Cultureguru's Weblog

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


Meet the cats

I have a posse of three who haven’t had much blog time to date.


Zoë has been with us the longest. Jean saw her at a pet store—not one of those stores that sells kittens and puppies, one of those that displays rescue cats up for adoption—and couldn’t resist. He called me.

“I’m at Pet Value, want to adopt this cat,” he said.

“So she’s black calico?” I answered.

Jean, confused: “So you’ve seen her too?”

No Jean, I hadn’t seen her too. I just knew that Jean had been missing our black calico, Bob, who’d passed away some months before.

Zoë indeed resembled Bob very much; in older pictures, it’s hard to tell which cat is which. And she shares Bob’s graceful elegance of movement.

But she’s her own cat. Her big round eyes give her an air of constant inquisitiveness; when awake, she always seems to be fascinated by something. The background she was rescued from was a house overcrowded with cats; she’s never really lost her interest in sneaking around, scrounging around for food, though now it’s just for fun and not survival. And if she does get mouth on something good, she stills goes to hide in the corner to eat it, though the other cats have no interest in trying to steal it from her—they don’t even like “people” food.

She’s the shyest of the bunch and is not exactly a lap cat. But she enjoys being pet in particular places: up on window sills, in the bathroom (as long as she’s the only cat in there), and on us, as long we have a blanket barrier. She also has a daily ritual of joining us for meals at breakfast, on her own stool, content to hang with us whether or not she gets any treats.


McSteamy was picked out of a “catalog” of rescue cats. We were “shopping” because Romey, a stray who’d adopted us years before (and remains our sweetest cat ever) had passed, leaving us with just Zoë. McSteamy was gorgeous, a blue-eyed tabby-Siamese cross.

A handsome fellow

Unfortunately, he was also terrified of us.

It was nothing personal. His foster owner said he’d also been scared of her at first, but had gotten over it, and now she adored him. I was skeptical, but Jean was taken in, so we brought him home and put him in a room for an adaptation period, during which he scrambled under furniture every time we entered. But, once safely “hidden” away he did let us pet him, and would eventually sneak out a bit more.

One day, not long after he’d been allowed out of the one room, some commotion gave him a big fright. He ran up three flights of stairs, jumped on a bed, then crashed through a screened, second-floor window. He through the back yard, beyond the fence, and out to hide with the gophers in the wooded berm.

The cat rescue organization was very helpful in dealing with this crisis. They lent us a trap, told us to put as close to the window he’d escaped from as possible, and to wait. Again I was skeptical, but darned if McSteamy didn’t make his way into that trap around 2:00 in the morning.

Once back in the house and release, McSteamy decided we were the best people ever. And he has never really stopped thinking that. His fear of us was gone for good.

Frankly, I shudder to think what kind of experience he’d had before ending up at the shelter where the cat rescue organization got him, because now this is one of the friendliest, most relaxed cats I’ve ever encountered.

McSteamy’s stressful life


He’s the first to visit “strangers” to the house. If there’s a commotion, he’ll amble over to see what it’s about. He not only accepts attention now; he demands it. With insistent meowing, when necessary (whereas he was a basically silent cat at first).

And yes, he was named after the character in Grey’s Anat0my, a show we watched at the time. Most people find the name a hoot…


Mocha was adopted at the same time as McSteamy, but by the same method as Zoë: She was the featured rescue cat at Pet Value. In the store, she seemed the friendliest, most cuddly cat ever. Once we got her home, she proceeded to hide from us behind and underneath furniture, for months. Devious!

Through their time of joint fear in the “adaptation room”, McSteamy and Mocha formed a bond that persists to this day. They often cuddle and sleep together, which always looks adorable and bit funny, because Mocha is an unusually tiny cat, and McSteamy is… not.

Fury Kid's looking cute

At any rate, Mocha did eventually warm to us as well—especially Jean, whom she loves to climb up and all over when he’s at the computer. “Too intense, Mocha!” is a common refrain. And she’s decided I’m OK, too. Especially that I’m not off on canoe or business trips as often as Jean; Mocha has to get her petting somewhere.

Though much calmer than on first adoption, she remains a bit nervous and jumpy, especially when it comes to eating. Her backstory: likely a pet that got out when she went into a heat. She and her kittens were rescued from someone’s backyard. (She and all our cats are now neutered, of course.) But the “rescue” likely involved getting trapped in a box when she snuck out to eat, and she apparently fears that might happen again.


But mostly she seems happy with her lot

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On sitting less

So back in June were another spat of articles, like this one at, saying that sitting for many hours a day was bad for you. Even if you exercise.

It is somewhat amazing how non-helpful these articles are.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends mixing noncomputer-related tasks into the workday…

The article says. As if that was actually possible in every job.

