Life, the Universe and Everything

We’d just paid the deposit and signed the contract on our kitchen renovation, with work scheduled to begin in late May, when the contractor sent me an email. “We’ve had an opening and our next client wants to delay construction until June. How do you feel about starting on Monday?”

Um, Monday? Five days hence Monday, you mean? I looked up at the broken cupboards full of stuff that would need to be packed away, the clutter in the living room that would need to be removed to make way for a temporary kitchen, the dining room teeming with art projects and various paperwork that would need to be filed or recycled, and tried to wrap my head around the idea of having no kitchen to make meals or clean dishes for three to four weeks starting in five days. We’d have one weekend to finalize the last of the design plan (we need to pick flooring, a faucet, paint colour, counters and handles for the drawers and cupboards), pack the kitchen cupboards and drawers, empty most of the dining room, clear space in the garage for the delivery of the new cupboards, make a temporary kitchen, and plan a minimum of a week’s worth of no-stove meals.

“Sure,” I replied, because I have no sense of self preservation whatsoever. Carpe that diem, right?

We met with the contractor on Saturday to do a crash session on the remaining details: floors, counters, paint, faucet, and drawer and cupboard pulls. In other words, all the things that I thought were inconsequential. “I am more concerned with the fact of having a floor than what it looks like,” I told the contractor the last day we met to sign the contract. The contractor, who has gotten to know us fairly well by now, pointed at Beloved and said, “So, you’re coming with me to the tile store?” Meh, floors. Whatever.

To my surprise, though, picking out these finishing touches made me almost as excited as the idea of my coveted pot drawers. Since we are building on exactly the same footprint, with no new appliances, and on a very tight budget, I was really beginning to feel like the new kitchen might not be tens of thousands of dollars better than the old kitchen. Then I found out you can get ceramic tile floor that looks like knotty pine, and vintagey-cool drawer pulls that look like they might have come out of an old library. I am really happy now that I don’t have to wait for months to see it all come together, because for the first time I’m feeling really excited about the renovation, instead of just enduring it and grumbling about the cost.

Having said that, I am not looking forward to the next few weeks without a kitchen. We have our BBQ, which has a side burner for pots that I’ve never actually used but I checked and still works. We’ll have the microwave, although it will be displaced from its usual perch above the oven. And we’ll just roll the fridge into the dining room for the duration, so it will be accessible and functioning. I’ve picked up some big plastic bins to store food like cereal and snacks that might smell appealing to the dog, and I invested in a whackload of compostable paper plates. I think it is the dishwasher that we will miss most of all, and I am trying to decide whether washing dishes will work better in the (tiny) bathroom sink or the (awkwardly positioned and not incredibly clean) basement laundry sink or the bathtub is the least painful option.

Saturday and Sunday were a marathon of sorting and packing and discarding and wondering why the heck we have so many packages of yeast in the cupboard, and cursing the multitude of snack bags with less than six pretzels in each. I mostly stayed true to my inner environmentalist, filling the compost and cardboard recycling bins to capacity, but by late in the day Sunday I had abandoned any pretense of careful sorting and packing and was simply cramming stuff into any nearby container with capacity. And I swore to myself that we will never, ever move, because just packing the kitchen was enough to last me another decade.

Here’s the empty kitchen on Sunday evening, waiting for the destruction crew to arrive at 7 am on Monday morning. Before:

Photo 2016-05-01, 6 49 30 PM

After a full day of packing, trying to cook dinner on Sunday night in an empty kitchen was a bit of a disaster. You don’t realize how much muscle memory is involved in a familiar meal until you try to cook it when none of the tools or ingredients are where they are supposed to be! I can’t tell you how many times I opened a drawer or cupboard to find it empty – not unlike when the power goes out and you walk from room to room automatically hitting light switches and thinking “okay, I’ll watch TV – no wait, I’ll vacuum, no wait, I’ll….” Not to even mention the fun of meal planning for dinners that do not require a stove or much clean-up to execute. I’m seeing a lot of takeout and a lot of living room picnics in our future!

So tell me, bloggy peeps, what’s your favourite no-cook meal?


