Blog-o! Notes from

Sat, 20 Apr 2013

In order to go to the Write the Docs conference that I wrote about in my last post, you might suppose, correctly, that I had to go to Portland, Oregon. My last adventure was my trip to Japan in 2011, so I was ready to get away.

There are lots of ways to get from Toronto to Portland; I chose to go via Vancouver on Air Canada because I heard from Twitter that, while Air Canada is bad, the American airlines are worse. As usual, I didn't have any trouble with Air Canada and arrived in Vancouver only slightly cramped and squashed.

We flew into a storm on the way from Vancouver to Portland, and when we were almost there the plane got hit by lightning. I wasn't terribly happy about that; I couldn't think of a time I had heard about planes being hit by lightning and it ending well. The pilot didn't seem bothered, though, and apart from some turbulence and the people behind me panicking, we landed without a problem.

Portland was warm and moist and smelled wonderful. I got a ride to the Hotel deLuxe from an Internet friend, and we had a chance to gossip and talk to her little guy about Superman and the fact that he couldn't reach his bits of paper with "S" on them.

The Hotel deLuxe was built in 1912 and recently restored with a vintage movie theme. It's a luxurious old-timey hotel like a smaller King Eddy. My room had floor-to-ceiling velvet drapes, crystal deco-style light fixtures, and white subway tile in the bathroom. The bed was furnished with thick, heavy sheets and more pillows than I knew what to do with. (So, more than two.) There was also a pillow menu, so you could order an even better pillow than the umpteen already there, and a holy book menu so you could request any one of about twelve holy books. I approve of the breaking of the Gideon hegemony.

After I got settled in I decided to go for a walk to wind down after travelling all day. Powell's Book Store was nearby, labelled as an attraction on the hotel map, and open late, so that was my destination.

The area around the hotel was dead at that time of night; there are some offices, a church, a theatre with nothing going on. Obviously I wasn't familiar with the neighbourhood so I didn't know how nervous to be, but there were a few women walking around and biking alone, so I decided not to be nervous. After a couple of blocks I came to Burnside Street, which was a little livelier.

Powells is astonishing. It's a multi-storey used book store which covers an entire block; it's a shrine to books. I could have spent the whole weekend there, but I managed to escape after about an hour and a half with only a few books and a couple of gifts for the girls.

The next day was the conference, which I already talked about over here. I woke up early (still being on EST, three hours earlier than local time), worked out in the hotel's small-but-effective gym, then had a proper cooked breakfast in the hotel restaurant. (I don't know why, but hotel breakfasts are the height of luxury and self-indulgence to me.)

I walked to the conference site in plenty of time, so when I got there the doors weren't open yet. There was a short line of grumpy-looking people waiting to get in (and one person who looked pleased to be there). I was happy and well-rested so I didn't want to stand in a grumpy line, but I wasn't feeling outgoing enough to talk to the one happy person, so I went for a walk around the block instead.

By the time I got back the doors to the Mission Theater were open. It's another old building (Portland doesn't seem to have Toronto's love of knocking old buildings down): a theatre with a balcony and a bar.

As I said in the other post, the conference was great. We were served lunch and there was an open bar (!). The line for lunch was really long, so to pass the time I had a beer; the first day I asked for something "not too bitter" (because I know Americans love really bitter ales); the drink the bartender served me was delicious and indeed not too bitter, so I asked what it was: a Nebraska Bitter. Good thing I let him choose.

I took a break from the conference and walked down a few blocks to get a coffee from Barista — some of the people at the conference suggested it as the best local coffee place. (It was delicious and, after three days I'm officially spoiled for non-awesome coffee.) I also stumbled on Oblation Papers, a paper and print shop with beautiful, quirky handmade cards. Like so many places in Portland, the store is just the front desk for a tiny factory — they actually make the paper right on site. There's also a budgie.

I really like Portland. I don't really understand how the economy of Portland works because there seem to be lots of businesses which employ people to make things by hand, and sell the things for reasonable price. You can get vegan food everywhere, and wherever you can buy coffee, you can also buy beer.

Monday night the conference organizers had some events planned; a night at a video game arcade (with infinite quarters), and a couple of informal gatherings nearby, at a beer place and a coffee place. The video game arcade had dozens, if not hundreds, of video games and pinball games, but nothing that appealed to me (unsurprisingly — I have never liked video games). They had DDR but no-one was playing. I ended up going around the corner to the coffee place — not only coffee, but beer and computers you could rent time on — but there was no-one from the conference there. I was tired and hungry anyway, so I had a plate of nachos, read Twitter and went back to the hotel.

On Tuesday I tried World Cup Coffee, which was better than Starbucks but not as good as good Portland coffee (told you I'm spoiled). They were experiencing a small fire in one of their coffee roaster, but they managed to make me a coffee anyway.

Wednesday morning I woke up even earlier, packed, and had another fancy hotel breakfast. Then I caught the Max train (just around the corner from the hotel) and rode all the way to the airport without a single transfer. So awesome! I wish I lived in a non-world-class city that had decent transit to the airport.

I entirely failed to get any good gifts for my cat-sitters, so I hoped I would be able to get something at the airport. I was lucky; turns out the Portland airport has awesome retail, including a store called Made in Oregon which has a great selection of interesting, actually-local food and gifts. I got hazelnuts, tea, chocolate and saltwater taffy for the folks back home.

[Posted at 22:41 by Blake Winton] link
Mon, 24 Sep 2012

I was looking at old posts and wow, I can't believe how much I used to post. And how much I love reading old posts about the girls when they were littler, and the things we used to do. I hate that I'm so busy I don't have time to blog any more.

I need to get less busy. I don't know how. That's my leitmotif these days.

But I wasn't too busy to have lots of fun with the girls this summer. This is what we did.

High School Reunion

The day after school ended we got on a plane to Saskatchewan. I have a Simplenote to myself called Summer Plans/Notes/Ideas that includes the line, "Don't leave the day after school ends", but this year I had to ignore my own advice because my twentieth high school reunion was the weekend immediately after the end of school, and Friday was the only sensible day to fly.

We rented a car (a Kia Soul, which drives exactly like the giant cardboard box it resembles although it's very comfy and spacious on the inside, as long as you're not transporting more than four cubic feet of stuff) and drove to Prince Albert, where we stayed with my friend Debbie.

Debbie was my best friend in grade nine and maybe grade ten (it's kind of a blur), and then I drifted into another group but we stayed on good terms. She's now basically the only person I still talk to from high school. (Oh, and she's also the person who introduced me to Guns n' Roses, with a cassette of Appetite for Destruction which she might have copied from her brother's copy.)

Debbie lives with her hot husband and her gorgeous kids in an adorable bungalow in a suburb-y division of Prince Albert. (There isn't much of Prince Albert that isn't suburb-y.) She has a lovely back yard with groomed lawn and tidy garden beds, a variation on the same play structure we have, and a back gate which opens on to a park with a playground. My kids get along with her kids (they are still talking about them) and they spent hours playing in their inflatable pool. Debbie and I still get along — good chemistry never fades — so it was a terrific visit. We'll definitely stay over at their place again.

Debbie didn't actually come to the reunion — they went to a cottage instead, but they let us use their house (and their babysitter!)

The reunion started with a tour of the high school. It was strange for me because most of the tour was to parts of the school I hadn't actually spent much time in: the pool, the gym, the art room, various technical shops and the music room. I took almost all academic classes — the only technical class I took was Electricity and Electronics, and the only arts class I took was choir. (I thought I recognized the music room from choir, but it turns out they moved it since I was at school, so I recognized it wrong.)

The girls thought the school was pretty awesome, especially all the shops. It's a comprehensive high school, so there is a wood shop, a welding shop, a mechanic shop, a pottery studio, a cosmetology classroom, and on and on. I kept on thinking, "I should have taken this in high school!", especially in the drafting and CAD studio. I missed so many opportunities because I was so fixed on a particular idea of myself and my future.

The next part of the reunion was a dinner and dance at the Prince Albert Golf (and Curling?) Club. There was only a handful of people there — we were a graduating class of three or four hundred, but apparently we mostly don't care to see each other any more. But I got to hang out with some people I thought were pretty cool in high school (still pretty cool) and some people I don't remember, didn't recognize, but liked anyway.

One of the guys I chatted with was pretty awesome in school — he got great grades and was a super athlete, on all the teams. Contrary to the athlete stereotype, he wasn't good-looking or popular but he was well-liked. But when we got to the cafeteria part of the school tour he said that he had never eaten in the cafeteria because he was afraid he wouldn't find anyone to sit with. We were all so stupid and neurotic in high school. (Some of us still are.)

Anyway, the food was good and the company was good. The next morning Blake and I and the girls enjoyed an incredibly comprehensive breakfast buffet (omelettes! sausages! pancakes! chicken! lasagna! pie!) at the same venue with a couple of reunion moms and their kids. (No other dads at that breakfast, not sure why.) Sadly the other kids were all boys — Delphine and Cordelia were quite unimpressed with their antics — but down at the grown-up end of the table we had some great conversation. (I observed that conversations about money in Prince Albert are exactly the same as conversations about money in Toronto, except the numbers are half or a quarter the size. "I can't afford $150 000 for a house!" "They're renting that place for $800!")

Big River

The rest of our stay in Saskatchewan was uneventful. My usual Big River fixer — my mum's friend who takes us fishing and arranges trips to farms — was sick, so we didn't have the usual adventures, but we did take lots of walks through a lovely new waterfront trail. (Big River is amping up their tourist attractions because they haven't had any industry there since the lumber mill shut down.) We found an old tree fort, and the girls figured out how to climb it. Debbie brought her kids up and we had lunch at the nice cafe. I read lots of books and watched all my mother's police procedurals. The girls were bored. We found a new beach and met some potential future playmates.

There was a bit of an adventure trying to work out how we would get back to Saskatoon to catch our plane home. It's a three-hour drive, and usually my mum's friend takes us. Since there is no public transport of any description up there we had no plan B. Nothing. (Well, my mum knows an older guy with a ponytail who lives in one of the trailers who she figured would probably take us. So, no plan B.) What ended up happening is that my mother drove us an hour south, and Debbie drove up from Prince Albert to pick us up, then all the way down to Saskatoon to drop us off, and then back home to PA. Saint Debbie! Thank goodness, and it was so much fun getting to visit with her on the way.

(Next time I'm renting a car and keeping it the whole visit.)


After we got home and caught up on Frappuccinos and playdates and family visits, the girls had two weeks of day camp at Harbourfront. Delphine did theater camp; they put on a short version of Disney's musical Alice in Wonderland. They also worked on vocal techniques, costumes, set design, headshots, and other theatrey things; Delphine loved it, and she got to play Alice. Well, she was one of four Alices. (She was the sweetest.)

Cordelia was in Canoe Camp for the first week. I like canoe camp because they learn some basic canoe skills, and because they canoe over to the island and get to explore some of the little bays and inlets. It seems like a very Toronto camp. For the second week Cordelia was in an unthemed day camp (also at Harbourfront) and she enjoyed it, too. They went to a park, and they went swimming (ironically they have to bus them to a pool because you can't swim at Harbourfront) and to a beach.

While the girls were at camp I did some work and ran some errands; I went to Ikea with my new neighbour Aimee, I got a dress fitted for Kat's wedding, I looked after my friend Tanya's cats, I got a massage.

