning. We needed ice, and, because we’re moving 5 hours in the opposite direction, we knew it would be awhile until we revisited these parts.


What to do: Be sure to drop into squeaky new Bancroft Brewing Co. and work your way through their effervescent line-up. The best of the lot: their rich coffee-licious Black Quartz, ruby red Logger’s Ale and special patriotic tribute—the “150.” Growlers are $9 plus a $3 deposit and necessary for fireside. Pair with handfuls of pistachios, honey garlic sausages, jalapeno Monterey Jack and surprise friends who text and say, “We fixed the starter on the VW! We’ve booked a site in Hardwood Hills! See you tonight!”


While you’re in Bancroft, have an impromptu picnic along the creek and don’t miss the curio at The Tin Shed just off the main drag. Sniff all the “clothesline” and “cedar cabin” scented candles. Marvel at the door knockers, rod iron hooks, hinges and salvage. Buy that blank notebook that says “Find what brings you joy and go there!”

There are several mercantile and thrift shops, the classic Stedman’s, token fudge shop and fresh produce stand for sausage and wiener-fatigued campers. The green beans, bunches of radishes, gooseberries and thimble-sized raspberries beckon!


Nostalgic side note: My greatest thrill as we cruised along Highway #28 to Bancroft wasn’t Moose FM playing Billy Idol’s Mony, Mony (but that was great too). It was passing by a sign that indicated Camp Walden was the next right hand turn. CAMP WALDEN! This was epicentre of my high school years! In grade nine I went as a camper and then returned like a boomerang for the next four years as counsellor in the (fittingly) Journalism department. With a dedicated crew of future Dharma Bum Kerouacs and Burroughs-in-the-makings, we cranked out the mighty “Camp Log” on a daily basis. I loved this art camp right down to the Three Blob Lunch (blob of tuna salad, blob of egg salad and blob of potato salad) and no-erasers-allowed sketchbook policy.


Suggested road trip in the other direction: On Highway 41, south of Cloyne (20 minutes from Bon Echo), Graybarre School House Treasures (look for the plastic Fred Flinstone outside) is exploding with whimsy and inventory. Salt and pepper shakers, pewter pig napkin holders, squirrel nut crackers, tin watering cans, lanterns, backcatcher masks, old goalie pads, 7-Up glasses—STUFF. It’s easy to lose an hour and a hundred bucks here.


Otherwise, hightail it back to Bon Echo, because outside the park it’s just worms, ice cream and fireworks. Oh, and a fish and chip joint cleverly named The Codfather.

Rent a canoe, walk the wilds and recalibrate. Like that blank book cover in The Tin Shed said, “Find what brings you joy and go there.”

Hint: Bon Echo


Categories: Passport Please, Retiring--Rewiring, The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Here Comes the Bride…

129We knew something was up by the pitch of Kiley’s voice mail message. She was practically falsetto and the assumption was that she had either bought a new hybrid vehicle or found a killer deal on flights to somewhere in the South Pacific. These are the things that generate gushing and warrant phone calls. Her Facebook page didn’t offer any clues though, so, when we finally did connect on the phone days later, she was still chirpy but firmly sitting on the news. Barely.

“Mark asked me to marry him!”

I didn’t believe it and continued talking about the smoked herring in the Magdalen Islands or red velvet cupcakes or something to that effect.

“No, we’re really getting married!” She sounded rather defeated. “Dax didn’t believe me either. He thought I bought a new Jeep too.”

Photoshop Ninja Credits to Kay Lefevre.

Photoshop Ninja credits to Kay Lefevre with love!

Backstory: Kiley and Mark have been together for 16 years. It’s not like Mark is some George Clooney-type (though George is now married), or was keeping his options open on the dating field. No, these two are as tight as spaghetti and meatballs. If I were to bet money on the longevity of a couple, I’d move all the chips to the Mark and Kiley square at the casino.


As kids, Kiley and I (oddly) often played husband and wife. I had a sad clown face mask that I wore to represent “husband” and she wore a sheet/sari and usually nothing else. I’m not sure what this role-playing meant or how we came up with this notion after seeing our happily married parents and a steady stream of Little House on the Prairie and the Flintstones family dynamics.

The pixie-dust laced wedding would be in September and atop the Lake Louise ski hill. Kiley emphasized “mountain casual” which to me indicated Gore-tex and fleece and freezing our tits off. When we landed at the Calgary airport the day before the wedding (September 12th), the rental car indicated an outdoor temp of THREE degrees. Jesus. We would all perish on the gondola ride up in a weird Into Thin Air twist.


Backstory: We arrived at the Lake Louise Hotel on the wedding day with fuzzy heads from the previous night’s meet-and-greet barbecue and bonfire on Middle Springs with Kiley and Mark’s assorted mountain casual friends. The hotel didn’t have us in the booking registry. Anywhere. (Story condensed here after much swearing and eye-rolling). Oh, wait, yes, they found it! I was booked in a room with my SISTER and MOTHER. Because, really, what bride doesn’t want to spend her wedding night with her mom and gay sister?

The hotel was a gong show from the get-go and will get a severe Negative Nelly tripadvisor blast, for sure. *Note to anyone in the Lake Louise vicinity for any reason in the future—spend the extra bucks for the attentive service, finery, reliable vibe and grandeur of the Relais and Chateaux property—The Post. Which is directly where we went for post-reception cocktails in leather wingbacks by a grand fire below the regal moose head.

But, before all this transpired—my brother Dax was playing his youngest sibling role to the max. Scene: my mother, in a fray (a beautiful one though)—mostly wide-eyed from prodding herself a dozen times with hat pins in affixing her fascinator to her head), was ironing my brother’s shirt about thirty minutes before we were supposed to be on the gondola. And then she pressed his boyfriend’s shirt as well.


Exasperated after collecting the flowers for the wedding at 9am (and running on no caffeine or breakfast even), my dad and her had been steaming the bridesmaids dresses all morning in addition to other parental obligations. When we knocked on their hotel room door around 12:30, my mom said all the beer was in the car (with a heavy hint). She was parched. I did the run out to the trunk and was surprised to see that she had picked up Okanagan Porter. “This stuff is 8.5%, holy, Mom!” She grabbed the just-filled Styrofoam cup, “PERFECT!”

My parents were glowing though, and looked ready to walk the red carpet at the Oscars.


I have only been to seven or so weddings. I recall being maybe eight and quite proud to strut around in a pair of pink polka dot pants from Reitmans (so awesomely coordinated with my powder blue Venetian-shutter style sunglasses—that were impossible to see out of). The song was Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Up Where We Belong, but that’s my only distinct memory. Maybe it was my Aunt Donna’s wedding? I had only seen her once before that, and not since.

There was a redux wedding for a couple married officially in New Zealand. A wedding where I snagged a ride to the airport in the limo with a then-girlfriend with the honeymooning couple (after an uncomfortable night in too-tight leather pants with a split-zipper. I bent over to put on my Doc Martens in the hotel room and busted the fly which had to be safety-pinned for the night which turned me into a virtual beer piñata). There was a wedding invite from two women who I met at a gay campground just the week before—their whippets were ring bearers. And, oh—Kim’s sister’s wedding at the Cambridge Mill. She still reminds us about her $10,000 bar tab. But, really, Kim and I have not been overdosed on the wedding frontier. However, now we’ve been totally spoiled for any future ones.


Like, cue up the most jaw-droppy scenery and the liquid neon turquoise of Lake Louise in the background. Add a flitting butterfly, a surreal blue sky and a couple of ravens staking their mountain claim. There was chilled prosecco, wide smiles and a service that was shorter than a sitcom (on PVR—fast forward through the commercials even) with a Dr. Seuss quote to boot.


