Living vicariously through others

Author on Dubawnt River in NWT
On the Dubawnt River in NWT

By special guest blogger Dave Swinton

One thing the pandemic has taught me is you can escape through the magic of Youtube.

When I was younger we were always looking for our next adventure. One summer when I was 13, a friend of mine, his father and I built and launched a pontoon boat made completely out of wood. With an old kicker motor and a thirst for what lay around the next bend, my friend and I set off every day to fish, swim, and explore the Grand River in all its glory. As I got older, and went off to school in Thunder Bay, we ascended the top of the Sleeping Giant and descended to the depths of Ouimet Canyon (if you haven’t heard of it, look it up). We hiked, skiied and snowshoed new territory every weekend. We ice fished lakes from dawn till dusk and purposely got lost because this is where we found our true selves. 

I’ve been to places few people have ever been. Whether it be a 9-day river trip in the Arctic or a safari in Tanzania, my thirst for adventure is never far from the surface.

But the inevitable dance with age is starting to catch up with me. Sore knees, hips, and shoulders are starting to diminish my dreams of trips. My mind is still filled with adventures. Hiking in the Himalayas, far north canoe trips, road trips, lost lakes. But who am I kidding, some of these may never happen.

I’ve had some willing partners over the years, some of who are now gone but my thirst for adventure continues. 

But I’ve found a new set of partners on YouTube. They have specialized camera equipment like GoPros and DSLR cameras and drones which make you feel like you are right beside them.

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered a YouTuber named Foresty Forest. The man has literally converted his van into a liveable space and spends his days hiking and mountain climbing all the gorgeous peaks of British Columbia. His stamina for climbing is off the charts and sometimes he climbs multiple peaks every day. The vistas he captures are stunning and his minimal dialogue is very enjoyable. I’ve also hiked the Himalayas with a Nepalese man named Ram and his company Mountain Ram Adventures without ever leaving the comfort of my house. One day I’m fishing Lake of the Woods, the next night I’m canoeing in Quetico.

My thirst for adventure will always be satisfied.

This week’s Happy Act is to live vicariously through others, because that’s all we have right now.

Giraffe at Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Lake Manyara, Tanzania

Beautiful music for a crazy world

For the past three weeks, I’ve been listening to classical music in the car. I find when I’m in Toronto, I naturally gravitate to classical. It’s almost as if my brain seeks a soothing balm to the incessant noise and traffic, even though the roads and city neighbourhoods were quite blissfully quiet during this recent trip during lockdown.

I was listening to Classical 96.3 whose tagline right now is “Beautiful music for a crazy world” (I thought this was hilarious). I think we all need more beautiful music for a crazy world and there is no music more beautiful than classical.

My love for classical music started in my childhood. My Dad loved jazz, my brother classic rock, but it was Mom who introduced me to classical. Then in high school, I played the flute in my high school and local community concert band, where I developed a new appreciation for some of the great classical compositions as a musician. I also have to thank the parents of one of my friends, Jim and Audrey McMurray for continuing this love affair. I have many fond memories of having a glass of wine before dinner at their cottage, with the sounds of classical music floating in the air alongside the lake breezes and sparkling water.

While I was driving into Toronto, Classical 96.3 played this beautiful composition called “And the Waltz Goes On” by none other than Sir Anthony Hopkins. Even though he is known as an Oscar-winning actor, he has been composing music for the past 50 years and in 2011, released his first classical album called “Composer”.

I loved watching this video clip of Andre Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra perform it. Anthony Hopkins is in the audience, and you see the emotion on his face as these brilliant musicians bring his masterpiece to life. He tears up at one point. The musicians are so expressive, but it is the audience who steal the show. You can see at first their anticipation for what is to come, then the joy and delight on their faces as the music sweeps them away, literally as they begin swaying in the aisles and dancing in their seats. It is so much fun to watch and even more moving to listen to.

I wish I could instil an appreciation for classical music in my children. Believe me, I’ve tried. Perhaps some day, but for now, I’m happy in finding at least my own solace in beautiful music for a crazy world.

Living in a world of 24/7 news

CP24 news page

Kamala Harris. Larry King. Amanda Gorman. Julie Payette. Alexei Navalny.

These names are now as familiar to me as my own family’s. That’s because for the past two weeks, I’ve become a news junkie, hooked on CP24 and CNN.

Two weeks ago, I drove to the city to live with Dave’s Dad to help him out for a bit. John lives on his own so the television and 24-hour news shows are his constant companion.

