Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Discombobulated (or at least discomfited)

Been a bit quiet on my blogging front lately, but not for any major reason. Just that things have been a bit off—just off enough to prevent me from focusing on a blog post.

Canoe trip

Not mine, of course—Jean’s. He was away for two weeks in the northwest Ontario wilderness. No wifi. No cell service. Just a brief, one-way, satellite-delivered daily message giving location and brief status update.

Away from it all at Wabakimi Park

By a combination of organization and happenstance, I had enough activities booked at that time to keep me busy and stave off loneliness: barbecue with dance friends, dinner and lunch with other friends, an outing to Stratford with my sister and brother-in-law to see To Kill a Mockingbird, blood donation appointment, Canada Day fireworks, even an unusual number of meetings at work, including some over lunch and dinner.

But it was still all out of the ordinary: Jean being not only away but basically out of touch (I think “out of touch” is just harder to deal with in these days, when we expect everyone to always be in cell range), combined with so many other social activities.

I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!

— Alice, Alice in Wonderland

Renovation

Another activity during canoe trip time was cleaning out the main bathroom and master bedroom, in preparation for these rooms getting renovated. This involved going through piles of stuff and resulted, in a time, in these rooms looking cleaner than they had in years. A good thing, albeit with the side effect of making even my bedroom looking slightly strange, which was vaguely off-putting.

Buffy: But it seemed perfectly normal.
Xander: But disturbing, and not the natural order of things and do you think it’ll happen again?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once More with Feeling

When Jean got back, we moved the big pieces out of the rooms. This proved somewhat easier than we’d feared (most items could be broken down into smaller, lighter pieces), and also put an end to parts of the house looking neater, as we had to find space for everything in the remaining rooms. We tried piling the mattress on top of the guest bed mattress, but that made the bed we had to sleep in comically tall, so instead we propped the mattress up against the wall, making the already cramped guest room considerably more cramped. Our second bathroom is, similarly, hopeless cluttered with items from the main bathroom.

The first day of renovation is what they call the “tear down,” when they take out all the old stuff to make way for the new. Here’s the before and after:

So if I thought the house felt a bit alien before…

Weekend away

Since we had tickets to Rocky Horror Show on a Thursday of that first renovation week (of a total four or five, they predict), I figured why not stay on and make a long weekend of it. Jean wasn’t able to get time off right after that long canoe trip, but that just meant a slightly commute for him back to work Friday while I explored Stratford.

Really, in the scheme of things, it was the most normal I’d felt in weeks.

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Me with my people

So now I’ll catch up on some recommendations that I might have have made had I been blogging more regularly…

Wining and dining

One of the dinners out in KW was at King Street Trio, which I hadn’t been to in years. It was a pleasant surprise. For one thing, it’s a nice quiet place, and those are increasingly hard to come by. For another, importantly, the food was quite good.

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King Street Trio always has oysters on offer

And while you might wonder a bit at the pricing, note that they offer 30% / 20% / 10% discounts on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, respectively. We were there on a Tuesday, so that worked out well for us! Apart from our waitress being in a bit of a hurry for us to order drinks before the group had arrived, it was a good night out, and I’d go again.

Friday night, Jean and I decided to book a fancier dinner in Stratford for our pending anniversary next week, namely at The Prune dining room. It has to be said that the service on arrival was a bit chaotic. They initially forgot to give us menus… It took ages, and a few repeated requests, to get water… Our matching wines didn’t always make it out before the food it was to match… And while it’s true we arrived at the time they would have been trying to get a bunch of tables finished in time for the 8:00 theatre, that should be something any Stratford restaurant learns to get a handle on. And The Prune isn’t new.

Still, they did such a good job with the food, and the wine matching, that we just couldn’t stay mad. (We never really got that angry, to be clear.) Talented chefs, my friends! Particularly with vegetables. Never had such fresh and light pea and ham soup. The smoked tuna with tomatoes and olive was astonishing. The chicken overshadowed by the creamy mashed potatoes and intense morels. Cheese tortellini similar outdone by the spring vegetable ragout it came in.

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Jean with his cheese plate finale (and new beard)

After Stratford, on Saturday, we headed off Goderich way to spend some more time touring before heading home. On the way, Jean recalled that someone had recommended a winery in these parts, so near Seaforth, we visited Maelstrom Winery.

We looked super eager, because we were there right at the crack of 11:00, when they opened. That meant we got the full attention as the only patrons. We talked to the wine maker about his trials and tribulations in getting the winery going. Being new, they’re still in the experimental phase, but we did find some wines we quite liked: A smooth vidal, a refreshing frontenac blanc, and a really nice blend of cabernet franc and baco noir. They also have this wine called the abyss which is a blend of five varietals, resulting in a truly unique taste.

You heard it here first (maybe?): Ontario’s newest wine region—Lake Huron.

It’s not TV, it’s Netflix

While cleaning out rooms, I did watch the much-discussed Nanette Netflix special. (If you haven’t heard about it, here’s a New York Times round-up of its many positive reviews.) I  would recommend it, as long as you know not to expect a barrel of laughs here. (There are laughs, just not a barrel of them.)

But I was struck by how many people said they’d never heard of Hannah Gadsby, which means that they’ve never watched Please Like Me on Netflix. A series whose four (short) seasons I recently polished off.

