Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Movie night

The world is on fire and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. So I’ve decided to write about movies.

The last movies we saw before the theatres shut down were Knives Out and Parasite. Knives Out was a terrific, twisty, murder mystery with an incredible cast. ****

Parasite was last year’s Academy Award winner as Best Picture. In it, a low-income South Korean family con a rich family into gradually hiring each of them. Then things get twisted… ***½

Those are both available for streaming rental now.

Warming up

Since then, we’ve been dubbing one night each weekend “movie night”, making the popcorn, and watching a flick on the TV. Initially, it was an anxious time, we wanted something not too heavy. Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name (Netflix) was a great inaugural, telling the story of how failed comic Rudy Ray Moore (a real guy!) reinvented himself and became an unlikely success. Reminded me of The Disaster Artist. ****

Then we tried The Greatest Showman (Netflix), a movie that critics dumped on but audiences loved. Jean was skeptical about a musical based on PT Barnum, but we ended up siding with audiences and enjoying it. *** As we did Shazam (HBO), a humorous superhero movie from the DC Comics universe. ***

Tom Hanks

Was one of the first famous people to come down with coronavirus (remember that?), which somehow inspired us to catch up with a couple of his movies. Sully (cable) told the story of the pilot who landed the plane on the Hudson River, saving all 150 passengers. We hadn’t realized there had been some doubt as to just how heroic his actions were. *** And Charlie Wilson’s War (Netflix) told the rather interesting story of the US’ involvement in supporting Afghanistan rebels in their fight against the Soviets—without ignoring how that all went wrong in the end. ***½

Girls behaving badly

While not viewed in sequential weeks, for whatever reason we seemed to be drawn to movies about women breaking the law. Or maybe it’s just that they’ve making more of these lately? At any rate…

Ocean’s 8 (HBO) is part of the movie franchise that started with George Clooney’s Ocean’s 11. Kind of a trifle, but entertaining. The difference is that the group of eight are all women, and that does add a layer of fun. ***

Molly’s Game (Netflix) was written and directed by Arron Sorkin, so there is a whole lot of smart, fast-paced dialogue in the telling of the story of Molly Bloom, a former champion skier who ran an exclusive poker game for rich people, including some very famous ones. Initially run legally, ultimately it was not, and the movie starts with her legal troubles and flashes back.

Jean liked this one more than I did. It’s definitely an interesting story; my problem was in the great effort to turn Molly into a noble hero, which I didn’t quite buy. ***

Hustlers (Prime) told the story of strip club employees who, after the Wall Street crash, started drugging their clients to lower their inhibitions and get them to spend more than they otherwise would have on booze and women. Definitely behaving badly! But what’s really compelling is the relationship between the women. It’s like friendship porn. And this one, I liked more than Jean did. My score would be ***½.

Arty farty

Have you heard of Tubi? It’s another movie and TV streaming service, only free—ad supported. Very few ads, in my experience, so I wouldn’t let that put you off.

I noticed they had We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on a good but disturbing novel I’d read of the same name, about a woman who decides to have the child her husband wants, but she doesn’t. That it doesn’t turn out well is a bit of an understatement.

I got it in my head that I’d like see how they adapted the novel to film. They didn’t do a bad job of it—Tilda Swinton is very good in the lead—but overall I preferred the novel’s elaboration of the story to the movie’s inevitable compression of it. As for Jean, he might not forgive me for having him watch this. The story haunted him for days afterward. **½

The movie also led Tubi to recommend a whole series of other disturbing movies to me, none of which I would ever watch. To try clean that up, I selected The Lady in the Van as my next Tubi movie. This British film tells of the relationship between an educated homeless woman and a single male writer. It’s pretty enjoyable—Maggie Smith is terrific—but it is based on a true story that wasn’t overly “Hollywood-ized”, leaving the overall narrative arc a little less satisfying. ***

And I don’t know that it’s truly “arty farty”, except that it’s now an older classic, isn’t it? But we watched Saturday Night Fever (Hollywood Suite), the first time either of us had seen it. Since it’s mostly remembered for John Travolta’s disco dancing, the grittiness of it is a bit shocking: the casual use of the n word, the date rape… But it is a movie worth seeing. ***½

The Princess Cinema started offering some streaming movies recently, and in support of them, we rented The Trip to the Greece. It’s the fourth in a series, and we hadn’t seen any of the previous ones, so it was a bit odd to just jump into this one. Not that there’s a whole lot of complex plot to follow, mind. It’s just two guys who take a road trip, banter with each other, see spectacular scenery, and eat great meals.

The banter is often amusing, but very pop culture–driven, and Jean, particularly, often couldn’t get into it as he didn’t know what they were on about. The funnest part was us saying “Bastard!” every time they sat down for another amazing restaurant dinner, the likes of which are not accessible to us right now, of course. **½


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About that new normal

Things are tentatively reopening in Ontario—parks (not for camping yet), stores (but not the ones in malls), some medical and veterinary procedures (excluding dentists and optometrists).

But Ontario simply hasn’t been testing enough. So we just don’t know what the real levels of community spread are. The only certain thing, at least in my part of Ontario, is that there is some.

So you really have to do your own risk assessment to determine what newly possible activities you want to take advantage of. The blog post The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them has been really influential, with a lot of newspaper articles covering similar points. What’s the gist?