Like mine, for instance. What’s a break from my computer work? Well, meetings. The vast majority of which are, in fact, sit-down and not stand-up meetings. Also, I do like to sometimes be retro and work with pen and paper instead of monitor and keyboard. But you can’t write on paper while walking around, either. It pretty much also requires sitting at a desk.

Basically, if I’m not working at a computer, attending a meeting, or writing on paper, I’m not doing my job.

So 2 or 3 years ago now, I implemented the only solution I could see other than changing careers: I bought equipment to raise both my monitors and my keyboard off my desk, so I can work at the computer, standing up.

It was completely weird at first, but I’m used to it now, as is everyone I work with—none of whom have followed my lead, mind you. I did get a lot of queries about in the first few months. But my company won’t pay for it unless you have a doctor’s note that you need it, and I’m not sure doctors write those based on CNN articles stating that sitting 6+ hours a day reduces your life span by 20%.

And it wasn’t cheap. I needed three pieces of equipment, all of which I acquired from An LCD arm to hold two monitors (yes, I get two 21″ monitors at work), an arm extender to make the monitors high enough, and another arm to raise the keyboard tray. All together, that cost around $750—more than people typically want to spend on equipment for their work desks.

(Also, though, I think a lot of people really enjoy sitting down.)

So, I was no trendsetter.

But once I had invested in sufficient pairs of comfy (yet cute) shoes to avoid foot pain, I did find some health benefits that I didn’t have to wait decades for: reduced hip pain, reduced lower back pain, and a slight loosening of my clothes, which might be due to the fact that you burn more calories standing than sitting.

Woman at stand-up desk

Completely impractical shoes for working at a stand-up desk. Also, I think her monitor is too low.

In fact, I liked it enough that I decided to go for the same with the home computer. Well, not exactly the same. I wasn’t about to spend another $750. But my husband found this Visidec dual-monitor arm for more like $120. Like my one at work, this monitor arm was also too short on its own, but he was handy enough to just mount it in a solid piece of wood sitting on my desk, raising the monitors to standing height.

For the keyboard and mouse? Raised via a cardboard box, with a board on it that allows the mouse to slide easily. Hey, it’s home. Doesn’t have to look “professional”.

Another advantage my fancy work monitor arm has—besides looking good—is that it is extremely easy to lower and raise (as is the keyboard tray). So I can, in fact, still sit down to work at the computer, which I do for a bit each day. (I aim for 6.5 hours standing of the 8-hour work day.)

The home Visidec is possible to lower and raise, but not nearly as easily. It takes two people. So instead I intend to just leave that one in the standing position. I have replaced my desk chair with a bar stool, so I can sit on that should I weary of standing.

So, guess I’m OK now, til they come out with the unhelpful articles about the health hazards of standing for too long each day…

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The reno

It’s been nearly a week since the new flooring was installed. The house is not all put back together yet (much remains to be “unpacked”), but it’s quite serviceable now, and we’re pleased with the results so far. The stress level in the household has gone down ten notches.

The most surprising thing was what a big difference the hardwood in the hallway makes. This was more of an aside to the whole thing–hey, why not also have these guys install that hardwood we bought for the hallway years, that’s been sitting under a bed ever since–but they did a great job, and the hallway really looks fantastic.

(Which you can’t probably tell that well from this mediocre picture taken by me with my phone. Maybe a better one by Jean will get substituted eventually.)

Hallway and stairs in hardwood

Almost worth the glue smell we’re still trying to dissipate!

The focus was actually on the downstairs, a now much emptier room–and not only because we haven’t unpacked everything yet. The extra floor space was a deliberate attempt to create a new exercise space for me (and Jean), by moving the main computer and accessories, the big desk, and the file cabinet upstairs to the former exercise room. (Which I hadn’t been using as such in months, since the DVD in there died.)

Here is an even worse (blurry!) phone picture of the a corner of our emptier downstairs, with its new (less glamorous than hardwood, but functional) flooring–including some leftover pieces:

Exercise room

What you can’t see on the other side of the treadmill is my big weight machine. And yes, there is still a computer in that room–the secondary one.

It’s a big room, so the other half remains a TV area, with couches, fireplace, and media storage. Even when unpacked, that part is going to look unfinished until we get the new TV purchased and mounted above the fireplace. (Maybe a Christmas prsesent?) And add some more shelving. And, OK, get the fireplace area finished with a stone overlay.

But hey, the hallway is definitely all done!

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Alone for two days

Jean was away on a canoe trip the last couple days. He was asked a lot, as he usually does on these occasions, “What does Cathy do when you’re gone?”

When obviously, I just sit in the corner and cry.

No, actually… I’m not really sure what to make of the question. (What do they think single people do… all the time?) But to answer it: I do pretty much the same things I do on any other weekend at home. Only alone.