I should mention that the bride was lovely—her dress was a major improvement from her previous ‘wife’ role-play days in a sheet and no pants. Mark was a pillar, blonde and Nordic, with a wooden ski boutonniere. The suited boys and the bridesmaids were radiant in Albertan bluebird sky blue and orange haute couture. It was like a tropical mountain mash-up and so very authentic Kiley and Mark.


We all cried—mostly because we thought it was the end of the world. Kiley had actually shown up on time!!


While the couple was whisked away to Lake Moraine (their falling-in-love zone) with the paparazzi, Kim, Dax, Dragos and I went to The Post to see how the other half were living. The prosecco buzz had us all charged with love and I was still smiling from my dad’s comment after the ceremony when he hugged me and said, “So, who’s next?”


The reception was at the Lake Louise train station, a historic gem steeped in heritage. Trains still roared by throughout the night. Tiny gondolas were strung across the room and a fire blazed and snapped at the entry. Drinks were slung and the circles of Kiley and Mark collided and mingled. A slide show garnered instant laughter and inspiration with the mix of childhood photos and envy-inducing travel pics.

A world map was mounted for guests to sign—mostly encouraging future travel recommendations for the couple. They are already scheming a February honeymoon in the South Pacific—but apparently you can take a “mini-moon” nowadays? For the two mad travellers, I sense many phases of this “honeymoon.”

We dined like royalty on the likes of bison short ribs (the best eats I’ve had in 2014) and Pacific salmon. The wine was a waterfall during the speeches which bounced from a comedic romp to a good razzing and parental praise.


The wedding was just pure lovely. Right down to the chai honey cupcakes. There was immense creativity injected into this day and it was a solid indication of a love that revolves around indulgence, undiluted fun and adrenalin-steeped adventure.


In addition to walking away with cool mini gondola take-home swag, I think it was evident that everyone present was reminded of love’s unstoppable cosmic force. Love the hell out of the person you’re with! When you’ve nabbed your soul mate, it doesn’t require effort, it vibrates and hums and glows.

Kiley and Mark talk to each other every day like they’ve just met. The conversation is endless (Dax always thought it was because they didn’t have cable). But, with Kim—I get it too. When you love and adore someone endlessly, there are never enough hours in the day. This is why Kim and I still routinely stay up until dawn, talking.


Lessons in marriage: you need to find delight and not disappointment in your partner’s quirks. And after watching Kiley and Mark’s slide show chock full of grinning pics from Iceland, Nepal, New Zealand, Belize, (insert 56 other destinations)—anything and everywhere is possible.

And as Alistair Macleod said in No Great Mischief, “All of us are better when we are loved.”


Um, take two…


Categories: The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Garage Sale Psychology

Put up a Garage Sale sign and watch all the local skinflints emerge.

With pockets full of quarters, the world’s greatest barterers quickly turned our street into a hotbed of haggling—the kind best witnessed in Moroccan markets, Turkish bazaars, roadside stands in Uganda, with beach vendors in ___________ (insert tropical getaway here) and the souks of Cairo.

We had a garage sale this past weekend, mostly to offer prime driveway real estate to Kim’s rural sister who had expressed a dire need to declutter. In West Galt we have heavy foot traffic and are located on both a bus and bike route—we were the best target zone.


I was reminded of a vintage Herman comic, when Herman stops to tell a woman that there’s a spelling mistake on her sign. She is dumbfounded, standing in her yard in front of her unwanted wares. Her sign says “Garage Sale.” Herman goes on to say, “I think you meant to say GARBAGE Sale.”

We too had garbage for sale—and, this will be the last of my moaning about the former owner of this house. We heaved the remaining junk he kindly left us to the curb—this time with price tags. There were old school air conditioning units, 1980s phone sets with transcriber head gear (maybe he was a phone sex operator?), enough cables to wire our entire neighbourhood for phone, internet and dorm-room stereo systems, heaps of cassette tapes—half of them homemade tributes to his wife (Stray Cats, John Hooker anyone?) and a box of yellowing (but still in plastic) 1979-1981 Twilight Zone and Star Wars-esque comics. (*After our sale I read about a home owner who discovered a 1938 Action comics #1 in the walls of the house he was gutting in Elbow Lake, Minn.—worth over $100K. That is, until he had a physical squabble with a relative and they ripped the cover, negating the value. I have yet to see headlines in the Cambridge Times or The Waterloo Record regarding a woman finding a comic cache at a garage sale and cashing the suckers in for a villa in Tuscany, so, whew. But, I’m sure she found a steal at $10 for the box load. I was ready to give her a tenner to take them away.)

Selling the previous owners crap netted us over $160. Though, it still cost us $220 to buy a Bagster to haul the other 3,000 pounds of crap away, PLUS two trips to the dump with 56 paint cans, etc., but, back to the focus: garage sales.

I think gay people just have less stuff. Gays tend to have more partners (in general terms) and move more frequently. The gays I have personally experienced also have an unusual way of seeking closure. “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” has been the norm. Revenge comes in the form of keeping your things. Even if they didn’t even drink gin, ever. Or, make a pizza—ever. Now they want your bottles of gin and pizza trays? And the gifts from their friends that were intended for you? And, the lowest of the low—taking ownership of the Guinness beer glasses that you personally stole from the pub in Ireland.

To these individuals, I have to say, thank you! I have fewer belongings because of you.

My parents contributed to the weekend sale by offering up my old broomball equipment that my dad had hung on to for Torti Hall of Fame purposes. My dad also found five clock radios that were a pure donation on his part—we could pocket the proceeds. I don’t think I’ve owned five clock radios in my life, so I was amazed that he had such a collection. Which, led to our first “refund” at the garage sale.

Apparently the huffy old bird lives just down the street from us, and she was rather chuffed to find out that when she got home and plugged her “new” two dollar clock radio in, the radio frequency was lacking. She marched back with hands slightly on hips, ready to rumble. We said she could pick out another one of the clocks, but she was wise to us this time. “I wanna plug it in.” We agreed that this was the best idea and were alarmed to find that another one of my dad’s clock radios had zero reception. “I only listen to FM radio, I don’t care about AM stations,” she stamped. Kim was in charge of tuning the third radio which picked up Michael Bolton or someone to that effect, and she was instantly pleased.

As she strutted away in her pastel polyester pants, Kim and I laughed at the irony. The woman that buys a $2 clock radio comes back and seeks out a replacement—and a guarantee that it works. The guy that buys the $60 air conditioner buys it without asking to plug it in at all.

The morning was peppered with strange. Another elderly customer pressed a toonie into my palm as she walked past me with a flowerpot under her arm (marked at $3). “You’ll take this toonie, because that’s what you do.”
Better still—the Dutch man with a twitchy mustache and his wife (or mother?) on his heels, inquiring about how everything worked. He held up two picture frame vices priced at $3 for the set. Kim explained the mechanics to him when he asked. His reply? “Well, I have no use for these so, I’ll give you two dollars.”

Others went straight in for the kill, without pleasantries or questioning. A Honeywell air purifier (retail value: $100+) was marked for $25. Mint condition. “I’ll give you $4 for it,” a woman barked. FOUR dollars?? I was reminded of a previous Craigslist experience when I posted my Sidekick for sale. Even though I had asked for $3,500 firm, a single mother of two emailed me to ask whether I would consider donating my Sidekick to her, for free, so she could get around the city easier. As much as I’d love to extend Oprah’s generosity—yeah, hell no!


Kim’s sister moved burlap sacks and old boat rope in a flash. A wok from the 1970s and a questionable crepe maker was also pawned off. Somebody scooped up her study Bible (Kim was skeptical about it ever being used) and books on emotional healing. Velcro ankle weights went like hotcakes. Which, could also be made in that As Seen on TV crepe maker.

