Fireworks and fireflies

Me in my kayak with sparklers

Last weekend, the little girl next door turned five years old. Other than having a dragonfly-themed birthday party (a huge departure from the usual Frozen theme), all she wanted for her birthday was to stay up late after dark.

To honour her wish and give her a birthday she’ll never forget, we hatched a scheme with our neighbours to shoot off fireworks at the lake at dusk.

It was a warm summer evening, one of those nights when the air hangs heavily like wet clothes on a clothesline and the water is as still as glass. Shortly after eight, we headed down to the lake and piled in boats and kayaks. My neighbour Bruno was the pyrotechnician. He devised an ingenious launching pad in his boat (he only has a trolling motor, no gas can!) so he could light the fireworks, then swing the wooden stick that was serving as a launch pad away out into the water for safety.

Within minutes, we heard little voices chattering excitedly coming down the hill. The kids piled into their pontoon boat, anxiously anticipating a special treat.

Their eyes opened wide when the first fireworks lit up the sky. Burst after burst of sizzling rockets, fountains, firecrackers and sparklers were met by squeals of delight and cheers and claps.

After the show, we lit up sparklers on the dock and in the boats. From my kayak, I wrote the birthday girl’s name in the air with my sparkler, just like we did when we were kids.

As we were getting ready to head home, we looked up the hill. The brush and trees were lit up by fireflies, flitting like mystical fairies in the dark. I guess Mother Nature didn’t want the show to end.

This week’s #HappyAct is to enjoy some fireworks or fireflies this summer. If you want to read more about fireflies, check out this earlier post.

Kids watching fireworks
Kids watching fireworks
Fireworks in the sky

Who wants to be a millionaire?

My house

There’s a new trend sweeping the nation, something we’re all secretly indulging in and speculating about: what our houses are worth.

According to a Statistics Canada report released last month, the net worth of Canadians rose by $770 billion in the first three months of 2021 with the net worth of households with a major income earner aged 55 or older being over $1.1 million dollars.

The vast majority of this is from house values. At the end of March 2021, the average price of a Canadian home was over $700,000, and that was before the housing market started going crazy.

You don’t have to look further than the crop of SOLD signs on lawns and online to see the frenzy.

We’ve had two friends who have sold their houses in the past few months. Each had more than 50 showings in a week, received more than a dozen offers and had people write letters why they should get the house. In both cases, their houses sold for 20% over the asking price. It’s downright crazy.

For those of us who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s singing along to The Barenaked Ladies, “If I had a million dollars”, it’s a bit surreal. In 1992, when the song was released, the average house price was $149,864. Since 1985, prices have risen by 5.65% annualized over the past 30 years.

If you look at our parents’ generation it must be unfathomable. My parents bought their tiny two-bedroom, one bathroom bungalow in Port Credit, a now bustling suburb of Toronto for $11,000 in 1954. They couldn’t afford the much bigger and nicer three bedroom house up the street for the extra $2,000. It’s still there today, nestled between the mansions that line the street now.

Yes, things have definitely changed since the Ladies sang, “If I had a million dollars…I’d be rich.” A million dollars probably wouldn’t get you a shack in downtown Toronto or Vancouver.

But it is fun dreaming of what we could sell our houses for until you realize you need to buy somewhere else.

Happy speculating.

Ed. Note: If you are thinking of selling and getting out of dodge, check out this Moneysense magazine article featuring the top ten best places to buy in Canada where you’ll get good value for your money. Spoiler alert: beautiful Bancroft, Ontario is #1. Here’s a picture of our house–while it may not be worth a million dollars yet, we’re happy with our million dollar view.

The World’s Best Butter Tart

Deep-fried butter tart and regular butter tart

It’s time to set the record straight on a hotly debated topic: who has the best butter tart in Ontario.

Many regions in Ontario and Quebec claim to be home to the world’s best butter tart, but the scientific proof (the crumbs on my shirt) are all the evidence I need we do right here in eastern Ontario.

And you can find them in the tiny hamlet of Inverary, north of Kingston at Mrs. Garrett’s Bake Shop.

Joyce Garrett and her family have been serving up homemade butter tarts, pies, bread and cookies for more than 30 years. Her bake shop is one of those local gems visitors are desperate to discover, and residents cherish.