Successful infection = Exposure * Time.

The worst cases occur with a group of people close together indoors in a building with poor ventilation who are speaking loudly (or singing) and sharing food. So it’s safer to be outdoors, and when indoors, best to be able to keep some distance from others, and not stay too long.

This means that some activities that many of us have been worried about—because it’s the only ones we privileged types have been going out to do—aren’t actually that much of a risk. Walking (or riding or jogging) past people outside, even if it’s a bit less than six feet away—is not that risky because the interaction is so brief and the virus doesn’t transmit that well in open air.

Going to the grocery store? Also not that bad, because you’re not there that long, the number of people is restricted such that it’s not crowded, and you’re moving around fairly quickly past different people. Plus with the lone shopping, not so much talking going on. Wearing a mask is a nice gesture also, mostly to protect the store workers from you.

So it will be with other stores that can now open but with restricted occupancy. Plan what you want to buy there, get it efficiently while keeping space, then get out. Wash your hands, and wash them again after unpackaging whatever you bought. (And wash your mask if you wore one.)

Odds are you’re going to be all right.

Working 9 to 5

But what about working in our own offices for 8 to 9 hours a day?

I would note that I have not been asked to do this, so this is merely hypothetical musing.

Atul Gawande, in the New Yorker, notes that hospitals have done a pretty good job of preventing spread among healthcare workers there, and wonders if some of there approaches can be adapted to other workplaces: Amid the Coronavirus Crisis, a Regimen for Reentry. The four-point plan is basically:

  1. Employee screening, with orders to stay home if you’re sick

Gawande notes the issue with relying on temperature checks only: Apart from the fact that some with the disease never do develop a high fever, for those that do, the onset is typically later than with other, milder symptoms. So you really want people with scratchy throats or body aches staying away, even if they’re fever-free. That would need to be made clear.

2. Frequent hand washing

Great, as long as there is copious hand sanitizer about. Otherwise, there would be serious sink lineups happening.

3. Keep distance between employees as much as possible

Definitely a challenge in my office, which (like many) has gone for cramming more cubicles into less space, and even some “banquet table” style seating (side by side and facing, with no separation at all). Many of us having standing desks that put us above divider height (as lower dividers were installed to encourage collaboration). Is it possible to rearrange everything to actually seat everyone six feet apart, with higher dividers? Dunno.

4. Wear masks

Yeah, it’s one thing to wear a mask for a brief shopping trip or transit ride, but quite another to wear one for most of an 8-hour work day. Yes, healthcare workers do, and thank you to them: I’ve seen the photos of how uncomfortable that is. But surgical masks, at least, are better masks than the ones we can get (per the Gawande article); less hot, more breathable.

Furthermore, what about my drinking habit? Seriously, at work, I drink all day long. First coffee…

Then water, then maybe a tea, a decaf, some more water… I think it somewhat defeats the purpose if you’re constantly taking the mask off and on (and so is everyone else). But working dehydrated and with a caffeine headache, with a sweaty face and foggy glasses, does not sound like a recipe for great productivity. (And what about lunch? My afternoon snack?)

So I think some thought needs to be given as to the purpose of actually returning to work at the office.

Environmental factors

For me, though I’m slowly working on it, it’s still true that my office setup is more ergonomic than my home one; my desk there is just better For some people, home might not be a particular good workspace due to noise, pets, lighting, other family members, etc. For those purposes, it could make sense to allow a certain percentage to work at the office each day, as potentially the numbers could be kept low enough that spacing is fairly easy and masks less necessary.

Social factors

Seeing people, and the ease of talking to them. Team building. Building culture. All being missed, but how easy to get back?

You can’t be cramming people into small meeting rooms to have discussions like we used to. We can’t have fitness classes with the previous numbers of attendees. The communal kitchen is a bit of a hazard. Coffee machines might be have to be disabled, so more chats there. Going over to talk to someone might be less welcomed. We can’t open windows. Outside meetings could be nice in July, less so in January. The elevator could become a scary space. Also, the bathroom.

Basically, it’s hard to build warm and fuzzy feelings toward your coworkers when they seem like disease vectors.

And what about leisure activities

The Saturday Globe and Mail featured a list of 46 changes they predicted for the post-pandemic world. (Most of these items are not available online, I’m finding—so no links for you.) I didn’t find it too depressing til I got to the Arts section. (Whereas, the point that flying might not be that fun—or cheap? Not exactly new, right? And at least we might finally get more space.)

But it wasn’t the one about rock concerts likely moving toward smaller venues with sky-high ticket prices. For one thing, there aren’t that many bands still on my “must-see” list. For another, if I did feel I could indulge in such an experience, it could be kind of cool. The article also postulated a cheaper streaming option might be available—which doesn’t sound bad.

And the one claiming that movie theatres would only play blockbusters seemed doubtful. Wouldn’t your little art movies, attracting only the smaller crowds you want, be more feasible?

No, it was the one about theatres moving more to one-act plays, because:

a) They’re cheaper, so the crowd can be smaller

b) Makes it way easier for the actors to keep distance than in a big musical

But not because of plays themselves, which I don’t go to that often anyway.

It’s that it made me think about symphonies.