On July 30, Delphine and I went to the mall to get her a dress for Kat's wedding while Cordelia spent the day with cousin Charlie for his birthday. Delphine and I love clothes, so we had fun (especially since Sears has formal dresses for $35). She tried on six dresses before picking her favourite (which of course wasn't my favourite). We also hit H&M for some entirely gratuitous accessories: shiny gold shoes for Cordelia and a black hat for Delphine.

My Birthday

On my birthday (I remember when my birthday used to get an entire post of its own) Blake took the day off to hang out with us. I went and got my toenails done in the morning while everyone baked me a cake, and then we went to the Windsor Arms for afternoon tea. It was lovely even though we had to sit outside. (Apparently you have to call weeks in advance to get a seating inside.) Afternoon tea was delicious. The food came on a tiered plate stand, of course. The bottom plate had big, fluffy scones with clotted cream and some slightly dubious homemade jam. (The strawberry jam was greyish. Tasted fine, though.) The middle plate had three kinds of sandwich, but I can't remember what they were. And on top there was, I think, a little chocolate cake and a little lemon tart and two other things. It was all tasty and we were stuffed. (I always mean to bring the scones home and then I forget and eat them first.)

After tea I made everyone walk down Bloor with me and window shop. We went into Pottery Barn Kids, and looked at incredibly overpriced tea towels at Williams-Sonoma. We went to The Body Shop and I got some much-needed makeup and some not-really-needed-at-all lip glosses.

Blake and the girls baked me a birthday cake, and we had KFC for dinner. In retrospect afternoon tea and KFC and birthday cake was probably overdoing it...

Kat's Wedding

Two days after my birthday was Kat's wedding, another event which deserves a blog post of its own. I've been friends with Kat for ten years and seen her go through a procession of boyfriends and quasi-boyfriends of varying levels of disappointingness. I was pleased when she finally found someone kind and good and patient and interesting. (Though not as pleased as she was, I'll wager.)

The wedding was fantastic, especially considering Kat just about whipped the whole thing together in a month. The ceremony was a quick city hall affair, well-attended by a large contingent of Kat's relatives and friends, as well as a few of Joel's family from Saskatchewan.

The reception was at Currie Hall, a beautiful old room with high ceilings and huge leaded windows. It's part of the National Ballet School and still has brass barres on the walls. The food was delicious and plentiful, as were the drinks and the speeches. My favourite part was Joel's trombone solo for Kat (instead of a speech). Apart from the fact that I'm generally in favour of music instead of speeches, it was a beautiful and touching performance.

The day after the wedding the girls went up to the cottage with Baba and Zaida for a few days. Blake and I were invited, but it's hard to say no to a few child-free days in the city. We had a nice time but spent a lot of money on movies and eating out and buying books. (When you don't like to be outside, there aren't a lot of free ways to have fun.)


The day the girls got back from the cottage I took them down to Centreville. (It was the only day that Ursa was going to be able to go; I thought maybe they would be tired out from the cottage, but they were raring to go.) It was a watershed year for them: Ursa was exactly "tall enough" and also "short enough" to ride everything — she was the precise height which you have to be shorter than to ride the little-kid rides (like the bee ride), and taller than to ride the big-kid rides (like the bumper cars). So of course all the attendants let her go on their ride — she got to ride everything! That was very cool for Ursa and infuriating for Delphine because she's still too short for the "tall enough" rides. (She's shorter than everyone, apparently.)

We hope that Delphine will grow enough to ride the bumper cars next year.

At Centreville we also met up with Kat and Joel and their ridiculously adorable niece (and her mother). It was nice to hang out with Kat and Joel before they disappeared back to SK to do more wedding stuff.

Fort York and a Boat Ride

One of our summer traditions is a take a boat ride down at the harbourfront. Several different companies offer harbour tours on numerous boats, and this year I decided to take the girls on the Kajama, a sailboat.

I also wanted to go to Fort York, a site I had never visited despite having lived in Toronto for over fifteen years. Since Fort York is close to the harbour I figured we could visit it in the morning, then walk down to the harbour in time for our boat ride at 1:30.

Fort York is kind of hard to get to by transit — we took a bus down Bathurst and then walked past a lot of condo construction and a large parking lot to finally find the front gate. I was pleasantly surprised by how much there was to see there; I figured it would be one of those rather dry historical sites with a few restored bits and pieces and a bench or two, but Fort York is staffed up the wazoo with tour guides and reenactors. There was a small group of high school and university students in full (wool) uniform who marched around playing fife and drum tunes and occasionally doing a specific thing. While we were there they raised the flag and did a musket firing demonstration. We took a tour of the officers' quarters and ate piece of period cake baked in the period kitchen by volunteers. (Apparently they're putting together a cookbook — I look forward to that.)

I had only allotted an hour for Fort York, but we could have spent another hour there and gone on another of the many tours. It was worth the trip.

Then we walked down to the harbour, unwittingly following in the footsteps of Isaac Brock. I don't think he stopped to play on the undulating sidewalk and have an iced coffee, though. When we got to the ship it turned out that we were half-an-hour early, due to my inability to read my own calendar, so we hung around the harbourfront a bit and played on more undulating sidewalks. (A baffled tourist: "What are they for?")

The Kajama was pretty nice. It's a beautiful ship, and also has a working kitchen so you can have lunch (and beer!) on board. I was sufficiently impressed by this that I decided we should eat lunch on the boat, but it detracted from the boat ride — we were so busy with our fries and chicken fingers that we didn't pay attention to the lake and the scenery.

There wasn't a tour guide yakking on the Kajama the way there is on all the other rides we've been on; I missed the chatter and the probably-apocryphal stories about the Canada Malting plant and the Redpath sugar factory and the Islands. I suppose it should have been a nice soothing ride but, I dunno, it didn't work for me.

They raised the sails partway into the ride, and lowered them toward the end, but it was a still day and I don't think they ever turned off the motor. That was disappointing, too.

After the boat ride I think we just headed home. Union Station is under construction in a big way, and they're also doing track work or something along Front Street so there's no streetcar from Union to Queen Quay and the Exhibition. Worse, the bus that's running in place of the streetcar drops you off in some weird spot halfway to King Station (except not, because then you could just walk to King) so you have to double back and cross Front and Bay at an intersection that's a mess of temporary barriers and pylons and confusion. We had to do that several times this summer and every time I thought one of my children would get run over for sure.

Distillery District

The day after the boat ride I had to meet with Greg Wilson about something. I thought it would be cool to meet with him at the new Underpass park. The park is in Greg's neighbourhood, it looks cool and it's got an undercover place for the girls to play. It had just opened to much media fanfare; I thought it would be awesome.

Then we couldn't find it. The website says it is between this street and that street, south of here or there — we went there and all we could find was a lot of construction. (We saw lots and lots of construction of various kinds this summer.) We wandered and wandered and finally gave up and decided to meet Greg at the Distillery District. (Apparently Kat knows how to find it, but we never did get a chance to go. Next summer...)

The Distillery District was fine and the girls seemed to enjoy it (I don't know why, it's not much fun for kids). We had some excessively sophisticated ice cream from Soma (should have gone to Greg's — Greg's Ice Cream, not Greg Wilson's) and then we got caught in the rain. There is no bus route that goes to the Distillery District (transit in this city is so stupid sometimes!) so we got wetter and wetter as we hunted for a functional bus or streetcar route.

We finally got on the King car, and then I dragged the girls down to Raindrops under the Royal York to get a proper umbrella. I've been meaning to buy a good umbrella, one that will last, for a while now and this seemed like a good opportunity. I was pleasantly surprised at the prices: I walked in ready to pay $125 for an umbrella and found the good ones were available for $60 or $70. So I bought the girls each a birdcage umbrella as well.

(Of course after I spent $100 on umbrellas the rain stopped and didn't return for two weeks. You're welcome.)

The Ex

The Ex is the Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto's pompously named summer fair. It's mostly a giant midway, with a token gesture towards agriculture and crafts. I went when Delphine was fifteen months old and I could carry her in the BabyTrekker, and it sucked; it was hot and crowded and boring. I've avoided it ever since, instead taking the kids to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, which is about the same but without the midway, with way more agriculture, and in winter so it's not ridiculously hot.

But now Delphine is nine and Cordelia is six and they're not such a pain in the ass to take out places. They also talk to other six- and nine-year-olds and apparently everyone goes to The Ex. (However, apparently also everyone goes to Disney World and Montreal.) So I thought I would brave it one more time and see how it went.

We had Kat to guide us this time; she spends at lot of time at the Ex because her band marches in the "Mardi Gras Parade" that runs every day at 5:00. She gets free admission every day, so she is able to wander the grounds without the pressure of seeing everything in one visit. She pointed us in the direction of the kids' midway and the appalling food, which is really what I was there for.

It was actually okay. The kids' midway had lots of neat rides which were different from the rides at Centreville, but was still small enough to not overwhelm. We were there on a Wednesday towards the beginning of the fair (it goes on for weeks) and so it wasn't crowded at all.

Cordelia and Delphine ate a slushy and an entire funnel cake each, and I had a deep fried Jo Louis and bubble tea. It was excessive — I think we didn't eat dinner.

The Beach

Another adventure later that same week was a trip to the beach. Toronto boasts several beautiful, clean beaches and I like to have at least one day at the beach every summer. This time we went to Ashbridge's Bay. Once again we met up with Kat (it's great having a friend who's a teacher) and once again she acted as tour guide — she grew up in the Beaches. We spent some time on the beach and then dragged the reluctant children along the boardwalk to look at real estate. Then we doubled back along Queen Street where I bought straw hats for myself and the girls ($7 each!), got ice cream from Ed's Real Scoop (coffee toffee!) and visited the library.

Next year I'll plan to spend longer at the beach. The girls could basically spend the entire day on the beach, so I'll pack lots of reading matter and a large hat.

I think next year I might also separate the "Beaches neighbourhood" adventure from the "beach" adventure. There's a ravine called Glen Stewart just north of the Beaches which according to Adam Giambrone is pretty spectacular. So we can start at the north end of that, walk through, and then finish with ice cream and window shopping on Queen. And go to another beach another day.


Blake took a week off at the end of summer to get a taste of our fun. He wanted to see the dinosaur exhibit at the ROM, so we did that on his first day off. The exhibit was spectacular, and we had a nice time reacquainting ourselves with favourites in the museum. (We haven't had a membership for a while.) There's an indoor beehive in the children's section which has a little tunnel out a window so the bees can go in and out — the bees had also built themselves an outdoor hive on the window! And we spun the "what animal are you" wheel and everyone got "insect".


The other exciting thing we did while Blake was off was paint the house. When we moved in I picked out this tasteful putty colour for the walls, thinking it would be sophisticated and interesting. It turned out to be cruddy and depressing; it just looked like decades of nicotine stains. I gave it five years to stop sucking and it never did, so we painted over it with Benjamin Moore's Cloud White. (Yes, white! The problem with the putty colour is that it never looked like a colour, just like a dingy, dimly-lit white. Now the walls are actually white and I'm much happier. And our art looks excellent.)

That's Not All

We did lots of other things this summer: we went to the Tuesday farmers' market at Davisville Park, we met up with friends at Oriole Park, we shopped for ballet clothes, we had playdates (okay, mostly the girls had playdates), we went to the Science Centre, we decluttered the porch and tidied the girls' rooms, Cordelia learned how to ride a bike.