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A scene from one of my favorite episodes of Please Like Me, in which Josh and his parents have a multi-course menu surprise at a fancy restaurant

I don’t know if that the show is everyone’s cup of tea? It’s basically an Australian comedy about a group of friends in their early 20s. It’s just that it also regularly, and honestly, deals with some heavy issues, notably mental illness (but also abortion, homophobia, STDs). So it too, definitely has laughs. Just not always a barrel of them. I grew quite fond of the characters, though.

Stratford culture

The two plays I’ve seen so far this season—To Kill a Mockingbird and Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show—have both been extended, so I clearly went with the popular picks. Both are indeed very good. To Kill a Mockingbird is framed by having the adult Scout look back on her childhood from the vantage point of the 60s civil rights movement, and that works well. The child actors are terrific and the story remains affecting (bring the kleenex!).

Rocky Horror, on the other hand, is presented as pure fun. This is actually the third live production of this I’ve seen, and of course—given that the other two were amateur productions—this had the best singers (incredible voices), the most inventive choreography (it’s the Time Warp—but updated!), and fantastic costumes: particularly flattering to fine male forms on display, I have to say.

But for all that, I don’t know that I enjoyed this more than those productions—I’d just say equally. This thing just really works live. So if you haven’t yet experienced it, Stratford is a good place to start.

My Friday afternoon matinee performance at Stratford was not a play, though, but a perform by Steven Page (formerly of The Barenaked Ladies) and the Art of Time, doing a series of songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Gord Downie, Jane Siberry, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, and yes, The Barenaked Ladies…

The Art of Time uses contemporary composers to arrange pop songs for piano, violin, saxophone, bass, guitar, and cello. I generally love the results. I was in the fifth row for this show, and the set list was right up my alley. Steven Page is interesting in how he can be so funny in his banter, and some of his performances, but also be “you can hear a pin drop” serious in conveying the angst of songs like Elvis Costello’s “I Want You”. The ensemble will be doing a number of shows in this, their tenth anniversary year, so you might to check that out.

They also did this one at Stratford: “Entourage” by Steven Page.


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Finding time to listen

I have found a new (to me) podcasting app Pocket Casts and it’s very good. It has solved all my podcasting problems: It gathers all podcasts in one app, whereas before I was bouncing between iTunes, Google, SoundCloud, and a browser. It keeps my spot in each podcast I’ve started, even when switching devices or playing through Sonos or Chromecasting. It can even cut silences out of each episode, making it each one slightly shorter.

Wait, did I say it solved all my podcasting problems? There’s one it’s likely only exacerbated, even with the seconds or minutes saved by cutting out silences: finding time to listen to all the ones I’d like to.

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Some people do this by listening on what they call chipmunk speed, playing it at a faster speed than recorded. I tried that, but I just don’t like the weird sound that results, even at only 1.5x faster.

I can’t attend to a podcast while reading, or having a conversation, or working (because fortunately my job’s not that boring), or writing, or anything else in which I have to attend to my thoughts. My commute is extremely short, which is wonderful in most ways, but means that it’s really not enough time to make much of a dent in a podcast episode.

And I just don’t want to give up my daily habit of listening to music while making dinner. I also don’t think they would be as good as soundtrack to my Monday night cleaning routine as my “high-energy songs” playlists.

“Know what would make my life better? Listening to music less often.”

— No one, ever.

So I found myself seeking out extra chores I can do, for which a podcast would be a useful adequate. Now, anything that can motivate me to do some tidying up is beneficial. But I still prefer cooking to tidying, so I also find that I’m now trying out more dessert recipes. The value of that is debatable.

(On the other hand, you can definitely overdo this podcast thing, as revealed in this article: I Listen to 35 Hours of Podcasts Every Week. Is That … Bad? Answer: yeah, kind of… And towhich I say… 35 hours a week! Jesus. When do you do… anything else?)

There seems to be podcasts about every topic under the sun, and I’m not always sure how I stumbled upon the ones I try to listen to semi-regularly. But here’s a sampling of them and what I like about them.

Psychology

These are nice because, being less attuned to current events, you can more cherry-pick through them and feel less pressure to listen to them soon after their posting date.

Under the Influence

Good old CBC Radio—the original podcaster! This particular series is by Terry O’Reilly and is on the subject of advertising, or “the art of persuasion”. Recent episodes have covered jingles (with a WKRP reference), use of celebrities (early Ellen Degeneres!), brand myths (no, little Mikey from the Life cereal commercial didn’t die of pop rocks + coke. In fact, he’s alive and works in advertising). I’ve always loved this show, but rarely catch it on the radio. Podcasts to the rescue.

Hidden Brain

Hidden Brain is by NPR: the CBC of the US! This is how it describes itself:

Hidden Brain helps curious people understand the world – and themselves. Using science and storytelling, Hidden Brain reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.

One three-part series that actually changed my own behavior a little was on the subject of sleep: The “Swiss Army Knife” Of Health. It makes a pretty compelling case that while sleep feels like a waste of time, it’s really important. And that while those who routinely get only 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night might think they’re managing just fine, they actually aren’t. They just no longer notice how tired they are all the time. But they are chronically under-performing, both mentally and physically. To be at your best, you need an “uncompromising 8 hours of sleep.” Every day.

Pop culture

Pop culture stuff is timely, but not that timely, especially since I almost never see movies on opening weekends, read books when they first come out, or watch TV live (love my PVR). So I can go back a few weeks on the pop culture ones without them feeling irrelevant.