What makes her butter tarts the best is the perfect mix of mouthwatering pastry and the amount of rich gooey filling in the deep shell. Mrs. Garrett doesn’t know the meaning of the word skimp.

Canadians’ love affair with this quintessential Canuck pastry goes back centuries. According to local foodlore, young French settlers coming to Canada had to improvise and use local ingredients for their pies and pastries. Since maple syrup was aplenty in Canada, the butter tart was born.

Last summer, Mrs. Garrett’s made headline news for the summer’s taste sensation: deep-fried butter tarts.

Dave and I finally tried our first deep-friend butter tart last week. It was yummy, but why mess with perfection?

Midland has a massive butter tart festival in June and the Kawarthas Northumberland region northeast of Toronto even has a Buttertarts tour, complete with 50 stops at local eateries and bakeries.

You won’t find Mrs. Garrett’s at either of these two places. No, to savour the world’s best butter tart, you’ll have to make the trip to Kingston this summer for the ultimate butter tart experience.

Looking for more foodie recommendations in eastern Ontario? Read my post, The finer things in life to see my top picks for bread, wine, cheese, ice cream and more.

Out for a rip

Husband and author on ATV

Does this interminable lockdown have you down? Has cabin fever got you feverish for adventure? The perfect panacea for this perpetual pandemic is to go out for a rip.

We’ve been going out for a rip on our ATV, exploring the back roads and trails in our area the last few nights.

While technically you can go out for a rip in any vehicle like a car, truck, snowmobile, or even bicycle, there’s nothing like the open air and wind hitting your face when you’re on an ATV or bike.  

You also get to explore new terrain in an ATV. We’re very fortunate to have the K&P trail which is open to ATVs north of Verona just up the road from us.

Our area is well known for this pastime, iconicized by the famous Tamworth rapper BRich. Watch his music video Out for a Rip to find out how to do it right. (Foul language warning).   

On my rip with Dave, we whizzed past farmer fields filled with purple and white wallflowers, through old growth forests and cottage laneways. We stopped to see a magnificent barred owl, watching us from the hydro lines, a mossy covered snapping turtle laying her eggs at the top of a waterfall, and to catch the fading sun over a lily-pad covered bay.

With Clare last night, we came across three baby raccoons who clambered up a tree beside the road when we stopped to watch them, a turkey perched in a tree, and two deer.

If you enjoy the freedom of an open road, you’ll love the freedom of an open trail.

This week’s #HappyAct is to go out for a rip, bud.

And I couldn’t resist throwing it back to this post featuring the BRich Sportsnet video, “Get out your swimming trunks—the Leafs are in the playoffs”. Sorry, Leaf fans!

View from the back of an ATV
Snapping turtle laying her eggs
Baby raccoons in the trees
pond with lily pads
My daughter Clare on our ATV

Forgive me/she/her

Pride month poster

June is Pride month. A few weeks ago, I finally changed my autosignature to include my pronouns she/her at the end. I’ve been meaning to change it for almost a year now, but finally got a round tuit at the hardware store when I was on vacation last week.

I’ve always considered myself an ally of the LGBTQ community and am looking forward to seeing a rainbow-filled feed on my social media channels on Tuesday.

But I confess I sometimes do find it hard to navigate this world of diversity and inclusion. It will be only a matter of time before I make a mistake and will have to ask for forgiveness.

For instance, I was writing an email to my team last week. I have a small team and we all know each other pretty well, so our work emails are pretty informal.

I started out writing my normal, “Hey guys, I’ll need to move our regular team meeting…” But then I remembered reading an article that said “guys” is inappropriate since it implies men and excludes others. I say this to my family all the time so hopefully I’m not insulting Grace and Clare the next time I say, “Hey guys, what do you want for dinner tonight?”

I thought about “Hey gang” but was afraid it might be discriminatory against people in actual gangs or imply they were a bunch of miscreants or hooligans.

I tried “Hey folks”, but then wondered if that had southern connotations, even though we don’t live in the United States, or a rural connotation that might be offensive.

I’ve sometimes used “Hey peeps” which seems pretty harmless, but could be racist towards chickens.

In the end, I just went with “Hey team”. Whew, problem solved.

You see my dilemma.

I know I’m being cheeky and there is a good chance someone who is reading this has already taking offence to me making light of an important subject.