It's almost outrageous how much fun I have in summer. I love planning our adventures, hanging out with the girls, seeing new parts of the city, and the long idle days of exploring and watching them play.

Sometime in the middle of August I started to get anxious because I hadn't done as much work as I had hoped to in summer. Then I realized that in five years Delphine will be fourteen; she will be hanging out with friends or working or doing camps. She definitely won't want to spend the summer going to the beach and the island and the park with me. And when I look back at these last few years I won't wish I had spent more of my summers working. I have half a lifetime to work after my children are grown, but these long summer days are fleeting. I will enjoy every minute of them.

[Posted at 12:27 by Amy Brown] link
Mon, 06 Aug 2012

As I get older I expect less from my birthdays. As a child I was doted on and showered with presents, all of which I loved. (I think kids love presents more because they can't buy anything for themselves, so any material things seem wonderful.) Now that I'm older and more averse to stuff, particularly not the very specific stuff I want — in a 1200 square foot house there's no room for things that are lovely but not quite right — getting stuff is not as thrilling as it was.

But I still like that feeling of being special and adored, and fortunately my family is good at providing that. Yesterday was my thirty-seventh birthday, and we all took the day off to enjoy it.

After breakfast the girls and I walked to the grocery store for a newspaper and a bouquet of flowers. (I don't know why I don't buy myself flowers more often — they were only $10.) Then I took my paper and went off for a pedicure in preparation for Kat's wedding, while Blake and the girls baked me a cake.

Cake baked and nails painted, we fancied ourselves up for an early afternoon tea. Delphine is still good at putting together outfits; she wore a black twill skirt with rickrack trim, and a tropical print top with ruched bodice and puffed sleeves. She topped-and-bottomed it with silver ballerina flats and her new black trilby with sparkly trim.

The rest of us looked pretty good too.

Tea was at the Windsor Arms. (We've tried the teas at the King Edward and the Royal York.) Apparently if you want to get seats inside you have to call weeks in advance. I called last Friday, so we sat outside; if you know Blake, you know what a sacrifice that is. I had to make sure, when I called, that there would be shade and that they haven't been having trouble with wasps. They seated us at a fairly shady table; I took the sunniest spot, and the sun soon moved behind a tree. (We had one black-and-yellow visitor, but we all remained studiously calm and he soon moved on.)

Tea was delicious. We started with a tiny goat cheese quiche, then pillowy white scones with clotted cream and jam. The middle plate was a selection of tiny sandwiches, rolled sushi-style: smoked salmon, chicken, and cream cheese with sundried tomato. Finally, four miniature desserts, and just when we thought we couldn't stuff in another bite, the waiter brought round little pots of strawberries and cream.

If I could offer advice on not overstuffing oneself, I would say eat only one scone, or maybe even half a scone — they're huge and filling, and also very easy to take home. I was too full to really enjoy the desserts. (Or I suppose you could eat the desserts first.)

The girls had mango and apple tea, iced; I had darjeeling and Blake had oolong. All delicious.

After tea we walked up to Bloor and window-shopped in Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma. I thought about getting some new tea towels at Williams-Sonoma, but I can't spend $38 on a pair of tea towels. I also had a good laugh at their "found" pottery table; crap from garage sales comically marked up. There was a four-ounce dish with some old brand name on it for $78, and a nondescript brown half-glazed pot for $237.

Then we went to the Body Shop and I took advantage of the birthday goodwill to get some new makeup: powder since I have gone all greasy lately (the weather? some kind of hormonal change?) and bronzing powder to fill in the gaps in my tan for Kat's wedding. (Their #01 bronzing powder is uncannily identical to my tanned colour.) I also got some lip glosses, because you can't have too many lip glosses.

Then Delphine had a little meltdown because it's not fair that I get to get all this stuff I want and she can't get anything because she doesn't have any money because we haven't given her allowance for ages. She's right about the last part — all of us, kids included, are very lackadaisical about their weekly allowance, and we probably owe them about $20 each at this point. So I gave her a tenner and promised that we'd come up with a system to make sure they get paid every week from now on.

After we had had a little rest in the coolth of the Manulife Centre we walked up to the Reference Library, which the kids haven't been into before and I haven't been into since they built the new entrance. We went all the way to the top and admired the view, then walked down the stairs. Delphine and I planned to come back when she's older: she will study and I will work.

Then home, where I spent some time on the couch while Blake cleaned the kitchen (oh bliss). At 7:00 we finally decided to get my traditional birthday KFC, although Blake and I weren't really hungry. (In retrospect, high tea and KFC in the same day was excessive.) After the dirty chicken we had a thin slice of birthday cake each and then all went to bed.

I don't have any profound thoughts on being thirty-seven, except that I don't have that usual sense of panic about how I'm getting old and I haven't done anything interesting with my life, I'm a failure aaaaah. It's nice. I like my job, I like my kids, I like my husband and the rest of my family, and my friends. I don't really like my house much, but I don't hate it and it's certainly more and better house than I have any right to expect, considering the global average. So I'm grateful for that, when I remember to be.

Thirty-seven seems kind of old; I've joked about being old on past birthdays, but this year I'm not really joking. (I will look back and laugh when I turn fifty-seven or seventy-seven, inshallah.) Thirty-seven is not an age for moping about your life, for complaining that things aren't working out or that the world is unfair; it's an age for getting on with it, for figuring things out and doing them. It's a grown-up age.

[Posted at 14:39 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 31 Dec 2011

Santa was good for family cohesiveness this year — he brought us lots of things to do together. Delphine got a build-your-own-catapult kit, Cordelia got a giant puzzle of Toronto, and we got three board games. We haven't opened the catapult or the puzzle yet, but the games have already seen a lot of use.

Apples to Apples, Jr.

Apples to Apples, Jr. is one of those games that makes you feel slightly stupid for having paid for the game and all the packaging, because there's nothing special about the game parts that you couldn't fabricate yourself. The creator's genius is in coming up with the game and getting it into production. And in this case I don't feel too bad about paying for it, because it's a really fun game.

What you get in the box are two sets of cards: red (nouns) and green (adjectives). Each player gets five nouns, and one player is the judge and selects an adjective. The non-judge players have to select from their hand the noun which most exemplifies the chosen adjective, and submit it without revealing which noun is theirs. Then the judge chooses—using criteria of their own choosing—the winning noun. Players are encouraged to advocate for their cards, and the game is more fun if the judge deliberates out loud.

We've enjoyed this game every time we play it, with every age group. It's best for readers, but even Cordelia can play if she has someone to help her with the words she isn't sure of. There is an adult version of the game which I can only imagine is extremely fun.

Lego Champion

We have Lego Creationary, which I kind of like but I'm not really good at Lego, so I don't love it. I wasn't sure about Lego Champion, but we all like it way more.

The board is a track made (by you) of Lego, and each turn adds another piece to the board. Each turn also involves a challenge, a game the whole team plays to determine who will move forward a bonus amount.

There are five possible challenges which vary wildly in difficulty. In On Target everyone throws a Lego brick and tries to hit a target. Bluffing Bricks is a guessing game where everyone takes three blocks and then players take turns guessing how many of a particular colour there are, or calling the previous player's bluff. In Topple Tower players take turns balancing a successively larger Lego creation to the top of a tower: the first player plays one piece, the second player plays a two-piece object, the third plays a three-piece object, and so on. The trick is that you can't interlock your object to the tower. The last player to add to the tower without toppling it wins the challenge.

In Codebreaker, the challenger (the person whose turn it is) makes a three-brick code, and then other players have to figure it out by asking yes-or-no questions. And finally, in Speed Builder the challenger builds an eight-brick structure in secret, and the rest of the players race to duplicate it exactly.

Our favourite challenges are Topple Tower and Speed Builder. Bluffing Bricks is a little hard to understand, but once you've worked it out it can be a clever and fascinating exercise. I think you have to be quite a big of a game theory nerd, though; last night we played it with some friends and it was so confusing we ended up substituting Lego bowling when Bluffing Bricks came up on the dice. (Lego bowling is surprisingly challenging, it turns out, because the bowling ball (the dice) is cube-shaped and bouncy.)

The game play for Lego Champion is fairly quick and we've played it successfully with ages from six to adult. (Although Cordelia tends to amuse herself between turns by building things with the extra blocks.)

Trivial Pursuit Family Edition

For a long time I've imagined that it would be really nice if there were a trivia game with different questions for kids and adults. I looked here and there (although not on the Internet) for such a game with no luck. At the local games shop (which is admittedly really nerdy, catering mainly to the Chess, Go and D&D crowd and only reluctantly carrying a selection of mainstream board games) they had Nickleodeon and Disney Trivial Pursuits which depressingly advertised, "DVD Included! No reading! No adult participation required!" Well thank goodness for that.

Imagine my surprise when I found Trivial Pursuit Family Edition at Toys! Toys! Toys!, the second tackiest toy store in town. It is exactly as I imagined it, Trivial Pursuit with two sets of cards, one for kids and one for adults. The board is changed slightly to speed up game-play: half of the "roll again" spaces are now shortcuts to pie spaces, but even so Delphine and I have found that our two-person games drag on a little.

The kid questions are pitched perfectly for a well-read eight-year-old, so Delphine really enjoys it and gives me a run for my money. I am not sure how well this game would go over for a kid who doesn't read a lot or watch a lot of education TV. Cordelia basically can't play because there's too much reading and she doesn't know enough yet, although she has a nice time being on someone's team, for a while at least.

My only problem with this game is that it's American and the questions are heavily skewed to American history and geography. I suppose it's too much to ask that there be a Trivial Pursuit Canadian Family Edition...

[Posted at 21:03 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 01 Sep 2011

The sad thing is, I wasn't all that hungry when I was in Japan. Normally I love to eat but I couldn't get excited about food, probably because of the heat and humidity. It's terribly ironic, to me, to go all that way to somewhere where I'd normally want to stuff my face and then not being interested. Fortunately I was hanging out with a person with a normal appetite, so we ate regularly and interestingly anyway. (If I had been by myself I might have just survived on bread and fruit juice, and that would have been a pity.)

My first meal in Japan was dinner: okonomiyaki at a cook-it-yourself restaurant near Ameyayokocho, with Dave and his friend Robert. We had a kind of miscellaneous omelette, fried enoki mushrooms in butter (so good!) and some sautéed greens. The greens came in their own little soup of cornstarchy sauce, which you are supposed to add gradually to the greens. After you have cooked the greens and sauce, you add a bunch of cheese, which suddenly changes the whole thing from sautéed greens to fried cheese with bits of greens. Tasty.

We also had a couple of flagons of Japan's Default Beer. You go into a restaurant and order "beer" and they bring you "beer", a glass mug of a cold, easy-drinking lager with a good inch of head on it. (Usually Asahi Super-Dry or Kirin Lager, I think.) It was the perfect drink in that weather, and Dave and I had one with almost every meal.

Japanese Breakfast For the next morning's breakfast I had ordered the "Japanese breakfast" at my ryokan, and I was eager to find out what it entailed. It turned out to be rice, miso soup, some lightly-pickled sliced cucumber, steamed greens in a sweet sesame sauce, scrambled egg with tomato and orange on the side, and some grilled fish. Also green tea and a little package of nori. It was a lot of food and I didn't finish everything, which I'm sure is either completely insulting or totally acceptable. The fish was delicious: mild and slightly crispy on the outside.

