Five easy peasey no pot meals

Pork tenderloin on the BBQ

I’m almost afraid to say it in case we jinx it, but summer may finally be here.

When the skies turn robin egg blue and the days become wonderfully warm, the last thing you want to be doing is spending your time cooking and cleaning up indoors.

It’s this time of the year, I turn to my easy peasey no pot meals. Here are my top five favourites. Most of these are quick and easy on the BBQ.

  1. Naan pizza: a great go-to for get togethers, especially with kids. Let your guests build their own pizza using Naan bread and their own base and toppings. My favourite base is my famous garlic scape pesto
  2. Pork tenderloin with roasted vegetables, potatoes and naan bread
  3. Grilled chicken fajitas on the BBQ with onions and peppers, lettuce, salsa and cheese
  4. BBQ hamburgers, sausages and corn with garlic butter and a fresh green salad
  5. Leftover Mexican bowls: have leftover rice in the fridge? Layer it with fried onions and peppers, black beans and frozen corn, salsa and a chipotle sauce made of mayonnaise, sour cream, lime juice, garlic and Mexican spices

This week’s #HappyAct is to make a simple summertime dish. What’s your favourite breezy summertime meal? Leave a comment.

Plan the perfect do-nothing vacation

Me and Dave on a boardwalk in South Carolina

I’m starting a week’s vacation, and to be honest, I’m pretty stoked about it. I plan to poke around some garden centres, do a little kayaking, fishing, lots of eating, drinking, and watching Netflix. Basically all the same things I’ve been doing for the past year, minus work.

I used to be one of those people that would never take a vacation day if I didn’t have anything to do. The whole thought of spending an entire day at home was foreign to me. I always had to have something planned, either a big trip, or at least some day trips or overnighters to friends’ cottages or the city. Staycations were not my thing.

Now Covid is giving staycation a whole new meaning.

But there is something liberating about a do-nothing vacation. You can sleep as much as you want. You don’t have to worry about packing or having to be somewhere on time or follow a schedule. If it rains, who cares? It doesn’t ruin your plans because you don’t have any. You can just curl up for a nap, or find something to do inside.

Actually, it sounds rather idyllic except for two things.

My teenagers, both home all week, one home schooling, the other waiting for her summer job to start. All of a sudden, work doesn’t look that bad.

This week’s #HappyAct is to plan the perfect do-nothing vacation. What do you plan to do on yours? Leave a comment. Here’s a picture from a do-something vacation from two years ago outside Bubba’s Love Shak on a boardwalk in South Carolina. Sigh.

The future of work

future of work sign

There is a raging debate going on about the future of work. Companies are considering whether to continue to let employees work remotely, return to the office or adopt some form of hybrid model when the worst of the pandemic is over.

As I said last week, we’ve learned much in the past year. But I fear that as a society, we will let a precious opportunity slip through our fingertips: the opportunity to finally redefine our relationship with work, to seek a greater work-life balance and truly imagine a brighter future, one where we don’t just spend our days making a living, but living our best lives.

Here is my vision for the future of work.

First, employees would be able to choose how many hours they want to work a week. Imagine if you could say to your employer, I want to work 24 hours a week, 30, or 32 hours a week so I can pursue my passion, whether it’s painting, writing, running a side business, or volunteering.

Employees would have more flexibility to choose when they work. 6 a.m. to noon? No problem. I was reading one study where 15% of workers said they’d prefer to work in the evenings or at night so they could do things outside during the day. Depending on the role, why not? It could also help with child care challenges for working families.

We need to discover how to bring joy and fun back into our work world. The reality for many office workers is their day consists of never-ending emails and meetings, distractions and interruptions that is making us unhappy at work. When you feel like your day consists of putting out fires and you haven’t accomplished what you set out to do, it’s disheartening. Even before the pandemic, people were habitually checking email 74 times a day and switching tasks every 10 minutes. 

There are many, innovative solutions to making work fulfilling again.

Let’s start by hiring more people. I believe too many companies are running too lean. There are simply not enough people to do the work. If some people opt for shorter work weeks, there could be the opportunity to hire people and distribute work a bit more equitably to help ease stress and workloads.

We also need to be smarter about how we spend our time during the workday. Companies could establish designated meeting times, and work times to help people concentrate and accomplish meaningful work, without disruption.

Several years ago, a Fortune 500 software company in India tested a simple policy: no interruptions Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. The company experienced a 65 percent increase in productivity but also reported employees experienced an increase in work satisfaction. They discovered the most important factor in daily joy and motivation was a sense of progress.

We’ve also learned working from home this past year the importance of human connection. We miss our colleagues dearly.

The future of work needs to include being together again, but not dictated by arbitrary policies. Being able to collaborate, have fun together, celebrate successes are all great examples of when it will make sense to bring employees together in person. Training is another thing we’ve learned is a much more richer experience in person than remote learning.

Good workplaces will develop a do good culture. Providing opportunities for employees to get involved in their communities, and volunteer for worthy causes will add a new layer of purpose to work. Some companies already offer up to five days a year for employees to volunteer for local charities.

The future of work also includes more vacation. There will be a pent-up demand for travel when borders open up. North Americans could learn from other countries like the UK where residents get 28 days of vacation a year, France 25, and Germany and Australia, with 20 days.   