However, Lynne’s Daisywheel Electric Typewriter garnered no attention, except from me. I had to razz her about it being the world’s first laptop. She had several items from the era—“the historical section of our garage sale” as I told others. Lynne had Dorothy Hamill period figure skates, still in the box. Motivational CASSETTE tapes. Sweaters with…wait for it…shoulder pads! I’m surprised she even unboxed those in my presence, seeing how I was at full force mockery with her Christmas sweater collection.


Nosy neighbours poked around. Some introduced themselves after hibernating all winter, curious as to where we’d come from. Even Mr. Cheezy (not his real name, but, how we reference him) from Cheezy’s Variety across the road took a time-out to peruse. He probably wanted to ensure that we weren’t infringing on his convenience store inventory (which includes everything from eyelash curlers to pumice stones to crock pots to bongs to homemade jewellery and Lays chips).

In the end we sold over $1,000 worth of gently and aggressively used items. Though, Lynne nearly burned the entire sale down to the ground when her braided garlic and hot pepper ornament started to smoulder and smoke inside a stainless steel bowl in the sun. See, garage sales are dangerous!

Lessons learned? We are glad to have our one-and-only sale behind us and remind others not to hoard. Or buy a house from an owner flirting with clutter–you might inherit it by symbiosis! Just because you have the space doesn’t mean you should fill it. Donate! Re-evaluate, repurpose. Shed. Be gay and break up more frequently and you won’t ever have to entertain the idea of a garage sale at all!

Most importantly, remember, the only thing you should collect is your thoughts.

Categories: Home Sweet Home, The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

When a House Becomes a Home

I have been to Home Hardware more times in the last month than in my entire life. It was the dreaded stop when we were kids, “running errands” with my dad. Every Saturday seemed to involve a haircut at Caesar’s barbershop (worst outdated magazine collection to date—TIME and Macleans equalled a double snore at age 8), Canadian Tire and/or Home Hardware and some transaction at the bank that took eons. We banked a lot of childhood time swatting at each other in the back of the Cutlass Supreme desperate for the errands to come to a wrap. We were usually handsomely rewarded for our patience though, in the form of Kentucky Fried Chicken 2-piece snack boxes or a split box of greasy George’s chip hut fries.
I still like to be rewarded for my patience, but, Kim and I maturely lean towards a cold beer after running similar errands and sussing out the next project on our domino To Do list that comes and grows with home ownership.
What I have learned in our 20+ visits in the last few weeks is that Home Hardware serves free, relatively decent coffee (with real cream not the powdered crap), every day. Saturdays, dedicated customers like myself (and even one-off customers who don’t even necessarily buy anything) are treated to free bags of hot and incredibly salty popcorn.
The sawmills that we have been frequenting in search of our ultimate tabletop lumber pale in the free beverage and snack department—but, the learning curve has been uncharted. I have talked to half a dozen dudes over the phone about socket depth, breadboard ends, claves and the durability of accoya wood versus Douglas Fir. Oh yeah, I’m well-versed in burls, veneer finishes, purpleheart wood. sap lines and matchbook applications for table tops.

However, Kim is still CEO of the biscuit joiner and circular saw duties. I am the designated ‘holder-of-all’ and she suits me up accordingly in regulation ear plugs, safety eye wear if necessary and gives me a warning before a loud noise because she knows I tend to be jumpy. When I am not the holder-of-things I do double-time as the precise placer-of-things. I am routinely seen meandering room to room with various items: beluga whale vertebrae, a salt candle from the Siwa Oasis, a stack of National Geographics—searching for the “a-ha” position of the treasured items.
009We’ve massaged a lot of life back into the bones of this 150-year-old stone cottage. There were some long-neglected areas (ie. The basement that had historical 150-year-old cobwebs clinging to every joist).There was five pounds of dog fur in the freezer and clogged in the rads. Fifty-eight paint cans waiting for a trip to the dump. Old air conditioners, a dehumidifier that weighed more than a piano. All relics of the previous owner which we are slowly decimating in overtaking the OUR-ness of the house.

025The previous palette (derived from those 58 paint cans), which seemed initially liveable was deemed undoable once our stuff arrived. Cowhide does not pair well with mint. All our taupes and dark espresso wood looked misplaced. So, Kim and I went full-force in some unparalleled painting frenzy. One room forced us to do the next. The bubblegum pink and Thrills mauve of the guest bedroom was a no-brainer. The heritage blue of the master seemed too Grandma once our headboard and black and white prints were unloaded. The master bath was probably a pristine white at some point—but, we agreed, was now smoker’s yellow. Which was obliterated with a tasteful powder grey which led to the living room being repainted as well. While some friends saw a pleasing moss colour, I saw hospital green. Easter mint green. Ugh. Gone.

The floors have been mopped, the drains de-haired, the faucets returned to their natural shine with the unnatural super powers of CLR, the inner organs of the rads have been de-furred, the insect collection dumped from the (indoor) light fixtures, the dangling webs swept from the impossibly high ceilings. By god, we even figured out how to hook up the flatscreen, the BluRay and the soundbar without a mass murder. The wi-fi even works. And, the pet bat that we had welcome us when we first moved in has flown to higher ground.
I have lived in many houses, but, this one is different. I want to know the inner workings of the boiler and the water softener. I want to read up on our fancy Frankie fire clay apron sink andhow to best preserve its finish. What will grow around our towering black walnut in the backyard? I find myself Googling stone home construction and “re-pointing” (which I thought was something we just did a lot as kids—blaming the other by “re-pointing”). I voluntarily read more about our pine shake roof and why it is a better choice than cedar. I’m subconciously grooming myself for a job at Home Hardware!

003I still feel like we are on some kind of outstanding holiday, relaxing at a really comfortable bed and breakfast while we plan our outings to the farmer’s market, debate the merits of Mexican or Thai for dinner and make note of local entertainment listings  in the paper.

At night we lean on elbows into the deep window sills and gaze at the shadows of the black walnut across our snow-blanketed yard. A yard! A real yard! Toronto doesn’t have yards. And, for Kim, her suburban backyard meant you always had a dozen eyes on you, a dozen dogs barking at you and two dozen yelping and screeching children interrupting your idyllic backyard fantasies. Our only intruder and pair of eyes now is a nervous rabbit who comes by like clockwork. And, my god, we can actually see the moon and stars now.
I thought I would have deeper pangs for Toronto and that bustly city life that had become my second skin, but, I don’t. Those pangs have been replaced by more intense nesting instincts, a big dose of nature and the wonderful balm that is “change” and “new” and feeling, finally, at home.

Categories: Home Sweet Home, The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Fine Art of Living in 700-Square Feet

When you live in 700-square feet and caramelize onions on the stovetop, your duvet will smell exactly like caramelized onions that night unless you close the bedroom door and wedge a rolled wet towel at the base of the door. Similarly, if you make butter chicken for dinner, there’s a 100% chance that later that night when you shower, you will step out of the tub Irish Spring-clean only to wrap yourself in a curry-scented towel.


When you live in 700-square feet a gas fireplace can recreate Central American climes in about 13 minutes flat. In addition, for ultimate winter coziness, when you have seven foot ceilings, pot lights serve as head warmers. One can feel like a Swiss Chalet rotisserie chicken very quickly and easily.

With en suite laundry, when the buzzer signals the end of the dryer cycle, it’s parallel to being struck by a bolt of lightning. Originally designed for basement placement, Maytag dryer buzzers were set to a volume ample enough to alert housewives on the upper two floors of a home or half a block down the road—not ten paces away.

Living in such close quarters means that there is no secret Tostito eating—and a beer being covertly opened can be detected from any point within the apartment. Much like the heightened awareness a cat has with the electric can opener of yore—even when above-mentioned cat is three miles away, about to pounce on a woodland mouse– I run in the same fashion towards the sound of a bottle opener or chip bag. Natural wild instincts despite urban location intact.