Tiny shrimp sushi For lunch that day I decided we should have sushi, since that's the quintessential Japanese food in my mind. Dave found us a conveyor belt sushi place where we had eel, salmon, tuna, tiny fish, tiny shrimp, and plenty more.

Later that afternoon we wandered to Harajuku, where the street eat of choice is crepes. This is curious because there aren't really any other street eats in Japan, apart from the odd soft-serve ice cream place — walking while eating just isn't done — but for some reason it's acceptable to eat a filled crepe folded into a cone while walking around Harajuku. I had ice cream, chocolate syrup and whipped cream in my crepe; I think Dave had bananas or apples in syrup or something similar. (Dave has lost lots of weight since moving to Japan by eating carefully and walking a lot; I think he must have had to eat even more carefully and walk even more after I left to make up for sharing my bad habits while I was there.)

For dinner that evening we went to a (chain?) restaurant which offered a variety of food: garlic cheese bread, pizza, shrimp chips, chicken. We had some gyoza and an assorted yakitori plate (grilled chicken parts on sticks; mmm, chicken kidneys). I think we also had something with cheese, but it's hard for me to say because I was rocking some serious jet lag and pretty much falling asleep on my plate.

Next day's Japanese breakfast was about the same, but with salmon instead of the mystery white fish.

Ramen We had ramen for lunch in Fujisawa, on the way to Enoshima. It was a rustic little restaurant, staffed only by two cooks behind the bar. You order by selecting and paying for your dish from a machine, then giving the resulting receipt to the cooks. It was delicious: the meat was tender, the noodles were soft with that particular chewiness you only get from freshly made noodles, and the broth was savoury and rich. (I wish I had been as hungry when I had it in front of me as I am now writing about it. Irony!)

It was on Enoshima that we had the mango softserve ice cream that I posted about earlier. It was almost like a mango sorbet, with enough creaminess to make it luxurious without cutting the refreshing fruitiness of the mango. Served in a twist ("mix") with vanilla it was like a creamsicle all grown up.

After Enoshima we went on a long train ride to a yakitori restaurant run by some friends of Dave's. We could have ridden the whole way in a standard JR train car, like a fancier subway car, but there's an option on JR (the rail company) to take a "Green car", a sort of first-class which is more like a double-decker GO train car — cushy reclining seats with a tray, and drink and snack service (with very cheap beer!)

Sink The restaurant was like a pub, kind of dark and medieval with low ceilings and lots of wood. (Never mind the high-tech powered sliding door which are all-but ubiquitous in stores and restaurants.) The sink in the picture gives you an idea of the rough-hewn feel of the place.

Once again the food was delicious: we had grilled bits and pieces on sticks, mostly-raw chicken (I wasn't up for more than a taste of that), and hiyayakko, sliced tofu with soy sauce and fish flakes. (A.k.a., "That cold shit.", as Dave thinks of it.) Also more beer.

For Sunday's breakfast I requested "Western-style", as much because I wanted to see what they would do with it as because I craved familiar food. "Western-style" breakfast turns out to include back bacon, scrambled egg, a giant slab of toasted white bread, tomato and some orange. Also penne with sweet tomato sauce, and steamed broccoli. Of course.

Tonkatsu We had lunch at a chain tonkatsu restaurant called Wako. I had a combo with pork medallions, a shrimp and some pumpkin, all breaded and deep-fried, as well as a haystack of shredded cabbage and the usual miso soup and bowl of white rice. There was a side of mayo, for what I'm not sure (I made the cabbage into coleslaw with it). Also chawan mushi, a savoury custard. The tonkatsu was crispy and delicious and the pile of cabbage was a refreshing change from the analogous pile of french fries you would get on this side of the Pacific. It, as well as the miso soup (I think) were bottomless — you could hail the waitress and she would come over with a enormous bowl of shredded cabbage and pile another stack of it on your plate.

Having had a tasty plate of deep fried for lunch, we set out vaguely in search of something healthy for dinner. I moved to a hotel in Saitama on Sunday, so we were in Saitama for dinner, and had a choice of the usual suspects: ramen, sushi, and so on. We eventually talked each other into Korean barbeque and decided to be healthy another day.

Most Japanese restaurants have pictures of all the dishes they offer, but the interesting thing about Korean barbeque is that the food in the pictures is still raw. I guess that's not the most interesting thing — the most interesting thing is that the food they bring to your table is still raw. Each table is fitted with its very own little fire pit, some intrepid young man comes by with a bucket of hot coals and skillfully sets it into place, and then you use cunning little tongs to cook everything to your taste. We had some delicious strips of beef and placated the gods of healthy eating by roasting up some assorted veggies.

There was no breakfast at my hotel in Saitama, so on Monday morning I ventured out on my own to find something to eat. It seems like an odd choice, but I found it at 7/11. They have a decent selection of cellophane-wrapped pastries, so I bought brioche sort of thing, and added a can of delicious Boss Caffe Latte from the vending machine in the hotel lobby.

Lunch led us on an epic train journey to Utsonomiya, the world's gyoza capital, for (that's right) gyoza. We went to a tiny restaurant and ordered their special plate of 12 gyoza*, all different (and beer!) There were pork, shrimp, chicken, kim chee, pork and shiso, and some more which were delicious but not readily identifiable. (I actually left the kim chee dumpling; it was just too spicy for lightweight me — Dave helped me out with it.)

(The more I write this post the sadder I am that I had no appetite to speak of while I was in Tokyo. Everything was good but it would have been even better if I had been hungry.)

By dinner time I was craving a Pickle Barrel big salad. I don't know what it says about me that when I'm in a foreign country full of exotic, delicious food I crave the most pedestrian Western food, but there it is. All I desired was a giant bowl of crispy iceberg lettuce, ham, eggs, and chicken smothered in some unctuous dressing. There is about 0% chance of finding that anywhere in Tokyo, let alone Saitama. We wandered around sussing out various restaurants and finally chose an odd little second-floor pub, advertising $3 beer in the window. (We weren't sure whether $3 beer was a good sign or not, food-wise, but we figured at least it meant there would be $3 beer.)

The place was decorated in a blackened-wood and fishing nets motif. We got ourselves a beer, and ordered what might be the closest thing to my big salad you'd find in Tokyo: a green salad with sashimi. It was delicious, and hit the spot. We also had shrimp and cheese sticks — shrimp with cheese rolled in an egg roll wrapper and fried — and I think Dave ordered some other stuff I either didn't try or tried and didn't remember.

Individually wrapped boiled egg On Tuesday my 7/11 breakfast was a boiled egg (individually wrapped) and a Georgia Iced Coffee. I thought the Georgia Iced Coffee would be pretty much the same as the Boss Iced Coffee, but it was much more bitter and metallic-tasting. I learned from Dave, later, that all the different iced coffee brands have distinctive flavours, and I just lucked into the one I like best first try.

We were down at Tokyo Bay at lunchtime — I wanted to check out Tokyo's "Harbourfront". There's a big mall down there (Doug Ford take note!) and they were having some kind of ramen festival in one of the food courts. (Or else one of the food courts was set up to simulate a perpetual ramen festival; now that I think about it I'm not quite sure which.) I had a hankering for eel, so I ordered something which looked like a delicious bowl of ramen with eel on top. Turns out the colour reproduction on the picture was a little off, and I got a delicious bowl of ramen with two slices of boiled bacon on top. (Dave tells me it was Okinawa-style ramen, which is of course different from the various other kinds of ramen.) I know boiled bacon sounds disgusting, but it was smoky and tender. I expect if you tried boiling Canadian mass market bacon it would fall apart or go slimy, but I think if you got good bacon from a butcher it would boil up nicely. Try it in soup!

I also had some melon soda. Melon is a big flavour over there, although it seemed more vaguely fruity than tasting of any melon I'm familiar with.

After we walked around the waterfront some more we had kakigori, which is like a sno-cone or granita or whatever they call flavoured ice where you are. I chose Blue Hawaii flavour, which is... blue. And sweet. It was delicious, just the thing to eat while sitting by the water and sweating gently.

Our next stop was Tokyo Tower, where I had a piece of cheesecake at the restaurant up top. Cheesecake seems to be quite popular in Tokyo, and I was curious as to how it was interpreted. It was softer and smoother than a New York-style cheesecake, and had a nice sharp cream cheesy bite.

Dinner was fancy, at the Chou Chou Dinning Room (not to be confused with Tony's Fine Dinning, a roti place up on Sheppard). Like many restaurants in Tokyo, it was on the second floor — Tokyoites don't have our aversion to going up a level or two to eat or shop. The restaurant was beautiful; we entered on a transparent walkway over a mock riverbed of white stones. Shiny dark wood and elegant lighting set a mood of quiet refinement.

Keeping with the classy style of the place, I refrained from ordering my usual beer and had a grapefruit sour instead. We ordered chicken gyoza and little fish baked in phyllo, with the heads still on. But the highlight of the meal was the risotto, a creamy sweet-savoury delight.

Wednesday was my last day in Tokyo. My final 7/11 breakfast was a green bun filled with cantaloupe-flavoured custard. Why was it green? Green tea? Melon? Mint? It's hard to say, and the flavour wasn't much help. The custard was delicious, though, and not something I'm likely to ever get in Toronto. I also had a tub of yogurt in a vague attempt to eat some protein, and, sadly, my last can of Boss Caffe Latte.

Dave and I decided that my last meal in Tokyo should be the iconic conveyor belt sushi, so for lunch we ducked into a really cheap little place. It was fascinating — they had laid out the restaurant so that the conveyor belt wound round into every cranny of the odd-shaped room, so it formed an irregular, jagged L-shape and we had to shuffle sideways behind half the other diners to get to our chairs.

I didn't realize how cheap the place was until Dave pointed out they were serving fake wasabi. But even the cheapest saddest Tokyo sushi is still fresh and delicious; really, the only thing that distinguished it from more expensive sushi was that the rolls were slightly misshapen. We had the usual selection of tuna, salmon, and clam. Dave scooped himself a plate of natto sushi, and I had some alarmingly tacky shrimp salad sushi, while I amused myself trying to think what you could serve conveyor-belt style in a Canadian restaurant: sandwiches? Salads? It's such a great way to have lunch: fast, fresh and cheap.

My very last Japanese food purchase was a can of peach soda from a vending machine in the airport. Even though I was only there for a week, the idea of Japanese vending machines has lodged itself in my brain, to the extent that whenever I go to a public park in Toronto I'm always briefly disappointed that I can't buy myself a can of coffee or a soda from a handy vending machine.

I love eating in other countries; you learn so much about a place from what and how they eat. I loved the little plates, which allow you to try lots of different things, and to eat as much as you like and no more. I liked the way everyone orders together and shares the food. I think the Japanese custom of not eating while walking is healthy and sensible (although it would take me more than a week to get out of the habit). And I liked the food itself: everything (apart from my 7/11 delights) was freshly made from excellent ingredients. Tokyo is a great destination if you like to eat.

[Posted at 11:23 by Amy Brown] link
Sun, 10 Jul 2011

crow cat There are hardly any urban animals in Tokyo. I didn't see any wild mammals at all (although I'm sure they have rats) and the only birds I saw were crows and sparrows. There are cats around shrines because the monks feed them.

When you go to a restaurant you get a little towel in a plastic bag. Sometimes it's a disposable wet wipe, sometimes it's a little facecloth (hot or cold). The catch is you don't get a napkin.

hydrangeas growing by
the subway There are hydrangeas everywhere; in parks and gardens, but also growing wild by train tracks. I also spotted daylilies and hostas — it was cool to see my garden friends in their native environment.