Until now, my strategy when it came to coping with Covid and the barrage of news was to go cold turkey. It always wasn’t that way.

When Covid first hit, like the rest of the world, I became glued to the television and internet to witness the unbelievable events unfolding from China. I’ll never forget seeing the first images of Chinese officials in white hazmat suits, disinfecting the streets of Wuhan and the abandoned scenes of a city in full lockdown. It seemed impossible, like something out of a science fiction novel or movie script.

I continued watching the news as the virus spread, partly out of necessity for my work. But as the months went on, increasingly I found the only way to stay positive was to disconnect entirely from the constant onslaught of news. From time to time, I’d check my favourite websites or watch the evening news to hear the latest Covid numbers and what was happening around the world.

Now for the past two weeks, I’ve been watching TV news non-stop. With all the news on the Presidential inauguration in the States, the Capitol riots, and Covid-19, it’s been an interesting time to be dialled in to current events.

This is what I’ve learned about how to live in a world of 24/7news:

  • Strategy #1: Don’t watch the news and just focus on daily living. A key aspect of positive mental health is to only focus on factors under your control. Going cold turkey forces you to do that and shelters you from the fear and anxiety of constant bad news. I’ve found this strategy highly effective.
  • Strategy #2: Watch the nightly news or limited amounts of news. One thing mental health experts told us early on during the pandemic was to not watch the news before going to bed. I found when I did this, it was like a black cloak had been draped over me and had a severe negative impact on my mental health. I stopped watching the news before going to bed and eventually stopped watching news altogether.
  • Strategy #3: Become a news junkie. Surprisingly, I have found this also to be an effective strategy. It’s been a very interesting time in the world, and I’ve enjoyed being able to hear the commentary, in-depth coverage and analysis during a key news cycle. I can recite what the TSX is at, oil prices, the dollar, global, U.S. and Canadian COVID numbers and trends, and which vaccines are approved, delayed and being rolled out. I’ve found that when you are inundated with information, it becomes much less scary. It’s like Toronto traffic (when there isn’t a pandemic). If you need to only drive in it from time to time, it can be as scary as hell, but live in it every day, and you begin to zone out and not even notice the craziness of it all. There’s also a certain comfort in being well-informed.

I’ve also developed a newfound respect for reporters in these times. I tip my hat to the news people who have worked long hours and had to “be on” 24/7 this past year without the luxury of being able to take a break. On the other hand, there are some news personalities like Don Lemon on CNN that need to go.

I know when I go home, I will go cold turkey again, and that’s just fine by me. I’m looking forward to some peace and quiet and a break from the idiot box. The most important thing is to be tuned in to your mental health and do what you need to do to stay positive until Covid is yesterday’s news.

Time to sign off for another week. Good night, and good luck.

Tails from Bentley

Special guest blog by Bentley the dog

Greetings, or as I like to say, happy tails! I can’t believe it’s been only weeks since I left the streets of Cairo, flew on a plane and arrived in Canada. A nice man named Kevin greeted me and drove me to meet my new family. We had lots of laughs and pets in his driveway, then it was time to go home.

The minute I walked in the door, I knew I found my furrever home. The oldest girl, Grace gave me a big hug and had a new toy and sign ready for me, saying “Welcome home”.

My new home is doggie paradise. My owners posted pictures of me on Facebook and all their friends said I won the doggie lottery. Apparently their house is known as a“doggie spa” because it is pawsitively awesome and regularly gets five tail wag reviews on PupAdvisor from four-legged visitors.

My new house is all one level and has a wood stove for me to curl up beside in the winter and a beautiful sunroom with all windows. I have six acres to roam on a spring-fed lake. My family keeps telling me we will go fishing and swimming in the summer, but for now, it’s all frozen and snowy. I have already been ice fishing and skating and like to blow bubbles in the ice fishing holes and minnows bucket!

I love watching the birds on my property. I especially love chasing the squirrels. When my owners let me out the front or back door, I go tearing after them and five or six squirrels will go flying off the bird feeders onto the fences and trees in a flourish. It makes me howl every time! My family doesn’t mind because it keeps the squirrels away from the bird feeders.

It took me about a week to adjust to everything. My tummy was off a bit, so my Mom gave me pumpkin in my food for a few days. On Christmas Eve she made a pumpkin pie. She left it on the counter and asked my Dad to get the tupperware container down and cover it up. He got the wrong one that doesn’t close properly and so before bed, I smelled the pumpkin, thinking it was for me and put my paws on the counter and ate half of it.