{ 6 comments }

As it goes, 1966 was a pretty interesting year. The first episodes of Star Trek and Batman aired on TV, and the Oscar for Best Picture went to The Sound of Music. Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, the US Food and Drug Administration declared “the Pill” safe for contraceptive use, NASA launched Lunar Orbiter 1, Pampers released the first disposable diaper, and Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas appeared for the first time on television.

All of that pales in comparison, of course, to the most wondrous event of the year, which took place on February 19, 1966 at St Michael’s Church in London, ON: the wedding of my parents.

Wedding photo

According to the 50 year old newspaper clipping, “the bride chose a sheath gown of peau de soie with a scoop neckline and lilypoint sleeves. Lace trimmed the cathedral train. A flowered pillbox held her shoulder-length scalloped veil and she carried a bouquet of pink roses and white carnations.” I’m pretty sure my Dad was dressed, too, though the announcement makes no substantive mention of him or his attire.

On their foundation of love, a small but mighty empire was built. Both my brother and I were smart enough to follow our parents’ example, and to create happy families to carry on the traditions of unconditional love, quirky humour and family loyalty with which we were raised.

I wanted to illustrate the tsunami of love and happiness that resulted from the ripple of their union, and what better medium than stringing boxes upon boxes (and an external hard drive or two) of old family photos together into one slideshow? I knew I was on the right track when I made myself cry not once but twice while I was putting it together. It does run a little long, at just shy of seven and a half minutes, but it’s hard culling 50 years of love down to just a few highlights!

Sorting through 50 years of photos was a powerful reminder of the way photos mold and shape our memories, and I think in the end this is as much a gift to myself as it is to my parents. It was, however, pretty clear my Dad enjoyed watching the video as much as I did when he asked me to replay it not once, not twice, but three times in a row.

Papa Lou watching the anniversary photo slideshow

My parents have walked a long road together. They have lived the definition of love in good times and in bad, and my memories of childhood are framed by their constant and unshakable love for each other. From my parents I learned that the cornerstones of a good marriage are respect, patience, kindness, open affection, and humour, and that it’s quite possible to love someone even when you want to throttle them.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad. Thanks for getting hitched all those years ago, and making all of this possible. We love you!

50th anniversary


{ 4 comments }

Last we saw our heroine, she had braved the wilds of Google and Amazon, wandered the badlands of “available to US residents only”, faced down the demons of bleeding-edge technology and come out victorious brandishing a View-Master VR viewer for Google Cardboard. (Read part one of this post here.)

I’d been reading about Coardboard and smartphone VR and was intrigued by it. The boys knew about VR technology like Oculus Rift mostly by watching PewDiePie and other YouTubers. And yet, none of us were prepared for how very cool the virtual reality experience would be. You’re talking about a girl who doesn’t even like 3-D movies!

Using the View-Master VR viewer couldn’t be more easy. Download the Google Cardboard app to your smartphone. Open the View-Master box. Use the app to take a photo of the QR code on the View-Master to tell the app which kind of viewer you are using. Slip the phone into the viewer and hold the viewer up to your face — and be prepared to be blown away. Seriously, it’s the coolest thing I’ve never imagined.

With the viewer, you can look up, down, behind you, to the side – it’s as if you’re standing inside a photo. And then you realize you can interact with the photo by moving around. On the “Urban Hike” part of the Google Cardboard app, you find yourself on a street in Paris near the Eiffel Tower, and as you turn your head, the scene shifts in real time based on your motion and you can click to follow a Google-Maps pointer to walk down the street.

We took turns passing it from person to person, marveling and gasping and laughing at each new reaction. The only thing more fun than your first experience with Google Cardboard is watching somebody else’s reaction to their first Google Cardboard experience. It dazzled my seven year old, my teens and my 71 year old father in equal measure.

ViewMaster with Google Cardboard

With just your Cardboard device and the basic app, you’re set up for hours of entertainment. As soon as you wrap your head around the technology, though, you start to wonder what else it can do. You want more more MOAR content.