By their nature, that’s a whole lot of musicians crowded together, some of them playing wind instruments. (Which sometimes need to be cleared of spittle mid-concert, as I recall.) Let alone when it’s a special show with singers or dancers or trapeze artists, or what have you.

And how close the audience seats are? And the crowded lobbies before? And the bathroom lineups? How do you get this to work?

This might not be feasible

Is it viable for a symphony to play with the musicians spaced apart on the stage, to a 25% capacity house, if that’s what’s needed?

I’m doubtful. And it makes me really sad.


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Things accomplished during my stay-cation

The companies have made it clear that we need to take the vacation days to which we are entitled this year–and preferably not all in that last quarter of it. We hope to eventually be able to visit family, even if it’s a hug-free and highly hand wash-y affair.

But our initial two-day vacation was strictly home-based, with different goals than a typical vacation. Less about museums, mountains, and fine dining—and more about just keeping busy with something other than work.

Therefore, hiking the local trails was the main excitement. Though it’s somewhat discouraged, we did drive to trail in Cambridge, and to a RIM park trail on the other side of Waterloo. But the best one we did was in the nature area just outside our door.

Young deer
This guy wasn’t too worried about us
Duck

We also enjoyed walking the neighbourhood Columbia Forest that we snowshoe on in winter. Not as much wildlife viewed, but some lovely foliage, along with it just being interesting terrain (for this part of Ontario).

Trillium
Trillium, Ontario’s flower
Purple flowers
Little purple flower (I’m not good at identifying flowers!)

I’d had the idea of ordering wine from a Beamsville winery and driving to pick it up, but then that seemed… not really that fun. And a lot of wineries offer free shipping.

So while we were not low on wine overall (we just routinely buy bottles way faster than we drink them), we were out of certain styles, such as Ontario Riesling. Not worth standing in an LCBO line up for, but definitely worth ordering from Angel’s Gate Winery: we got both dry and off-dry Riesling styles. And while at it, added a still and a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, a Gamay Noir, and a Syrah. Though warned that shipping could be delayed, the box arrived in two days. We’ve only tried the dry Riesling so far, but it was excellent (and only $15, despite being a well-aged 2008).

Restaurant Relief Case

We’d also been mooning over Wine Align‘s offers of wines normally sold only to restaurants, but now available to the public at the price restaurants would have paid. When the latest case included a donation to support local restaurants and food banks, that seemed excuse enough to go ahead. The mixed case of 12, which just arrived, includes an Italian Chianti, Argentian Malbec, New Zealand Sauvignon, French Cote du Rhone red, and a Spanish cava.

For food, of course, it was mostly home cooking. I made a chocolate-peanut butter pie, I roasted a chicken for dinner one day, and on another made “baked” ziti in the Instant Pot, by following this recipe: Instant Pot Baked Ziti—only vegetarian style, as I didn’t have any ground turkey or Italian sausage. It was still really good, and very easy.

The last vacation day, we got takeout from White Rabbit.

White Rabbit takeout
Fish tacos, cauliflower “wings”, protein power bowl, and more! (Yes, we had leftovers.)

Then, there was the matter of my hair. Going on nine weeks since my last hair appointment, it was both rather long (at least for me) and rather gray-rooty. I decided to tackle the easy part first: dyeing the roots. I was lucky that one of the few remaining colours available from Shoppers was the one I wanted anyway, and also that I don’t have complicated color requirements that (I have learned from Internet reading) are tough to do at home. I just wanted to make the gray more brown. Success!

Me with long but brown hair
Hair coloured but not cut

As for the cutting, Jean’s since made a few modest efforts to shorten the longer pieces that were falling into my face.

He hasn’t missed his calling as a hairdresser.

But, it’s also not a total disaster, and with a bit of gel and hairspray, I can now mostly just style that hair off my face, which is fine. I’m a bit daunted about what to do about the overgrown layers behind that… Attempt a trim? Let it all grow out to equal length? Bah. Still pondering that one.

In the most-est fun ever, we also got our taxes done. This year we used a new (to us) “pay what you want” software, SimpleTax. It doesn’t “walk you through” the tax form in the same way as TurboTax does, so it’s good to have an idea what deductions you qualify for (and therefore, to not have a very complicated taxes to file). But, that also gave you more ability to move around the different forms than TurboTax did, and I liked that aspect. (Along with paying less to do my taxes.)

And it’s true (and maybe sad) that doing taxes wasn’t even the least fun thing I did on vacation. That would be spending a lot of Sunday (the one day with crappy weather) trying to figure out what was wrong with my Sonos sound system. It somehow kept losing the Internet, even though our Internet was running fine. This affected our morning alarm (CBC radio), which set up the whole day badly, and continued with streaming music stuttering out on a regular basis all day.

It’s also very strange to have your Google speaker tell you: “I cannot find the Internet.”

Cat meows at Alexa speaker
From https://www.iizcat.com/post/5485/When-a-cat-meets-Alexa-comic-

The fix, for the 0.0001% who care, was unplugging, then restarting, the Sonos Boost.


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Eating out (in)

In the Before Times, early March, the day after I got my hair cut and coloured, I popped over to Starbucks for my free birthday latte. And that night I went out for dinner with my husband.

