Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Christmas season 2022

I’ll blame Gus the cat for my slowness in getting into any kind of Christmas spirit this year. A few weeks after his pretty speed recovery from the injury above his eye, he suddenly come down with something… He stopped eating, grooming, or doing anything other than shuffling uncomfortably from one sleeping spot to another. It was a weekend, and the vet was open only for supplies, not medical appointments. They suggested taking Gus to the emergency veterinary hospital.

There he got tested for everything imaginable. He had some neurological symptoms—asymmetrical eye pupils, inconsistent results on the “knuckling” test—and few slightly abnormal results on the blood test. Could be infection, could be tumors… He was admitted and hydrated, appetite stimulated, given pain killers, and started on antibiotics. I went home to fret.

Gus responded quite well to the various ministrations, though, and we were able to take him home the next day. He seemed pretty good from that point, though lower energy, and with the uneven pupils persisting a while. We continued the antibiotics for seven days, and a few days later, the eyes improved, the energy back. I brought him in for a final check from our vet, who found that all seemed good, except for the eye on the injured side looking a little irritated.

Black cat in bed
Gus feeling better

So she suggested a week of twice daily eye drops. Gus was much better about letting us give him those than we expected. What seemed much more upsetting to him was if we had to chase him down first; he’d sometimes hide for hours afterwards. So we took to surprising him with eye drops. Those done, he continued to seem quite fine.

And I finally had some brain space for Christmas.

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Bit of a rocky road north

Jean’s Mom, who’d never been quite the same after a stroke in February, passed away in late August. The family decided to have a small memorial service. The date selected was Saturday, November 5.

Wednesday

We left around 10:15 AM, intending to stop over in Sudbury on the way to Timmins. The drive started uneventfully enough; we were diverted by the audiobook of State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny.

But after an hour and a half or so, Jean noted that the car seemed to be losing power periodically, during which it was quite reluctant to accelerate. Maybe just gas quality? he suggested. As we Googled to find the nearest gas station, I suggested options. We still had time before we really had to be anywhere. Maybe we could get the car looked at. Maybe we could rent a car for this trip.

Well, let’s just try gas first, Jean suggested.

And indeed, filling it up did make it run smoother.

For another couple hours, anyway. But then it started doing the losing power thing again. Hills were a problem.

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This is where we are today

This is the second year in a row we didn’t travel north for Christmas. We made the decision pre-Omicron, so it wasn’t because of that. It was related to work; namely, Jean’s inability to get time off—company policy for everyone at Christmas, at least for this year.

I was fine with it, basically. It was early enough that I had a lot of time to get used to the idea. And it is always kind of stressful travelling north at Christmas, given the crowds and the weather and the scramble to get a catsitter. We figured we’d visit family a little later.

But I definitely lacked in Christmas spirit. Last year, when we were all under health advisories to stay home in our family units, as compensation I really wanted to do all the things: Send out the Christmas cards and letter. Put up the lights and decorations. Play the Christmas songs. Watch the Christmas concerts and movies. Prepare the fruitcake, make soup out of the chicken bones, heat up the Christmas morning croissant.

This year, I felt no compulsion to do much of any of that. Now, I did do some of the cooking—we gotta eat anyway and I like tourtière, and cabbage rolls, and roast chicken, and chicken pot pie. And we did watch one (mediocre) new Christmas movie. And sure I played a few Christmas songs on the key days. Zoom family gift opening and game night were fun. And we did put up a tree, but then one cat ate a sharp piece and got an upset tummy, so then it was, bye tree.

Three cats and tree.
The tree that the cat ate (not the whole tree; just, like, a needle. We think)

Though Jean had no time off, I still took some. I had no big ambitions for what to do with the near two weeks, but no concerns that I’d be bored, either. There are enough chores, books, TV shows, cute cats, fitness breaks, and doom-scrolling sessions to fill days at home.

But we also got out a bit—most notably to the Rolling Stones: Unzipped exhibit at The Museum. It was really quite something to see, even if you’re not especially into the Rolling Stones.

Ladies and Gentlemen...

So it’s really too bad that it’s about to be shut down for three weeks as a public health measure. (This was not a cheap show to bring to town!) I mean, it’s safer than the malls that have been left open—to get into this exhibit, you had to be be vaccinated.

Otherwise, we did outdoors stuff, like trying out the ebikes we got each other for Christmas. Yep, it’s winter, but it’s been a pretty mild and not terribly snowy one so far. And the ebikes are “fat tire” mountain-bike style. Jean has really taken to it, getting out on longish rides on roughish trails. I’ve been more tentative (you’re shocked, I know), but kind of surprised I’ve done it at all. More than once, even.

We had been indoor dining through the Fall, which has been lovely, and originally hoped to go out for a nice dinner on New Year’s Eve. But by mid-December, that just didn’t seem smart. (And a few of our favourite places proactively closed anyway.) So we went for the New Year’s Eve takeout, courtesy of Sole Restaurant and Wine Bar. (And we also got a lovely pastry box from Loloan Lobby Bar.)

New Year's Eve takeout dinner.
Baked brie and duck confit in a box

So I don’t particularly have the new year’s “spirit”, either. Not inclined to think back on the year that was, nor motivated to set many aspirations for the year ahead. Except maybe this idea, which I like:

Things have changed since March 2020, and they’re not all going to go back to how they were. And that’s OK—the pandemic has only amplified the fact that a lot of things were terrible. So there’s no point in just longing for the past. We gotta go forward. We gotta make the best of it now, then do what we can to make it better later.


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Traveling to all the hot spots

Remember when a place being a hot spot was a good thing? Lively and exciting? (Or possibly a way to connect to wifi?) Now it’s describing villages with abnormally hot temperatures caused by global warming “heat domes”, and in COVID terms, regions with a large number of cases.