I believe people have a right to be called whatever they want, whether it’s he, she, per, ze/ziethey, or they. Addressing people the way they prefer to be called is simply a matter of respect and is no different than when women started challenging the use of Miss and Mrs. as part of the feminist movement.

Personally, I don’t care what I’m called as long as you don’t call me late for dinner.

I know I have a lot to learn. I will make mistakes. I just hope you forgive me/she/her when I make them.

And to all my LGBTQ friends, I love you just as you are. You are authentic, funny and strong, and I am proud to celebrate by your side, a true ally, this month. Happy pride month, everyone!

Ed. Note: The dilemma of how to address people was encapsulated perfectly in the Saturday Night Live skit, “It’s Pat” in the early 90’s. Here’s an episode where the friends of androgynous Pat throw a birthday party for them. SNL was always on the cutting edge of societal issues. While the character of Pat was a caricature, the humour was in seeing how people with good intentions tried to unearth clues as to how to address Pat.

Ten things to avoid if you want to be happy

Road construction

I’ve often said on this blog, it’s just as important to know what doesn’t make you happy, as what does make you happy. Here are ten things that haven’t made me happy in the past year:

1) Talking to car salesmen. Seriously, do these guys go to school to learn how to be schmaltzy and schmarmy? In fairness, the team at Kingston Volkswagen were great and we love our new Tiguan.

2) Teenagers who roll their eyes at everything you say and whose favourite words to describe you are weird and embarrassing (and that’s on a good day).

3) Road construction. My road is a mess right now. It’s year two of what most likely will be three years of construction. We’ve given up trying to keep our cars clean and washed.

4) Real estate prices. What is going on? It makes me sad that home ownership has become out of reach for the younger generation.

5) Wasted food. Remember the teenagers I mentioned above? I wish I had a dime for every bruised banana, unopened granola bar or uneaten sandwich I’ve seen thrown in the garbage. It makes my blood boil.

6) Waiting in lines. This may be a necessary evil right now, but if I see a line longer than 10 people, I don’t bother.

7) Bad online shopping experiences. Online shopping has been a lifesaver for many of us during COVID, but some sites need a lot of work to create a better overall customer experience.

8) Mosquitoes and ticks. Get a bug zapper.

9) Hockey fans who whinge about unfair penalty calls and Leaf fans who think Auston Matthews is a god. Okay, the reffing was a bit blatant last night, but bad calls are part of the game.

10) COVID-19: Don’t underestimate it. Keep wearing a mask, wash your hands frequently and get vaccinated. I know we’re all tired of it, but we’re so close, let’s see it through so we can get back to some semblance of normal.

My island getaway

Back Beach, Amherst Island

Usually about now, Dave and I and the kids would be heading south to the Carolinas or an island somewhere. Since a true island vacation isn’t in the cards this year, we thought we’d spend Good Friday touring a local island, Amherst Island.

Located just a few kilometres off the shore of downtown Kingston, Amherst Island was settled in 1788, when a prominent Loyalist leader, Sir John Johnston, was granted the entire island in recognition of his service and valour during the American Revolution. A second wave of immigration occurred in the 1840’s, when Irish immigrants settled in the area, with the population peaking at 2,000 Irish settlers.

Like most islands, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time the moment you drive off the ferry. We began our tour driving along the water towards the east end of the island, in search of Back Beach. Amherst Island is home to a large wind farm, and we marveled at the massive windmills in the fields on our way.

Wind turbine

We arrived at our destination and walked the long stretch of isolated pebbled beach. There were only two other people, a mother and her son walking in the afternoon sun. The beach itself was nicely sheltered, but as we walked toward the exposed point the April winds whipped all around us.

Girl on beach
People walking on the beach

After a brisk walk, we continued our tour, looking for wildlife along the way. We saw about 25 deer in total on the island, a fox walking along the beach, and lots of waterfowl.

Fox walking on the beach

The island’s most famous wildlife are its owls. Birders from miles around come to the island, which is on a major migratory path for owls, geese and other birds. We were pretty sure we saw a barred owl, which flew across the road into the fields, but weren’t close enough for a positive ID. (I saw another barred owl on my walk today and it was a beauty!)

On the western end of the island, the Kingston Field Naturalists have a property known as the Owl Woods. It’s not well marked so is tricky to find, but if you explore the property and take the time to look up into the thickly wooded trees, you may see a small sawwhet owl. They also have Purple Martin houses and blue bird houses lined along the road, but it was too early for bluebirds this cold April day.

