Immerse yourself in art

Van Gogh immersive exhibit

Last weekend, my girlfriend Leslie and I went to the Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit in Toronto.

It wasn’t at all what I expected, but was quite interesting. I expected to walk through a gallery of rooms of Van Gogh’s art projected on walls, but you actually enter one room and stay there the whole time as the theatrical experience engulfs you.

It was a massive space—the exhibit is showing at The Toronto Star building at 1 Yonge Street and I suspected the space on the first floor was the former printing plant.  

The first time we watched the 35-minute production, we simply admired Van Gogh’s masterpieces paired with classical music as they surrounded us in 360-degree views projected on the walls and floor.

Van Gogh’s famous sunflowers, lilies and almond blossoms surrounded us, followed by a starry night, scenes of fields and cafes, and portraits of courtesans, farmers and compatriots of his day.

The second time we watched it, the images transformed in a new way, dancing across the walls, rising and falling, coming to life. The smoke from a cigar billowed upward, a steam train rolled across the countryside, and a windmill slowly turned amongst threatening clouds as the animated images immersed us in their beauty and brushstrokes.  

Art aficionados and purists may balk at commercializing works of art and masterpieces, but for me it created a new and wondrous appreciation of the work of Van Gogh.

Here are some pictures of the exhibit. The Van Gogh 360 exhibit is on until May 30 in Toronto and this summer at Lansdowne Place in Ottawa. Be sure to put it on your summer vacation happy act list.

Van Gogh a starry night
A starry night
Van Gogh painting
Van Gogh art
Van Gogh lillies
Van Gogh masterpiece
Van Gogh's lillies

Why women should rule the world

Vladimir Putin

Like all of you, I have been watching in horror and disbelief the unconscionable war in Ukraine. I have my Master’s degree in Russian history, did I ever mention that? Anyone who has studied Russian history might contend that this war was inevitable.

For centuries, Russian tsars and leaders have annexed territories, withdrawn freedoms, broadcast propaganda, and imposed their will in the name of Russian nationalism, for the greater good of “mother Russia”. When Gorbachev ushered in the era of glasnost, for many Russians, it was seen as a sign of weakness.

On Tuesday, I’ll be participating in some International Women’s Day events, and this past week, I can’t help thinking that if only we elected women rulers, we’d have a better chance at peace.

History is replete with male dictators: Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Uganda’s Idi Amin.

And then you only have to look at the modern-day roster of dictators: Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan who has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for tragedies in Darfur, Kim Jong-II of North Korea, Muammar al-Quaddafi of Libya, and Vladimir Putin.

There have been a handful of cruel women monarchs and leaders throughout history. The religious crusades against Protestants of Queen Mary of England in the 1500’s earned her the nickname Bloody Mary.  Madame Mao persecuted her enemies to further the Cultural Revolution of communist China in the early 1900s. But there are very few examples of modern female leaders who have committed atrocities, started wars or committed crimes against humanity.

In this Forbes article, If Women are Better Leaders, Then Why Are They Not in Charge?, scientific studies have consistently shown that on most of the key traits that make leaders more effective, women tend to outperform men. For example, humility, self-awareness, self-control, moral sensitivity, social skills, emotional intelligence, kindness, a prosocial and moral orientation, are all more likely to be found in women than men.

Further, “men score higher than women on dark side personality traits, such as aggression (especially unprovoked), narcissismpsychopathy, and Machiavellianism, which account for much of the toxic and destructive behaviours displayed by powerful men who derail”.

This week’s #HappyAct is to elect a woman the next time you go to the polls and pray for the people of Ukraine, and all of Europe.

1,000 days

People wearing masks in 1918 in California

Very early on in the pandemic, an older caretaker of a church told Dave, “It will be a 1,000 days, every pandemic takes a 1,000 days.”

The Spanish flu lasted from February 1918 to April 1920. The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11, 2020. By my count, we are at 675 days which means we have about 10 months left of living with COVID.

For the first time in almost two years, I am quietly optimistic we are beginning to see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel.