And that’s when I fell down the rabbit hole. The two-and-a-half hours after I asked myself “hey, I wonder what else this thing can do?” were a mixed bag of delight and exasperation. Didn’t I hear something about all YouTube videos being enabled for Cardboard? After all, YouTube and Cardboard are both owned by Google. I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out where exactly I was supposed to see the (clearly invisible) Google Cardboard icon on a video’s watch page before I figured out that I needed to be in the YouTube app, which I promptly downloaded. It took another exasperating interval before I realized that I’d only find it in the YouTube app for an Android (also parented by Google) device, not my iPhone. And when not even Tristan’s HTC Android phone would offer up the icon (not to mention the miserable learning curve of figuring out his user interface, such a child of Apple am I) we learned that his phone does not have a gyroscope and therefore does not work with Cardboard, and Google simplifies this by simply not making the app visible to him in the Google Play store. Many, many virtual heads were banged on virtual desks in this fruitless pursuit. We finally did get it working with Beloved’s Samsung S4 mini, but after the hours of frustration, I found the results rather lackluster. I’m sure with a newer Android phone with a bigger screen, the results will be breathtaking. I’ll wait for them to roll out an iOS version. There are a growing list of other apps that work on iOS, though – this list on Reddit seems robust.

So what exactly do you do with Google Cardboard on an iPhone, beyond playing with the Cardboard app contents? Given that this technology is only about a year old, there are already all sorts of cool things you can do. There are VR experiences, like attending a Paul McCartney concert or jumping out of a plane. You can play games, watch movies, ride virtual roller-coasters, or visit photospheres (360 degree panoramas) of exotic places — like the surface of Mars! With an Android phone, you can even take your own photospheres – I’m looking forward to that being available on iOS, too.

I must admit, I did get a little cranky about having to download a new app for each thing I wanted to try. I did download the Star Wars app (of course I did) and it has several Cardboard mini-adventures in it, but they are huge and space is already at a premium on my photo-stuffed iPhone. The app does have a nice section where you can manage the data being clogged up by the app, so I will keep this one. (Bonus Star Wars content: countdown to Episode VIII!)

My favourite discovery by far has been the Google Street View app. Enter any place on earth that Google has mapped with their street view camera and go for a virtual walk. With literally the whole world at their fingertips, my boys were most entertained by “walking” down our street from our house to our mailbox – go figure. Imagine, though – check out the street view of a hotel before you visit it, revisit your favourite vacation spots, see if the house where you grew up still looks the same.

I remember the very first time I used the Internet, probably back in 1992 or so, and I was paralyzed by the question of “where do you want to go?” When the answer is both anywhere and everywhere, it’s tough to narrow the answer down to just one place to go first! The funny thing is that I have the same feeling with Google Cardboard’s VR that I had the first time I surfed the Internet – that sense of wonder mixed with the feeling that you’re standing at the beginning of something so full of potential that you just can’t wrap your brain around it. Accessible VR for everyone? Mind = blown.

So, what do you think? Are you intrigued? Or am I preaching to the choir? Have you already taken a Cardboard viewer for a spin? Feel free to share any great experiences or apps you’ve found. (And if you’re interested in getting the View-Master VR viewer, they’re starting to roll them out in Canada. I found them online at Best Buy and Toys R Us for less than $30.)

If you do pick one up, or have a different Cardboard viewer, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


{ 2 comments }

Through October and November this year, I became increasingly intrigued by Google’s efforts to make virtual reality (VR) accessible to the masses through its Google Cardboard device. “Experience virtual reality in a simple, fun, and inexpensive way with Google Cardboard.” My curiousity was originally piqued by the ways we might harness the nascent technology in the work I do for Agriculture Canada in social media, but the more I read, the more fascinated I became with the idea of VR for anyone.

I understood the concept loosely. Assemble the viewer by folding up pre-cut cardboard and attaching a few lenses and widgets, download an app and insert your smartphone into the device. Use the viewer to experience immersive 3-D “virtual reality” on your smartphone. Pretty cool!