Backtalk by Bitch Media

This one, hosted by two young women, looks at all aspects of pop culture—music, TV, movies, podcasts, books, magazines—from a feminist perspective. I’ve gotten some really good recommendations from it, along with some great insights; for example, their episode about the movie Get Out pointed out a whole lot of racial metaphors and symbols that I had missed, and made me admire the movie even more.

The only issue? And I don’t know how to say this without coming across as a disapproving granny, but wow, they sure swear a lot. I know, there’s a lot for American women to be angry about right now, and you gotta speak your truth. I just feel the arguments might be a bit more effective if the colorful language was applied more judiciously.

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The Americans Podcast

Where Backtalk is very broad; The Americans Podcast is super-specific. It’s not about all the people living in the country to the South, but about the FX TV series by that title that tells the story of Russian spies in 1980s who pose as an all-American couple, complete with all-American children. As previously reported, Jean and I love it.

It’s currently in its sixth and final season, and I have just discovered this podcast, which contains interviews with the cast, crew, and creators of the show, and thus is strictly a post-episode listen, as it’s rife with spoilers. This season is setting up to be epic.

Politics

Political stuff, especially American, is just moving with break-neck speed these days. These are the ones I don’t like to wait too long after post date before listening.

Lovett or Leave It

Crooked Media was a response to the election of Trump. Most of its members used to work for President Obama in some capacity. So they’re not unbiased, but the aim is to have “better conversations about politics.” They have a ton of podcasts, and I’ve sampled various ones. But my favorite is Lovett or Leave It.

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Some sincerely cool Crooked Media merch

Lovett or Leave It is taped live Friday nights in front of an audience, who participates in some segments. It’s a humorous, improvised look at the week’s stories in US politics. To add to the many other sources of humorous looks at US politics. What’s different here, I guess, is that it’s a lot of super well-informed people cathartically doing things like playing a clip from Fox news, saying “OK, stop”, and responding to the stupidity. Or turning the ridiculousness into a game. Or spinning a wheel to decide which topic to rant about.

It’s partly informative, it’s partly therapy.

Oppo – Canadaland

This is a relatively new one, and it’s about Canadian politics! I was drawn to it because they seem to be especially covering wonky issues I get somewhat obsessed with, like carbon pricing, why doesn’t the NDP seem more viable in Ontario, and what’s up with Sikh politics.

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It features journalists Justin Ling and Jen Gerson, who are supposed to in “opposition” from left and right positions, but it took me two episodes to realize that was the idea, because neither of them is really that extreme or partisan. Which I think is good (and also kind of Canadian).


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I have not completely forgotten how to read

This Globe and Mail article, called I have forgotten how to read, was posted some weeks ago now, but the opening sticks with me [bold added by me]:

Turning, one evening, from my phone to a book, I set myself the task of reading a single chapter in one sitting. Simple. But I couldn’t. There was nothing wrong with my eyes. No stroke or disease clouded my way. Yet – if I’m being honest – the failure was also not a surprise.

Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.

Out for dinner with another writer, I said, “I think I’ve forgotten how to read.”

“Yes!“ he replied, pointing his knife. “Everybody has.”

“No, really,” I said. “I mean I actually can’t do it any more.”

He nodded: “Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it.”

I identified with the gist of the remainder of the article, which is that the Internet has rewired our brains and made it difficult for us to focus on extended text, such as a book. Heck, even a brief Internet outage (maybe 2.5 hours) one Sunday left and my husband and I feeling like lost, disconnected souls, missing our regular jolts of online distraction.

But still, that opening example… You literally can’t sit and read one chapter? That just seems impossible. Like, how boring was this book you were trying to read? Maybe don’t go for Moby Dick or Middlemarch. Try some hot fiction. A lively bio, maybe.

On the other hand, if actually true, it’s made me feel slightly superior, because despite my web-addled brain and Twitter addiction, I still manage to read a book chapter pretty much every single day.

Sure, it takes a bit of conscious effort. No screens in the bedroom (other than an eReader), TV off by a certain time. And quite deliberately having at least two books on the go, so that my Internet-addled brain has variety and choice. Normally, I try to make sure it’s at least one fiction and one non-fiction on the go.

Here’s a few I’ve gotten through—or am working on—recently.

Caught by Lisa Moore

Nobody I’ve talked to seems to have of this book, even though it was supposedly a best seller. It’s a Canadian novel, set in 1978, about a young man convicted of drug dealing who escapes from prison. He then connects with his former partner in crime, who evaded incarceration, for another possible job. But he might not be evading the law as well as he thinks….

This was a well-written novel, with each chapter acting like a short story in itself, with its own suspenseful arc.

I was pleased to see that CBC has adapted the novel as a mini-series, and even more pleased that they’ve changed some plot elements in an interesting way. Now I don’t know how this version will end, as I’m thinking it can’t be the same as in the novel…

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Yes, it was about time I read this, and yes, it came to mind because of the popular mini-series, even though I only watched the first episode of that, because then the free Bravo preview ended, plus I found it kind of dark.

Compared with that one episode of the mini-series, the novel was not as depressing as I’d expected. The episode quickly presents the story of Offred’s capture and “orientation” into the life of handmaiden; the novel spends more time with her immersed in that life, with flashbacks occurring only later on in the book. And it’s overall less graphic, I suppose.

I “enjoyed” reading it, if that’s the right word? It kept me engaged, anyway. And not having seen the rest of the mini-series, I didn’t know how everything would play out.

Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK by Bonar Menninger

This a non-fiction work about what I think is the most convincing take on the Kennedy assassination: that the President was accidentally killed by one of his own security men. It documents the work of ballistics expert Howard Donaghue, who was asked to prove whether Oswald could possibly have fired three times in the necessary time span for him to have acted alone. Donaghue managed to replicate that feat, but wanted to do more research before giving his own stamp of approval on the official account. Hence begins years of research.

He discounts some of what conspiracy theorists insist prove their case; the “magic bullet” problem. He explains that by how Kennedy and Connolly were seated relative to one other, and by the type of bullet used. But he couldn’t buy everything about the official account, either, concluding, for example that the first shot did ricochet onto Kennedy but not Connolly. And he was especially troubled by the fatal head shot: both its trajectory and its effect. Leading to his eventual conclusion that it was actually fired from a different location and type of gun.

I know exactly nothing about gun and ballistics, of course, but the evidence laid out here just works better for me than any other I’ve heard. The official story, about one deranged man acting alone, makes it hard to explain why so many officials did act in such weird, suspicious, cagey ways—breaking Texas law by stealing away the body, later losing the President’s brain (!). But arguing that Oswald was either just a patsy or a party to some government conspiracy doesn’t work that well, either; he really did seem the deranged loner type to try something like this, and he did murder officer Tippet.

But that Oswald alone tried to murder the President, and that one of the security men reacting to the shooting tripped and accidentally fired? And that officials didn’t want the world to know that accident happened? Yes, that makes sense to me.

There was a documentary made about this theory in 2013. (The book was published in 1992.) Trailer below, but the whole thing seems to be posted on YouTube.

My Real Children by Jo Walton

Someone had recommended Jo Walton to me as an author, and I picked this particular novel because it was the only one immediately available for borrowing (as an ebook) from my library. It’s a novel about a woman whose life starts off on one trajectory, then splits off in two directions based on a pivotal decision. After the setup chapters, the book alternates between what happens when she says “yes” versus what happens when she says “no”.

It’s not only her own personal life that veers in different directions in each case, but world history itself. Early on we learn that in one case, President Kennedy (him again!) was killed, while in the other he was not. So you initially think that one life will take place in “our” world vs. an alternative one. But no. Kennedy is killed is different way, and a whole other history follows (such as his brother not being assassinated and instead becoming President himself).

With the mix of two personal stories and two alternative world histories, I got totally caught up in this. My original plan was to read what I could doing the three-week borrowing period then check it out again later, but no, I found I really wanted to finish it! The only downside to that was that it meant reading the later chapters in rapid sequence, which got pretty confusing—there was so many characters (friends, children, partners, grandchildren), not to mention varying historical facts—to try to keep straight in each “life” at that point.

I was wondering how this would all come together in the end. The answer wasn’t entirely satisfying, but I didn’t regret the journey one bit.

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

The current read, one I am still working on. (Plus, it’s a book club book, so discussion is to come.) Early part is a really sad story, told by a very funny person.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

Just anticipating this will be my next fiction read, as that is the Oscar-nominated movie that really had my heart this year. Whereas my brain said Get Out might have been the best in terms of ideas. But the Academy thought Shape of Water, of course—it was also good. Jean and I liked The Post also, but it was more conventional than the other five nominated movies I saw.

I did not watch the actual telecast, beyond the opening monologue. I had reading to do.

 


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Reservations about resolutions

Angela: [voiceover] What I was thinking, as like a New Year’s resolution, is to stop getting so caught up in my own thoughts. Cause I’m, like, way too introspective… I think.

Generally, I find the whole ritual of trying to think of something to change about yourself or your life just because it’s January 1 is silly. Sure, sometimes a change is a very good idea—but it doesn’t need that kind of schedule. Deciding that something in your life just isn’t working or could be better shouldn’t be a once-a-year event. Whenever it needs to be happen, you should try to make it happen.

But, what does occur annually, just before January 1, is that you have down time. That time before and between Christmas and New Year’s when everything just… slows… down…

OK, not everyone gets that down time. Jean is in a line of work where they get super-busy from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.

But, I get that down time. Most people do. Even if you are at work, it’s so quiet and slow-paced. But likely you’re off and you have all this time to read… And to think…

Angela: [voiceover] … but what if not thinking turns me into this shallow person? I better rethink this becoming less introspective thing.

All that reading and thinking can lead, sort of organically, to maybe deciding to try to change something about your life, about now.

I got a bonus dose of that sort of time this year, because Jean wasn’t feeling well in the days before Christmas, so we did fewer activities than we otherwise would have. That meant I upped the amount of reading I did. I got through a number of books, including In my humble opinion. My so-called life by Soraya Roberts, a nice refresher of essays about that beloved series, and suppliers of handy quotes for this post.

But I was also keeping up better with online news, and newspapers, and magazines, which led to some pondering about how I could more routinely keep on top of my reading? But I haven’t quite cracked that nut, given that the biggest obstacle seems to be my job, which is probably wise to hang on to for the time being.

Angela: [voiceover] …okay, so I’ll stay introspective.
But I do resolve to stop doing Jordan Catalano’s homework.

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Angela doing Jordan Catalano’s homework

One Globe and Mail story I read then was called Minimal carbs, lots of fat, incredible dieting results – but not enough science. It was about all the anecdotal evidence that people with diabetes often do really well on a high-fat, low-carb diet—though the point of the article was that there wasn’t scientific study of this, and there should be.