Like, I run errands. I read (especially on my highly addictive tablet). I watch TV and DVDs (especially those programs Jean  doesn’t care for). I cook (and eat. And drink wine.) I exercise (inside and out). I call up my parents.

Now, on some of these occasions, I do get together with friends and do stuff (dinner or concert out, or whatever), or get myself to Toronto and meet with a sister or two. I am even capable of taking myself out to a movie or concert—something I occasionally do even when Jean is home, actually, to give him a break from attending events he’s only semi-interested in. (Try it sometime, if you haven’t. Turns out, once you’re in a crowd at an event, it’s really hard to tell you’re a loser with no friends. 🙂 )

I guess that’s what they’re really wondering, eh? How I handle being alone? Well, for an introvert, there are worse things than alone. My weekend was not exciting, but know what? I was never bored.

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African Lion Safari

Good thing people sometimes visit. Otherwise you might never your home town’s tourist attractions.

So it was that, after 22 years in the region, we finally visited African Lion Safari. Turns out it’s more than just an annoying theme song. The idea of this “zoo” is that the animals roam free, while people are kept in metal cages (also known as cars). The preserve has had good success in its breeding program for a number of endangered species.

They really do have majestic lions.

Male lion

Female lions

But the most exciting big cat encounter was with the leopard cheetah, who decided to walk over to our car.

Leopard approaching

And hang out right beside it.

Leopard hanging around

The ostriches, who look like living dinosaurs, pecked at the car window, hoping for food.


The baboons often climb on the cars, but ours didn’t prove attractive to them.


We discovered that giraffes aren’t overly fond of rain (that it was raining for a change was amazing in itself), as they all huddled together under a shelter.


Rhinos are really big. Fortunately, none of them did any car-charging, that we saw.


Some other continents were also features, such as kangaroos of Australia.


And even deer of North America.

Deer at African Lion Safari

It was fun. Definitely worth a visit, if you’ve never been.

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A new appreciation of sage

While I realized that some of the herbs I planted were perennials that would therefore come back the following year, I didn’t realize they’d come back as giants. The oregano and marjoram are sprawling, with much bigger leaves than last year. And the tarragon: I had no idea tarragon could get so tall. I wasn’t even completely sure it was tarragon at that size until I chopped it up for a recipe, which produced the distinct scent and taste of that herb.

But what I still have the most of, again, and now in a much larger size, is sage. It’s a virtual pasture of tall, stately plants with enormous. And as I’ve complained before, there are only so many things, culinarily, one can do with sage. Sage is not the parsely of herbs. Parsley is. (And parsely, sadly, is recently replanted annual that currently looks like a baby plant in there, fighting for a bit of space.)

And then… The sage started to flower. I don’t know if it just didn’t do that last year, or if it was diligently removing the flowers as they appeared in an attempt to get more leaves (not realizing I’d soon be overrun). But this year I let it be and… Wow. Sage is so pretty.

Photo of sage

(The tall leaves in the front-most of the image? The giant tarragon.)

And the bees just love all those flowers, and we’re supposed to encourage the bees. And yes, flowered sage does have fewer leaves, but with that number of plants…. Really not an issue. Plus, after I cut them and use the leaves in a recipe, I have a ready-made centerpiece for the table:

Photo of cut sage in vase


Surrounded by sound

I tried to watch TV just now and found myself listening to Richard Gere’s Robin Hood while watching an old episode of Saturday Night Live, featuring a faux Kim Jong-il. It was interesting juxtaposition, but not what I was after.

Yesterday we’d been happily watching Moulin Rouge on DVD on this same TV when the picture simply disappeared.

It shouldn’t be so hard to do something as lazy as watching television.

It seems especially wrong to be churlish, though, when these troubles are all the result of really nice work anniversary gift Jean got, of a BluRay DVD player and surround sound system. Since the only place we currently have an LCD television is in the living room, it made sense to set up the BluRay there. This is also provided surround in that room, where previous we merely had stereo sound.

Plus, then we were able to move our older sound system into the kitchen, which we will also, eventually, have surround sound. In the meantime, I have better stereo sound, and can now hook up the iPod in that room, rather then from the bedroom.  Particularly handy when it decides to randomly play a song that is a complete mystery to me (I have a lot of songs), compelling me to look at the iPod screen to see what it is. That task no longer involves stairs.

All nice things. Except that it really is bloody complicated watching television now. You have to turn on the three devices: PVR, TV, sound system. No big deal, right? Except that every one of three remotes tries to control all the devices—sort of. So you turn on one, and then you grab a second remote to turn on the next, and that one turns off the first while turning on the second, and so on… Then they’re finally all on and you accidentally press some Power button again, and oops! They all go off again.