July in Tokyo is really freaking hot. Really, and humid too. They don't report a Humidex, which is good because it'd be up in the 40s and it would make everyone feel worse.

facecloths for sale The good people of Tokyo don't suck it up and act all stoic, they hate it and deal with it in a number of ways. Hand fans are very popular and no-one is shy about using them — lots of companies give out fans as promotional material. Everyone carries little schmattes to mop themselves with. You can buy them all over the place.

A lot of ladies carry parasols. These are distinguished from umbrellas by their eyelet lace edging. I assume if you are expecting rain and sun on the same day you have to carry both devices.

manhole All the manhole covers are pretty, and they're different in every area.

They have awesome transit in Tokyo. There are a bunch of different companies which provide subway and train service, but they all work together seamlessly because they use the same payment card system. Yet again the TTC looks like a bunch of bush league amateurs by comparison. (Not that they're dealing with the same size user base. But still. They could suck less.)

sidewalk garden No-one in Tokyo has a garden so some people get their green thumb on by creating sidewalk gardens; pots and planters on the sidewalk. I saw a rosebush in one, and a little fish pond with water plants and actual fish in another.

Most restaurants serve meals as a collection of little dishes; instead of ordering, say, steak which comes with veg and potatoes, you'd order a little plate of steak, a little plate of veg and a little plate of potatoes. And you don't order everything up front, you order a few things, then add some more stuff later if you're still hungry. (You also share with everyone, so if you don't feel like what everyone else feels like, you're screwed. Until dessert, then everyone gets what they want.)

It's a great way to eat - you can order the right amount of food and stop when you're full instead of being tempted to finish a big plateful. And you can order the exactly kind of food you want and the restaurant doesn't get to screw you by serving you a giant pile of cheap carbs and calling it a deal.

child seat in bathroom Some of the bathroom stalls have little child seats mounted on the wall for you to park your baby when you pee. I cannot tell you how much I wanted this feature when my kids were babies!

mango soft-serve
ice cream They have great softserve flavours. I don't know why we stick with chocolate and vanilla here, because mango-vanilla swirl is sublime. I also spotted green tea and black sesame.

Parks and playgrounds in Tokyo run the gamut from lame to non-existent. They have a few big parks, but they're not big on lawns and greenspace. I spotted a handful of playgrounds, but they all featured the same monkey bars, two swings and a metal slide. I also didn't spot any children at the playgrounds. I don't know if Japanese kids play at private playgrounds, or if they just don't play at all and are at organized activities.

They have 24-hour karaoke. (24-hour karaoke!!!)

shoes socks Shoes in Japan are awesome. Okay, plenty of women wear boring shoes, but there are some amazing shoes worn just out and about. And the fancy shoe ladies are dedicated to high heels.

To go with the shoes are lots of fancy sock options; some girls even wear socks with strappy sandals. They have sock configurations for every kind of shoes; tiny socks with lace mary-jane straps and lace trim to wear with ballet flats, socks with a split at the toe to wear with thong sandals, socks with cut-out heels for... when you feel like wearing socks with cut-out heels. Socks in Japan have gone beyond their traditional role as foot/shoe protectors; they augment the shoe.

[Posted at 00:15 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 02 Apr 2011

Friday was our last day in New York. (I cleverly planned our trip to provide a weekend at home before the trip and one after. Unfortunately as it turns out, weekends in New York are on the same days as weekends in Toronto, and so Sascha and Leontine and Nina could not hang out with us during the day. Instead, they were kind enough to spend two evenings with us and completely annihilate Nina's bedtime two school nights in a row. If that isn't love I don't know what is.)

Anyway, Friday was our last day. We were flying out from Newark at two, so we had enough time to do a thing before leaving. The thing we did was brunch at M. Wells (Magasin Wells), a little hipster diner a couple of subway stops away from the hotel. The place didn't open until 10, so we had a donughnut for first breakfast while we packed, and then walked over.

It wasn't a nice walk — we walked under an elevated train for some of the way, and it was through a kind of industrial-ish area. Still, the sun was bright and warm, and it was interesting. Delphine picked up a lot of beer bottle caps for her collection.

M. Wells is a super-cool place with a somewhat convoluted menu. Brunch-y things were mixed up with lunch-y things, there were dishes with brains in them, there was clear evidence that they could make bacon and eggs and pancakes, but no bacon and eggs and pancakes on the menu, because bacon and eggs and pancakes are not hip. (I had expected something more diner-ish so I was a little taken aback by the menu.)

Anyway, Blake had tortilla Española, Delphine had a scone with apple butter, and Cordelia and I had buckwheat crêpes with maple syrup, which was billed as "maple syrup ploye". It was delicious — thin, heavy pancakes drenched in maple syrup. Everything else was good, too.

We went back to the hotel to pick up our bags, then began the long trek to Newark: N to Times Square, change to the 1 to 34th station, then a NJ Transit train to Newark Airport. We were not particularly early, so I was all fretty, but I liked the cute little shuttle train from the NJ Transit stop to the terminal at the airport.

We were flying Porter, and they were a helpful and friendly as their reputation suggests. The plane was small but comfortable, and the staff were patient with the girls. It was a bit of a rocky ascent, probably because it was a prop plane, but once we reached altitude it was a smooth ride. We were back in Toronto in about an hour. Porter provides a shuttle bus right to the Royal York, so the rest of our trip home was effortless.

We had been reluctant to come home: we felt like we could have stayed for a few more days. I think that's the perfect way to end a trip. I might even have suggested that we would go back some day.

[Posted at 22:13 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 31 Mar 2011

Thursday in New York was the day I had planned to not plan anything. I knew that in the course of exploring on Tuesday and Wednesday we would come up with something we wanted to do on Thursday, so I left it open, "TBD".

What we decided to do was find a playground. The girls had been gazing longingly at every playground we passed on Wednesday, so we decided to carve out Thursday morning for some quality playing (them)/sitting in the sun (us) time.

Sascha directed us to the really cool playground in Central Park, but Central Park is full of winding roads with no names, and we ended up at the wrong playground. (Luckily Central Park is also full of playgrounds.) The girls played there for a while but then proclaimed it lame, so we set off with a renewed determination to find the right playground, which we eventually did: the Heckscher Playground. It features a cement fortress-like structure beside a giant (like, building-sized) rock, as well as lots of swings and a really tall slide, like I haven't seen since I was a kid.

The girls had an excellent time, Blake got a sunburn, I met a nice Irish guy and his son Finn, and we all watched a drunk girl get taken away in an ambulance (it was St. Patrick's Day).

After the playground we grabbed a hot dog and a pretzel, then walked up to the Museum of Natural History where we elected to pay $40 to get in (did you know it's a "Pay What You Can" museum?) and spent at least an hour in the Discovery Room. The Discovery Room is apparently the Museum of Natural History's best kept secret, because there were, like, five other kids in there. It's bright little room with a well-presented hands-on collection: dinosaur bones, clothes, bugs under a microscope, a cabinet of natural wonders like shells, coral, skulls and rocks. The girls had a great time exploring and Blake and I had a great time sitting.

Our next stop was a bakery at 87th and 1st to get black and white cookies. Now, I swear black and white cookies were everywhere when we were in New York in 2003, but Sascha says they fell out of fashion years before that. To be fair, "everywhere" might just mean "every Starbucks", but they certainly weren't hard to come by in 2003. In 2011, I had to ask Twitter where to get them, and my lovely friend Shawn pointed me at Glaser's Bakery. Not only are their black and white cookies delicious, they also have a fine selection of cupcakes, eclairs, danishes and things I don't even know the names of. It was totally worth the detour.

Dinner was delicious ordered-in Indian food with Sascha and Leontine and Nina, and gulab jamun for dessert, and bedtime was late.

[Posted at 22:16 by Amy Brown] link
Wed, 23 Mar 2011

Day three, Wednesday, dawned early but not bright with a drip, drip, drip in the living room. It was raining and the roof of our hotel was leaking into our top-floor suite. It wasn't a disastrous leak, but in the dark it produced the kind of hard-to-identify noise which makes imaginative little girls very nervous. After we had reassured the girls and set up the ice bucket to catch the drips we went downstairs for our daily waffles and doughnuts.

Our trajectory was east that day, into the wilds of Queens and ultimately to the New York Hall of Science, a.k.a. the Queens science museum. (We got in free because we have a membership at the Ontario Science Centre.) The first exhibit we visited was about science in the Muslim World, which was pretty cool. There was an interesting exhibit on light and optics, another on sports science (I believe all science museums are required to have an area devoted to sports science), and a bunch of stuff about space. It was fun but assumed a fairly high level of literacy — Cordelia was reduced to being one of those annoying little kids who runs around pounding buttons because there wasn't much designed for kids at her level.

We went for a late lunch at Tortilleria Nixtamal, a fantastic little place recommended by Sascha. We had nachos (with Mexican cheese, avocado, peppers and beans), tamales with chicken mole, pork tacos, and the girls had fish tacos. I had Mexican Coca-Cola, which is apparently sweeter than American Coca-Cola, but I didn't notice. It came in a cool bottle, though. Blake had a cool drink the name of which I have forgotten. Everything was excellent, but the nachos were my favourite — crispy chips, fresh toppings in just the right proportions. Afterwards the girls and I enjoyed an ice pop, or as mine was labelled, "Artificial Coconut Quiescently Frozen Dairy Confection". So much tastier than it sounds!

By the time we finished lunch the sun had come out and we were on track to be late meeting Leontine and Nina at the Children's Museum of the Arts in Manhattan. We found our way, with some twisting and turning, through the neighbourhood back to 103rd St station and headed west.

The Children's Museum of the Arts has lofty goals but my impression of it from the hour or so I spent there was of an arts-and-crafts oriented drop-in centre. The main floor had various art stations: painting, cutting, that stuff you make out of Borax and glue. Downstairs there was a ball pit stocked not with the usual little plastic balls but with those giant exercise balls, and a dress-up centre. It was pretty cool but I missed the "museum" part. Then again I didn't really look for it. The girls had a great time bouncing in the ball pit, dressing up, and listening to an energetic rendition of Cressida Cowell's "That Rabbit Belongs To Emily Brown". Delphine made a picture of a turtle. Blake and I got to hang out with Leontine, which was fun. She's awesome. (I love it when my friends marry awesome people.)

When the museum closed we peeled the children away and set them loose on the streets of Manhattan to terrorize passers-by with their erratic behaviour and injudicious piggybacking. Also irrepressible adorableness: they made a lovely trio.

Our intention was to go out for dinner, and since Blake was the only person with a preference, and Blake's preference was to go to Pizzeria Uno (why don't we have those here?!) we decided to go the Pizzeria Uno that's right by, I mean mere blocks away from, our hotel in Queens. So close we could almost walk it!

Closeness to the hotel was desirable because before dinner we had to stop by the hotel to deliver this painting by my friend Tanya which I had bought to give to Sascha and Leontine. Buying art for other people is always tricky, maybe even unadvisable, but I think this went pretty well. Leontine and Sascha liked it, or else they were really polite and good actors. Delphine kind of ruined it — or added a level of intrigue — by saying they were evil bubbles...