Ontario so far is having a relatively normal summer weather-wise, with a mix of hot, sticky days and cool, rainy ones—along with a few exciting thunderstorms, sometimes with hail. (Ontario is not the place for people who enjoy weather constancy.) And COVID-wise, Ontario—with definitely the slowest reopening plan in North America—is doing pretty well. Except for a few hot spots.

One of these was my original home town of Timmins, which until recently had weathered the pandemic really well. But the Delta variant just tore through the place—and more alarmingly, through the remote northern villages up there—in May / June time frame.

We nevertheless decided to visit. Their plight had led to an extensive local vaccination effort, and as a result, almost all our family ended up fully vaccinated sooner than expected. And we hadn’t been there in nearly a year. Felt like time.

Also felt like a bit of déjà vu of last summer’s July visit…

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Coping with 2021

Feeling that I should blog about something, although it’s difficult with so much going on in the world, and so little going on in my life. I could certainly give my opinion of events, but science says that there’s actually no mental health benefit in ranting about an issue that is frustrating you, but that you have no control over. 

So guess I’ll try writing about the little things in my world that do make me feel better, at least for a while.

Writing about stuff I can’t do right now

Travelling to Europe. Attending concerts in person. Going to the movies, in theatres.

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Christmas 2020

This year, like most other people, we weren’t able to do what we normally do at Christmas time. A chance to develop our new traditions, perhaps? Except… Will we really want to nostalgically recall anything from 2020?

So hey, best to focus on the now, and on the “what you can do” vs. what you can’t. In 2021 and subsequent, we’ll see if anything sticks.

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The cats’ perspectives on 2020

For most humans, 2020 just hasn’t been the best-est ever. But for the pets of the new work-from-home cohort, I think it’s been a happy time. Cats might be more independent than dogs, but I believe they still enjoy having more opportunities to make demands of their humans.

March 2020, and no stress for these guys at all
Whereas I had to adjust to my new office-mates being a bit on the lazy side

Doesn’t necessarily mean that everything‘s coming up roses for them, however.

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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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Short bits

Trying to write a longer, coherent blog post on one topic was not working, so here’s a series of short takes, instead.

What I’m watching

All of the time I’ve not been spending writing has really opened up time to watch TV. Nothing is at the level of Travelers, but here are the current favorites, per source.

Warning:

Will not include Game of Thrones, because I have yet to see a single episode of that.

Network TV: The Orville

Seth McFarlane’s take on Star Trek. I’ve always liked this show more than I would have expected, and it’s become kind of serious this year, making me like it even more. Hope it gets renewed!

Netflix: Santa Clarita Diet

Back for season 3, and I’m still loving it. You have to admire Joel and Sheila’s ability to make a marriage work despite her being undead and thus having to eat people.

Crave: Orphan Black

I know, finally, right? I always thought I would like this show, but it wasn’t until my free 3-month trial of Crave that I finally put it to the test. Tatiana Manslany is just amazing in playing all these different clones (and clones pretending to be other clones). And the story has so much twisty goodness! We’re nearly done Season 2.

Amazon Prime: Catastrophe

The humour is a bit much for Jean, but I’m going to see it through! After all, it’s only six episodes per season, and I only have two left (episodes, not seasons). A very unsentimental look at marriage, but I think I love it for the sentimental reason that these two really love each other.

Also because they’re really funny.

How is Zoë doing?

Very well, thanks. She’s adapting to life as an only cat, and getting way more attention than she used to seems to suit her. She’ll never be cuddly, exactly, but she does like to be pet, tolerates being picked up, and will even lie down on us, as long as we put a blanket barrier between her and us. (Bit of an odd duck, Zoë.) She’s also been pretty chatty, and occasionally even purry.

She also likes her new cat tree

News, ugh

I’m rather missing the days when, as a Canadian, you could feel kind of smug while reading the news from elsewhere. But now we have Quebec passing blatantly racist laws, unashamed they violate Charter rights; an Ontario government denying help to kids with disabilities; the Trudeau Liberals deciding that Canada should not be so welcoming of refugees after all; and Alberta about to elect a party full of alarming candidates, including the leader.

Reading about Brexit has almost been a relief. Of course, that’s also a story about irresponsible leadership, from so many sides, causing harm—and you have to feel bad for those who voted to Remain. But the degrees and varieties of incompetency have just been so interesting! (Though with yet another extension, the drama might start to wear thin.)

And, if you haven’t already read the comparison of Brexit to building a submarine out of cheese (an oldie but a goodie), do yourself a favor and do that. Here’s the first tweet:

Then you can see the rest of the thread, and the responses, here: Guy Explains Brexit In 12 Hilarious Tweets And It Will Crack You Up.

We will still need a song

I’ve been listening to more George Michael lately, after watching the George Michael: Freedom documentary on Crave. It was so good! Assuming you have some fondness for George Michael, of course. It made me realize that I really needed to check out his oeuvre beyond the Faith album and the “Freedom ’90” song. He made good music long beyond that.

Heard some good live music, too. Like The Beatles One show last night, a good reminder that this band could really put together a tune, and that a shit-ton of them went to number one. We also enjoyed hearing a subset of the KW Symphony perform Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” (subset because that piece doesn’t require a whole orchestra), led by guest violinist Nikki Chooi. It was just riveting. The whole 40 minutes of it.

Also exceeding expectations was Drayton Theatre’s performance of the musical Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. A terrific cast, creative staging, enormously fun song list. And really something to see the usual Drayton crowd of grandparents, kids, parents all totally there for this celebration of gay pride.