Early on, the other catchphrase was herd immunity. The pandemic will subside when a large proportion of the population has either contracted the disease or developed enough antibodies through vaccines to protect themselves from contracting the disease. With the highly contagious Omicron variant, we are now seeing herd immunity in action.

This week’s #HappyAct is to allow yourself to hope. Stay strong during these last few critical weeks and months and let’s all continue doing what we need to do to support our beleaguered healthcare workers who have been the real heroes on the front lines.

I choose to hope the end is near, and I for one, can’t wait to see what’s on the other side.

Ed. Note: This post is not based on any scientific evidence. Please take it as it’s intended, hopeful musings that brighter days lay ahead.

Take pictures at a National Historic site at sunset

Sunset over Kingston from Fort Henry hill

This past year and half has been tough, but my heart especially has gone out to teenagers. At a time when they should be living carefree in the halcyon of their days, they’ve endured lockdowns, restrictions on the number of friends they could see, and unable to attend concerts, events and parties.

During lockdown, one of the favourite things Grace and her friends liked to do was go to a local Kingston restaurant, get take-out and eat it on the grass at the top of Fort Henry hill at sunset. A couple of weeks ago, I took Clare and two of her friends to Fort Henry to take pictures as the sun went down.

Fort Henry hill is a spectacular location. To the east of the majestic limestone walls of the fort, you see one of the six Martello towers perched on point jutting out into the blue waters of the St. Lawrence River. To the west, you get a magnificent view of downtown Kingston, with its stately church spires, City Hall and the historic buildings of Royal Military College in the foreground.

As I wandered the grounds around the fort, serenaded by the mystical sounds of Pumpkininferno gearing up for its opening night, I watched photographers set up their cameras to capture the sunset, students and couples sitting admiring the view, and Clare and her friends taking selfies and photos against the stunning backdrop.

Fort Henry walls
Martello tower in the St. Lawrence

The sky deepened blue, then a hint of orange starting appearing on the horizon. Wisps of clouds dotted the sky, scattering fractured light throughout the sky. As the sun set lower behind the buildings, the clouds cast swaths of brilliant orange across the entire sky and soon the sun was a single yellow orb surrounded by fire. It was so breathtaking. The crowds of people that were descending Fort Henry Hill all stopped to admire the spectacle.

Here were my photos of that special night.

Two teenagers taking photos
Clare on Fort Henry hill as the sun sets over Kingston

This week’s #HappyAct is to take pictures at sunset at a historic site in your city and be grateful that we can now start doing so many of the things that were denied us for so long.

Ed. Note: Pumpkininferno is running from now until October 31, 2021 at Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg and at Fort Henry.

Martello tower and downtown Kingston at sunset
Orange sun and clouds

Cabin life

Author outside her friend's log cabin

I’ve always had an affinity for log cabins. They make me feel at home. Sadly, they are a dying breed. While custom log home builders are still building majestic post and beam and timber frame homes, you have to comb the backwoods and back lakes of our region to find an original hand-hewn log cabin.

We were having this conversation last weekend at my best friend’s family cottage north of Minden. Her Dad built the main cabin almost sixty years ago and over time, her brother Steve built two more log cabins on the property. Steve said to me at one point, “Nobody builds cottages any more, they’re all homes.”

Log sleeping cabin

Their cottage hasn’t changed much in 40 years. Waterskis and lifejackets hang from the wooden rafters in the ceiling. Next to the old icebox in the kitchen filled with baking supplies is an antique Kellogg Wood Wall phone, the kind where you had to hold a receiver to your ear to hear the person talking.

The walls of the cabin are filled with bric-a-brac, antique cookie tins, pieces of driftwood and kids’ artwork from years gone by. The only thing that has changed is the fireplace. About eight years ago, Steve refaced the fireplace, using weathered river stone. The last few years, he’s been working on restoring another old log cabin on the property. It is a very special place.

Main family cottage
Stone fireplace
Log cabin
The newest log cabin on the property

My favourite vacation rental of all time was a 100-year old log cabin set in a meadow on a hillside on 25 acres just outside of Woodstock, Vermont. We spent a week there when the kids were little, and it too, was special.

