Cultureguru's Weblog

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


 Some good news (non-political)

My very talented husband has won first place in the Recreation category of the Grand River photography contest. It even came with a cash prize! This was the winning photo:

He walks on water!

Refer to the Grand River Conservation authority’s website, Facebook, Twitter, or Flicker accounts in the coming days for more information.

Earlier in the year another photo of his was selected for inclusion in an advertisement about Waterloo Region that ran in Moneysense magazine. That would be this one:

Milling about the Park

Cork restaurant in Elora also asked to use one of his photos on their website, a few years ago.

(And sometimes he just finds his photos used on websites, by people who didn’t bother to ask.)

He’s won so many photo prizes from his canoe club that they had to change the rules to spread the wealth around more. I can’t include all those here, but I personally liked this one so much I added it to my collection of desktop photos on my work laptop, even though I wasn’t on this trip with him.


25 / 50

We’re not the most romantic couple in the world, and don’t tend to make that much to do about our anniversary, but with the 25th looming next year, seems like we should do something.



The family asked about us having a party. Possibly because I mentioned to my sister about possibly having a party. “Don’t the kids organize the party?” asked my brother. Funny brother. (We don’t have kids, for those who don’t know.)

My friends assume we’ll take a trip somewhere. But, we kind of do that every year, don’t we? “A special trip.” Hmm. What would that be—and what’s not special about our current trips?

Also, does that mean my friends wouldn’t come to a party?

Actually, geography makes the whole party idea a bit tricky. Family is mostly up north. Friends are mostly not. I don’t see the bulk of either group travelling the 10 hours needed to get from one place to the other, so it’s a choice of family party or friend party.

Or, having two parties.

Hmm. What does Google say.


Let’s look at Yahoo: 10 creative ideas for celebrating your 25th anniversary

  1. Change things up at home. Paint the bedroom wall or rearrange your living room furniture.

Because, sure, what is more wonderful and romantic than doing home renovations.

  1. Do something especially romantic at home. Read poetry to each other by candlelight, for instance.

Yeah. No. Big no.

  1. Have a day of service — to each other. If you usually cook and your spouse mows the lawn, switch jobs for the day.

Again with the doing chores, Yahoo? And anyway, after 25 years, if you haven’t figured out your household labour division in a way that doesn’t leave you feeling resentful and wishing you could switch, then I don’t how you made it that far.

  1. Have a day of service — to others. Do something charitable, whether it’s making a donation somewhere, or serving dinner at a shelter.

OK, I’ll drop the snark, as that is a lovely idea. For better people than we are.

  1. If you’re going to travel, make it an adventure. Hike the Grand Tetons, go whitewater rafting, or learn to scuba dive.

Wait, did Jean write that one?

  1. Have a party, but make it sort of retro. You were married in the 1990s after all! Event planner Jason Jani, owner of the SCE Event Group, suggests making a playlist of songs from the year you were married and showing videos from the wedding. And if you still have your dress, wear it.

… Hmm, I don’t hate this one. But it in no way solves the geography problem. And I can’t see planning two nineties parties.

Suppose I’ll just put off thinking about this again, for now.

Did I mention that I’m also turning 50 next year?



The Christmas after

For our Christmas travels I’d lost the argument about flying this year, so we drove off after work on December 22 and made it to Huntsville, then finished the journey the next day. Our unseasonably mild and snow-less winter made for a good drive, fog being the only challenge at times.

Timmins did have snow, albeit far less than usual, and it seemed almost freakishly warm (up to +3 C!).

My younger sister and family flew to Timmins without issues, but my older one had the unpleasant experience of her flight getting all the way to Timmins, then refusing to land due to fog! (Though other airlines were landing in the same conditions.) So she ended up spending Christmas in Toronto after all.

Celebrations began on the 23rd with a belated 80th birthday party for my Dad, held at my brother’s. Pretty well-attended, considering the busy time of year.


The birthday boy (foreground)

December 24 brought very high winds, then widespread power outages to Timmins. But power was back most everywhere by mid-afternoon. We attended mass at my Dad’s church, then headed off to Réveillon celebrations, first at my cousin’s, then at Lefebvre’s.