Our next mission was to get to Pizzeria Uno, which seems simple but was complicated by the fact that it's almost too far to walk, it was dinnertime and we had three small short-legged children to think of. Sascha thought it would be easier to catch a bus, Blake was with him on the bus plan, I was indifferent and Leontine was strongly against taking the bus, which is apparently her usual stance on the issue.

As always when taking the bus, it could have gone either way: the bus could have arrived promptly and taken us where we wanted to go, or we could have waited for ages and ages, getting crankier, tireder and hungrier, until we finally decided to take some other bus which got us slightly closer so we could walk the rest of the way, inevitably being passed by the original bus as we walked. Nobody's mind was changed about the value of buses that evening.

Finally we arrived at the restaurant, where we marvelled at the calorie counts on the menu, and were perplexed at the lack of prices for alcohol and the supreme awfulness of the waitress. The grown-ups all had pizza of various kinds, Nina had macaroni and cheese and Delphine and Cordelia had the exact same dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets they get at The Longest Yard three blocks from home.

Then Sascha ordered a car service to drive us home, and we all collapsed into bed — far too late for the girls and somewhat embarrassingly early for the grown-ups.

[Posted at 21:47 by Amy Brown] link
Mon, 21 Mar 2011

While we were in New York we stayed at the comically-named Country Inn & Suites in Queens. It's an incongruous 9-storey building in a slightly seedy area which didn't seem to have much to offer (although we didn't explore) apart from Queensboro Plaza station, from which it's a quick ride to westbound to Manhattan or eastbound to all the cool stuff in Queens which you only know about if you have friends in, say, Jackson Heights.

One of the most important features of a hotel is a free breakfast buffet, and this one didn't disappoint. Well, I suppose if you were looking for high-quality food it might disappoint, but considering the great price we got for the room I wasn't expecting much. There were strange skinless sausage-like objects, patties of that yellow foamy "egg", cheap bagels, danishes, doughnuts and bread, coffee (or hot chocolate or hot water) out of a dispenser, and for the health-minded, bananas and tubs of fat-free yoghurt. But the highlight was the make-your-own waffle station: a dispenser oozed pre-made waffle batter which was then poured onto an electric waffle iron. Two minutes later, uncanny fluffy goodness. The girls and I had waffles and syrup for breakfast every day. (There may have been some doughnut consumption as well.) The "sausages" were savory and sagey, but the egg tasted like the cushion foam it resembled.

After carb-loading we walked down to the station to catch a train into Manhattan. We bought two seven-day MTA Metrocards — that's right: two. The girls rode the MTA all week for free! Not 60¢, not 75¢, but absolutely free. They got to duck under the turnstiles! (Each adult gets to take three children under 44" for free.)

Our first stop was Fifth Avenue, to visit F.A.O. Schwartz and then walk to the Lego Store at Rockefeller Center. Before we got to F.A.O. Schwartz our sight was arrested by the looming glass cube which heralds the Fifth Avenue Apple Store. Well... it was right there; we had to go in! They had the new iPads to play with, and I looked at docking stations for the bathroom (shut up) and Delphine and Cordelia found games to play, but all in all it didn't strike me as any cooler than any other Apple Store, apart from the great glass elevator. The children wanted to stay and play video games all day, but I impressed upon them the utter lameness of that idea and finally dragged them out.

F.A.O. Schwartz turned out to be right next door to the Apple Store, and also turned out to be closed (it was 9:30 am) so we walked down to the Lego Store, admired Lego and made custom mini-figs for a while, then walked back (with a Starbucks detour). F.A.O. Schwartz was big and toy-store-ish, and they had lots of cool stuff there, but the lines they carry are pretty much the same as the stuff at Mastermind, except more of everything and the occasional sales guy/demonstrator. Delphine was swayed by one of the demonstrators, a sweetheart shilling Myachis. That's what she spent her souvenir money on, and Cordelia bought some Playmobil.

Our next stop was the Second Avenue Deli, confusingly not found on Second Avenue at all: it's the new location! There we met up with Sascha, my oldest and bestest Internet friend and my excuse for the whole trip. We all had matzo ball soup, Blake had a brisket sandwich, I had noodle kugel and Delphine had a meatloaf sandwich. I don't think the matzo ball soup was as good as Baba's, and I don't think the noodle kugel was as good as our family recipe, but they were still very tasty. We took some rugelach and hamentashen to go and they turned out to be delicious indeed.

The Second Avenue Deli was the site of my first kosher faux pas of the day: I asked in great earnest whether Cordelia could have a glass of milk. If you're paying attention, which clearly I was not, you will note that the Second Avenue Deli is a meat restaurant and thus not likely to have handy gallons of milk hanging around for thirsty five-year-olds. I'm pretty good with kosher but I always forget about the meat/milk thing. As we shall see.

After lunch we proceeded apace (I'm trying to see how many ways I can say "went") to the Central Park Zoo. We have a perfectly good zoo in Toronto but it's miles and miles away and not easily reachable by transit, so we never go — this would be the first time Cordelia had ever been to a zoo. The Central Park Zoo is fairly teeny but the animals are all interesting: seals, penguins, polar bears, tiny adorable tamarins (my favourites). The best thing was the Tropic Zone, a building containing a rainforest stocked with a breathtaking number of fantastic tropical birds. Everywhere you looked there was another amazing bird. (They said they had fruit bats too, but I didn't see them.)

We also went to the Tisch's Children's Zoo, which was a fairly small collection of the usual petting zoo critters, along with lots of interesting climable sculptures and a giant spider web made of rope. The girls loved it but Blake and I were freezing in our optimistic spring coats. It was one of those days which are pleasantly warm when the sun shines and chilly and miserable when it doesn't, and as the day wore on the sun's appearances became more infrequent.

We finally dragged the children away on the fairly slim premise of going to Macy's to get Cordelia a pair of shoes. (The shoes we had packed for her were woefully inadequate — they kept flying off when she ran because the Velcro on the fake buckle was shot.) The Macy's turned out to be that store with the cool wooden escalators, which we were on for a long time because the kids' shoe department is on the seventh floor. We finally (not without some testiness all around) found shoes which met my requirements for price and fit and Cordelia's for sparkliness, and then set out in search of dinner.

Blake and I were in that horrible state where you're tired and hungry but too grumpy to decide on a restaurant: everything looks too expensive, too seedy, too weird or too chain-y. Finally after blocks of searching we settled on Mike's Pizzeria on 36th Street, a café-style pizza place that looked clean and nice. I ordered macaroni and cheese for the girls, smoked cheese and mushroom pizza for me, and Blake got a slice of thick-crust plain cheese pizza. When we got to the table it came to pass that Delphine didn't want macaroni and cheese, she wanted pepperoni pizza! Blake said they didn't have any but that didn't mollify Delphine any, so I agreed to take her up to the counter and ask if they had any pepperoni pizza.

Well, I know you've all figured it out by now, but I was tired. Obviously, Mike's Pizzeria was our second kosher establishment of the day (you could tell from the kippah on the guy behind the counter, and the black-hat enjoying his pizza and newspaper) but I once again didn't put it together until it was spelled out for me. Pizza ⇒ cheese ⇒ milk ⇒ no meat ⇒ no pepperoni. Sorry, kid. But the macaroni and cheese was sublime, and Delphine got her own slice of plain cheese pizza.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel to get the children to bed at a decent hour, and then we watched TV on my laptop until our bedtime. (The girls slept on the pullout couch in the living room, and we had a delightfully huge and comfortable king-sized bed.)

Here are pictures.

[Posted at 16:38 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 19 Mar 2011

Our train was scheduled to leave at 8:30, so we arrived at Union Station at 7:30, possibly a little too early but I'd always rather have time to kill than hurry, especially with kids. We picked up our tickets, then treated the kids to Cinnabon cinnamon sticks, which were to be the first of many delicious, unwholesome treats over the week ahead.

On board the train we settled in, luxuriating in the space and comfort. We played with the trays and the buttons on the seats, working out all the different lounging possibilities.

The train started moving on time, and not twenty minutes later Cordelia wanted to know if we were nearly there. I explained that we would be there after lunch and dinner, so she only asked two or three times more.

We each spent our train-bound day differently: Delphine braided gimp and read a lot; I read a little, stared out of the window a lot, escorted missions to the bathroom and the snack car, and worked a bit; Cordelia looked out the window, did activity books and drew; Blake read. I created a Train Bingo for Delphine (a five-by-five grid of things to see out the window: a red roof, a horse, a water tower, a playground, etc) and then she did one for me. As on an airplane, meals were an effective diversion: we had sandwiches and carrot sticks for lunch from the Canadian snack bar, and for dinner, a meatball sub, a hot dog and a small pepperoni pizza from the American snack bar. (The snack bar changes nationality — menu, currency and staff — at the border, at the same time as the dour border guards come through checking passports and making sure no-one is smuggling in contraband fruit.)

I was alert and fully conscious in the morning, and it's a good thing I decided to get some work done then because after lunch I became listless and sluggish. It's a paradox that sitting around conserving energy is more enervating than being active, and by around 2:00 in the afternoon all I was good for was staring out the window looking for the dog, bicycle and yellow-leafed tree that Delphine's bingo had set me in search of.

New York State is not at its most beautiful in early spring; for hours, it seemed, the view was of grey swamps and grey trees, with only an occasional raven or hawk betraying life. In between the swamps there were brief views of farms and farmhouses on the higher ground.

Eventually the swamps gave way to a wide river (the Hudson, it turns out), flowing fast with great slabs of ice thrown up on either side of it. The opposite bank of the river was a towering chunk of rock scattered with leafless trees. The view was monochromatic and beautiful in its severity, like an Andrew Wyeth painting.

After dinner the children really started to get fidgety and fretful. Their normal routine has them going to bed almost immediately after dinner, but they weren't able to get to sleep at their usual time. On top of that, the day of junk food combined with very little activity left them both with upset stomachs. Cordelia finally fell asleep about forty minutes before the trip ended, but Delphine wasn't able to sleep at all and was tired and emotional when we rolled into Penn Station.

The decision to take a cab to the hotel was an easy one, even for Delphine who hates cars. Cordelia's crying about her tummyache all the way to Queens didn't impress the cabbie much, although he did not betray any emotion. Then I unknowingly undertipped him — tipping makes me panic a little bit at the best of times, and late at night after a day on a train is not the best of times. Sorry, Abdullah, wherever you are.

We arrived at the hotel around 10:15 pm and after settling in and brushing teeth we all went to bed feeling much better, glad to have finally arrived and excited about the next day.

[Posted at 11:11 by Amy Brown] link
Mon, 13 Sep 2010

Tonight's the first choir practice of the 2010-2011 season, and I'm uncommonly excited. It's entirely misplaced excitement because at the first practice we don't sing – we pick up music, pay dues, and then there's a (honestly rather lame) cheese and wine thing. I'm not interested in wine, the cheese is usually not very good, and me and the choir have developed a kind of polite disinterest in becoming friends. The two people in choir who I'm friends with, I'm friends with outside choir. Otherwise, there are a few other people I quite like, but the rest of the choir (including the director) doesn't seem nearly as interested in me as I feel they should be, and as such I'm not moved to be interested in them. I would far (far, far) rather sing with them than talk to them. So the first meeting of the choir is a bust for me, apart from that I get to see my friend Janet (Kat is away) and go to Xococava.

Morten Lauridsen Anyway, that aside, I'm beside myself with excitement about this season's repertoire. Mainly Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna, which is subtle and gorgeous and completely doesn't play to our strengths, which are mainly being loud and getting it over with quickly. The Lux Aeterna has lots of sustained, soft, high passages, so we are going to have to work really hard to stay on pitch. Without sounding like we're working hard, of course.