The kitchen had an old porcelain style sink with a picture above it of the original homesteaders on the property, sitting in overalls with corn straw hats. The interior of the house had an old wood stove, a long wood dining room table adorned with wildflowers in a vase, and a big wooden staircase that went up to a loft that had two bedrooms, connected by a long walkway.

100-year old cabin
100-year old cabin in Woodstock, Vermont

The best part of the house was its wraparound porch. It was massive, and we practically lived outside for the entire week, eating meals and playing games on the small table with four chairs and sitting in the rocking chairs. On our last day, as Dave and I rocked on the porch enjoying our morning coffee, a deer made his way up the hill towards the cabin, grazing on the dewey grass until he was just a few feet from us.

Yes, if I were going to move, it would be to a log cabin on a lake. For now, I’m grateful for friends who have so generously allowed me to share in the memories of these special places. It has meant the world to me.  

Front porch of log cabin

Tour a lighthouse

Bodie Island lighthouse

Now that things are opening up again, Canadians are starting to think about travelling again.

One fun thing to do with the family is tour a lighthouse.

Before the modern lighthouse came into existence and the development of cities and ports, villagers built fires on hilltops to guide mariners to safety. The modern era of lighthouses began at the turn of the eighteenth century when the shipping industry boomed.

I always thought it would have been exciting to be a lighthouse keeper, living in a tower, braving wicked storms and manning the beam to provide safe passage to those on the seas.

Most of Canada’s iconic lighthouses are on the east and west coasts. But you don’t have to go as far as Vancouver or PEI to discover the charm of a lighthouse. Oakville, Port Dover, Goderich and Kincardine all have lighthouses to admire.

If you are planning a vacation this summer, here is a list of top lighthouses in Canada.

I’ll leave you with pictures of one of my favourite areas to explore lighthouses—the Outer Banks in North Carolina, but sadly it will be some time before we can travel south again. Happy exploring!

Lighthouse in Duck, North Carolina
Bodie Island lightouse
Stanley Park lighthouse
Lighthouse in Stanley Park, Vancouver

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

Of manors and mansions

Bantry House, County Cork, Ireland
Bantry House, County Cork, Ireland

The popularity of the Netflix series of Bridgerton has transported us back in time to another era. Set in the early 1800’s in regency London, it is steeped in the stories of lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses attending balls and paying morning visits in the drawing rooms and parlours of the grand mansions and manors in England.

I have to confess to be a little smitten with this show and period, and it reminded me of happier times touring towns like Bath in England, and manor houses across the English, Irish and Scottish countryside.

Most of the museums and homes used for the sets of Bridgerton are open to the pandemic (but closed now due to COVID), so you can plan to visit them soon.

The exterior scenes of the marital home of Daphne and Simon were shot in Castle Howard in York, while the interior shots were filmed at North Mymms Park, Wilton House, also used as Buckingham Palace in The Crown, and Badminton House in Gloucestershire. The Bridgerton’s house in town is Ranger’s House on the outskirts of Greenwich Park in London and houses a world-class art collection. And some of the scenes filmed at their neighbours’ house, the Featheringtons were filmed at the famous Number 1 Royal Crescent in Bath.

Now is a great time to do some armchair travelling and plan your next visit to a grand manor or mansion. Here are some of my favourites I’ve toured over the years:

  • Chatsworth House in Bakewell, England. The seat of the Duke of Devonshire, this majestic home in Derbyshire has stately gardens and is open daily to tourists. Chatsworth was the location for Mr. Darcy’s home, Pemberley in the Kiera Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice. It’s famous for its majestic entrance hall, conservatory, and marble sculpture gallery, and themed gardens with water features.
  • Bantry House in County Cork, Ireland. We stopped at this stately home for an afternoon while touring the Sheep Peninsula in Ireland. Set on the outskirts of the market town of Bantry, it has magnificent views of the seaport and stunning gardens. It recently became a Bed and Breakfast.
  • Years ago, I was lucky to be invited for private tea at Brodie Castle in Forres, Scotland. My friend June and I had been touring the UK, and her parents’ best friends were the caretakers of this lovely estate near Inverness. At the time, the family still lived on the estate, and it was fascinating to get a private tour and get a sense of what it was like to live in a grand manor.
Chatsworth Hall, Derbyshire England
Chatsworth House, England: note this photo looks like a painting, but it is an actual photo I took when I was there
Entry at Chatsworth Hall
My best friend Leslie in the famed entry hall at Chatsworth
Statue gallery at Chatsworth Hall
The statue gallery at Chatsworth