I am not diabetic, but my husband is, and I do the cooking. This got me wondering: Is this how I should be feeding him? I found another article, Low Carb-High Fat Diet And Diabetes: A Detailed Guide For Beginners, whose prescriptions were not only mind-blowingly different from what I thought of as a “healthy” diet, but also sounded fairly gross: pile up on meat, eggs, and high-diet dairy. Don’t eat much fruit or grains, and even limit root vegetables. And beans and lentils.

So bacon is the health food, and apples are the villain now?

There was no way I was going to eat this way. For one thing, I seemed to be keeping myself pretty healthy, and I somewhat feared that switching over to more saturated fat and less fruit and vegetables might be detrimental to me. Plus, there were all those ethical and environmental issues around meat eating.

(As an aside, I once told Jean’s Mom that we ate vegetarian twice a week, and she reacted with stunned amazement that such a thing could be possible. “Deux fois par semaine!” Funny.)

Anyway, I was rather relieved when Jean seemed equally unenthused about this approach. “I don’t like meat that much, ” he pointed out. “I get sick of eggs. I like fruit. I like potatoes. And this granola is actually really good!”

The funny thing is we’re discussing this at Christmas time, when we’re busily eating things like sticky toffee pudding and tourtière. (Hey, we still gotta live.)

Angela: [voiceover] The thing about resolutions is, it’s hard to remember them around somebody like Jordan Catalano.

Once back home, I experimented with moderately increasing Jean’s protein and fat intake, like giving him back bacon (organic and “humane treated”) as side dish on vegetarian night, while he rethought eating five tangerines in one go (“But they’re so good!”).

Then the Globe and Mail ran a follow-up on their “we need to study high-fat diets for diabetics” story with A diet high in fat is best – with the right kind of fat. It said that, no no, we have studied this thing, and the best diet for diabetics isn’t a high-fat, low-carb diet; it’s really the Mediterranean diet. I found a more full report on that here: Best Diabetes Diets.

Jordan: This is wrong.
Angela: What?
Jordan: You, doing my homework, it’s wrong.
Angela: Well I was just trying to help.
Jordan: It’s like I’m taking advantage of you or something.
Angela: You’re not taking advantage of me.
Jordan: Yeah I am. It would be different if we were like… but now you’re just… you know, a friend or whatever. [pause] I can’t do this anymore.

“So what is the Mediterranean diet?” asked Jean, by now pretty weary of my dietary resolutions du jour.

“Lots of fruits and vegetables. Fish, lean meat, and low-fat dairy. Plenty of healthy fats like olive oil. Nuts. Wine. Whole grains. Limit red meats. Avoid sugar and simple carbohydrates.”

“So,” he said. “Pretty much how we were eating before?”

“Uh huh.”

Angela: [voiceover] I couldn’t believe it. For the first time in my life I actually stuck to a resolution.


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Bright spots in December (other than the obvious one)

The Christmas vacation post is coming, but Jean hasn’t had a chance to select and process the Christmas photos yet. So in the meantime, here’s a list of items that brightened the per-Christmas period for me this year.

Gel eyeliner

I’m a makeup girl. (Woman. Whatever.) I never wear perfume, I rarely bother with nail polish, and I don’t like spending much time styling my hair. But makeup, I find fun. It seems worth than 10 or so minutes lalmost every day.

But eyeliner has always been tricky. Liquid eyeliner is too dramatic for day use. And hard to apply corectly for night use. Pencil eyeliners are easy to apply but often result in a rather pale line that usually smudges during the day, producing that terrific raccoon eyes effect.

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Fortunately it rarely got this bad, but still… (photo from the Huffington Post)

I don’t know why I’m only learning this now, but makeup artists prefer gel or cream eyeliners—the kind that comes in a little pot. Having a good brush is vital, but with that, these eyeliners are pretty easy to apply. And they don’t set immediately, so if you don’t get it quite right, it’s easy to fix. And best of all, once you are happy with the results, it will set and stay with no smudging for the whole day. The line is distinct, but not as harsh as with liquid eyeliners. I love this stuff.

The brand I got was Estée Lauder Double Wear Stay-in-Place Gel Eyeliner in Stay Coffee colour. From The Bay. The brush that comes with it is fairly useless, but with a better one (that I already owned), the product itself is excellent.

 

T-shirt bra

The ThirdLove bra company advertised fairly heavily in the Washington Post this year, til I finally got intrigued. “Discover your best-fitting bra in 60 seconds.” No tape measure required. You just had to answer a series of questions about your breast shape and current bra-fitting issues.

Maybe other people have better mental self-image, but for me this took more than 60 seconds because I kept having to run from PC to the bathroom mirror to see which little breast diagram best reflected my shape and whether my current bra rode up or gapped. But it’s true I didn’t have to use a tape measure.

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Nor, fortunately, were any of these sorts of calisthenics required

Having completed the questions, I tried to take ThirdLove up on their “try free for 30 days” offer, but it didn’t apply to Canada, so I abandoned the effort. Only to then be emailed me and offered a discount. I then went ahead with an order, that was promptly charged to my card.

Some days later I realized I had yet to receive a shipping notification, which seemed odd. Some days more after that, they did email again say there was some issue with my order, but that it would come eventually. And also here’s another discount for my next order. Then there was more radio silence, with the added small aggravation that every time I visited their website to try to figure out what was going on, they’d email trying to get me to buy another bra!

So I was a bit predisposed to be skeptical of their product when it finally did arrive, but damn if it isn’t the best-fitting, most comfortable bra I’ve ever had.