Finally, companies need to adopt the ner way of business. Ner is the business philosophy where the most important aspect is people and leaders only need to create an environment where people can excel. Companies have no hierarchy, just self-managing teams. Ner companies donate 3% of their profits and 2% of employee time to contribute to social projects and top salaries can’t be more than 2.5X higher the lowest salary. The ner philosophy creates more human, meaningful and entrepreneurial workplaces. And it works. Watch this video to learn more about ner.

Yes, we have a unique opportunity before us: to reimagine the future of work. Companies that are short-sighted will focus on one aspect: place.

Companies that are progressive and visionary will focus on outcomes and a new, more human philosophy towards work.

Who would you rather work for?

Stop being your own worst enemy

skeleton looking at a computer

There’s an enemy we are all facing right now, and it’s the enemy within.

Too many people are working more hours working from home than when they were in the office.

Why are we doing this to ourselves?

Have we programmed ourselves to delete our off buttons, so we don’t know when to shut down at the end of the day? Is it because we can’t separate work life from home life working out of our bedrooms and basements? Is it because there is nothing else to do in lockdown, and things will return to normal when the world rights itself? Or is there simply too much work and never enough hours in the day to get it done so we just keep working?

I think it is all of these things and it’s extolling a price.

Each month, Morneau Shepell publishes their 2021 Mental Health Index Report. It’s no secret mental health across all age groups has taken a dive since COVID began last March, but the most recent report shows two segments: women and managers are particularly at risk of burnout as they struggle to deal with the demands of work, home life and worries about finances and health of family members.

The report indicated employees are finding it more difficult to feel motivated to work and to concentrate. A startling one-quarter of Canadians are considering a career change despite their employers handling the pandemic well.

We’ve learned much in the past year. I’ve had several friends retire or make the brave and bold decision to simply leave their jobs. We’ve realized humans were not meant to spend entire days in dark rooms on devices. It’s not natural. We’ve also learned there is more to life than work.

As we slowly emerge from the darkest days of this pandemic, we will all be faced with choices. Be brave in your choices, and whatever you do, stop being your own worst enemy.

Next week: part two on the Future of Work

Coming to grips with the five most terrifying words you will ever ask yourself

Author with her daughters on the beach

One of the best Quora posts I ever read was someone who posed the question, “Is this all there is?” The author bared his soul, sharing his story about how he struggled with this question and how the implications of his answer compelled him to make monumental changes in his life.

For many of us, our lives are never ending hamster wheels. Get up. Work. Make dinner. Squeeze in an hour of exercise. Watch TV for an hour. Do it all over again. At some point, we will inevitably ask ourselves, is this all there is?

I know my answer.  While there are days when life’s routine wears me down, I have lived a good life.

I have watched the migration of the wildebeast and zebras in the setting sun of the Serengeti.

I have strolled along the banks of the Seine, the Thames and the Hudson.

I have explored the stopes of a gold mine thousands of feet underground, and hiked to the peaks of majestic mountains.

I have swam with dolphins, raced through forests on dog sleds, and snorkeled with schools of exotic fish in clear sparkling waters.

I have hiked glaciers on mountainsides and ziplined through the canopy of the rainforest.

I have known the love and respect of a wonderful man who has been my soul mate and partner for more than 30 years.

I have experienced the joy of watching my children grow, from taking their first uncertain steps, to watching their chubby little legs race down our hill to the lake on a warm summer’s day, to blossoming into the beautiful, strong, independent young women they’ve become today.

I have cherished friends who know me better than I know myself.

And I have enjoyed the peace and tranquility of living for almost two decades on my beautiful spring-fed lake and all the joys it brings each season.

I hope life brings more adventures, but if this is all there is, I’m OK with that. I choose to find joy each day in my small, simple life, and be grateful for the life I have lived.

This week’s #HappyAct is dedicated to the memory of my sister-in-law, Karen Gillies who passed away this week and who was taken from us far too young. An amazing wife, mother and friend, she embodied kindness and grace. Karen told us that she had come to accept her fate. I derive some comfort in knowing that Karen would have answered the question, is this all there is, the same way.

 Author at the top of Whistler mountain

Be a child genius

Child in shark costume with sunglasses on

Aldous Huxley once said, “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age which means never losing your enthusiasm.”

I would bet that many of us right now have lost some of our enthusiasm for life. Living in lockdown, not seeing friends and family, and filling our days with work, walks, books and chores without anything to look forward to is tough.

So how do we reignite joy and enthusiasm in our lives? Here are some thoughts, but I’m hoping everyone will leave a comment to help us all through this difficult time.

  1. Spend time with a child. Children help us see the world from a fresh perspective.
  2. Make a goal to try one new thing this week, whether it’s making a new dish, starting a new project, or learning a new hobby. When we learn new skills or focus on something fresh, our enthusiasm naturally emerges.
  3. Be curious and ask questions. The act of asking questions stimulates interest and enthusiasm. You can even ask questions of yourself like, “What do I want?”, “What am I grateful for”, or “What’s missing in my life?”
  4. Do something silly and that makes you laugh.
  5. Make a list of everything you love to do, and then take 15 minutes and do one of them a day.
  6. Plan a trip for when this is all over. It doesn’t have to be a big trip, maybe just an overnight getaway, but it will give you something to look forward to.

This week’s #HappyAct is to rediscover your zest for life. We can all be child geniuses. Now it’s your turn—what are your ideas?

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

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

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.