Dad's gonna PieFace her! .. or he takes one for her :)

The “pie in face” game was delighting the kids this year. (I abstained from play.)

Always too much food! ... it' s Christmas

We didn’t lack for food

The “left / right” gift exchange theme this year was “computers,” and the price limit is pretty modest. That meant a lot of USB sticks going around.

and the Grrraand Prize goes to Come, he also get's the clown.

But some people were more creative (and no, Jean did not come up with this mouse pad himself)

Christmas morning was at McNair’s, where we tried a new approach of the “stealing” game.

Caleb showing enthousiasm ;)

This resulted in some kids getting items they were less-than-enthused about

Master Skyper John!

The Toronto folks participated via Skype

A round of trading afterward produced more satisfactory results, at least for some. (I took the mini-Cuisinart off my nephew’s hands and he got my cool gift pack of gourmet popcorn and DVDs.)

A few specific gifts were handed out as well.

S-S modeling her

You’ll never guess who gave my niece this Buffy T-shirt

Champagne instead of coffee in the morning ... That's how you know it's Christmas :)

And we enjoyed the morning Champagne

The afternoon was consumed with helping Dad prepare the Christmas turkey and fixings. We had 13 people over for dinner, and everything turned out great.

On Boxing Day we resisted the sales, but managed to get together with some Timmins friends at a local coffee shop, which was very nice.

We departed the following afternoon, and except for the car having a mysterious battery failure (solved with a boost), the two-part drive home was uneventful. We even found a very good restaurant in Hunstville for dinner (3 Guys and a Stove).

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Movie review: Inside Out

Armed with a gift certificate, we made our way to the unfamiliar confines of the big, glitzy Galaxy Cinema to see the well-reviewed Pixar film, Inside Out.

Turns out that the “Pre-show” for a General Admission film means a great deal of tedious talk about kid’s movies. Much as I have found Wallace and Gromit amusing in the past, that was way too much talk about Shaun the Sheep! Then we had to sit through commercials, then yet more trailers for kid’s movies, including, of course, freakin’ Shaun the Sheep!

So when the animated short that preceded Inside Out finally started, the little Lewis Black’s inside our heads were firmly in charge of the control panel.

Pixar's Anger

Inside Out largely takes place inside the mind of a young girl named Riley. Riley has great parents, friends, love of hockey, and a comfortable middle-class existence. Her various emotional states are played by five characters.To this point in her 11 years, Joy (Amy Poehler) has mostly been in the driver’s seat. But others step in when needed. Fear (Bill Hader) helps keep her safe. Anger (Lewis Black) defends her against injustice. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) prevents her from being poisoned. And Sadness (Phyllis Smith)… Well, nobody’s too sure what Sadness is for.

Insider Out characters

When Riley’s parents uproot her from Minnesota to San Francisco, however, Joy has trouble maintaining control. All the pillars of Riley’s life to this point, depicted as island’s in her mind, seem to be crumbling away—old friendships fading, family stressed, school now strange and scary, hockey no longer a refuge…

Riley’s experience of all this emotional turmoil is depicted as an interior journey. Joy tries to keep Sadness at bay, but that just leaves openings for Fear, Disgust, and finally Anger to take over.

As if often the case in Pixar movies,there’s a lot here that would go right over kids’ heads. You have to see to appreciate how they depict the inner workings of our minds, such as the management memories—core, subconscious, fading, and just… gone. And the characters’ scary trail through abstract thought (“we’ve become two-dimensional!”). And the peculiar timing and persistence of ear worms. And the even more peculiar production of dreams. And losing one;s train of thought.

To add to the fun, we also get glimpses into the mind’s of other characters. (I especially liked that every adult women seemed to have her own fantasy boyfriend in there…) And be sure to stay for the credits to see more.

Sure, Joy and Sadness’s journey back to headquarters (get it?) might have gone on a bit long, and main character Joy could be a little darn annoyingly cheery.

But overall, I didn’t care. The whole thing was on the main so delightful. And so effective in explaining the role of Sadness. Even if doing so caused Sadness to take over my mind as well, and make me wish I’d brought far more Kleenex. (At least I managed not to sob. Whole theatre was so quiet at this point in the movie! Everyone so busy trying not to sob!)