BBC Live Aid documentary

Lo these many years later, I retain fond memories of the 1985 Live Aid concert. It was organized by a singer I really liked (Bob Geldof); my favourite band, Queen, were the stars of the day; and it featured so many other artists I also like (The Who, U2, George Michael, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, The Boomtown Rats…). And all for a good cause!

So I was pretty excited when YouTube coughed up this recommendation:

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I also found this buried in a drawer!

Though produced in 2011 or so, I had never heard of this Live Aid: Against All Odds documentary—a hazard of not living in the UK, I suppose. Being 3 hours long (there’s a Part 2 as well), I had to wait a bit to start it—because once I did, I predictably didn’t want to stop.

I’ve watched other documentaries on Live Aid, I’ve read books and magazines, but still, I learned more from this one. Like just how demented and troublesome a figure Bill Graham was. And that the hosts on the BBC side had never done anything on this scale before and were petrified. There’s also considerable time spent on the degree to which Midge Ure (co-writer of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”) was overshadowed by Bob Geldof—though Midge refuses to go into an all-out rant about it. (“That’s just Bob.”)

Definitely recommended viewing to anyone else who looks back on that day fondly.

Yoga mat and blender parts

These things are so prosaic, but still…

mat_group_sweep-COLOURFixMy old yoga mat was basically disintegrating. I was looking to add an item to an online order to get free shipping. I saw they sold yoga mats at what seemed a reasonable price, so I threw that in.

I guess I hadn’t particularly realized that, like anything else, some yoga mats are better than others. This yoga mat is just better than any I’ve had before (though admittedly, the “before” are all cheapie Canadian Tire ones). It’s thicker. It’s “stickier”. It just feels better to stand on. It’s the Halfmoon Studio yoga mat.

(Also, did you know you can clean yoga mats in the washing machine? Cold water, delicate cycle, hang to dry. Works great, no manual scrubbing.)

brevilleAs for the blender parts, I was just glad those were so easy to buy. I used to have Cuisinart blenders. The units worked great, but eventually the bowl or the lid would break, crack, chip—somehow become unusable. And Cuisinart just made it really difficult to buy replacements (at least at the time). Hard to find, expensive… Once I bought a whole new unit just to be able to use the parts with my previous unit.

Now I have a Breville. For which I needed a new small bowl and lid before the cracks spread to the point of making them unusable. Remarkably, all I had to do was go to their website and order those two parts, which were then shipped to my house. Imagine!

Glow

This Netflix series has been out for a while, but it was December viewing for us. Set in the 1980s, it’s about a group of women cast as wrestlers for a television series. Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) is the main character we follow through, but all the women get some time in the spotlight. Marc Maron plays the failed B movie director Sam Silvia, hired by rich-boy wrestling fan Chris Lowell to direct the show. All the actors are really strong.

I’m no kind of wrestling fan, but I still enjoyed the pace, drama, and humour of this women-focused series (as did Jean). I even gained some appreciation of wrestling. And as a bonus, it also has a great 80s soundtrack.

 


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Every purchase tells a story, don’t it

English mints

cofJean: Why are you buying those?

Me: (?) To eat.

Jean: But old people buy those.

Me: Why do you say that? Because my Dad buys them?

Jean: And my Grandmother. She always had a bowl of those out.

Me: Come to think of it, my Grandmother always had mints like these around, too.

Shit.

 

But would your Grandmother buy shoes like these?

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(Or allow shoes on the couch?)

So the mission here was to get another pair of comfy shoes that weren’t sandals (as it seemed, at the time, that Fall weather was coming). And I did succeed at that:cof

But then I saw these other shoes, and they were so cute.

The truth is, outside of ballroom dancing—which requires special dance shoes—I have few opportunities to wear heeled shoes. At work I do the stand-up desk thing, and you can’t do that in heels.

But still…. Pretty cute. And on sale!

I have managed to wear them to one party that was mostly a sit-down affair, and have worn them at work as well, for the sit-down parts of the day. For heeled shoes, they’re pretty comfortable: despite the point, they don’t squish the toes, and the back strap doesn’t dig in. And with so few occasions to actually wear them, they should last for years, right?

Anyone want to borrow a T-shirt?

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It’s possible I have a T-shirt problem.

The above were all acquired this summer, in Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, and right here in Waterloo. And it’s not as though I didn’t have any T-shirts to start with.

A double shot

We came home from one vacation to find that the drip coffeemaker was no longer working. A fuse or something, I guess—you’d press the button and nothing would happen. That was a Delonghi dual espresso / regular coffee maker that I’d received as a work gift. Only, the espresso part broke down within weeks. It looked impressive, but for years had supplied only regular coffee, and now couldn’t even do that.

Still, when we put it out with the trash, someone took it away within minutes. Good luck to them in trying to make it useful again.

Meanwhile, we were doing Bodum coffee, which is very good, but presented a timing issue. Jean is more of a morning person that I am. He’d get up and make enough coffee for both of us, but by the time I was up and ready to drink it, it was often more lukewarm than hot.

So when the New York Times ran an article on the best available coffee makers, I was interested. Especially in this one:

We started by tasting a single-origin coffee to determine which cheap machine was most acceptable to discerning coffee drinkers, then ran the panel a second time with preground Dunkin’ Donuts house blend from the corner store. The Hamilton Beach 12-Cup Coffee Maker (46201) swept both rounds of testing. It placed second to the Oxo [9-cup coffee maker, a $200 US coffee maker] in Round 1 and actually beat the Oxo during the Dunkin’ round.