When you have 700-square feet in downtown Toronto, only 70 seems to be allotted to the kitchen area. This translates into just enough space for one Romanian gymnast to do a somersault. Two people in the kitchen galley at one time means bacon grease splattered on someone’s shirt, accidental knife jabs and random head strikes from freezer doors or each other.

In special cases, such as mine, a landlord can order a brand new fridge and request to have the fridge door mounted to open from the right side, to create more space, before delivery. However, at the same time, in special cases, said landlord can mis-measure available fridge space and order a fridge too large. This means that sometimes when you live in small spaces, the fridge door cannot open fully to the right due to a wall, even when two inches of the counter top is sawn off. This allows the fridge door to open 55 degrees instead of 90 which requires users to do serious lunging and intensive arm extensions to reach the back left corner. Luckily, here, beers are safe from shorter-armed people. Conversely, the Costco-sized Thai chili sauce bottle is safe from toppling and knocking over the 6-pack of Carlsberg like bowling pins.

I could go on about the former fridge—how I had to shut both bedroom doors to drown out its moaning. It was a vintage model, tired of being cold all the time. In the dead of night it sounded like a half dozen hamsters were running in wheels to keep it in operation. The new fridge is a moderate improvement—we still have to jack up the volume on a movie to account for the background din of the fridge running. And, oh, how it runs. I have been half-tempted to unplug it during movies (and sleep) on several occasions.

When you live in 700-square feet there is no room for miscellaneous anything. One kitchen drawer is dominated by pots and pans stacked like Russian dolls. One drawer is crammed with the likes of Raisin Bran, panko, Schwartz’s steak seasoning, molasses and carefully arranged boxes of crackers. Everything must have a purpose. And sometimes, even with a definitive purpose, items like the Krups panini maker must reside on the shoe shelf. Sometimes, space hog dishwashers that eliminate valuable cupboard space, must be employed as full-time dish storage. All house guests were routinely told not to place dirty dishes in the dishwasher. “No, this is where we store all the clean dishes.” The previous arrangement before our epiphany was on top of the fridge. Which meant all the stacked square dishes and matching square bowls would have to be lifted off in one overhead military press-style manoeuvre to the counter below. Equivalent of 50 pounds and repetitive strain injury to supraspinatus muscle. Thank god for dish storage epiphanies.

More on storage: With two semi-fashionista people with a penchant for hoodies and jeans, closet by-laws have to be put into place. Such as (to an anonymous girlfriend): “No purchase of big, wool sweaters, regardless of how awesome they are until we move.” Kim has two that require a full dresser drawer. When we flew to Charlottetown, her sweater took up the entire overhead compartment of our Air Canada Boeing.

Our shoes are already double-stacked, our jeans wedged to the closet ceiling. No jumbo-sized or double anything is allowed. Especially because the bathroom medicine cabinet height is designed for products that mice might use. Kim’s hairspray has to lie on its side, threatening to roll out and explode on the tile floors on a daily basis.

On top of all this, living below others (a couple who loves wearing their cement-soled shoes and doing laps each morning circa 5 am) means all sound must be kept to a minimum. Yes, it’s like living on a fun reduction. If the cement-soled shoe couple is home (and they usually tuck in around 9 pm), movies are at a whisper-level. Only high dramas with heavy dialogue (bonus for subtitled flicks) can be rented mid-week. Definitely no James Bond or Bourne Conspiracy-types until maybe Saturday night when we can start our movie performance earlier.


Phone conversations are halted and scheduled for seniors hours. My sister has had to suffer because of it. She lives in the ideal time zone (Banff) for my night owl lifestyle (two hours behind Toronto-time), but, due to the sleeping couple above, I have to laugh silently and position myself practically outside the window and speak in hushy tones.



But, sometimes, after living in 700-square feet for two years, you buy a house that is double that size with no one living upstairs. Or downstairs. With a backyard to lounge in (not just look at like a caged budgie), a kitchen that could fit 25 minglers AND a team of somersaulting Romanian gymnasts, space for a dozen wool sweaters for each of us in several rooms, permission and encouragement for LOUD movies (positioned far, far away from the fridge that is remarkably silent—with a fridge door that opens practically 180 degrees), space for time zone-friendly phone calls that won’t disturb the other (where laughter can be laughed LOL-style and not held in like a fart), a separate pantry AND lazy Susan instead of one wimpy drawer, and, best? An en suite AND master bath for towels that will smell like Downy Mountain Mist not Patak’s butter chicken after dinner.
We’re ready.

Categories: Home Sweet Home, The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Everything I Thought I Would Be

No, I’m not looking for a pep rally of “you can still do it!” I’m not looking for reassurance of any sort, because I’ve already reassured myself that all the things I thought I wanted to be are things I no longer want to be.

January is reliable for inspiring deep thinking turbulence: complex analysis of where we are in our lives, where we’ve been (romantically, financially and geographically) and who we’ve become in the last year and beyond. We dissect it with the help of Oprah and try and piece together a new annual map with an even better scenic route and more favourable destination. But I still like to drive back to childhood for the occassional unexpected picnic lunch.

As a corn-silk blonde child with adventure-scraped knees, day-dreaming was a full-time job, usually clocked in at the pond, high in my favourite willow. Long before serious scholastic pursuits and career actualization, it was clear that I would be involved in social media to some degree. I loved to harness my environment in words, autograph books, audio, ambitious early memoirs and crinkled line drawings.

I used to creep down to my designated weeping willow at dusk and record the spring peeper frogs on my cassette player. I’m surprised I didn’t invent the VCR, because I went to greater lengths to audio record every episode of Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness. This was all preparation for my future as the next Roger Tory Peterson.

Like Roger, I thought I would draw birds all the live long day, peer at them through binoculars and remark on their peculiar habits. I would probably wear a camoflouge vest with lots of pockets and poke around woods with fig newtons and thermoses of hot tea. What a gig that would have been.

I was intentionally well-rounded, mostly to fulfill my mother’s wish that we be anything but boring. Because, “only boring people get bored.” I busied myself with cataloguing my arrowhead collection, snakeskins, baby opossums in formaldehyde, gems and feathers. One day I was going to open a natural history museum that would be situated near the pond. I had already started clearing a trail that I would invite visitors to hike along.

I typed out every Casey Kasem Top 40 countdown on the electric Brother typewriter my mother sometimes brought home from her secretarial job at a law firm. After the Top 40 documentation, I began typing out my museum inventory and elaborate plans for my teddy bear fashion design business. Yes, in addition to my serious work as an orinthologist (bird expert) and natural history museum curator, I thought I might sew up some Vera Wang-esque runway fashions for stuffed animals.

Like I said in the beginning, there are some things I no longer want to be.

A travel photography student at Matador U recently remarked on an instructor’s view of new year’s resolutions. They fall flat in a good two weeks, no? Instead, she gave up half-assed resolutions years ago and decided to choose a word to define a year. I had to go with “refinement” because it seemed most obvious. I’ve pursued lots of ventures over the years from writing erotica to creating stained glass windows. I’ve painted wall murals, went to falconry workshops (because there’s a big demand for falconers), shovelled horse shit at a centre for aging animals (and cried the entire time for the dying animals with such stoic spirit), tried to see the merit in cranio-sacral therapy (AND Reiki), painted storefronts for the Christmas season with a graphic design company, massaged horses, sat in a pastry chef orientation night at George Brown college and read very seriously about being a cheesemonger.

And then, with refinement, I crossed off all of the above. I re-examined life as a museum curator. I actively pursued an internship at a primate sanctuary in Hawaii. I thought about returning to work with chimps, or volunteering with elephants in Kenya. I had already learned that volunteering for four months in Africa was cheaper than living AND working in downtown Toronto for one month.

Dog walking?