My only wish was that we could have spent more time in more minds. But at the end, mine was still filled with Joy.

Inside Out trailer

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Chasing the original high

Just let me feel the rush like the first night
Wanna breathe it out cause I’m going out my mind
Gotta feel the touch like the first time
Cause I’m
Chasing the original high
I’m trying to buy a fix but there ain’t no price
I try to feed the hunger that keeps me up at night
We were on a trip trying to replicate
But the highs I hit just ain’t doin it for me

Remember back in Hollywood?
The medication flowing through my veins was you…

— “The Original High”

The Original High: Adam Lamber

The title track of Adam Lambert’s new album The Original High suggests that we spend much of our adult lives in a possibly fruitless quest: To rediscover the rush and excitement of the first time we experienced something great, whether that be drugs, sex, love, applause, success, or what have you.

It’s an interesting idea, particularly when considered in light my own Adam Lambert fandom. Why am I obsessing over this guy? What am I gaining from it? Am I chasing some original high here…?

”Remember back in Hollywood?”

Before there were actual boyfriends in my life, there were celebrity crushes. Those were much safer. You could have the thrill and excitement generated by reading about, listening to, or watching these famous strangers, without the risks of real conversations and physical contact with actual, unpredictable people.

Then of course, there were the boyfriends. And that could be very exciting, often in unexpected ways.

And then I found the one, who eventually transitioned from boyfriend to husband. The love and passion I feel for him hasn’t died with the passage of years, but it has changed. Improved, in many ways. But what hasn’t lasted is that initial, mind-blowing, almost insane obsession. That overwhelming high of falling in love.

Because you can’t live a whole life in that state. You wouldn’t want to. Remember that Pepsi commercial? “Is there anything else youthful you’d like to experience?” “Yeah, I’d like to make out like we used to” And then:

Make out like we used to Pepsi ad

“On second thought…” Exactly!

But you can certainly retreat to your harmless old pastime, the celebrity crush. For that safe, remote facsimile of the thrill of a new relationship.

“Just let me feel the rush like the first night”

Adam Lambert posing

The current style

Adam Lambert performing


In this limited capacity, Adam Lambert is fulfilling the chase fairly well. For all my recent defending of old rockers, it is nice to be into a young, healthy guy. I love his recent style, with less makeup, a more natural hair colour, the torn skinny jeans, the great shirts and jackets. The man always looks amazing, whether arriving an airport, doing a radio interview, performing, or all dressed up for the red carpet.

He is fun to look at.

And having listened to, read, and watched a ton of promotional interviews these past months, gotta say that Adam Lambert also seems to be one of the sweetest, most charming people on the planet. Many of the interviewers are great, but he also handles the uninformed or intrusive questions with a lot of grace, humour, and intelligence, And he’s a good sport about the many absurd little quizzes and activities he’s asked to participate in (Juggling! Dancing like Carlton! Giving the weather forecast! Drinking cheap tequila!)

Adam on Alan Carr Chatty Man. Not necessarily the best interview, but certainly one of the funniest

“But the highs I hit just ain’t doin’ it for me”

So have I achieved celebrity crush nirvana? Well, hmm. I just wish… I just wish… I loved his new album.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the new album. The songs are very catchy. The lyrics have some intelligence. He’s never sung better (on a studio album). The production—the sound quality—is great, crisp, well-mixed. There aren’t any songs I actually dislike.

It’s just that… I don’t really love too many of the songs, either. It all feels a bit… light to me. Lacking in angst, maybe. In emotional power, somehow.

And it’s very odd for me to have this disconnect between the artist and his artistic output. I like listening to The Who’s music every bit as much as I enjoy looking at Roger Daltrey’s pecs. I appreciate Spike’s cheekbones and snark in the context of one of my favourite TV shows of all time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sure, a song here, an episode there isn’t as great, but overall… Awesomeness.

Whereas a week of listening to Adam Lambert music and I’m like, wow. I need some Elvis Costello, or something.

“Cause I’m chasing the original high”

Now, I really want this album to be a success (though I don’t know what success is in this age of limited music sales), because if it is, he’ll tour. And I feel absolutely certain that I would love seeing him in concert, even if he doesn’t do a single cover song.