Another time, a neighbour dropped some apple crisp off at the front door and got stuck in the icy snow in their driveway. When they all went out to help them get unstuck, I helped myself to half a brie and lovely charcuterie board on the dining room table. I know I shouldn’t, but if stupid humans leave food out like that, I can’t help myself. I’ll have to train them better if I’m going to keep my boyish figure.

My family is home during the day and spend their time looking at screens a lot. They take lots of breaks to play with me and take me for walks. They keep using words like “Covid” and “virus” and assure me we will visit more with other people and dogs when those strange words are over.

My favourite place to sleep now is in my Dad’s chair in the sunroom. It fits me just perfect, I can look out the windows and it makes me feel closer to him when he is away at work. Mom says it’s like I’m a prince on my throne.

Grace keeps bringing stuffed toys home for me. My ETTR (estimated time to rip apart) is 24 hours. I’m trying to improve my time to get into the Guinness Book of Dog Records. I figure I have a good shot if she keeps bringing dollar store items. I also like to go around and pick up hats, mitts and socks. Mom is trying to teach me to drop the dirty items in the laundry basket for biscuits.

Grace has a boyfriend and he is a cat person (horrors). I have made it my secret mission to convert him to become a dog person so we snuggle a lot and play together. I think my master plan is working.

I am so happy in my new home. We believe in our hearts we were MFEO (Made For Each Other). I know this wonderful new life of mine would never have been possible without Golden Rescue and my generous sponsor. From the tip of my tail, I want to say thank you so much for bringing me to such a wonderful place.

Happy tails, Bentley!

Happy? New Year–try going for joyful and hopeful instead

There are two sayings we bandy about at this time of year: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

This year as I was writing out Christmas cards, I found myself naturally avoiding those usual seasonal sayings and writing sentiments instead like, “Joyous wishes” and “I hope you can find moments of joy” for friends who had lost loved ones in this particularly difficult year.

Alan McPherson, a retired minister with the Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton says there is a difference between happiness and joy. “Happiness is an emotion. Joy is deeper, more long-lasting. It is based more on inner certainties, not external events.”

Who knows what the new year will bring. With the second wave of COVID-19 still having an icy grip on the country and most regions in lockdown, happier times seem a way off. But we can always find joy each day in simple acts. Curling up with a good book. Catching up with an old friend. Going for a walk on a bright wintry day and hearing the snow crunch underfoot.

Yes, we can always find joy. And we always have hope.

Have a joyful and hopeful New Year everyone.

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

The year in review: my favourite happy acts from the year of COVID

Two girls graduating

Each year at this time, I select my top ten favourite blog posts for my annual year in review.

I was a bit worried this year that pickings would be slim. Truth be told blogging about happiness during a global pandemic is a bit of a tough slog. With little prospects for fun excursions, and at times struggling with my own mental and physical health, there were many weeks when I wondered what simple act could I share this week to make the world a happier place?

But as I re-read the posts two things hit home. You can feel moments of happiness and gratitude at the most unexpected times and by doing the simplest of acts.

The other realization was happiness cannot be viewed in isolation. We are vastly impacted by events happening around us. My blog this past year has been as much a reflection and chronicle of the times as anything else.

Here were my favourite happy acts from a year that will go down in the history books as a year to remember:

There you have it. Another year under the bridge, another year of happy acts. Here’s to a happier 2021 for us all.

The best Christmas gift ever

golden retriever

One of the first blog posts I ever wrote when I started sharing a happy act a week to help make the world a happier place was, “Hug a dog”.

There is nothing like the love and licks of a furry four-legged friend to make bad days better and good days epic. When our two large dogs passed away within the same year, we held off getting another dog. Our schedules were hectic and we thought we’d just look after friends’ dogs when they were away.

Then COVID hit and everyone got a dog. Friends who have never had a dog before were getting puppies. We started searching for the right dog online but even mutts were going for $1,200 and pickings were scant.

We were dogless in lockdown during a pandemic. It just wasn’t right. We wrote out our Christmas lists and each made the same wish to Santa: please bring us a puppy.

Our wishes came true this week when we adopted a one and a half year-old golden retriever rescue dog from goldenrescue.ca. He flew all the way from Cairo, Egypt and already has nuzzled his way into our hearts and his furever home.

He is a big, gentle loving soul who loves to play, walk and snuggle. We can’t get over how good he is already. His worst habits are stealing the toilet paper roll off the holder and picking up Dave’s socks from the floor which he always brings and presents to me proudly. My goal is to teach him to put the socks in the laundry basket—one less chore in the house.