My love for all dogs (except for one cranky fox terrier in 2002) and the outdoors made professional dog walking the natural selection. Except, I can’t yell. Or whistle. It takes me a good seven minutes to unravel my iPod headphones. Imagine a dozen dog leashes? If I unleashed the dogs under my charge at Riverdale as I see other chirpy dog walkers do, I’d never get the dogs back. And you can’t just go buy 12 replacement dogs.


In Uganda I bought several jars of “Not Tonight Honey” made by a cheeky women’s collective outside Kampala. When I returned to Canada my stars aligned and I saw a job advert for a beekeeping position. The summer before I was stung four times in my left hand and it turned into a baseball glove. It was embarrasing and impossible to hide. My hand was so fat from the bee stings I couldn’t even fit it in my pockets. However, how cool would it be to work as a beekeeper? I emailed my resume and spoke to the head keeper the same day. I asked how often he got stung. “When the bees are mad, like, if you scare them or wake them up, sometimes 200 times.” TWO HUNDRED TIMES? I decided I would die and simply revisit Uganda to buy the cheeky Not Tonight Honey. It would be way cheaper.


It was well after midnight and I was clicking through random Craigslist job ads. An old fire hall that had been converted into a confectionary shop was looking for a chocolatier. I crawled through the website, picturing myself quite easily in the back, dipping strawberries, slicing loaves of maple walnut fudge and dunking hunks of sponge toffee into chocolate. So easy. I had to Google Streetsville because I didn’t even know exactly where in suburbia it was. North? Probably. I learned that it would only take 2.5 hours (one way) and about 4 buses, a 20-minute subway ride, and a 1.6km walk to get to. No problem. I applied and clearly didn’t get the position because I barely eat chocolate let alone make it. Twice I have tried to dip strawberries at new year’s and both times the first batch was a monumental disaster. Did you know that if you simmer the chocolate too long it turns into brown cement? Maybe chocolatier wasn’t my precise calling anyway. Call waiting?

Pro Boxer

Every time I watch any of the Rocky series this idea re-emerges quite strongly. I like the hi-tops you get to wear in the ring, the long shiny shorts, monikers and the fact that you are paid to turn your body into a sinewy, sculpted machine powered by chicken, boiled sweet potatoes, oatmeal and Gatorade. However, one hook in the chops or the solar plexus and I know I would be sobbing like a big sissy.

Bed & Breakfast Owner

(Everyone who knows me well is laughing near-hysterically now). Okay, so my preferred time to rise is somewhere around 11. What? I couldn’t run a Bed & Lunch? For all those (like myself) who like to extend the check-out time, this would be a happy marriage. Wait for it—it’s gonna be the next craze and you read it here first.

White Water Rafting Guide

This was as short-lived as my excitement the first time I went rafting on the Ottawa River. Someone had pissed in my rental wetsuit and it felt like it was packed full of hot poison ivy. On the first rapid everyone in the raft was dumped and sent upside down and backwards down the raging gorge. I swallowed most of the river, ended up with two paddles in my hand and tried to drown my friend Fiona in attempts to save myself when a kayaker paddled out to save us. Yeah, don’t want to do that ever again.

Dakar Rally Driver or Iditarod Great Sled Race Competitor

Homestatically speaking, I am better designed for the sand dunes and blistering sun of the Dakar versus any temperature below a southwestern Ontario July at noon. For the Dakar Rally I would sauce-up a 1987 Suzuki Samurai and eat camel jerky and coffee beans for the entire 9,000 km route. In refinement terms, I hate road trips. I get headachey and anxious to walk or run the rest of the way. I’m okay for an hour, but beyond that I am lulled to sleep. Realistically, I would actually prefer to run the Dakar Rally route.

Iditarod? At a mere 1,850 km, the race would be over before it even started I suppose. I would definitely need someone to lace up my boots in the morning because I hate cold hands. I would also need a whiskey barrel, not just a flask around my neck. And I would feel too sorry for the dogs. Practicality rating? Zero.

Cake Decorator

Long before Cake Boss sucked viewers (like me) into watching a reality show about bitchy bakers baking cakes, I wanted to pipe buttercream icing and make fondant cake castles. I’ve actually never baked a cake in my life. Correction: I did make a mango cheesecake for Kim once, and it was surprisingly as it should be. I decided to end my career on a high note. Besides, in my perfect cake decorator world, someone else would be doing the actual cake-baking part anyway. My reality? I would refuse to wear the stupid chef hat or non-hair-do-friendly hair net.

Travel Writer

In the works, always. Stay tuned. Belize in February!

Body Blitz SpaMassage Therapist

Well, I haven’t crossed it off the list yet. Almost 13 years strong, it was a profession I thought I would do and be since I was 20. I get to work in syrupy serenity, speak in a spa voice and everyone looks forward to seeing me–sometimes for weeks in advance. I “work” in a smashing spa that pulsates with zen. The air is permeated by the sweet orange and ginger tang of the body scrubs and sensual aromatherapy oils. It’s my job to induce relaxation. Which makes my job description exactly the same as a bottle of wine.

Now, that’s refinement.

Categories: The Kitchen Sink | 3 Comments


A few years ago, David Bach, financial columnist and author of The Automatic Millionaire, shared his trade secrets. He promised us that we could start late and finish rich. The “Latte Factor” was the silent and surreptitious arsenal. If we were willing to isolate and eliminate our unnecessary daily expenses (i.e. — lattes and the like), saving just $5 a day could secure us a great sunset and cocktail location in our early retirement future.

I know exactly where my ‘unnecessary’ expenses are, and yes, there are lattes at Jimmy’s Coffee (but these are integral to my weekend shift survival at the spa). And yes, there is that annual booze bill of over $1,500–but I refuse to retract all the philosophical conversations, laughs and dear company that were associated with those bottles of wine and champagne.  In 2010, I spent $300 on tanning but this expense also saved me money. Without a tanning account I would have spent more money on whiskey and Le Gourmand chocolate chip walnut cookies in my attempt to replace the instant bliss that a tanning bed provides.

Is spending $400 a year on movie rentals and matinees unreasonable? Hardly. I can justify every movie that I’ve watched for some lesson learned. It’s my own self-directed continuing education course on love, relationships, gratefulness and hope. Sometimes it’s only a single thought that is pulled from the film, but more often than not, movies have been a quiet, subconscious therapy for me on many fronts. Home schooling if you will. Which makes $400 a year quite acceptable.

What I spend money on has changed with geography too. When I lived in soggy BC, my annual tanning expense was over $800 (mostly because I had to lengthen my indoor tanning season to include June, July and August). I went for massages every single Friday because I wasn’t sure what else to spend my money on, and I paid the salary of at least two Costco employees.  I had a truck, I had highlights, I had African plane fares. But I didn’t have my constant Toronto entertainment and happy quota outlet via concerts, live theatre, schmoozing over martinis, pulled pork this-and-that and random bookstore finds. And for this reason, I do believe money can buy happiness.  And sometimes, you can’t have anything tangible to show for it.

I continue to buy Oprah’s O magazines which I read in sub 45 minutes. Is this foolish, unnecessary spending? I can justify this too. Her magazine makes me think and dwell (in a good way), and $6.50 is the cheapest tuition I know of. And if I’m confessing all my spending sins—I buy Perrier too. Couldn’t I just drink tap water? No. So, if I don’t buy Perrier I don’t drink water at all and I have a kidney stone attack. I need water with personality, Oprah aha moments, lattes with foamy hearts drawn on the soy surface by my barista artist and movie therapy.

In further defence, a $3.00 latte at Jimmy’s provides priceless solace for me. When I sit down in the hub, hum and blur of the coffee shop on my break, my brain feels like an Etch-a-Sketch that has just had the life shook out of it. The once clogged screen of crazy, maze-like doodles becomes a clean slate again. I can breathe out the morning and embrace the afternoon. I can read the National Post with greater clarity and feel inspired in the din. There is white noise, traffic and chatter—but the warmth and punch of that latte grounds me.