For a couple of weeks, I poked around various sites considering my options to acquire a cardboard viewer. They’re so inexpensive to manufacture that all home subscribers to the New York Times got one with their newspaper in early November. If you’re a US resident, you can buy one for less than $20, but they’re tougher to find from Canadian retailers, and when you do find them, of course they are more expensive. I was temporarily seduced by the idea of making one with the boys: “To build your own viewer all you need are a few everyday items you can find in your garage, online, or at your local hardware store: cardboard, lenses, magnets, velcro and a rubber band.”

Google cardboard

Hey, that doesn’t look so bad, right? I could totally do that. Ha! All my delusions of craftiness came to a crashing halt when I opened this, one of seven pages of design schema in the DIY download:

Google cardboard schema

Right. That’s absolutely not going to happen. With middle age comes the grace of acknowledging one’s own limitations, and one look at the fiddly details made it crystal clear that Google Cardboard as a DIY project could only end in misery.

So, with my options reduced to acquiring rather than making a viewer, I poked around various sites trying to decide whether I was invested enough in the concept to fork over upwards of $50 for a cardboard viewer and grumbling about how so many others seemed to be able to get one for free. Cost aside, choosing an appropriate viewer is incredibly intimidating if you only have the vaguest understanding of the technology. There’s a V1 from 2014 and a V2 from mid-2015. Some have NFC chips, some do not. Google endorses a handful of viewers, but most of the ones I clicked on started at the $25 US range, with an additional $5 to $10 for shipping and the dreadful exchange rate, pushing it outside of how far I was willing to go just to satisfy my own curiousity.

My head nearly exploded in mid-December when the Google store offered FREE Star Wars: The Force Awakens viewers – to US residents only. The rather robotic Google Store support person I harangued via help chat was cheerfully immune to my pleas and offers to pay for shipping. “Do not worry, Miss, there will be many enticing and exciting options available to Canadians in the very near future!”

Discouraged but stubborn, I was surfing cardboard-related reviews to parse what I could get for what price when something tweaked my attention. Wait, what? A View-Master cardboard viewer? You mean, like a Fisher-Price View-Master? The one every kid of my generation and most kids since played with? THAT View-Master?

20110318-DSC_0249

Turns out the View-Master got all fancy and 21st century when I wasn’t looking! Check out the 2015 View-Master VR, redesigned to work as a Google Cardboard viewer:

Mattel View-Master VR viewer

How cool is that? Intrigued, I did a little research and found they were very highly recommended as an inexpensive but sturdy Cardboard viewer fully endorsed by Google, but could not find them for sale in Canada anywhere near the $20 price range they were selling for on Amazon.com. I reached out to my old contacts at Mattel, where they are just getting ready to widely distribute the View-Master VR viewer to Canadian stores and long story short, one arrived on the porch a scant 24 hours later, just in time to be put directly under the tree for Christmas.

You’ll have to check out part two in this two-part series to find out how we liked the Google Cardboard experience with our new View-Master VR viewer but here’s a hint: it was worth every arduous minute of research, contemplation and dithering, and was easily the most intriguing gift under the tree this year!


{ 3 comments }

I have lost track of the number of times I’ve recycled this post, but it somehow just doesn’t feel like Christmas until I’ve shared it again. Besides, with a new job and a new circle of friends, there’s a whole new audience to edumacate about this most important Christmas factoid. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the annual reindeer rant, because especially at Christmas, traditions matter. Also? Because Donder.

Reindeer Games: Team Donder

“You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen;
Comet and Cupid and DONDER and Blitzen…”

You did know that Santa’s reindeer is actually Donder and not Donner, right?

Here’s a little history lesson for you. The poem “A Visit From St Nicholas”, commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas”, was written back in 1823 and is generally attributed to American poet Clement Clarke Moore (although there have been recent arguments that the poem was in fact written by his contemporary Henry Livingston Jr.) The original poem reads, in part:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name.
“Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on Dunder and Blixem!

As explained on the Donder Home Page (no relation):

In the original publication of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, “Dunder and Blixem” are listed as the last two reindeer. These are very close to the Dutch words for thunder and lightning, “Donder and Bliksem”. Blixem is an alternative spelling for Bliksem, but Dunder is not an alternative spelling for Donder. It is likely that the word “Dunder” was a misprint. Blitzen’s true name, then, might actually have been “Bliksem”.