That Hamilton Beach unit was more widely available in the US than in Canada, but Amazon could ship it to us from an outfit called Moto Liquidation that warned would be “like new” but “show signs of handling/unpacking and usages, boxes have damage.”

That proved pretty accurate—box was somewhat battered but unit looked new. Only the first day we tried it, we found that we only got about half the amount of coffee requested—the rest of the water spilled out all over the counter.

We contacted Moto Liqidation who said that we could either get a refund, or they would send us another coffeemaker. Either way, they said, we could keep the one we had. And hence:

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Unit 2 has a slight wobble, but not one that interferes with coffee making. And if any of the parts ever break or fail, well, we can pillage them from unit 1.

It does make really good coffee.

TV in the kitchen

I believe it’s not so unusual now, but when we got our kitchen renovated 15 or so years ago, our designer considered it very odd that we wanted space for a TV in there. Still, she penciled one in, above the stove top, plenty big enough for TVs of the time.

Fast forward, and the space is just barely big enough for the smallest of today’s TVs. And there’s absolutely nowhere else in the kitchen a TV could go (short of doing another renovation).

Furthermore, at some point I decided I also wanted the option of listening to music in the kitchen, and I don’t mean over headphones. So we got a Sonos Play 5, with the idea that when we bought a small digital TV to replace the old tube one, we could hook it up as the TV speaker.

But the Sonos 5 is large, and trying to find a spot for it near the TV was a challenge. Not just in having enough room, but also in the fact that anything near the stove top gets totally coated in disgusting grease, and I didn’t want that to happen to my nice speaker.

Then Sonos came out with a new speaker that was exactly what we needed. The Playbase is a wide, flat TV (and music) speaker that the TV is meant to sit on. It’s sized to exactly fit in the limited space we have available. The sound quality, by all accounts, incredible. The only problem? It’s a pricey sucker.

[All Sonos Playbase reviews, summarized: Woah, that sounds awesome. … Wait, you want how much for it?]

So I kept dawdling on it til the the September long weekend, when I just decided to go for it.

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The only available TV spot in the kitchen is… not wide, and at risk of grease

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A better view of the Sonos playbase. The other little box is the Rogers digital adapter.

The new TV took two tries, as the first one had a cracked screen. Figuring out just how to get the cable through was trickier than expected (tip: even it’s a digital TV, you still need a digital adapter to decipher the channels).

But the Sonos was problem-free in hooking into our network of other Sonos units. And it does sound great. And having the Chromecast on the TV opens up new viewing and listening possibilities:  Netflix, YouTube, Spotify (even if not paying for Premium), SoundCloud app.

(The neighbourhood scavengers, by the way, had no interest in the tube TV beyond the power cord. But no worries, we properly e-cycled it.)

As for the grease, we’re trying to minimize its effects by using the back burners more. It’s making that back corner kind of gross, but so far so good on keeping the speaker clean.

So I was happy. Until the following Tuesday (i.e. the next business day) when Sonos decided it was time to offer me 15% off a new Playbase. As long as I hadn’t already bought one, of course…

Bah. Good thing I saved money with the on-sale shoes and the cheap coffee maker, eh?


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Of news, Netflix, Amazon, and chimunks

Just because I haven’t been blogging lately doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about stuff…

Not writing about news is good news

I’ve actually started a number of posts about current events, but it all gets so depressing. And it changes so fast.

Like after Charlottesville, I was going to write a thing about how Canadians could join the Sleeping Giant twitter campaign to discourage companies from advertising on the alt-right Rebel Media website. But within days, The Rebel seemed to be sort of falling apart anyway, and it no longer seemed, maybe, the best way to spend one’s limited amount of time for activism.

443527_m1494452946Then I went to see An Inconvenient Sequel, on climate change. That seemed a better target for activism. And then with Harvey’s severity clearly being an illustration of what climate change looks like… But me writing about that, seems like piling sanctimony on top of tragedy. Better to leave it to those who have studied it longer, and have more skin in the game like Eric Berger (This is probably the worst US flood storm ever, and I’ll never be the same) and Brian Merchant (Climate change denial should be a crime).

Whereas I will write more trivial stuff, like…

The chipmunk invader

“We have a chipmunk living behind our TV cabinets”, I wrote to our catsitter.

That was mid-July, and it had already been around for a couple weeks. Nearing September, the chipmunk was still with us.

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Yes, they’re cute. But they’re still rodents.

It seemed to have a developed a routine of leaving its hiding place mid-morning to drink water from the cats’ bowls (handily kept right near the TV cabinets) and scrounge for food—which it was clearly doing successfully, given its longevity.

[Something I just learned from “Interesting facts about chipmunks: “Chipmunks are diurnal. In other words, they only come out during the daytime. The reason is not because they are blind at night, but because everything is too dark for their main defense system—their eyes—to work to their advantage.” Would explain why I never saw it in the evening.]

The chipmunk became increasingly brazen, stopping to give me a look to determine that I still appeared unable to catch (it was right; there is no catching a chipmunk!) before scurrying up the stairs to see what treasures could be found on the main floor. The cats occasionally decided to give chase, but more often just watched it, bemused.

The chipmunk was too big to be caught in mouse traps, too small to set off the squirrel trap, which we’d find untripped, bait missing. (“Great,” I said. “Now we’re purposefully feeding it.”)

We’d leave windows open a crack, but it showed no interest in exiting.