How else can you spend $3.00 and find such escape?

I don’t buy lattes every day, but, admittedly I am a person that needs small rewards. Cutting out lattes, tanning and nice bottles of red would be a collateral cut to my happiness. I don’t want to read copies of O from the library (even though I massage people every day, I have small issues with touching magazines that have been heavily touched by the general public). And I want out of season blueberries. And cheeses that taste like cheese, not shoe insoles. Oh, and artisan crackers that are studded with cranberries, rosemary and pumpkin seeds. Yes, I want pretty food.

As Joan Rivers remarked in her documentary Piece of Work: “I don’t want to live carefully.” Rivers life has always been about extravagance; she has enveloped herself in cushy gold-plated environs that are Queen-worthy in their elaborate design. Good for her. She should make her morning coffee with champagne instead of water for the effort she has put into earning those creature comforts.

I remember earning my creature comforts through prisoner-type chores that involved raking pine cones in the back woods (to prevent missile-like injuries when cutting the grass with the push-mower), and picking gravel off the lawn in the spring (also to prevent missiles) after a winter of my grandfather plowing out our driveway. For $5 I’d also SOS the tires of the Cutlass Supreme and Turtle Wax my grandpa’s Cadillac. That was then.

Then, I had a NHL hockey card scrapbook to finance.  And half a shiny California BMX to buy (in retrospect I know my parents paid more than half).  My Joan Rivers work ethic of yore has faded like my Sevens jeans and highlights though. I’m want for nothing now. Just sun-kissed trips to far away places to stretch my mind. I have everything I need except maybe a muffin tray, so, surely, those $3 lattes can stay in my budget, David Bach.

Because, in the end, we will only wish for more time.

Not more money.

Categories: The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

The Lure of Facebook

Facebookitis: characterized by repetitive status updating, profile lurking, photo album creeping and Farmville crop ownership.

It happens to the best of us. It’s like a grown-up playground where the recess bell never rings. Like the party line my great-grandmother had in the early ’80s that allowed us to eavesdrop on all the other gabby party liners. It’s like passing sweaty folded notes in grade 8 behind the teacher’s back, that get read by every person en route before reaching the intended classmate five desks to the left.

Facebook is the neighbourhood we carefully craft for ourselves to live in. We choose our friends, defriend and proudly tag ourselves grinning like Lindsay Lohan in the courtroom with all our pals draped off our shoulders. It’s an acceptable form of bragging, voyeurism, cattiness, hedonism and fluff. While I might be slightly embarrassed to actually buy a glossy copy of InTouch, I have zero qualms about scanning status and relationship updates for gossip.

It’s the efficiency of it all that I love. In the span of one cup of morning coffee, I can see what Jacques is doing in Uganda, what Michelle is up to in Qualicum Beach, what Heidi is thinking about in Nashville and what Jann Arden had as a midnight snack. Geography becomes obsolete, and the beauty of Facebook is that somewhere in the world, there are other friends that are awake when the rest of my Ontario counterparts are smartly sleeping.

In what would have taken my great-grandmother three days of party line phone calls–I can find out the breaking news from my friends dispersed in Australia, the Congo, California and even two blocks away at my brother’s apartment. Tell me Laura Secord wouldn’t have killed for Facebook chat instead of trekking 20 miles across the Canadian hinterland to tell the British that the American troops were planning to invade Beaver Dam in the War of 1812.  If Laura had been really savvy, she would have sent a Friend Request to one of the British troops with a bat of her eyelashes, and she would have seen the status update and hit the Share button!

In addition to conquering the ill-planned time zones of earth, Facebook is a great venue for ‘dating’ friends. If we don’t like somebody after an intial friending, we can defriend faster than Kim Cattrall finds a beefy man to shag in the boudoir. If we don’t approve of a comment, we can delete it faster than the news of a leaked Brangelina sex tape could spread.

Facebook has evolved into more than a rowdy extended cafeteria table though. It has become a personal cheerleading squad. Can we do any wrong with our army of friends rallying behind us? They are there for pats on the back, daily pep rallies and commentary that supports any posting we place on our wall. Prop 8 opposition, the BP oil blooper and Jesse James faced a relentless firing squad, didn’t they? Viral videos circulate like bed bugs and create an emotional Polaroid network. We are instantly bonded through You Tube uploads of footage of  heartbroken Bella the elephant and Tarra, her beloved dog friend at The Elephant Sanctuary  in Tennessee. And oh how we wept over Christian the lion reuniting with John Rendall and Anthony Bourke in Kenya. Then there was the hero dog that saved another dog who had been hit by a car by dragging him across a freeway in Santiago, Chile. Together, via Facebook, we share a unified, emotional experience and find solace in the universal weepy response of others.

When we are ill, Facebook friends begin filtering into our waiting rooms with sage advice, old wives tales, sympathy and virtual companionship. Our friends become doctors with solutions at the ready for parasites, rashes, itches, sore throats and sleeplessness.

But do I need 450 friends?  Do I really have 450 friends? That’s the population of Nottingham Township, Ohio. It’s an Italian wedding guest list. It’s the entire student body of the elementary school I went to–including the herd of dairy cattle in the field behind the soccer pitch.

Of that 450 there are certainly my near and dears and there are friends that I haven’t even met. And until recently, even two fictional friends. Yes, they exist (in an imaginary sense).

What I would like to see is an Awkward Application. For example, when a relationship ends, or when a one night stand turns out to be the symptom of tequila, Facebook terms of agreement should automatically terminate the virtual relationship. This would avoid the dreaded “I can’t believe you deleted me” backlash. If Facebook did that messy stuff for us, the Facebook world would be an easier place to navigate.

What I can do without is the nagging motherly overtones of Facebook. “Get in touch with so-and-so.” “Send so-and-so a message.” “Try Facebook Mobile.” “Jules, try Facebook’s Friend Finder” (because apparently 450 friends is below average). “Jules, here are people you may know–”

What I will acknowledge is that Facebook is a time-sucker. It’s like a lethal combo of quicksand and the Food Network. But, I try and convince myself that it’s the equivalent of completing a Sudoko puzzle or the New York Times crossword. You can’t just ROTFL or LYAO all the time and LOL for every comment. There are expectations now, there are friends of friends who indicate whether they “like” your comment or not. Before you could comment haphazardly without being judged.

But I like it. I like the neighbourhood I’ve created. I’ve been married twice on Facebook now. I’ve been censored, deleted, defriended and hit on by a woman in Spain who was positive that I was her type. Blood type? I’ve reconnected with camp counsellors, the American I gave Ugandan shillings to after he was robbed, fellow travellers I met in the Galapagos, my dream boyfriend of age 13 and a guy who recognized my name from a mural that I painted a decade ago in a pizza shop in Dunnville.

Facebook makes an already small world smaller, and I grateful for my pseudo Nottingham Township, Ohio community.

Yes, I like this. Poke me.

Categories: The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Geography Lessons

Yesterday I was at Hanlan’s Point, my GPS location for self-imposed exile. Here, I lie supine and allow the lake to pull my mind away. The trembling aspens rustle and cicadas buzz at a pitch that is more of an alarm to me—summer is already gathering up its carefree days in fast pursuit of the fall. The cicadas are early this year, they are usually indicative of sizzling late August afternoons where humidity hangs like a wet duvet on our shoulders.

The sun is already setting a minute earlier each night. Yesterday the sun set at 8:45, tonight, 8:44. While the sun was still blistering hot and turning the pale-skinned gingers into Maine lobsters, I snapped open a beer. The bathtub-warm Mill Street Lemon Tea beer was effervescent in my mouth, and the tepid temperature hurled me several latitudes over, to Simba beers in the Congo sun.