We're also doing Messiah (snore), Mozart's Requiem which is good fun except for the parts which aren't Mozart, and Mendelssohn's Elijah which has some lovely parts and some very forgettable parts. (I'm listening to the recording of the last time we performed it and I just heard the creaking of one of those cheap folding chairs. Ouch.)

I feel like I've lost my singing voice a little in the last few years. I took voice lessons for a couple of years before Delphine was born and my singing voice was a revelation to me – making such a fantastic sound (she said modestly) so effortlessly was a thrill like I've never known. I should emphasise that my voice isn't so incredibly beautiful – it's just that I can sing much higher and more competently than I thought I would be able to – turns out singing high isn't hard work, it's all in the technique. Anyway, that was then, but since I stopped taking lessons (and stopped warming up properly and practicing, let's be honest) my high notes have become less confident (and less high) and my breath control, which was never great, has become even worse.

So this season I want to work on my high register, breath control, and also listening – I'm terrible for getting caught up in my own singing and not listening to the rest of the choir. I will get to work on that when I'm working with the school junior choir, too. I'm not sure how I'm going to work on the other things – for a while there I was signed up for a vocal technique workshop, but it was cancelled. I can't afford private lessons. I will have to poke around…

[Posted at 15:08 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 11 Sep 2010

Back in 2007 we had a new deck built, and to celebrate we threw a party and invited all our coolest friends. It was an awesome party so we've done one every year since, and this year's was today. Of course I forgot to take pictures as usual, so don't hold your breath for the picture post.

We invited about 40 people (plus kids) to the first one, and the number has increased every year since – this year we invited about 75. Most of them didn't make it, though, and we probably ended up with about 30 plus nine kids, a thirteen-month-old and a six-week-old (Charlie!) So it wasn't the giant hoedown it has been in the past, but on the other hand I managed to hang out with everyone for at least a little while.

Blake thinks we broke even on beer; people always bring beer and we seem to have the same amount now that we had this morning. We're also up one pot of flowers and a jar of caramelized red onion relish (NOM!) We also have piles of leftover party food: cheese, crackers, ketchup chips (no-one likes ketchup chips!), and various frozen hors d'oeuvres. That's what we'll be eating for the next couple of weeks – that and Ontario peaches and apples.

[Posted at 21:05 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 18 Feb 2010

You might know that, until recently, Delphine was just too sensitive to watch movies. Any kind of suspense or peril would send her running for the farthest corner of the house. But lately she's become more blase about everything, and she is much cooler about scary bits in movies. "Actually this is pretty scary," she will say, while holding her ground on the couch. So, we've been watching movies.

We started a while ago with The Sound of Music, which is really quite scary what with the Nazis and all. (Although Delphine was more scared of the stern father.) Then a few weeks ago we rented Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, then Nanny McPhee. We decided to have a regular movie night every weekend. After some discussion we've decided to have matinees so as to avoid too much pre-bedtime excitement and bad dreams. I'm excited to introduce the girls to some great movies, and to get back to watching movies myself, even if only PG-rated ones.

Last week we watched Star Wars (the original one). Cordelia was really excited to see it, and Delphine enjoyed it in the end. I think they both liked making sense of all the stuff the boys in their classes jabber about. Although Delphine was very confused as to why Ethan would dress up as a bad guy—Darth Vader—for Halloween. I couldn't help her.

Here's our list of movies to see:

  • Bedknobs and Broomsticks
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
  • Mary Poppins
  • Fiddler on the Roof
  • Toy Story
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • The Princess and the Frog
  • Alladin
  • The Aristocats? (This is the first movie I saw in a theatre, but I can't remember if I liked it.)
  • Shrek
  • The Lion King
  • The Iron Giant
  • It's a Wonderful Life
  • The Muppet Movie
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
  • Darby O'Gill and the Little People
  • The Incredibles
  • Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Escape from Witch Mountain
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (maybe later)
  • The Princess Bride
  • E.T.
  • Fantasia
  • Babe
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off
  • Miracle on 34th Street
  • The Parent Trap
  • Swiss Family Robinson
  • My Neighbour Totoro

Any other classic, or great, kid or kid-friendly movies we should see? Dave, what about Miyazaki? What do you like?

(Oh, and Columbine's post about Alice in Wonderland is quite apropos.)

[Posted at 22:09 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 26 Nov 2009

Last year Blake and I got sucked into the CBC's version of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria, mainly on account of Barrowman Barrowman Barrowman, but also because I love singing contests. After it was over, I decided it would be cool to watch the movie of The Sound of Music with the girls. As it turned out, it was both too long and too scary. Delphine was scared by the stern Captain, and also by the Nazis. Nevertheless, I decided to take Delphine with me to see the Toronto stage production. She's never seen a musical (or a play, for that matter) and it seemed like the right time. Plus I wanted to go.

Unsurprisingly, Dephine didn't want to go, but Blake and I convinced her that the show would be less intense on stage, and that either way it would be a fun day out with me. (Cordelia stayed home with Blake.)

So this Wednesday I picked Delphine up at school at lunchtime, and we took the subway downtown together to see the matinee. We stopped for barbeque pork buns and egg tarts at Urban Bakery and then went to the theatre where we found our seats (and a deluxe booster for Delphine), surrounded by middle schoolers on field trips. (They behaved beautifully, apart from some untoward hooting during the first kiss.)

The show was wonderfully staged, with gorgeous sets and evocative lighting. The singing was great, the big numbers were satisfyingly big—my favourite was "Do Re Mi": both educational and breathtakingly energetic. It wasn't too scary for Delphine—the Captain was stern for much less time, and even the Nazis seemed less threatening. Little Nazis far away on a stage are less intimidating than big closeup Nazis in your living room.

One genuinely creepy moment for me was when they dressed the entire Princess of Wales theatre with Nazi flags for the Austrian Music Festival scene. They hung swastikas above all the boxes, and a giant Reichsadler flag billowed down from the ceiling. It was chilling, unexpected and very effective. (I wonder if they did the same thing in the English production.)

My only complaint about the show was the weird marble-mouthed mid-Atlantic accent in which Elicia Mackenzie delivered Maria's dialogue. I couldn't place it at the time but in retrospect it reminded me of an incomprehensible hybrid of Agent Smith from The Matrix and Mythbusters' Jamie Hyneman. Between the weird accent and the snappy delivery, I missed a couple of lines of dialogue. The dude playing The Captain delivered his lines in much the same way, so I guess it was a directorial decision.

All in all, a successful outing. Delphine asked to go to another show with me. I said we would go again next year.

[Posted at 22:26 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 23 Oct 2009

Dave Pell thinks we're fucked. Or rather, Dave Pell thinks most of the stuff people post to Twitter is a boring waste of time. Why he chose to express that as "we're fucked" I'm not sure. We're fucked because the earth is heating up and no-one has the balls to do anything about it, but that doesn't have much to do with Twitter.

Dave Pell doesn't like people posting about the following on Twitter: where they are; current events and their opinions on them; the party they are at; their children; flight delays; their small fitness triumphs; jokes or puns they made up or ideas they had; what they're listening to; what they're thinking about; where they are; the state of their inbox; the weather.

You know what all those things are? They're small talk. Small talk is a social lubricant. Small talk is how you get to know someone better so you can decide if you want to share Big Talk with them. Small talk is how you connect with other human beings, it's how you reach out and find out what you share. It's how you gain an understanding of how everyone else experiences the world.

Small talk is not profound. No-one can be profound all the time, but if the only time we're allowed to connect with other people is when we have the energy and insight to be profound, this is going to be one hell of a lonely life.

I love people. I love being with people and sharing and chatting about kids and weather and books and news. Sometimes the conversations I have with people are superficial and trivial, sometimes they are intense and intellectual. Sometimes the conversations I have with people are in the flesh, and sometimes they are on the Internet. Either way, I make a connection, and I feel happier and more human. Does that mean I'm fucked? I really don't think so.

[Posted at 11:02 by Amy Brown] link
Mon, 06 Jul 2009

Back in March of 1999, I started working at a small software company downtown. I got there about a week before their network administrator quit, to be replaced by a quiet guy named Jeff. Jeff was an agreeable fellow who would listen patiently when I wandered into his office to talk his ear off about last night's TV or the latest movie I'd seen. It soon became apparent that Jeff had a formidable memory for facts and details; he could identify obscure actors, recall chemical names and properties from his grad school days, and could reel off all kinds of sports minutiae which still don't mean anything to me. You could talk to Jeff about just about anything—food, science, sports, celebrity gossip—and he would be able to hold up his side of the conversation.

Jeff soon became my number one work buddy, my go-to guy whenever I needed a break from my computer and wanted a chat, my faithful lunchtime companion, my reference for all things operating system-y, my fellow sufferer of workplace bullshit. Once we skipped out of work for the afternoon to see The Perfect Storm.

A year or so after I met Jeff, I started taking singing lessons. The girl whose lesson came after mine was named Kathryn; our music teacher introduced us once, but I didn't pay much attention because I'm a lazy cuss with limited social skills. My laziness came back to haunt me when a few weeks later a pretty, animated girl walked up to me in choir practice. "Hi, Amy!"

Blank stare.

"It's Kathryn! From singing lessons?"

Oh, yeah. I'm a dork.

Fortunately Kathryn forgave me and we became fast friends. One day I invited some friends from work, and Kathryn, over to play Trivial Pursuit, eat pizza and drink beer. Jeff, as usual, kicked our asses in Trivial Pursuit because he never forgets anything he's ever learned. Kat was struck by the breadth of his knowledge and also his unassuming, agreeable manner. She decided he would be a perfect match for her little sister Colleen, herself a games nut and formidable repository of trivia.

But first we had to wait for Colleen to break up with her boyfriend at the time. Then we had to try and get the two of them together in the same room. That took a couple of years. Finally in September of 2007, they were both invited to our deck party, Colleen with specific, illustrated instructions to seek out and interact with Jeff. Sure enough the pair of them hit it off and chatted all night. Kat and I nudged them together over the next couple of days, and...

Yesterday they were married.

The ceremony was at U of T's Miller Lash house in Scarborough. It was short, sweet and sunshiney (most of the female guests seem to have gone home with the sunburn booby prize, myself included). There followed a long break for lunch, during which Blake and I came back into the city to drop the girls off with Baba and Zaida, and (in my case at least) take a nap. Refreshed, I trowelled on some spackle (I mean makeup), wired my underwear and outerwear together, glued my hair in place, wrestled with some strappy sandals, and thanked God I don't have to look like a girl every day. Finally Blake and I caught the #54 bus and rode it all the way to the end of the line, for the reception at the East Rouge Community Centre. "Community Centre" conjures up images of sweaty basketball courts and ice rinks, but this is actually a very classy venue, an elegantly casual, good-sized hall with a balcony and a fireplace.

This might sound a little bit lame, but I was really excited to go to this wedding reception. Between being a stay-at-home mum and economising, we never go out for a fancy dinner, and I haven't gone dancing since Delphine was born. The idea of a nice dinner with tablecloths and wine and interesting company, followed by dancing, was pretty thrilling. Fortunately (considering the commute) the night more than lived up to my expectations.