Because I do have considerable fondness for his second album, Trespassing. It’s true that the lesser songs on it are weaker than anything on The Original High. But the highs (there’s that word again)… “Trespassing” is probably my favourite song of his ever, an exuberant gay anthem with lyrics ambiguous enough for many other interpretations, and always a lovely ingredient in a remix. And I’m almost as fond of dance-oriented “Pop that Lock”, of angsty ballad, “Outlaws of Love”, of the beautiful, haunting Underneath, and of dark yet rousing bonus track Running.

But as for The Original High, it does contain “There I Said It”  the big ballad, and the one song in which he does seem kind of angry and defiant. (“I won’t apologize to you anymore!”) I do love that song. I’m also rather fond of the sexy, R&B infused “Underground” and I must say that if I’m not sick of single “Ghost Town”  after so many listens (and I’m not), there’s gotta be something to that dance track, also.

And I feel I should end with this blog-post inspiring song, “The Original High” which, yes, I do like very much. It’s an absolutely infectious pop song with smart lyrics.

This is a fan video—with bonus Hungarian subtitles!


Gone Girl (the book)

Yes, I know, y’all read this three years ago, when it was new and hot. But I just finished it. So cast your mind back…

(But if you not have read it (or seen the movie] yet: Spoilers ahead.)

Gone Girl coverWhat it’s about, basically

Nick Dunne’s beautiful wife Amy disappears on their anniversary date. The house shows signs of a struggle, but almost in a staged way. The police have to consider Nick a suspect.

What I liked

This was an awesome vacation read. It was very gripping, the plot’s twists and turns continually holding my interest. A perfect way to while away the hours on the sun deck.

But I also found the narrative structure very intriguing. Despite the fact that the story was being told in the first person by Nick—we still weren’t getting the whole story. He was keeping secrets not only from the police, but from us, the readers.

This (along with some of the movie publicity, I must admit) becomes a clue that we should possibly also doubt Amy’s diary entries that intersperse Nick’s telling of her disappearance in the first part of the novel. Who can you trust?

What I had some issues with

The story’s structure is such that we’re supposed to find some equivalencies between Amy and Nick, I think, but, but… Amy is a murderous, vengeful psychopath. Nick is a bit flawed and weak.

Of course, Amy’s extremes made for this very enthralling plot—but it was very extreme.

About that ending

I talked to a number of people about this book and the movie. A lot of people hated the ending. A few people thought it was just right. But love it or hate it, one thing they had in common was: They couldn’t quite remember what the ending was. Only their feelings about it. Curious.

Well, at this point, I can still remember the ending, and I wasn’t crazy about it. It seemed a rather odd choice. And yet I wasn’t sure how I would have preferred that it end. I was briefly determined to see the movie, as I had somehow got in my head that it ended differently than the book, and I was curious to see an alternative. But further research dashed my hopes: It has the  exact same ending, apparently.

Guess I’ll wait to see the movie when I forget the ending, as that seems an inevitable occurrence…

What the book says about marriage

I’ve heard this “it’s an indictment of marriage” theory, but frankly, I don’t think this book says anything about marriage in general. Heck, given the narrative structure, we don’t even learn about Nick and Amy’s specific marriage. Not really. We only find out about it through a lying diary and the fog of memory (his and hers). It’s all past tense, and at a very tense time for both!

Really, I think, the only lesson you can take is: Try not to marry a murderous psychopath.

Can we blame Amy’s parents?

This was another theory i’d heard before reading the book, and then I kept waiting for Amy’s parents to do so or say something that would give a hint as to how they had turned her into what she was, but… Bupkus. Sure, they weren’t perfect. She was an only child, they literally elevated her to “Amazing Amy” status through a series of books they wrote, but not every spoiled kid turns into this.

It’s probably best not to try to find deep meaning in a fun vacation read. Even one written with such skill.


To breed or not to breed (redux)

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsorbedA new book is out called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. It seems to be getting a lot of buzz (and selling pretty well).

I have not read it, so can’t comment on its contents. As one of this selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed tribe, however, it did surprise me a bit that my choice remains of such interest. Or still be so hard to understand.