Two men walked past me at Hanlan’s as I skimmed the condensation off the beer can and dragged my hand across the back of my neck. The men were holding hands, laughing without inhibition, ankle-deep in the lake water. They were the colour of teak furniture. A Porter jet took to the sky with a distant growl—Boston? New York? Chicago? It banked and slid into the atmosphere and pillowy clouds beyond the aspens above my head.

I dog-eared the 37th page of The Outport People, a book about the zany brood that breathe life into a seemingly uninhabitable island called Baleena. There are no roads, no cars, no telephones. It’s Claire Mowatss best-selling memoir based on the five years she and Farley lived in Newfoundland. My mind was already in too many places to focus on Newfoundland.

Again, I disappeared to the Congo despite staring at the Toronto skyline and the sailboats skating across the surface of the water in front of me. Just one year ago I was popping the remaining Malarone anti-malarial pills out of their foil seal into my cupped hand, sad to see the numbers dwindle by day. My eyes were strained from trying to absorb all the jacaranda trees, brilliant hibiscus and termite hills as tall as flagpoles. I was desperate to take in all that surrounded me. I studied the texture of Mikai’s hair and cool skin. I searched for the history and future in her eyes that were as dark as the African coffee I sipped. The chimp I held in my arms would be a mighty adult next time I saw her. She would no longer be gently accepting spoonfuls of strawberry yogurt and sucking on warm milk sweetened with honey.  In a year, she would find her place among the troop, no longer coddled and fussed over as the babe in arms.

A year ago I was running around the fairways of the Lubumbashi Golf Course, listening to the same songs on my iPod that fuel my route through Riverdale Park and along the Don River in Toronto today. Chantal would meet me after my run and we would sit in the still of the morning, watching the copper mine bigwigs teeing off in ill-fitting plaids and stripes. More often it was the wives of the bigwigs in wide-brimmed hats and equally wide-rimmed sunglasses.

Days later, far from the idyllic morning runs around the greens with the fanfare of grinning, waving Congolese children, I was touching down in Harare, Zimbabwe and Nairobi. All that was familiar and quintissential Africa grew smaller and smaller, until it seemed like a child’s train set, not a real world, below the plane. The dust was still under my nails, in my nose, and deep in the stitching of everything I had worn.

I was leaving, again. And returning. And leaving. My brain needed sutures to hold everything I had seen together.

A  year ago, I held a hastily stamped Kenya exit visa in my hand.  My passport felt heavier with the miles that it had permitted. I landed in Toronto, elated and exhausted. I shared startling stories with my parents like a kid strung out on Halloween candy. I pulled up the photos on my laptop and sat in disbelief that I had actually been to such a place. I described each of the chimps, all 23, their names, their quirks. I watched my mom laugh until she couldn’t breathe over video footage of Mikai clobbering the kitten with a stuffed animal. I felt like I was describing someone else’s life.

We drank champagne in my parents zen backyard with Yanni and the babbling fish pond and citronella candles creating a path that replicated a parade of fireflies. The humming mosquitoes were a nuisance, but not a constant worry like their African counterparts.

I said goodbye, again, to my parents, to Dax, to the backyard that I hadn’t sat in long enough. I didn’t know what my five year plan was. Hell, I wasn’t even sure what my five day plan was.

The urban sprawl of paved Toronto lit up like the most fantastic Lite Brite display, glowing and blurring until I let myself find sleep on the flight to the west coast.

A year ago, and a week from now, I was in BC. The Fraser Valley spread wide below the plane’s wings in a neat patchwork quilt of blueberry and raspberry fields. The snow on Mt. Baker’s peak bounced the glare of the sun back onto my window.

I was coming home, but felt split between the provinces and the peace found in the burning sunsets of the Congo. Home was a sharp slap of reality. My stories stalled in the face of Mila, the most darling lab in the world. She was dying and I felt like I had five hearts beating in my chest, and still, not enough blood for all my limbs.

I unpacked from Africa, and packed again for Toronto. For good. A once familiar life and routine was dissolving and passing through my hands that could only grasp the immediate moment. I spent hours in the grass with Mila, crying like a fool, begging her to slip away. It would be okay. I’m not sure who I was reassuring– myself, or her. Both of us, I think.

I felt like I had live goldfish living in my stomach. My eyes burned like they were full of poison ivy. A year ago and a week from today, I wondered what was right. What was wrong?

Nothing felt right, even my skin felt unfamiliar over my bones. Jann reminded me, “life is fleeting.”

And I touched down at Pearson a week later. Mila died the very next day. I found solace in unexpected places, and comfort, even on the hardwood floor of Dax’s condo.

A year ago, I stood at the edge of the quarry in the Congo, knowing life was changing as fast as the landscapes would be under my feet in that week. I stood on a ferry the next day, crossing Lake Ontario to Ward’s Island with my anxious parents, who didn’t expect to see me again until Christmas. The next day I was at Hayward Lake, BC, watching Mila swim out into the cool depths for the very last time.

And I return. To Lake Ontario, with my feet in the sand. I still see Hayward Lake, I see Lake Victoria too. I see the quarry and all of the Congo. My mind revisits the year and all the geography in between. 

I am lucky not for what I have seen, but for what I have felt.  And there’s no passport to show for that. Just this.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

A Tribute to Dax, For His Birthday

I’ll admit, I was a bully, that is, until my brother turned 12 and could suddenly pick me up with one hand. However, up until that point I was guilty of locking him in the linen closet on a daily basis and whispering “Greeeemlins!” until he cried.

The two biggest scars Dax has on his forehead and leg also came from me, one directly and the other not so directly. He was only four or so when I accidentally cracked him in the forehead with a Louisville Slugger. My sister was pitching, or, maybe I was using the T-ball stand still—what I do know is that Dax suddenly appeared behind me and I whacked him full on. His little head sounded like a coconut being split open. Blood globbed out and my sister screamed in the hysterical way that only she could. “His brain is coming out of his head!” Indeed, it did look like that.

Two years later we were running through Mac’s Milk convenience store and my friend Erica (or me) clipped the corner of a pyramid of glass Canada Dry gingerale bottles. The pyramid toppled and bottles began exploding on the tile floor in our wake. Dax, unfortunately three steps behind us, was caught in the middle of the glass trajectory. When I turned my head, a gigantic piece of glass was firmly planted in his lower leg. Off to the emergency room again.

I can’t be blamed for his dislocated arm at least. That was Kiley and a wrestling match that turned violent. Although, I’m surprised all of us didn’t dislocate every limb in our ridiculous attempts to get the end of the couch closest to the console TV. We had no mercy. Sometimes it took two of us to pull the offending one from the best seat. Bowls of salt and vinegar chips would be dumped, cans of pop would tip and spill down the side of the couch, remote controls would be thrown at head level—all for this prized couch corner.

Then there were the brutal wars over what was being watched on television. Dax was the only sci-fi fan in the house and it seemed like Star Trek and Deep Space Nine played non-stop, 24 hours a day. By this time Dax was a powerhouse with biceps that could crack walnuts. There was no chance that I would win in my pursuit to watch Thirtysomething or Northern Exposure.

When dear Dax wasn’t monopolizing the TV, he was firmly planted at the kitchen table with the newspaper. Nobody was allowed to share the table with him, not even the cat. In fact, the rest of the family wasn’t even permitted to take a section of the newspaper until Dax was finished.


After he had read the paper and used every bowl in the kitchen to make pancakes, we had to evacuate the kitchen area again so he could do homework. If my dad attempted to move any of the textbook or binder piles, there was a meltdown of apocalyptic proportions.

Dax and I shared a room as this was the safer option. Kiley and I battled more than Dax and I did. Plus, she needed a room for her gossipy phone conversations that she had on her private phone line.  Dax and I were amiable enough, and if he wanted me to turn out the light because I was reading too long, he would gently kick me from underneath my top bunk. And when I say gently, I mean, five swift horse kicks that shifted my vertebrae. Or, sometimes it was both his feet lifting up the mattress below me until I gave in.