In 1994, the Washington Post delved into the matter by sending a reporter to the Library of Congress to reference the source material. (In past years, I’d been able to link to a Geocities site with the full text, but sadly, Geocities is no more.)

We were successful. In fact, Library of Congress reference librarian David Kresh described Donner/Donder as “a fairly open-and-shut case.” As we marshaled the evidence near Alcove 7 in the Library’s Main Reading Room a few days ago, it quickly became clear that Clement Clarke Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” wanted to call him (or her?) “Donder.” Never mind that editors didn’t always cooperate. […] Further confirmation came quickly. In “The Annotated Night Before Christmas,” which discusses the poem in an elegantly illustrated modern presentation, editor Martin Gardner notes that the “Troy Sentinel” used “Dunder”, but dismisses this as a typo. Gardner cites the 1844 spelling as definitive, but also found that Moore wrote “Donder” in a longhand rendering of the poem penned the year before he died: “That pretty well sews it up,” concluded Kresh.

So there you have it. This Christmas season, make sure you give proper credit to Santa’s seventh reindeer. On DONDER and Blitzen. It’s a matter of family pride.

Photo of three boys and a reindeer


{ 0 comments }

In 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting and photographing a charming extended family on a farm just south of town. It was truly one of the warmest, most fun days of portraits and play in the five years I’ve been in business, and since that warm summer day on the farm, I’m happy to have become friends with them as well. Through Trudy and her family, I’ve learned a lot about Type 1 Diabetes, as their youngest son has T1D. Rarely do I open up the blog for guest posts, but I wanted to share my platform with Trudy today on World Diabetes Day, because I really had no idea how a family struggles with T1D, and I wanted to help raise awareness. I also hope that some future family facing the diagnosis and frantically skimming through search results finds this post and finds hope and optimism.

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month and November 14th is recognized as World Diabetes Day.

There are two stories I want to share and they seem to conflict. The first story is the one I tell my young son. People with Type 1 can do anything. The other story is about what happens behind the scenes when a person has Type 1 Diabetes. That story is reserved for adults (family and friends), policy makers, school personnel, babysitters, reviewers of insurance claims and processors of requests for disability tax credits.

Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) is an auto-immune disease – for some unknown reason your body destroys the insulin-producing (beta) cells in the pancreas. When you have diabetes, you no longer produce insulin so you have to inject insulin (exactly the right amount each time, based mostly on food and activity) with a syringe or pump infusion, for the rest of your life. Only 10% of people with diabetes have T1D. Most people, including myself and family members, know little about T1D. We even missed the early symptoms which are warning signs. We are grateful for an informed daycare provider who shared her observations of extreme thirst and frequent urination. We know a lot more now!

Meet my son Dylan, now 7 years old. He was diagnosed at CHEO with Type 1 Diabetes at age two.

Photo courtesy of Dylan's family

Photo courtesy of Dylan’s family

We remind Dylan and his friends there is nothing anyone can do to prevent T1D and nothing you can do to cure yourself from T1D. That’s the one line I hope you’ll remember. Individuals with T1D can accomplish anything and generally speaking, they can eat anything. Dylan is an active young boy and a terrific athlete: he is a skier, he plays hockey, he has won a golf championship and he spends the summer swimming, fishing and paddling with his dog Gracie. He dreams of playing in the NHL, just like Max Domi, who has T1D and started in the NHL this year with the Arizona Coyotes.