None of that seemed particularly remarkable at the time, of course. We had a dinner at King Street Trio. It was a Tuesday, so not especially busy, but a number of tables filled. The service was attentive. The food was not highly memorable, but it was well prepared. Nice night out.

During the “It’s starting to get weird now” time, mid-March, I experienced the most crazed grocery shopping trip of my life, as it seemed that all my neighbours were there, preparing for the apocalypse. I did not yet know that this would be my last “crowd” experience for some time. I wasn’t yet freaked out by being packed in there with so many people. But there was no mistaking the strangeness of this frenzy of buying. I even took a photo.

The first but not last time that the grocery store TP shelf looked like this…

I had changed my mind about my original plans for that weekend, which had been to try to get last-minute lottery tickets to Hamilton in Toronto. Once I read that Broadway in New York went dark, somehow seeing a play in Toronto no longer seemed like a good idea. (And I was right! The Saturday matinee performance we were going to attempt to get tickets for was destined to become the first of the cancelled Hamilton performances.)

We went ahead with our backup plans of visiting some local museums: the Homer Watson Gallery (a bit disappointing), the Ken Seiling Museum (very good!). We felt quite safe doing that, as in both cases, we were practically the only people there. And then we went out for lunch, at Cameron Seafood Restaurant. Normally a very popular dim sum spot, we were their lone customers for most of the meal (which was very good, and service very attentive!).

Sunday, we went for a interesting local hike, on the GeoTime trail, and were not particularly concerned about how many other people were doing the same.

Then on Monday, the museums and restaurants were closed, and I was working from home full time, and you all know the rest.


In the After Times, food-wise, it was the lattes that I missed the most, at first.

I was used to a weekly walk to my local Starbucks for one, the occasional weekend latte with Jean or with friends, and supplementing those with the mediocre-but-it’s-still-a-latte latte from the office coffee machines.

The Starbucks app briefly offered free delivery, before declaring that I now lived too far from the nearest outlet still open. I wasn’t about to do their drive-through thing—really don’t like drive-throughs (though I appreciate how handy they are to have now). For Jean’s birthday, we got takeout lattes and two “Benwiches” from Kitchener’s Cafe Pyrus. That was nice, but not convenient enough to do frequently.

So I started researching espresso machines—devices I’d resisted earlier exactly because I liked going out for lattes! Loops and lattes. Meeting friends for coffee. Polishing off a nice dinner out with out a cappuccino.

Sigh.

Pandemic-inspired purchase: Breville The Infuser, from Wayfair

(It’s some consolation that it does make really good lattes. Very handily, I have a husband who loves making them for me.)

As for restaurant dining (which I also miss, but not as acutely), the only option now, obviously, is takeout. Jean and I essentially never did takeout before—never even got pizza delivered or whatever. But if we want any of the local restaurants to survive this, we needed to start.

So after Cafe Pyrus, we tried Grand Trunk Saloon. They make absolutely delicious fried chicken, but when at the restaurant, ordering the “bucket of chicken” always seemed absurd: way too much food! Even for two. But as takeout? Yay, leftovers!

So we picked that up, and found that it was good. Including the leftovers.

Then inspired by a Globe and Mail article about virtual dinner parties, I suggested to some friends that we have virtual takeout night. We each ordered and picked up dinners from Swine and Vine, who’ve been coming up with new takeout menus weekly. Then we Zoom-connected with them while we each our dinner.

It was fun! (Even despite a few Zoom challenges.) And the Swine and Vine food was just delicious, from starter to dessert.

Next up, we’re taking a couple of days off, even though we can’t really go anywhere or do very much. But at least we can still get takeout! I think our target will be The White Rabbit. Might even splurge and get one of their bottles of wine…

Jean is still managing to take some nice photos from

I will leave you with this Google Map link to area restaurant, cafes, and food shops that are offering curb side pick-up or delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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No escape from reality

Ooh, Buffy‘s on. Could be a nice distraction.

Xander: She fell.
Willow: The flu.
Cordelia: She fainted.
Xander: The flu, fainted and fell. She’s sick, make it better!

Giles: Death and disease are, are things, possibly the *only* things that, that Buffy cannot fight.

Killed by Death

Huh. Well, how about some tunes.

I can’t stay on your life support
There’s a shortage in the switch

I think I’ll get outta here, where I can
Run just as fast as I can
To the middle of nowhere
To the middle of my frustrated fears
And I swear you’re just like a pill
‘Stead of makin’ me better
You keep makin’ me ill

Pink, Just Like a Pill

Jesus.


But hey, y’all, we’re doing all right. Feeling healthy, first of all, which is the main thing. Both still employed full-time, which is certainly something to be grateful for. Managed to get toilet paper this week, which is good, especially since they were all out of Kleenex.

And yes, they had no bananas.

Which leaves me with my final words of wisdom for now: Plantains are not at all the same thing as bananas. Do not put raw plantains in the chocolate cream pie!


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Leonard Cohen, Dance Me

Ballet Jazz de Montréal brought their Leonard Cohen – Dance Me program to Centre in the Square recently. It assembles the work of three choreographers into a single program that pays tribute to Leonard Cohen’s body of work.