Mind, I had my own phase of reading a number of books on this subject—looking for kindred spirits, I guess. Some years ago I wrote a review of three of them. I got quite a bit of feedback on it, which was very unusual for content on a personal website. Thought I might repost the reviews now. It’s only very lightly edited from how it appeared then.

Despite the declining birth rate, it’s still considered odd for a heterosexual couple to not have children. The default is to have children (preferably two, one of each sex), and if you don’t, you’re expected to explain why. But if you’re going to go just on logic, there isn’t much reason to have children. We no longer need them to help on the farm, and there’s no guarantee they’ll take care of us when we’re old. Better to build up good RRSP savings.

No, the decision to have children is all about emotions, no logic. People want them. And when they have them, they love them, and can’t imagine life without them.

I guess. I wouldn’t know, would I? But I can say that my reasons for not going there are also mostly emotional. I just don’t want children. I can’t really say why I don’t; I just don’t. Never have. Have never heard the biological clock ticking; have never looked at children with an aching wish they were my own. Apparently this is unusual, especially for women.

This is why I tend to be drawn to artistic artifacts that reflect how I feel (or don’t feel, I suppose). Such as the following three books, all of which I’ve read (or listened to) in the past year. Warning that some of my comments may spoil the two fiction books.

We Need to Talk about Kevin coverLionel Shriver (a woman) wrote the fictional We Need to Talk about Kevin as her way of working through the question of whether she should have children. The book is told in the voice of a woman, Eva K., who never wanted children, but acquiesed because she knew her beloved husband would never be happy without them.

To say that the child, Kevin, does not turn out well is an understatement: After a difficult childhood, he becomes a high school mass murderer. The question is, how much of that violence and anger was genetic (nature), and how much is due to Eva’s admitted reluctance to becoming a mother (nurture)? With the whole story told for her point of view, looking back with the knowledge of how her son has turned out, Eva is not a completely reliable narrator. For example, she sees willfulness even in the newborn Kevin, who seems to be inconsolable with her but quiet and happy as soon as her husband comes home.

Shriver is a skillful writer and, despite the darkness of the novel, I found it a compelling read. I couldn’t help but feel enormous sympathy for the narrator as she dealt with her husband’s fervent desire for a child, his over-protectiveness during her pregnancy, her reluctance to push during childbirth, her disappointment at how their lives changed to accommodate the child. Apparently much of this material has also struck a chord with women who weren’t reluctant mothers but still struggle with these issues. (Motherhood is hard. Or so I’ve heard.)

Of course, the novel takes it to an extreme. Taking an abnormally long time to be toilet trained or wantonly destroying prized possessions may not be that unusual, but school murder and somehow contributing to your sister losing an eye to corrosive chemicals—well, those are pretty rare events.

The sister. Yes, an interesting turn Shriver’s novel takes is that Eva decides that another child is needed. Her husband, noting the difficult relationship she has with Kevin, is completely against this. Eva tricks him into impregnation. The second child couldn’t be a greater contrast to Kevin, and Eva finds she has no difficulty loving her.

Her relationship with her husband, however, gets strained beyond repair. He, of course, accepts his daughter, but can’t get beyond Eva coldness toward her son. They agree to separate after the school year, but the murder intervenes.

Eva addresses all of the writing is to her husband; the whole novel is in the form of letters he never responds to. (We find out why near the end of the book.) While she claims to love him always and unconditionally, and greatly mourns his loss, I felt strangely unsympathetic toward him. Eva really felt that she saw Kevin as he really was, while Kevin just put on a happy act for his father. Seeing the whole story through her eyes, it was hard for me not to feel some contempt for this apparently wilful blindness, and to not quite get why Eva loved her husband so much. Whether that aspect is a failure of writing or just my personal issues, I’m not sure.

(Postscript: After writing the novel, Ms. Shriver shows to remain childless.)

Baby Proof coverMuch lighter and different in approach is Baby Proof by Emily Griffin, a mother of two. Griffin wanted to explore the conflict between a couple who didn’t agree on whether to have children, and she wanted the woman to be the reluctant one. It’s another first-person novel, though not in the form of letters this time.