Closer to home:

  • One of my favourite day trips for those of us lucky enough to live in Eastern Ontario is Boldt Castle. Built by American millionaire George C. Boldt on a heart-shaped island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands, the setting and love story of George and Louise Boldt will captivate you as much as the castle itself.
  • Paletta Mansion in Burlington: This 11,000 square foot mansion ranks amongst the finest great estate homes in the GTA.  It’s set on the shores of Lake Ontario and has terraces, boardwalks and a small stream running through it home to ducks and waterfowl. The day I strolled its grounds in January, there were couples who brought lawn chairs to simply sit on the terrace and have a coffee. It’s a popular site for weddings.

This week’s #HappyAct is to tour a grand mansion or manor, or at least plan to visit one soon.

Looking for a Spring escape when the borders open up? Stay at the Vanderbilt Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina for $149 a night.

Leslie again at the famous Royal Crescent in Bath, England, where the Featheringtons live in Bridgerton

I #ChooseToChallenge but respectfully

Author and her daughter holding their hands high in solidarity for International Women's Day

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. This year the theme is #ChooseToChallenge. The rallying cry is not just to celebrate women’s achievements, but to call out gender bias and inequality so “collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.”

As someone who has witnessed gender bias and inequality and tried to advocate all my life for gender equity, I will hold my hand high to show my support with women across the globe but with one important caveat: I #ChooseToChallenge respectfully.

We are living in very strange times indeed, times when even when you are trying to do the right thing and speak up, you can be vilified for your words.

Last month, actress Olivia Wilde praised her boyfriend, Harry Styles publicly on her Instagram feed for taking a supporting role in a film she directed featuring a strong female cast. She said “Little known fact, most male actors don’t want to play supporting roles in female-led films. The industry has raised them to believe it lessens their power (i.e financial value) to accept these roles, which is one of the reasons it’s so hard to get financing for movies focusing on female stories.”

The backlash was fast, furious and full of vitriol, accusing Wilde of praising Styles for doing his job or as one person said on Twitter, “the bare minimum level shit”.

What’s the lesson here? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

C’mon everybody. Speak up. Choose to challenge, but be damned sure you say the right thing.

I’m honestly getting really tired. Tired of people trying to do the right thing and being raked over the coals, tired of the haters, tired of the nastiness overshadowing the real, important conversations and hampering real change.

So yes, we must #ChooseToChallenge, but please, help make this world a happier and more productive place and #ChooseToChallenge respectfully.

Sleeping with an elephant

On Tuesday, Americans will go to the polls in what some are calling the most historic U.S. election since Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860.

As the tiny mouse living next to the mammoth elephant*, Canada is holding its breath to see who will be President when all the votes are counted on Tuesday night.

There is so much at stake, but I won’t waste time recounting the issues that have filled our airwaves and papers for the past six weeks.

One thing is certain, I have never been more happy to be Canadian.

Over the past decade and the past year in particular, it feels like the great divide between our two countries has deepened to a wide chasm.

We have been physically divided by a closed border due to COVID-19. Our countries have been divided on foreign policy, racial injustice and climate change. The greatest divide, I’ve come to realize, is cultural.

If America had a motto, other than America First, it would be “every man for himself”. In Canada, it would be “all for one, and one for all.”

I don’t think it would have mattered who was President during the pandemic—the country would have wound up in exactly the same place. The culture of, I’m going to do what I want, it’s my god-given right and no one can stop me, has resulted in the U.S. having the highest infection rate in the world.

So as we hold our breaths and await the results Tuesday night, let’s collectively give thanks and continue to cherish and hold dear what makes us uniquely Canadian. We the north, all for one and one for all.

*In 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in a speech to the Washington Press Club, described living next to the United States by saying, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”