Much of it was, of course, very sexy. Less expected was the funny—“Tower of Song” is a pretty wry piece, when you think about it. And the dance interpretation definitely did have you thinking about those poetic lyrics in a new way. Though just when you were getting into that groove, they’d shake it up. Interspersing Leonard’s image, his voice (in interviews), his words (projected on a screen). For “So Long, Mariane”, the dancing stopped in favor of a woman just singing the song. The inevitable “Hallelujah” was treated similarly, albeit with two singers.

The whole thing was terrific. Despite not being particularly a Leonard Cohen fan, Jean quite enjoyed it as well. It was very well attended (not quite sold out, but “limited availability”) and was much lauded at the end.

Most of the music came from the later part of Leonard Cohen’s career, with a number of live selections. This pleased me, as to this day, I have trouble listening to his earlier, folky oeuvre.

I first got into Leonard Cohen music via Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat album, which I adored (and still rather like). I thought of that when they danced to “Famous Blue Raincoat”, obviously using Leonard’s version, not Jennifer’s. Warnes subtly changed the lyrics of that song, such that I could never make heads or tails of what was going on in it. When I finally listened to the original, it was like, oh, now see I. Not “You treated some woman to a flake of your life”, but “You treated my woman to a flake of your life.” Completely changes the meaning and feeling of the next line, “And when she got home, she was nobody’s wife.”

Jennifer’s take
And Leonard’s

I recently heard Joan Baez’ version. She just sings the original lyrics, right down the the “Sincerely, L. Cohen” at the end. His songs are so “covered”; I guess everyone, especially women, have to decide how to make them work. K.d. lang’s “Hallelujah” skips the verse with the line “I remember when I moved in you”; other women (like Emilie Claire Barlow) keep it in. At Ballet Jazz (where it was mostly sung by a man; a woman provided harmonies) they did a shortened version overall. I would guess might have skipped the song entirely—it not being that danceable—except that you can’t, really…?

Amazing how iconic it’s become, given a what a flop it originally was (and Cohen’s original version… still isn’t my favourite thing to listen to). Malcolm Gladwell has a really interesting podcast episode on the song’s long road to success (even if it doesn’t have enough k.d. lang in it).

All about Hallelujah

“Dance Me to the End of Love” and “Take This Waltz” were more obvious choreographic choices, and were featured early in the program. Warming up the room nicely. Brought to mind the film Take This Waltz, which features one of the sexiest scenes I’ve ever seen… though that’s probably a woman thing, because the two participants are fully clothed and don’t touch each other. They’re contemplating what to do with their lust for one another, given that she’s married (and not to him). “I want to know what you’d do to me,” she says.

And then he tells her. Wow.

Take This Waltz trailer

Leonard Cohen himself played Centre in the Square once. This was after he’d decided to go on tour, to make some money, having found out that his manager had embezzled all his earnings. Not being sure how the tour would be received, Cohen played some smaller venues, like this one.

I had the opportunity to buy tickets early, but I was like, well, do I even really like Leonard Cohen himself, versus some woman singing his songs? So I passed. Which, of course, turned out to be really stupid. The tour was amazing because (as the podcast gets into) Leonard Cohen is something of a late bloomer, and his mature voice and (especially) his terrific full backup band—not to mention all those great songs—made them so. I love his live albums.

Other residents of KW were smarter than I, and the show sold out quickly, so there was no getting late tickets, either. After that initial, very successful tour, it was all stadiums in big cities. So I never saw him live, except on video.

Leonard Cohen, Live in London

But at least I didn’t miss this dance tribute.


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Doing stuff on the weekend

Been having a number of fairly unscheduled weekends of late, which generally suits me, but last weekend I did get out of house a number of times. And survived!

Willibald

Willibald is a distillery and restaurant located in the nearby small town of Ayr. We’d been hearing about it for a while—including one claim that it was as good as our beloved Verses—and finally had dinner there with friends last Friday.

It’s in a pretty cool space, with some communal tables that they divide up with table decorations, so you don’t quite feel as though you’re dining with strangers. We got a bit of a history of the place from our waitress. It started as a whisky distillery, and they more recently added gin. The restaurant has been open about two years.

Chateau Pentus wine at Willibald
The night’s wine selection, and the plant that divided up the table, over to the left

None of their whisky was available (it’s aging(, but I decided to try one of their gin cocktails. Made with pink gin, ipa, ginger, balsamic, lemon, and mint, it was very good—but I think the gin was fairly disguised.

Wine is a relatively recent addition to their menu. As a distillery, they previously thought they wouldn’t offer wine (save one house red and white), but when they decided to have an Italian-themed winter menu, adding wines seemed apropos. We got a bottle of Champs Pentus, which is a GSM, but from the Languedoc region rather than the Rhone—making it a cheaper option.

Normally their food menu has a focus on local and fresh, but since the pickings are slim on that front this time of year, the menu was built around pastas and pizzas. We had the sourdough foccacia, rigatoni with pork ragu, and cavatelli with butternut squash, pancetta, sage, and walnut. So a real carb-a-palooza! But everything was very good. And the wine suited nicely.

Shannon, Cassidy, and Cavatelli
The Cavatelli

For dessert (why stop with the carbs now?), I was intrigued by the olive oil gelato and the limoncello sorbet, so we tried both. Both nice, with the olive oil gelato the winner overall.