The main character, Claudia, has always felt that she didn’t want children. She had resigned herself to the fact that this might mean she would never have a husband, either, until she met Ben, who shares her views. They wed, and all is well for the first couple of years, until Ben changes his mind and tries to change hers. Their arguments grow increasingly heated until they decide that divorce is the only answer. But neither ends up being that happy in divorce, either.

In this novel, the deck really seemed to be stacked against Claudia, who didn’t seem to have anyone in her life who understood her point of view. Ben changed his mind about kids then kept demanding reasons why she wouldn’t have any, just so he could shoot them down. Claudia runs to her friend Jess, who would have a family herself if only she could find Mr. Right, only to be once again pressed to come up with reasons for not having children. Then there is her one sister who is desperately undergoing fertility treatments, and her other sister with the two great kids.

Honestly. For a novel about being childfree, it felt oppressively child-full.

The resolution was also somewhat unsatisfying. Where Kevin ended on a small yet plausible ray of hope (believe it or not), Baby Proof has Claudia deciding that Ben is her soul mate, and that if she must have a baby to keep him, so be it. Meantime, unbeknowst to her, Ben is also resolving that she is more important to him than a child. In the end, they are back together, and she’s still on birth control, but she’s wavering about it.

Child Free and Loving It! coverPerhaps Claudia needed to read some of the testimonials in Nicki Defago’s Childfree and Loving It! In this non-fiction collection, the married but childfree by choice Defago examines the issues around the question of whether to have children: over-population, the environment, work, life as a couple, obnoxious parents. I didn’t find much of this information all that startling or new (though some might). But what I did find particularly interesting were the personal testimonials.

Under cover of anonymity, she got comments from people content with their decision to have or not to have children, but also those who had them but regretted it. In some cases, they’d had their doubts before, but went ahead to please their partners. In other cases, they hadn’t given the matter that much thought, then been overwhelmed by the reality. These people tended to emphasize that while they loved their children, they still felt their lives would have been better without them. And this wasn’t just from new (stressed) parents, but also from those with older children and teenagers and some looking back from a very welcome empty nest.

These sorts of sentiments are very rarely expressed, but important to hear, I think. While it may be sad to regret not having children, how much sadder to regret having them!


Experiencing pop culture in a time of grief

When someone you love dies, blogging about pop culture, news, travel, and food drops off the priority list.

Doesn’t mean that these trivialities drop our of your life, though. Just that your relationship to them changes, at least for a time.


You know, if you break my heart I’ll go
But I’ll be back again
‘Cause I told you once before good-bye
And I came back again

Music is an emotional mindfield, isn’t it? I don’t think The Beatles “I’ll Be Back” would make anyone’s list of saddest songs ever, but on a day of bad news, I couldn’t handle it. I frantically searched through my playlists for safer havens. I finally settled on “High Energy”, a gathering of uptempo rock and dance numbers, generally with pleasingly dumb lyrics. I stayed locked on that for about a week and a half, ‘til it finally seemed just too incongruous. (Then I switched to Classical.)

Adam Lambert’s excellent album Trespassing was just the sort of uptempo music I needed for a time


I was interested to discover that I still got hungry, still wanted to cook, was still able to eat. Because certain forms of stress and worry make that difficult for me. But not this one, this situation with a known but sad outcome. While  I didn’t eat more, or drink more—I didn’t find comfort in that—I still enjoyed the routine of preparing and eating meals.

I certainly became a distracted cook, though. Leaving the milk out on the counter, putting the vinegar in the wrong pantry, forgetting to start the timer. Like the energy of pushing the sadness away enough to follow a recipe was not leaving enough mental space to remember anything that wasn’t written down.

Things are now improving on that front.

Movies and TV

While actually going out to a movie seemed like too much effort, watching stuff on TV was an appealing distraction. Since I don’t watch much medical stuff anyway, there wasn’t much I felt I had to avoid. Howard’s mother died on Big Bang Theory (as the actress had in real life), but it was handled with a light touch and didn’t set me off. In picking HBO movies, I decided to skip Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow for now, given its premise of the lead character dying over and over. I instead watched and quite appreciated the comedic In a World, one of the more overtly feminist movies I’ve seen in a long time. Recommended.