Dinner was served buffet-style, with chicken stuffed with goat cheese and peppers, and grilled sirloin with caramelized onions and a selection of sauces, grilled polenta, orzo salad, caesar salad, and little potatoes. For dessert there were butter tarts, lemon tarts, meringues with lemon custard, brownies, homemade Italian cookies, and berries and whipped cream. Oh, and wedding cake after that! Gastronomic bliss, and my wine glass was never empty.

After a few short but heartfelt speeches, there was great music for dancing. Blake doesn't dance, and at first I was too self-conscious to dance "by myself", but soon enough I was dancing with a bunch of girls and having an awesome time.

But enough about what a great time I had last night—it's wonderful to see Jeff get married, and it's gravy (for me—what? It's my weblog!) that he married someone I'm connected to in another way. Because Kat and I are so close, and I'm so fond of Jeff, I feel like this marriage has created a circle of connections which somehow vaguely includes me. I hope Colleen and Jeff are happy together forever, and I hope they (and Kat) stay a part of my life for just as long.

[Posted at 00:02 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 02 Jul 2009

A couple of years ago, as you might remember, Blake biked from Toronto to Balm Beach on Georgian Bay, a 135K ride preceded by several long training rides. He got all fit that summer, and seemed to have fun (mostly), so I proposed that we do something similar this summer: plan a nice long ride, do some longish training rides, spend some time together and get fit.

As it turns out, Blake, Kat and I did one 44K training ride, and then we biked to Oakville. (It's way too hard to schedule rides for three people and a babysitter.) We picked Oakville because it is the right distance—a 100 K round trip—and because it's nice. Kat's been there a few times so she knows the lay of the land.

The day started early—our babysitter arrived, Tim's in hand, at 7:50 am, and Blake and I got on our bikes and headed down Mount Pleasant to meet Yonge Street somewhere south of St. Clair. We tried to leave Yonge a couple of times, but with Bay Street on one side and the Pride parade on the other, we didn't have a lot of options. It was fun blowing through downtown first thing on a Sunday, and before we knew it we were at our rendezvous point at King. Kat joined us and we made for the waterfront.

Our route took us west on Queen's Quay to the Waterfront Trail, past harbours and beaches and coves and rocky bits and all kinds of watery goodness. We stopped at the beautiful Humber Pedestrian Bridge for a photo op and some energy bars, then blew past the Butterfly Garden in Mimico, making a note to stop there on the way home.

Soon after that the rain started. It wasn't a drizzle, making us moist and warm. It wasn't a driving rain, lashing into our faces. It was merely large raindrops, plenty of them, falling straight down. Not ill-mannered rain, but very insistent, very wet, very rainy rain. We were soon soaked.

We carried on, through Etobicoke and into Mississauga. We were still on the Waterfront Trail, which at that point alternated between on-road routes (with some great real estate and gardens to ogle, especially on the water side) and a wide paved trail travelling beside the water through parks and woods. For a while we leapfrogged with a pair of athletic dads (I could tell they were athletic because they were wearing technical biking gear) pulling their kids in trailers, but they left us near the edge of Mississauga, saying, "It's all sidewalks from here on".

They were right about that. The Mississauga/Oakville border bit of the Waterfront Trail is mainly oversized sidewalks beside busy streets, with a rather surreal detour through an industrial area ("Trucks crossing") and directly beside a complicated, strangely beautiful Petro-Canada plant.

Eventually the actual trail—well, the overgrown sidewalks—ran out and we had to bike through the curvy, monotonous streets of suburbia. The houses got farther apart, the streets lacked sidewalks, the... oh, don't make me go all Kunstler on you. Finally Mississauga ended and Oakville began, to much rejoicing by Kat. (I don't know that anyone has ever been that happy to get to Oakville. I was just wet. Did I mention it was still raining?)

Oakville's contribution to the Waterfront Trail does not appear to go anywhere near the waterfront. It consists of narrow sidewalks, signposted alternately with forbidding notices informing you that Oakville frowns on bike riding on sidewalks, and friendly green signs with bike icons on them, running beside giant houses on vast acreages. You can't ogle the houses, though, because they're walled in. I did get a look at a couple of greenhouses. Occasionally the sidewalk ends, to be replaced by a grit path, intersected by driveways used by people who don't look out for you because no-one has ever been mad enough to bike this way before. As we biked I nursed my hatred for rich people.

If you persevere on this path beyond all sense and reason, eventually you will get to "downtown" Oakville, which is a lot like Bayview and Davisville. That's a hell of a long way to travel for someplace just like home, but there's modern life for you.

We locked up our bikes and searched for a restaurant sufficiently casual that the entrance of three grubby, soaked cyclists wouldn't put everyone off their lunch. We ended up at a sandwich cafe where we ate good sandwiches, mediocre soup, and disappointing desserts, while debating our next move.

We were wet but not disheartened, but Blake and I were bored with biking through suburbia and Oakville's shitty "bike path". Kat, whose thirst for challenge apparently knows no bounds, wanted to bike the whole damn way back. Blake was having no fun, and wanted to take the GO train all the way back. I was tempted to agree with Blake but I could also sympathise with Kat's desire for a more epic ride, to push ourselves a little more. I suggested we use the GO train to skip the boring suburbs and land us back in civili–, I mean, Toronto to bike home along the bits of the Waterfront Trail that are actually within sight of water.

We raced to the Oakville GO station and made the 2:30 train, wrestling our bikes onto inconveniently non-bike-accomodating cars for the twenty-five minute ride to Mimico, where we rejoined the trail along the water. It had stopped raining while we were on the train, but obligingly started again once we were back on our bikes. The ride back into town was uneventful—we did slow down through the butterfly garden but lacked the inclination to linger. By the time we got to Bay Street our bums were all sore and we were exhausted. Blake and I took the TTC back up to Davisville and then enjoyed the short ride home, although not as much as we enjoyed long, hot showers and some quality couch time.

All in all it came to 67.5 K for Blake and I (7 K less for Kat because she didn't have to ride downtown), which is pretty good but not quite epic. I'd like to try another couple of long rides this summer, if we can find indulgent babysitters, although I think I would rather take transit out to somewhere interesting and bike from there, than have to bike through the suburbs again.

(Incidentally, I looked at the maps after we got home and Port Credit is really where the Waterfront Trail stops being nice—we were being conservative when we came all the way back to Mimico.)

[Posted at 23:30 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 18 Jun 2009

(I rewrote this entry to be shorter and hopefully more useful.)

I'm on Twitter. I love Twitter—it's a fun way to stay connected, get the latest news, and to share ideas and news of my own.

Some of my friends have signed on to Twitter, tried it for a couple of days, and never returned. I'm going to try and explain how I use Twitter which makes it so fun and useful for me, in the hope that people will try it, or try it again. Because when it comes to Twitter, the more the merrier!

Before I go on, I will quickly explain how Twitter works. You probably already know it's a site where you can post 140 character messages. The messages can be read by anyone who "follows" you.

Your Twitter page also shows your "Twitter feed", which is a display of all the messages ("tweets") posted by people you follow. Note that you don't have to follow the people who follow you, and the people you follow don't have to follow you.

Getting Started

Signing up to Twitter is easy—the hardest part is picking a good username. After you have signed in, fill in your Location and a short Bio, to make it easier for people to find you and decide whether to follow you.

Finding your Tweeps

Once you're in, you need to follow some people. But who, and how many? The real key to making Twitter work for you is balancing the number of people you follow and the frequency with which you check in. If you don't follow enough people, Twitter will be boring and pointless and you'll lose interest. If you follow too many people, your feed will be too busy and you won't be able to keep up.

I'm going to throw out the number 75 as the minimum number of people you should follow to keep things interesting. Of course, it will depend how voluble your followees are, and how often you can check in to Twitter. (I follow 225 people, and check in four or five times a day, and I'm seldom either bored or overwhelmed.)

Finding people to follow is the fun part. There are plenty of ways to find people. You probably already know a few people who are on, so find out what their Twitter usernames are and check out who they are following like this:

  • Go to the person's Twitter page:
  • On the right you'll see a number with "following" under it—click on that number to see the list of people your friend follows.
  • Now you can click "follow" to follow anyone you like the look of. If you're not sure, you can click on any username to go to their Twitter page, which will show you all their tweets from latest to oldest.

Follow anyone who looks interesting—it's really easy to unfollow people later. (When you follow someone they get an email notification, but when you unfollow them they don't.)

You can also find people using the "Find People" option, at the top of the Twitter window. There, you can find people who are in your email contacts, or you can search for people by name.

How do you decide who to follow? That's up to you; I look for people who post interesting things about what they are doing, and interesting links. Funny is good too. I avoid people who only seem to @reply to other people, and people who mainly RT (retweet). Interaction is nice but I like to read original thoughts too.

You can also follow institutions and entities you have a relationship with in real life, like @starbucks or @globebooks, and of course a few celebrities are fun. I follow @SlashHudson, @Jeffrey_Donovan, @donttrythis, among others.

Another interesting way to find people is Tweetmondo, a site which lets you find Twitterers who live nearby. I found a couple of people in my neighbourhood, and it's neat to read their tweets about weather and local happenings.

How Often To Twit

Twitter works best for people who are online all the time, but you can still have fun with Twitter if you only get to your computer once or twice a day—you will just have to scroll down a few pages to catch up, or only read the latest couple of pages and your @replies.

I don't think it would work to check Twitter less than once a day, or maybe every couple of days at the very least. Twitter is an of-the-moment medium and the more involved you are, the more you'll get out of it.

About @replies

One of the best things about Twitter is the @reply system. @replies are a way to directly address another Twitter user. You put their username in your tweet, with an @ sign before it. For example, if you want to @reply me, include "@amyrhoda" in your tweet. Your tweet will be specially flagged for me to read when I log on.

You can also reply to a specific tweet by clicking the little curly arrow which appears to the right of the tweet when you mouse over it.

To read your @replies, click on @yourusername on the right-hand column of the Twitter page. If you don't have much time to Twitter, you can always check your @replies page to make sure you read and respond to tweets addressed directly to you.

If you want to send a message to another user, but don't want it to be public, start the message with "d username". This will send them a Direct Message which can only be read by that user. Read your Direct Messages by clicking on the Direct Message link on the right column of your Twitter page.

Following Back

As I mentioned above, you will receive an email message whenever someone follows you. Do you have to follow back everyone who follows you? No. I tend to set the "should I follow" bar a little lower for new followers, but I still won't follow you if you're not a real person, if you don't have any updates, or if you're unspeakably lame. Say.

Have Fun

Some people take Twitter way too seriously. It's not a popularity contest. It's not a major marketing tool. You're not obliged to tweet, to retweet (repeat someone else's tweet to pass it on to your followers), to @reply, to follow certain people, to participate in #followfriday, or anything else.

Use Twitter however you like, however it works for you. It's a great, fun way to connect with people. You just have to find the right set of Tweeters to follow, and figure out the rhythm of Tweeting that works for you.

[Posted at 21:56 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 05 Jun 2009

Blake and I are watching the season 3 premier of Burn Notice (hooray!) and I was trying to figure out who the management guy in the helicopter was.

I said, "That's the dad from..."

Blake paused the show while I remembered.

"...from Frasier. I knew it was the dad from something. Cool."

Blake said, "He was also in Battlestar Galactica."

I frowned. "Really? Who was he?"

"Not really, but everyone else was."

"Yeah, Battlestar Galactica had the dad from Danger Bay."

[Posted at 20:59 by Amy Brown] link