At the end of the meal, the waitress said that we were the “fancy” table and that they were trying to impress us, because they want more customers of our ilk. What made us “fancy” was ordering that whole bottle of wine, and one of us getting a cheese plate for dessert. Funny!

But she can rest assured that we do plan to try it again. It might not have been Verses-good, but it was still quite good (and not Verses-expensive). It would be cool to see what they put together with the seasonal produce, when they have it. I hope they retain some wines…

Choir! Choir! Choir!

Choir! Choir! Choir! are a Toronto-based duo who gather amateur singing enthusiasts together and teach them to sing a popular song in choral harmony. They are crazy popular over here in Ontario.

This was my second time joining in on their performances. I probably didn’t report on it the first time, but we did Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”. And I enjoyed it enough to be willing to go again.

I’m in this crowd of singers somewhere!

This time the song was Abba’s “Mamma Mia”. Both times were at Centre in the Square, but this time, instead of having us all up on an extended stage, the two guys were on the smaller stage, and we filled the auditorium. And I do mean filled—it was completely sold out.

The evening lasted around two hours, and we did not spend the whole time working on the one song. To warm up, we did some quickie run-throughs of other Abba songs—”Fernando”, “Take a Chance on Me”, and “SOS”, and to close out, we got “The Winner Takes It All” and “Dancing Queen”. (No “Waterloo”, despite the repeated requests—including very loudly by one woman right behind one person in our party of six.)

Really focusing on Abba lyrics, you see dark and desperate they really are: When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on? / I’ve been angry and sad bout the things that you do. / If you’ve got no place to go, if you’re feeling down. Last time we finagled ourselves into position to sing the main melody line; this time we couldn’t move around, so had to tackle the high harmonies—for most of the song. At one point that switched. But, it was an interesting challenge, though one that gave me a sore throat by the end of the evening.

And, it certainly wasn’t all Abba. Other warm-up songs were Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (yay!) and Madonna’s “Vogue”. And throughout the evening, there were random break-out singalongs, including “Backstreet’s Back”, “Ring of Fire”, “One Week”, excerpts from Sound of Music, and a suggestion that maybe a Grease night would be fun—only to lead into the lamest song of that soundtrack, “Sandy”. Along with a bit of mocking of Gordon Lightfoot (so don’t expect a Choir! Choir! Choir! version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” anytime soon).

I found it all quite fun. I’d maybe even do it again.

Snowshoeing (despite limited snow)

Jean was determined to go snowshoeing on Sunday, despite us getting less than the forecast amount of snow. He found five of us willing to go along, though we were all a bit dubious.

We went to the Elora Gorge. Normally when we snowshoe here, we can do so on the frozen-over water. This year, that was not an option!

Running water of the Elora Gorge
Not a snowshoe trail

Instead we had to walk along the cliff edge, on a mix of ice, snow, and dirt… Which presented some challenges.

"Snowshoeing" the cliffs of Elora

Still, it was pretty… And did give a sense of accomplishing… something.

Elora Gorge in winter

Cats

And couldn’t resist posting this lovely portrait.

Gus the cat
Your reward for making it to the end of this post


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Meet the cats

I’ve actually had them since May. Normally I would have written about them earlier, but it hasn’t been a normal year (emotionally, anyway). A lot of my excessive anxiety and depression centered around them.

The integration wasn’t really smooth. Zoe accepted Mac pretty quickly, but took an instant dislike to Gus, and proceeded to bully him for months. (The fact that she’s half his size didn’t particularly matter.) It wasn’t the funnest experience to go through.

But, things have improved.

Gus

Gus, 2 years old at adoption time, was a cat I inquired about when looking at those available from Pet Patrol (the same rescue organization we got Zoe from 13.5 years ago). But we were warned that he was a very anxious cat, and thought maybe it wouldn’t be the best choice.

Shy he may be, but Gus knew how to sell himself. We went into his room at the shelter to see another cat, but she had no interest in us whatsoever. Gus, however, did. He purred and encouraged us to pet him. Whenever we tried to move away, he pulled out a paw to try to get us to stay. It was terribly endearing.

Shy but so sweet

Once at our house, he initially crowded himself into a cat tree cubby and came out so rarely we were worried. His progress was quite slow, aided not at all, of course, by having a cranky old cat run at him whenever he dared to explore new territory.

But, he did expand his world from the cat tree, to the rest of that room, to the room next door, to the whole upstairs–a long phase, that one–but finally on to the main floor, which is where he now spends most of his time. Only in the past few weeks has he been regularly visiting the family room downstairs, and only this week (8.5 months later) become comfortable enough to plunk himself down and snooze in front of the fireplace there.

From the first, though, he had a fondness for getting pet, and at some point–while still mostly living upstairs–he decided that I was great and became incredibly affectionate toward me, with full-body cuddles and loud purring. Jean took longer (Jean is not the feeder), but now Gus will walk up to him for pets also.

Nah, not going to pose for you, non-feeder

He’s the most gorgeous thing, but it seems he had to learn everything about how to be a pet. (Well, not everything. He’s always been great with the litter and a good eater.) How to play. (All the toys scared him at first.) That he is allowed on furniture. (Still working on that, really, but he much more regularly goes on chairs now.) How to get a human’s attention (and that you might actually want a human to pay attention to you!). How to “stand your ground” against cranky old cats half your size.