Maybe we need a rat trap, Jean suggested.

Before going that lethal route, we tried one more live trap, this one apparently designed for chipmunks: The Havahart Model #1025.

It took three days, but it actually worked: Chipmunk out for its rounds, almost immediately entered the trap, and… Trap door shut!

Chipmunk not happy.

I was a little freaked out by the success, especially as the little thing was making a terrible ruckus trying to bang its way out. Then I got it together enough to throw a pillow case over the trap (that’s supposed to calm the animal), and cary it out and over to the park, where I released it into the woods.

Herein ends your unrequested lesson in how to get a chipmunk out of your house. Now if only we could locate its entry point, so it can’t find its way back in…

Beyond the Lights or under the radar?

It was nominated for an Oscar and won some BET and critic’s awards, but I’m not sure how many people have heard of the movie Beyond the Lights. I was sort of looking out for it when it was released in 2015, but if it came around, it didn’t stay long.

I saw it recently as a DVD loaner from the library (it’s also on US Netflix). It’s about a young black woman, Noni, whose latest single is a big hit and whose first album is hotly anticipated. But after an award-winning night, she goes off alone and stands on the balcony of her fancy hotel room, thinking about jumping. She’s rescued by the young black officer on duty to protect her. They really seem to connect…

So yes, this is a romance, but better-written than most. Their challenges as a couple—the paparazzi, parental disapproval on both sides, conflicting career aspirations (the police officer also has political ambitions)—seem believable, not just plot contrivances. That Noni has a stage mom is a bit of cliche, but the character isn’t just a cartoon villain. The movie also offers a critique of the highly sexualized way young women are marketed in the music industry. (The film was written and directed by a woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood.) The actors are good, and lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw does have a lovely voice.

So if this sounds like your kind of thing, I think you’ll enjoy it. (And if not, like Jean, you’ll likely still admit it’s a decent film.)

Also recommended—but I assume most people have heard of this movie—the “still in theatres” The Big Sick. Making comedy out of the unfunny matters of race and illness.

Amazon pricing: Maybe it’s a game?

queen_al_live_in_japanSo back in November, the first-ever official live Queen + Adam Lambert blu-ray was released, initially sold only from a Japanese website. I most definitely wanted this thing, but when I did the conversion from Yen, it was $120 Canadian for the single disc + CD, plus shipping from Japan, which seemed… pricey, given that your average blu-ray is about $20.

So I waited for it to be available from Amazon as an import, whereupon it was listed for… $145. This was not going in the right direction. I kept checking it periodically, but the price remained stubbornly high, and nowhere else (including ebay) seemed to offer anything better.

Then one day Amazon emailed me to inform me that the price had dropped. Which it had… To $101.

I was considering that, but wasn’t yet convinced.

Then a little over a week ago, I had a random look Friday at lunch time and… It was $48.

So, fine, I ordered it. (And despite them telling me that by not choosing Prime, I’d have to wait til Thursday to get it, it arrived on Monday, Prime time!)

But the thing is, when I looked at the price again later that very same day—when I happened to be logged in as Jean—it was $62.

And right now, for both of me and Jean, it’s $67.

I’ve heard that Amazon has these sophisticated pricing algorithms that causes pricing to vary at any given time based on your past purchasing habits.

Which makes me wonder: Did I cave too soon? If I had kept checking at random times and days, would I have eventually acquired this item at $25?

And does this mean that all Amazon items are cheaper for me at lunchtime? Or on Fridays? Or have I ruined both now by going through with a purchase at that time and day?

And what’s up with the wildly different prices on the same piece of clothing at different sizes?

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One dress, but each of its four sizes is a different price with a $140 range!

Anyway. The blu-ray is a gorgeous thing, with the best video and sound I’ve ever seen and heard on recorded Queen + Adam Lambert material. So I’m happy with it, even if the camera operator doesn’t always know when it’s important to focus on Adam (like, when he’s getting on his bike, and riding!).

 

Netflix: Giving us the sitcom revivals we didn’t know we needed

I don’t know that the world was clamoring for a remake of the Bonnie Franklin-starring 70s / 80s sitcom One Day at a Time, but Netflix has gifted it with one anyway. I was surprised to see how high it appeared on lists of best Netflix originals, so I decided to check it out.

What has it retained from the original? Well, there’s still a single Mom living in an apartment with her two teenage children, and a building supervisor named Schneider. Also, the same theme song, only re-recorded in a cooler version.

Other than that, not much. The family is Cuban-American; Mom Penelope is an army veteran; there is a daughter and son, not two girls; her mother lives with them, also; and Schneider is a wealthy Canadian ex-pat who never wears denim, carries a toolbox, or hits on Penelope. (See Why the New Schneider on One Day at a Time Is So Much Better Than the Old One.)

With its live studio audience and typical sitcom wisecracks flying, the series initially lulls you into thinking it will be super-light entertainment. But though it never gets too heavy, almost every episode touches on serious and often timely subjects: Dealing with PTSD. The challenges veterans have getting help from the VA. Figuring out your sexual identity. Raising boys in the age of online porn. Crackdowns on undocumented immigrants. Pay equity. Affirmative action.

(Hey, I somehow circled back to news, sort of.)

It wasn’t the sort of addictive thing that I had to keep watching, but I enjoyed every episode and grew quite fond of the characters. Despite that list of Serious Issues, it is a comedy, and a funny one. I was sad to see the end of Season 1. Fortunately, it has been renewed for a second season.