Photo courtesy of Dylan's family

Photo courtesy of Dylan’s family

Behind the scenes is the second story, the one about the medical devices and decision making process that comes with management of a complex chronic condition. Some days our kitchen table looks like we’re analyzing air traffic control patterns. We download data from a continuous glucose monitor and insulin pump. These two devices, inserted beneath the skin and rotated to new locations every few days, do not speak to each other. People often believe a pump automatically gives you the insulin when you need it but that’s not how it works. It is based on careful review of logs and records ofr meals/activities/illness/unusual circumstances. You need lots of data to make good decisions. The past data informs future attempts to keep blood sugar in range. It fluctuates every hour around the clock. We are constantly monitoring and making adjustments daytime and nighttime. We calculate insulin to carbohydrate ratios and then figure how many carbohydrates are in an apple, a chocolate chip cookie, a bag of popcorn or mom’s homemade chicken soup with brown rice and quinoa. The number of carbohydrates and factoring in the planned activities is what primarily informs the dose of insulin. There are other variables such as hormones, stress, adrenaline, illness and even weather that mess with our data and make getting the right dose of insulin several times throughout the day and night a real guessing game. It’s hard work to be an artificial pancreas! Insulin will save your life but it can also cause death if overdosed. It requires constant vigilance and we are up several times each night to monitor blood sugar levels.

IMG_4390 Pump site

T1D is considered a disability in Ontario. I didn’t even know that for the first three years we managed our son’s disease! The Canada Revenue Agency explains the eligibility based on Type 1 Diabetes requiring more than 14 hours of Life Sustaining Therapy on the part person with Type 1 Diabetes (or a parent.) This will be for life.

How did I not know? Was I in denial? I was determined to make sure our lives would not change and focused on what was possible, which is everything. That’s still my starting position. Everything is possible with good communication and supports in place. The disability is invisible but requires careful management to keep him alive. In speaking with other parents, I came to understand the meaning of disability and the link to human rights and accommodation; perhaps a few extra minutes is required to take a blood sugar reading in the middle of a provincial school exam or being allowed to treat a low blood sugar by eating a snack that is kept in your emergency kit at your desk when it is not yet recess or lunch time.

Approximately 1 in 300 children have T1D and children under the age of five are the fastest growing segment. Because T1D is pretty rare, we often feel alone. Our school had no record of any previous student with T1D. It was all new. We connected with other families though social media. Children spend close to half of their waking hours at school, underscoring the importance of ensuring that students with T1D are safe and well-managed. Support for students with T1D remains inconsistent across Canada. There are discrepancies in resources and policies across the country, even among schools in the same jurisdiction. A huge advocacy effort is still needed to raise awareness and also to request funding for research.

Our family is well supported by family and friends and this makes a big difference. We are grateful that everything seems possible. We try to lighten the load for others who are on the same path. We participate each year in the JDRF Telus Walk to Cure Diabetes, volunteer with JDRF, meet with policy makers and influencers. With other parents, I helped to create www.sosdiabetes.ca

Team photo 2015

Insulin was discovered by Canadians in 1921. We’re hopeful a cure for diabetes will be discovered by 2021!

Until then, T1D looks like Dylan! Remember both stories. The visible face of T1D and believing that anything is possible and the behind the scene efforts required to manage this disease.


{ 1 comment }

Five things I did not know about robins

6 May 2015 Life, the Universe and Everything

I wish I’d noticed much earlier that a pair of robins were busy building a nest in our porch light fixture. The top of the fixture had blown off in an autumn wind storm, but since it is in an area protected from the elements, I really didn’t stress about replacing it. Then one day […]

2 comments Read the full article →

National We Day 2015 is coming!

27 March 2015 Life in Ottawa

I posted a rant on Facebook the other day in response to one of those quotey photo card things that basically said “I’m happy my childhood was filled with imagination and bruises instead of apps and how many likes you get on a picture.” The whole sentiment behind it infuriated me – the idea that […]

0 comments Read the full article →

Weekend project: Re-upholstering the dining room chairs

27 July 2014 Life, the Universe and Everything

We’ve had our dining room chairs for 15 years now. The summer we got married, we got them from the As-Is bin at Ikea, I know because the words “as is” are still written on the underside of them in indelible sharpie. For the $30 or so we paid for them, they’ve been worth their […]

0 comments Read the full article →

McDonald’s finally does away with “girl” and “boy” toy question

21 April 2014 Life, the Universe and Everything

I started to rant about this on Facebook, but the ensuing conversation in my kitchen inspired me to bring it back to the blog. Waaaaaaaaay back in 2006, I ranted my displeasure at being offered the choice between a “boy” toy and a “girl” toy happy meal at McDonald’s. I’d asked for a Polly Pockets […]

5 comments Read the full article →