Well, we said we wanted him to go on furniture…

We don’t know much about his background. He’d been running around a neighbourhood for some months, outside in winter, before the cat rescue people were able to trap him and bring him to the shelter. And he was there 4 months before we adopted him. I suspect his home before that wasn’t the best-est ever.

Gus has come far, but has more to go. I look forward to seeing the cat he becomes.

Mac

While pondering Gus at the cat shelter (while I was smitten, Jean was dubious), Mac–who had been sleeping–jumped up to greet us with a “Hey, how about me?” attitude.

How could we resist?

Mac was a one-year-old sprite, mostly white with a few black patches. He’d been found stuck in a tree, and when rescued, the volunteer was able to carry him all the way to the shelter; he just stayed calmly in her arms. Mac was a Gus opposite, not only in colour but temperament: bold, unafraid, friendly, adventurous, chatty.

A one-year-old cat is still quite active, making him not really the ideal match for a 15-year-old cat. But as a compromise (?), we ended up with him, too. Despite Gus and Mac’s opposite personalities, they’ve always gotten along with each other. (They were in different rooms at the cat shelter, and only met at our house.)

But Mac was happy to teach Gus all he knew

Naturally, Mac adapted quickly. As already noted, Zoe accepted more quickly and easily than we’d expected–I think she found him kind of entertaining at first. While we were distracted for months trying to get Zoe and Gus to tolerate one another (as they do now), we probably didn’t give Mac quite enough attention. We’re trying to make up for it. (Particularly as Mac will pester Zoe when he’s bored, which she does not find in the least entertaining!)

Ready for action. Always!

Because given his age and temperament, Mac flourishes with a lot of attention. He taught us to play fetch with him (only the second cat I’ve ever had who will bring a ball back). When errant chipmunks came in the house, he proved himself a great hunter. Since winter, he’s had to make do with “hunting” Da Bird wand toys and some nifty animated toys like Hexabugs. I’ve also been training him to get used to going in the carrier, traveling in the car, and being on a leash. He’s proven a quick study on all counts, so he should be able to get outside in the nicer weather in a controlled fashion. (I don’t want him running off, getting stuck up another tree, and winding up somebody else’s pet.)

Mac has caught the Hexabug!

(Yes, he is micro-chipped. Still.)

He’s not as cuddly as you might think, but he is the easiest cat imaginable to pick up, he does sleep with us each night (very politely, down by our feet and not up on our heads), and he loves to rub his white fur all over our clothes, especially if they are dressy. And every once a while he will plunk himself down on your lap for a short sleep.

Showing off his battle scar (it’s really hard to clip Gus’ claws…)

Mac has a fully formed character, but some maturing to do. He’s a very nice boy now; I expect he’ll become a lovely older cat. Maybe even develop some cuddles.


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So instead, I’m writing about “Little Women”

I haven’t blogged in ages because I keep thinking that I should write something personal and insightful. But when I start trying to do that, I just get bogged down. I don’t want to seem preachy, I don’t know how much I want to reveal–I just don’t enjoy it.

So chuck it. Let’s talk about Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.


I work at a tech company, and before the Christmas break, the chatter was all about Star Wars. Who would see it when, how many times, in what format, and at which theatre. So much excitement.

… Which I couldn’t share, ’cause I didn’t care. I did see the first two in this new Skywalker set. I thought the first one was too much of a rehash of the original Star Wars. I found the second better, more interesting. But this one, somehow, really seemed primarily aimed at the super-fans (who are legion). I’m sure it’s an entertaining enough movie. But I’m in no hurry to see it.

When I first saw the trailer for the new Little Women, I wasn’t sure it was necessary, given that the 1994 version was so good. I was intrigued, though, by the near suggestion that maybe Jo… Doesn’t get married?

And then all the amazing reviews started coming out, so I started really anticipating its release. I had visions of seeing it at the VIP theatre–lounging in my comfy chair, being served appetizers and wine–but then realized that while it was playing at that theatre, it wasn’t in the VIP room. (Not with stupid Star Wars hogging a bunch of those screens.) So instead we trundled off to see it at on a regular screen at a regular theatre, with regular seats and not even any popcorn, because the lineup to get that was too long. (Stupid Star Wars.)

Jean’s been watching a bunch of women-centred shows with me lately: TV series Fleabag (which he loved), the movie Girls Trip (which he did not; must agree it was pretty stupid), and the movie Booksmart (I liked this one more as it progressed; he remained unmoved by the main characters).

With Little Women, he loved the cinematography and found the characters interesting, if not always likable. He’s never read the book and doesn’t remember the 1994 Little Women (which we saw together), so the story was all new to him. He declared he wished there was more plot. (Does Fleabag really have any more plot, though?) And he kept mixing up the actors playing Beth and Amy (declaring they looked too much alike), which made for a certain amount of story confusion, as you might imagine.

Me, I read the book multiple times in my youth, so it was all about seeing how the famous scenes were interpreted this time. And the unique approach here is that much of the story is told in flash-back form, as the movie begins with Jo in New York, meeting Professor Bhaer. As events occur in that time line, she thinks back on moments from her youth.