But we need help with a name. He came with the name Bailey, but I had a dog for 17 years named Bailey and every dog has their own unique personality. Here are some suggestions that have already come in from friends on Facebook.

This week’s #HappyAct is to make someone’s Christmas wish come true and give the best present ever, or at least help us name our newest family member. I hope everyone has a wonderful and joyous Christmas. Be sure to read next week’s annual year-end wrap up of the best happy acts of 2020.

  • Beau
  • Cairo
  • Tucker
  • Harley
  • Jasper
  • Red
  • Rusty Griswold Swinton (since we got him at Christmas)
  • Nugget (like a gold nugget)
  • Elvis (my choice, the rest of the fam are nixing this one)
  • Duke
Dave and Clare walking the dog
Doing his first Christmas bird count

Where eagles dare

December is always an interesting time on our lake because we get unique guests: migrating birds and ducks heading south as the northern lakes freeze.

This year we’ve had some very special visitors. For the past week, we’ve had five bald eagles take up residence on our lake. Now even if you aren’t a “birder”, spotting one of these magnificent raptors is considered a “feather” in your cap. I’ve seen bald eagles many times in Red Lake Ontario, and in British Columbia, but I’ve never been able to see them so close and watch their daily antics and habits.

We saw the first eagle last Saturday—it was literally sitting outside our sunroom windows and it was MASSIVE. We thought at first it was a golden eagle because it was all brown with a hint of gold on its neck, but we are now pretty sure it was a juvenile bald eagle. Many people may not be aware that only mature bald eagles have the white head—juveniles are nearly all brown.

Then the next day a magnificent adult bald eagle landed on the same perch off our deck. All week they’ve been soaring from treetop to treetop,  looking for fish and having a grand old time. There are three adults and two juveniles, and what’s interesting is the adults don’t seem to have much to do with the youngsters—kind of like us and our teenagers right now.

Bald eagle in a snowy tree

I especially like to watch the eagles terrorize the flock of common mergansers on the lake. They like to dive bomb the ducks and let out a few high-pitched chirps. The ducks get all upset and flap their wings and take off. I swear the eagles are actually laughing at them.

They have been a marvel to watch. Here are some pictures I’ve managed to take this week although they are quite shy.

This week’s #HappyAct is to keep your eye out for a different type of raptor in the next few weeks instead of the ones that usually play in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre.

If you are interested in birds, why not join the annual Christmas Bird Count in your region?

The CBC is the largest citizen science project of its kind. It started in 1900 and happens between December 14 and January 5 across the country. Local groups choose a single day during that period and conduct the count—counts are carried out within a 24-km radius. The information is fed into the National Audobon Society which uses it to track species and impacts on bird populations.

The South Frontenac and Kingston bird counts this year are on Saturday, December 19. With COVID this year, they are hoping more people will come forward to simply count birds at their backyard feeders. Here’s where you can find out more information on the Frontenac bird count or message me and I’ll send you the info. Happy viewing!

Bald eagle in tree
Bald eagle flying

Gaze in childlike wonder at a Christmas window display

Christmas window skaters in the park

I was walking in the village of Tamworth the other night, waiting for Clare’s hockey scrimmage to begin when I stumbled across a beautiful Christmas window display at the real estate office on the town’s main street.

It was a miniature wintry scene of a mountaintop village with many moving figures. There were children tobogganing down a tube run, skaters gliding in circles around a pond, skiiers swishing down a slope, even a child making snow angels. The village had a popcorn shop, and there were little buckets of popcorn moving on a conveyor belt as the popcorn popped with twinkling lights.

I must have stood there for ten minutes looking at the window. Each time I looked, I saw something new: two lumberjacks ice fishing under a full moon, a mountaintop lodge near the ski hill with an apres ski bar, people walking their dogs and beautiful birch and pine trees framing the whole scene. It was truly magical.

I remember as a little girl my Mom taking me out of school to spend a special day together before Christmas. We’d go to downtown Toronto to go shopping and see the Christmas windows on display at Simpsons and Eaton’s department stores. They were always magical and each year had a different theme. The window displays were so popular that they’d plan school trips for schoolchildren to see them and skate at Nathan Phillip’s Square.

In a year when we won’t be able to enjoy the many traditional holiday gatherings and celebrations, this week’s #HappyAct is to enjoy the magic of the season through your favourite Christmas window.

Some other towns where the downtown shops have their windows done up beautifully this year include Perth and Napanee. What’s your favourite Christmas window? Leave a comment.

Christmas window popcorn shoppe
Christmas window hockey player