Another interesting feature of the island is its stone walls. Amherst Island has the greatest concentration of historic Irish dry stone walls in Canada, a throwback to the days when Irish settlers inhabited the island. Up until 2019, the island hosted a Dry Stone Festival, where people come from Canada and the United States to learn the ancient art of building stone walls.

This picture of a typical dry stone wall was taken at one of our 4H family members’ houses. We hosted a barn dance at their place two summers ago for visiting 4H families on an exchange.

We finished the day with a walking tour of Stella, the tiny village at the ferry docks. There was an old blacksmith shop covered in punch tin and barn board, an old fashioned general store and a town hall. Before we knew it, it was time to catch the ferry back to the mainland.

This week’s #HappyAct is to explore an island near you and experience your own island getaway. Happy trekking!

Blacksmith shop
Amherst Island General Store

Walk a labyrinth

Me at the Burlington labyrinth

A few months ago, I headed out for my regular lunchtime walk in a foul mood. Something happened earlier that morning and it was still bugging me. Just a stupid misunderstanding, but you know what it’s like when you replay it over and over in your head. Despite saying to myself, it’s stupid, let it go, I couldn’t.

I walked to Central Park in Burlington and to my left at the entrance of the park, there was a labyrinth. I stopped and read the plaque.

It said the Burlington Central Park Labyrinth was patterned after the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France that dates back to 1200. It is one of the few permanent labyrinths in Canada that is installed in a public place and is wheelchair accessible.

A labyrinth is a design marvel, an ancient, geometric pattern with a single path that leads into the centre. This labyrinth was a circle, the symbol of healing, unity and wholeness. It is meant to be an oasis for your mind, body and soul, and walking a labyrinth can calm the mind and restore balance.

I thought I might as well give it a whirl.

I started to walk the circular paths, and found myself at first focusing closely on each step, and the lines and patterns beneath me. As I continued to walk, I started focusing more on the journey ahead and my final destination. With each step, my mind began to free. I encountered unexpected twists and turns and just when I thought I knew the path to the centre, the path changed.

I became aware that I could take control at any time, by simply stepping outside the winding circle and give up altogether or walk directly to my final destination, but as I continued to walk, I discovered a strong desire to complete the labyrinth and a strange sense of elation and accomplishment when I did.

I stood in the centre and looked up. The weight on my heart and mind was gone.

This week’s #HappyAct is to walk a labyrinth and clear your mind and soul. Need help finding one? Check out this worldwide labyrinth locator. There are literally hundreds in Canada, many located in churches.

Burlington labyrinth
Burlington labyrinth

Give someone a hand up

Come in we're open sign

Special guest post by Agent00$0ul”, marking the anniversary of COVID-19. It’s estimated more than 200,000 Canadian businesses could shut their doors permanently due to the pandemic. Let’s show them our #locallove.

“Hello, Ivan”.

He peered up at me from behind the register. A barrier of plexiglass separated our two masked faces. The part of his face I could see transformed to a quizzical look, one eyebrow raised.

“It’s been a year, my friend,” I said. I didn’t expect him to remember my order by heart like he did pre-COVID. 

I pulled a $10 bill from my coat pocket and slid it across the counter. “I want you to have this.”

He was surprised, but appreciative. He knew why I was doing it and I knew a few of his customers were doing the same. He put the bank note in his pocket. “Thank you.” 

I placed my order. The restaurant was nearly empty–three or four diners seated at tables separated by stacked chairs on tables wrapped in caution tape. The complimentary copies of The Sun newspaper, usually neatly stacked in a pile in a corner on the condiments table, were nowhere to be seen. Same too for the condiments themselves. It was high noon on a Wednesday. The scene was surreal…. the place should’ve been packed. 

The absence of customers gave me some time to catch up on things with Ivan while my comfort food was being prepared. I explained that the pandemic caused my employer to make the difficult decision to permanently close the office. I would be working from home until retirement. That decision removed the need for me to visit Ivan’s place of work at least once, maybe twice a week on a regular basis. 

Ivan always punched in my order before I made it to the cash, holding off on the drink selection because I was never consistent on that one, fluctuating between Diet Coke (stressed out and guilty I wasn’t watching my weight) and Cherry Coke (stressed out and guilty I wasn’t managing my office work). Either choice was fast food methadone, supplied by Ivan the enabler.