It’s kind of an exhilarating way of presenting it, as those of us who are familiar with the story are also, basically, looking back on those scenes with nostalgia. Giving away Christmas dinner to the Hummels. Getting in trouble over pickled limes. Oh right, the ice skating accident. Beth and her piano. The burnt dress. The burnt dress. The burnt stories! (So much burning!)

The movie just skitters along at a contemporary pace, moving across scenes before we can get bored with them, but without seeming rushed.

The actors are all terrific. Among the famous are Saiorse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, Timothy Chalumet as Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March. Not previously known to me were Florence Pugh as Amy and Eliza Scanlen as Beth, which I assume contributed to Jean’s confusing the two of them. They stood up among this cast, with Pugh doing an especially great job with Amu. And I would note that both actors had startlingly rich, deep voices, which was really striking (to me; Jean claimed to not have noticed).

But does Jo marry? (Spoiler alert, I guess?) That’s the thing: it’s not clear. By that point in the story, Jo is working on a novel called Little Women, based on her life. She is discussing the fate of the fictional Jo with her editor, he of the opinion that women characters must end up either married or dead. There is a scene of Jo and Professor Bhaer kissing in the rain. But did that really happen or is it just written into the novel…?

Brilliant.

This Vox article–The power of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is that it doesn’t pretend its marriages are romantic–gives a great take on Little Women‘s “marriage problem”: that it’s hopelessly unsatisfying that Jo ends up with Professor Bhaer (especially the way he’s described in the novel) while Amy gets Laurie. Apart from making Jo’s marital status ambiguous, Gerwin makes the Laurie / Amy partnership much more palatable partly by, as the article says, spelling the economic reality for women at that time.

Sorry, Star Wars fan, for dumping on your movie, which I haven’t even seen. Just a joke. I do hope you enjoyed it. Because I do understand loving something in your childhood / teenagehood and wanting to see it re-created on-screen. Only for me, that something is a novel about four young women in the time period of the American Civil War.


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Good shows

Having finished the latest seasons of Glow and Mindhunter on Netflix, and the six episodes of Chernobyl on HBO (those are all recommended series, by the way, as is the new Stumptown), Jean and I needed a new show to stream. I short-listed four:

  1. Killing Eve
  2. The Expanse
  3. Good Omens
  4. When They See Us

Jean declared interest in all but the last (about the Central Park Five), which he thought he’d find too depressing.

We decided to start with the six-episode Good Omens, from Amazon Prime.

The premise here is that history as told in the Bible is actually true, and all that dinosaur evidence to the contrary is just God’s idea of a joke. Also, the apocalypse is nearing. An angel (Aziraphale) and a demon (Crowley), who have both been on Earth for quite some time, and have grown rather fond of the place, secretly team up to try and thwart it.

Four episodes in, we’re quite enjoying it. It’s quirky and funny. The cast, led by Michael Sheen and David Tennant–but also featuring John Hamm, Michael McKean, and the voice of Frances Macdormand–is terrific. The episodes don’t waste any time in speeding along toward the end of days. As an added bonus, it also happens to feature a great deal of Queen music.

Good Omens trailer

If there’s anything the show reminds of me of, that would be my favourite network show, NBC’s The Good Place.

Currently in season four, with past seasons available on Netflix, The Good Place is a half-hour comedy starring Kristen Bell and Ted Dansen. It begins when Eleanor Shellstrop dies and finds herself in “the good place” (as opposed to “the bad place”). Only, given the wonderfully charitable lives the other inhabits of “the good place” have led, Eleanor fears that she has mistakenly been assigned there. And has to figure out how to avoid being found out and sent to the bad place.

Good Place season 1 trailer

But that’s just the initial setup. This series goes places in its four seasons, with twists you don’t see coming, unexpected alliances, and utterly bold time jumps and compression. The series is really better watched unspoiled, so I don’t want to give much away. But it does share with Good Omens the off-kilter look at religious themes, the representation of the forces of good and evil as largely banal bureaucracies, and a cartoon-like comedy approach to dealing with deep subjects. Like the best of fantasy series (hi, Buffy) both use the fantastical to comment on modern human realities.

Still, you can’t push it too far. Good Omens is a six-part series of one-hour episodes, based on a beloved (albeit not read by me) Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel. It’s largely about poking fun at the absurdity of literal religious beliefs. (I think. I mean, I still have two episodes to go.)

(But, one of my favourite parts of Good Omens so far is the look back at the time of Noah’s Ark.

[The following are not exact quotes, but…] “What’s going on, then?” asks Crowley. “God’s feeling tetchy. She’s decided to drown everyone. Big storm,” replies Aziraphale. “What? Everyone? Even the children?” The angel nods, mutely. Then adds, “Well, just the locals. I don’t think she’s mad at the Chinese. Or the Native Americans…”)

Whereas The Good Place is a completely original, four-season (all short seasons) sitcom. It does not take on traditional religion and its beliefs, but really digs into morality and philosophy: can people change? What does it mean to be good? It’s stunning that there is a half-hour American sitcom about that, isn’t it? (And yes, it’s hilarious!)

So, in summary, Good Omens and The Good Place are both good shows that are somewhat similar but also not really, except that both are deserving of your time and attention.