In a World trailer


The human interest stories—little boys lost in the snow, Oliver Sack’s terminal cancer diagnosis—were best avoided for a while, but I still found the theatre of politics a surprisingly useful distraction. Especially in Twitter form (about the length of my attention span, at times). I couldn’t truly dig up my own personal outrage at some of what was going on, but I could still appreciate and retweet other people’s. #StopC51 and all that.


Cover of Being MortalSo just a few days before all this my book club had selected Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal as our next book. It’s about getting older and end of life care, and how the medical profession has been dealing with it, and how it should.

Of course, there were days I wasn’t up to reading much of anything at all, but when I did feel up to it, I did read this, I seriously doubt I would have selected this particular book if left to my own druthers, but I feel it was in some ways helpful. It’s an excellent book, anyway, and much of it was more abstract and factual, which appealed to my logical side. Stories did become more personal and touching later in the book, but that was later in this whole saga for me too and—I don’t think it made anything worse. It certainly presented a number of scenarios I’m so glad my loved one never went through.

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Easter is all about… fine dining?

That’s not right, is it? The foods of Easter are homey ham and scalloped potatoes and cheap chocolate. Good Friday is fish. Restaurants are not full to bursting for Easter; in fact, some close for the holiday.

So I’m not sure how we came to mark the start of Easter weekend by going out to not one but two of the area’s finest restaurants. It was as spur of the moment as can be for places that require reservations.

First up, Thursday night before the long weekend, was Verses. We just… Hadn’t been there in a while. We’d hoped to have one final crack at their fine fall / winter menu, but we were just too late for that. Upside was: First crack at their fine spring / summer menu.

The place was fairly quiet this Thursday night, and being there just felt nice. As restorative as a visit to the spa.

A celebration of food!

A lovely place to be after a busy work week

We were hungry, and it was a bit difficult deciding what to choose on the new menu, most of which sounded delicious. Jean made it easy on himself appetizer-wise by going for his standby foie gras, this time served with “saffron, vanilla waffle, slow poached orange supremes, and Vin Cotto”.

Foie Gras, The most sinful food!

Le foie gras

And I suppose I also went for the somewhat habitual: They usually have some kind of seafood trio as an appetizer, which I usually can’t resist. This time it was scallops:

Sake Kombu cured on arame salad in toasted sesame rice wine vinaigrette
Ceviche, layered with pico de gallo and avocado croutons
Fennel wrapped pan seared on champagne vinegar dressed fennel fronds

Scallop Tasting

Why have scallops one way when you can have them three ways?

Jean favored the tart ceviche style; I thought it was hard to beat the traditional pan seared, but we both agreed the avocado croutons were just the coolest!

We had a heck of a time selecting our wine, partly because I somehow wanted white despite have selected duck as my main course. But we finally settled on a very lovely French Gewurtz. It arrived just after our appetizers, which may be a first (for this restaurant)! (And by after I mean, like, 30 seconds after.)

Lovely Gewürztraminer and Andrew

Andrew suggested this wine

It certainly suited Jean’s main course of three kinds of seafood: tempura shrimp with aioli, grilled octopus salad, and crab and lobster cannelloni with mushrooms and broccoli.


Why have one kind of seafood when you can have four?

The octopus salad had a pleasant smoky taste and very nice texture. The cannelloni were rich and delicious. But perhaps the best were the crispy shrimp, which did not suffer the fate that large shrimp often seem to, of ending up kind of tasteless.

My main was seared duck breast served with a mole sauce. The duck was perfectly prepared, and I loved the chocolate  spiciness of the mole, served in its own mound. The dish was called Duck Duck Goose, and the goose was in the form of a quesadilla, which was crispy and rich. The sides were “dirty” rice—wild rice with black beans—and a Brussels sprout slaw.

We resolved to share a dessert, a plan that was complicated a bit when we didn’t agree on which one. Finally Jean just agreed to go with my choice, the maple mousse.

Maple Desert

Maple mousse

Of course, this wasn’t just maple mousse in a little dish. It was served in delicious dark chocolate, and accented with a fleur de sel tuile and caramel “dust” that tasted rather like the inside of those Crunchie bars. Everything was quite exquisite.