Several chase scenes took place in that house on 62 Arthur Road. Most dangerous was the circuit through the livingroom across the slippery shag, a quick L-turn and then the full-on leap into the sanctuary that the bathroom provided. This was the only room in the house with an inside lock. But, being the crafty fighters that we were, a locked door posed no threat. A Q-tip or ice pick could pop the lock in a second.

When we weren’t fighting over the end of the couch and Star Trek, there was a nightly eruption somewhere around 7:30 for first bath. Because we lived on a property with a well, and because we were apparently pioneers, my parents insisted that we all share the same bathwater. If you were number five, the bathwater was downright swampy and tepid with shaved leg stubble, Kiley’s long hairs and Irish Spring soap scum. The bathroom that was a sanctuary in the above-mentioned chase scenes became a war zone. Even if you did land second bath rights, Dax would slip in. If Kiley and I managed to beat him to the safe zone, there were half-naked tug-of-wars.  That door remained on its hinges, my bedroom door did not (but that’s a story for Kiley’s tribute). To the left of that bathroom door, in the woven grass wallpaper, there was a dent as deep as thumbprint from the dog’s brush being flung at 100mph at the offending person taking a bath out of turn. I think it was Dax. And I’m 97% sure it was me whipping the dog brush at his head.

My favourite picture of Dax (hint: red suit)

I am amazed that we all survived relatively unscathed. No weapon was too dangerous though—Dax smacked Kiley over the head with a frying pan, somebody threw a hammer, Kiley used her Cabbage Patch Kid like a heat-seeking missile and I was known to use spoonfuls of pepper to blow in wide-eyes peeking through bedroom doors.

Ah, but there were gentler times. Like the days before Dax had biceps and belonged to the 4-H Baking Club. He actually received a certificate from Betty Crocker for his baking know-how. His Betty’s Bread Pizza (a gorgeous braided and stuffed  loaf brushed with egg white) is still my birthday dinner request. When he was still in highschool, a friend of mine hired him to make the baked goods for her party. Of course my mother had to foot the bill for all the ingredients (I think she still brings up the price of walnuts) and Dax pocketed the cash. We think it was to the tune of $100.

Because we lived in the country, we couldn’t take on the part-time jobs city kids were privy to, like newspaper delivery routes. Dax found his own steady income by taking over responsibility for the vegetable garden. He would till the ground, plant the seeds, weed, water and toil, then sell the produce back to my parents. It seemed fair.

When Nintendo first emerged on every kid’s must-have wish list, Dax had already purchased one with his vegetable crop money on a cross-border shopping trip to Buffalo. He had a “Fat Cat” account at the Royal Bank and had already purchased stocks I think. With his Nintendo, he wisely charged Kiley and I 25 cents a game, and hid it and the Super Mario games when not in use. He made a killing from us and my mom who needed beefsteak tomatoes and pints of raspberries.

I think Dax was ten when he ambitiously took on setting up a saltwater fish tank. He funnelled all his earnings into financing the aquarium that was big enough to swim in. He ordered Protein Skimmers and special UV lighting from Pennsylvania and continually had UPS shipments arriving.  His tank today is evidence of his young passion.

But we knew Dax was an original early on. He wanted to keep his name unique and would send away for seed catalogues and fish information using his alias “David.” Every electrical appliance was dissected on a regular basis, he tried to make dill pickles glow in the dark with 9-volts and he had a drawer of at least a hundred batteries that he would test on Saturdays with his battery tester. Dax belonged to the Radio Shack Battery Club. He channelled Chevy Chase in National Lampoon with his elaborate Christmas light displays. Even our bunk bed had Christmas lights.

On vacation (and Torti vacations were remarkably similar to National Lampoon’s), if we were anywhere on the ocean, Dax would vanish at first light. The rest of us would be patiently waiting to begin the day’s itinerary, and Dax would be a speck, 10 kilometres down the coastline, poking at some sea anemones or inspecting tidal pools.

As much as he loves fish, the poor kid is a barfer on a boat. Totally afflicted with seasickness.  This was first witnessed when we spent a week in Kennebunkport, Maine and decided to go whale-watching. My dad who has an aversion to boats to begin with, stayed on shore and ate ice cream cones for five hours. On the boat Dax quickly turned slate grey and barfed on my mom’s pant leg. My mom barely flinched and simply rolled up her pant leg.

Dax and my mom were tight, even before the barf-on-the-pant-leg incident.  When Dax was in high school he found my mom’s parked car (as she was working at a retirement home close to our school that day) in February, and left a Hagen Daaz ice cream bar on her windshield, for her birthday. Of all the gifts over the years, I think that is the one that stands out the biggest and brightest. Mine came when I was in the jungles of Costa Rica over Christmas. Dax sent me several homemade cut-out snowflakes so I wouldn’t miss the snow in Canada.

He still surprises us in wonderful and unexpected ways. Like the time he asked if I wanted to see Blue Rodeo in Guelph at Club Denim. I said yes, of course! When the concert date approached I asked Dax when and where my girlfriend and I should pick him up. “What? I’m not going to the concert. I only got tickets for you two, I didn’t want to go!”

He surprised me most on one of my saddest days. We were at a funeral for our friend Jane. Dax and I both had tears running down our cheeks as we stood in front of the casket. A recent ex-girlfriend of mine approached me at the casket and said she had separation papers for me to sign. I could follow her out to the car to get them. I was stunned. When she turned and left, Dax said he was coming with me. As I walked to her car, Dax kept watch, just in case she tried to create a scene (bigger than the one she had already created). I was so proud of him in that moment.

The BFF's: David, Dax, Kelly & I

I’ve been proud of him many times, and grateful for his company. When I traipse off around the world and move here and there, Dax is always happy to have me back. We laugh our fool head’s off, drink pretty martinis, make messes of each other’s kitchens while cooking, gossip, watch crappy movies and carry on like the best of friends. Because we are.

I remember a party at Dax’s condo just before I moved out west. Somebody asked Dax if he would miss me. I overheard him say, “Of course, my best friend is leaving me.” It broke my heart.

We haven’t fought since the frying pan and “FIRST BATH!” days. In fact, even when we were younger, we were an unbeatable twosome. We’d talk about our dreams for hours (his were always about being abducted by aliens and having scientific experiments done on him). We’d make lists of what Hollywood stars we’d want to be with. We’d do girls first, then guys. Madonna, Sigourney Weaver and David Duchovny found spots on both our lists.

I always had a willing companion in Dax. My poor grandmother never had any nylons or wire hangers left as we’d rob her of them to go tadpole and crayfish hunting. Once I convinced Dax to walk to Burford with me, just to see if we could. We took the train tracks behind our house and had to call my parents from a convenience store some five hours later because it was dark.

We would take off on our bikes and cover over 70km. We went camping and slept in sleeping bags that the cat had obviously pissed on at some point when they were in storage. We canoed the Grand River and laughed by the fire over memories of when Dax wanted to be a Corvette when he grew up. He didn’t quite grasp the inanimate object thing. Now he’s a dual degree biotoxicology-microbiology PhD student in a cancer research lab, which is way cooler than any Corvette.

Not only can he shake the best martinis and sing Tiffany songs by heart, but he routinely throws three-course dinner parties with entrees that way surpass his initial Betty’s Bread Pizza days. His kitchen is stocked with cannoli tubes, a pasta maker, ice cream maker and Silpat sheets (which apparently are the only surface cookies should be baked on!).  He’s a handsome devil who can pull off a bikini top better than most girls. He’s my favourite guy in the world.

Happy birthday, Dax. Sorry I locked you in the closet so often and cracked you in the head with a baseball bat.

Categories: The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

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