I have the impression that Ivan got to be where he is today because of some unfortunate past events. He’s a smart guy. An ‘it-getter”. Pleasant. Respectful. Sharing. Still, he plays the economic hand he’s been dealt every day without regret or remorse. His reality is a twenty-minute bus ride to reduced hours of work. 

He told me the pandemic has been hard on him financially. Hours have ticked up slightly since the restaurant reopened with limited seating. Prior to that all sales were curbside pickup, drive through, or Uber Eats. He hoped he would be given the vaccine soon since he was over 50 with pre-existing conditions. He was skeptical because he didn’t fall under the definition of “front line worker”. The irony wasn’t lost on me as he shared this information from behind the barrier of plexiglass between us.

As I returned to my car, lunch bag and Cherry Coke in hand, it felt good to have given Ivan a hand up, rather than a hand out. The circumstances were different than most “new normal” days that caused me to see Ivan on a work day.I probably won’t see him again anytime soon… possibly never. I should have given him $20. 

This week’s #HappyAct is to think of the folks in the service sector who have been impacted by this pandemic. Help them out if you can. I handed out $5 Tim Horton’s prepaid cards to the six stylists at my barber shop. $30 equates to 1 1/2 haircuts, I missed two cuts during the lockdown so I’m actually up $10. Consider helping out the service sector workers you have in your circle if you are able. Be the creator of your own happy act. 

A vision for the future of Kingston in a post-COVID world

Abandoned limestone building

A new year is upon us. A time for hope, setting goals and envisioning a new future.

This year, I believe one of our greatest challenges will be to have a vision for the future for our towns, cities and communities in a post-COVID world.

Life will get back to normal as the vaccine rolls out, but things may not look the same. Businesses will have closed, for rent and lease signs may become permanent fixtures in downtown cores, and we may see an exodus from cities as people now have the choice and freedom to work from anywhere. Which leaves us to beg the question, how can we keep our cities vibrant and relevant in a post-COVID world?

I was thinking about this today while walking along the waterfront behind our new hospital, Providence Care in Kingston. On a cold day in January during lockdown, there were runners jogging through the grounds, families toboganning on a popular hill, and people walking their dogs along the trail by the water.

This particular area of Kingston is interesting because there are many old beautiful abandoned limestone buildings on the property near the waterfront. I started imagining what the scene could look like six months from now when COVID was under control and the weather was fine.

This is what I saw: waterfront galleries, stores and craft cooperatives in the limestone buildings along the water.

Outdoor patios and seating like in the Distillery District in Toronto and nice restaurants extending out over the water like the pavilion at Dow’s Lake in Ottawa.

An area where street musicians and performers could play like The Forks in Winnipeg or Jackson Square in New Orleans.

Miles of boardwalk with lookouts and views where you could watch the sailboats go by.

Kingston has an astonishing 280 km of waterfront. It sits on Lake Ontario, is at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and is bisected by the Cataraqui River which feeds up into the Rideau Canal.

There’s Fort Henry with a magnificent view of the river, lake and city, our historic downtown with market square, City Hall and Confederation Basin where the tour boats depart from, the entire Kingston Penitentiary site, and miles of parks and trails.

We are water rich, but to a large degree our waterfront is still largely dispersed. You have to hop, skip and jump like a stone skipping on the waves to get from one waterfront trail and park to another. We also have huge tracts of land and buildings that are sitting idle, just begging to be developed.

In 2014-2016, the City of Kingston developed a master waterfront plan that identified hundreds of projects over a 30-year period. There has been a lot of terrific work that has already been done to make our city the gem it is, but there is so much more to be done.

For all of Kingston’s parkland, we also do not have a single stand-out, signature garden, maybe not quite on the scale of Butchart Gardens in Victoria or the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, but a garden that would attract people to our city and become a place of natural beauty, peace and a place for the community to gather.

This week’s #HappyAct is to envision how our communities will look like post-COVID. Then ask, what can we do to make it happen?

Old limestone building on Kingston's waterfront
Lake Ontario
This abandoned pier is the ideal location for a pavilion style restaurant extending over the water in Kingston
These abandoned buildings would be ideal for retail, craft cooperatives and art galleries