The Friday outing came about because Langdon Hall somehow put me back on their email list, though I haven’t been there in years. And the email mentioned they were doing an oyster and wine tasting on Good Friday, in Wilk’s Bar. Wilk’s Bar is the somewhat less formal, and somewhat less expensive, dining area at this luxury hotel. We didn’t have any particular plans for the holiday Friday, and most things were closed, so trying that out seemed like a nice afternoon outing.

We didn’t want to have another full three-course meal, but we figured that three oysters likely wouldn’t be enough to sustain us til dinner, either. So we each went with another appetizer. I ordered the squash soup with morels, duck confit, and foie gras. Jean ordered the terrine. We received the 2 oz servings of the white wines that were to suit the three oysters to come: a very dry Chablis, a good sparkling Reisling from Tawse winery, and a delicious oaky Chardonnay.

A flight of wine: Chablis, Oaked Chardonay, Tawse Sparkling -> Perfect for Oysters

Why have just one kind of wine when you can have three?

And then we waited. The warm bread basket served with butter made in-house topped with sea salt helped, but it still seemed a long wait for just soup and paté.

When the food did arrive, it came with apologies for the delay; clearly something had gone awry. And they were forgiven when we tasted everything. Hmm. Some of the best examples of squash soup and terrine ever.

Terrine doe Foie Gras - excellent!

Yay! The food is here!

The rest of the meal proceeded at the expected pace. The three kinds of oysters—raw, crispy, and baked—were each just amazingly delicious, and it was fun to have a matching wine for each.

Oyster Trio: Raw, Baked, Fried.  Best Oysters I've had in decades!

Oyster trio. (It’s high time I drop the “why have one” “joke”)

And we again indulged in dessert: One each this time! Jean had the so-called “ice cream sandwich” while I went with cranberry fritters and “hot chocolate”, which turned out to be warm chocolate mousse. And yes, I dipped the fritters.

Icecream Sandwich like no other!

Walnut ice cream and daquoise

The least pleasant part of these types of meals—paying the bill—wasn’t quite as bad this day. They gave us the desserts on the house to compensate for the delay in serving our appetizers.

On Saturday, we gathered with extended family. Interestingly, that was also more of gourmet Easter dinner than one might expect: baked lamb, two kinds of potatoes (neither scalloped, exactly), French green beans, asparagus and mushrooms. And fancy chocolate mousse pastries for dessert, along with fruit salad.

The food was delicious. And the company was even better.

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Movie reviews: Philomena and Beginners

***½ Philomena (November 2013) – Theatre

PHilomena posterJudi Dench, Steve Coogan. A cynical reporter agrees to help the elderly Philomena locate her son, who was taken from her by the church when she was a teenager.

She says: A rather delightful movie about a pretty appalling subject. The interaction between the cynical, worldly, atheist reporter Martin and the sentimental, parochial, and still-Christian Philomena is wonderful. Especially those moments when you—along with Martin—realize that Philomena is not as naive as you might think.

Their journey together to discover what happened to Philomena’s son after he was taken from her from the convent she was sent to as pregnant teenager is full of twists that I didn’t see coming. It’s all based on a true story, and it doesn’t cast the Irish Catholic church in a particularly good light.

He says: It was terrible what happened to her! It all made me so angry!

But it was nice that I wasn’t bored by the movie.

**½ Beginners (November 2011) – Rental

Beginners posterEwan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent. After meeting a woman he connects with, artist Oliver thinks back on his Dad’s last few years of life as an out gay man.

She says: This movie plays with time a lot, flashing back to Oliver’s last few months with his Dad, who was dying of cancer but determined to live to the full to the end; to the period before when his Dad first came out as a gay man, after the death of Oliver’s mother; and to key moments of his childhood. In present time, Oliver is trying to negotiate a new relationship with the unpredictable but insightful Anna. Both Oliver and Anna have a history of failed relationships, of not being able to see them through. Oliver uses the memories of his Dad’s life as a lesson in how to change.

So, it’s a pretty arty. But the performances are great, the actors have good chemistry, and I enjoyed the journey.

He says: I didn’t understand that movie. Not my thing.