It’s enough to make you think maybe you should just read a book.

Then, the settings. Of course, the sound system needs to be set to right option–Sat / Cable,  not TV, and of course not DVD, FM, Audio, or any otheir subsettings… One day, the only way I could find to get sound from my record player was to turn the TV on and change its source input. What?

Yes, the TV also needs to be set to be on the right source. Now is it HDMI1 or HDMI3? Or maybe BD (BluRay disc) system?

If things still are synching up correctly at this point, it may be because of the switches. We do still have a TV downstairs, but only one PVR now (the older having collapsed and died a few weeks ago). We’re kind of proud we figured out how to hook up two TVs to one PVR, but it does mean setting various switches to the right position depending on what you want to do (watch upstairs or downstairs, watch live or recorded). Not to mention the strange kind of voodoo dance you have to do downstairs in front the remote control signal, trying to successfully get the signal wirelessly upstairs. But when you finally hit that sweet spot, it’s exciting!

Sigh. But I will say that high-definition picture really is very pretty. And, it really is great to have both the pretty picture and surround sound available in one room, instead of having to choose one or the other.

What we still haven’t achieved? Hooking up the computer to make it easier to watching streaming video. We tried with our really old computer (which had been in the kitchen), but it frankly could not handle being projected onto such a big screen. So despite Toronto Life’s interesting article called “Honour among thieves”, which made it sound like practically a patriotic duty to steal your content from the Internet, we can still only do that by downloading, putting that content on a USB, and popping that into one of the DVD players or the TV.

Which remains slightly more onerous task than turning on and watching the TV. But only a just.


And a foodie new year

Our annual new year gourmet dinner was held January 2, giving us a day’s break from New Year’s Eve dinner, and the day following (today) to rest up before heading back to work.

First course: Wild mushroom toasts

Originally my idea was to have lobster bisque as the first course, but I changed my mind based on:

  1. Feeling that soup might be too heavy a starter for also fairly heavy main course.
  2. A sense that I didn’t really want to kill anything to ring in the new year, but that frozen lobster might be sub-par.

So, we went back to a fairly standard item at these dinners, wild mushrooms. But a new recipe, from Fine Cooking magazine.

The one ingredient I wasn’t able to find was crème fraîche. But I did find instructions on how to make your own. Basically, it’s this:

  1. Add 1 Tablespoon buttermilk to 1 cup slightly warm whipping cream.
  2. Let that sit on your kitchen for about a day and half, stirring every once in a while, til it’s thick.
  3. Put it in the fridge.

Isn’t that weird? You’d think leaving dairy products out at room temperature for so long would be a bad thing, but we did eat that yesterday with no ill effects, so I guess not. (I also don’t understand why that’s called crème fraîche, which literally means fresh cream.) It didn’t seem to impart that much taste to the dish, which mostly tasted of mushrooms. I think it was more about adding texture.

Adding crème fraîche to the mushrooms:

The wine we had with this course was a 2007 California Beringer Pinot Noir. We’d bought it that same day, in the “last chance” bin, just on the thought that Pinot would be good with mushrooms. Turned out to be a very nice wine.

The soundtrack for this course was my Get Happy! playlist. Looks like it worked:

Dining on mushrooms and Pinot

Second course: Seared Scallops with Spiced Mango Coulis

The recipe we used here was from the New England Culinary Institute, and we picked it up while on vacation in Vermont. It was super-easy, though; the most challenging part, which Jean took on, was peeling and slicing the mango. Half a mango decorated the plates, and the rest was blended with ingredients like ginger, white wine, and clove, to make a coulis.

Happily, we were able to find some beautiful, large sea scallops at Sobey’s, and then you don’t have to do much to them. Salt, pepper, sear in a bit of grapeseed oil, then drizzle on a bit of olive oil.

Scallops and Chardonnay

The result was just delicious… My second-favorite dish of the night. (And Jean’s number 1.)

Zoe, me, and scallops

The wine was a French Chardonnay we had on hand, that wasn’t spectacular in itself, but went quite nicely with this food (which you really didn’t want to upstage). Moments after this shot, a bit of an accident occurred. It made us really happy this was a white wine:

Tower of wine

I guess the soundtrack for this portion—the Thoughtful playlist—wasn’t quite as effective.

Third course: Venison Osso Bucco with side of Vegetable Barley

This was the one course planned well ahead, when I spotted the venison osso bucco cuts at Brady’s. I then scoured the Internet for recipes, since I’d never made any kind 0f osso bucco before. I finally settled on a recipe from, which involved cooking it with lemons, oranges, carrot juice, red wine, juniper berries (which I couldn’t find, so I substituted gin), chicken broth, and various veggies. It wasn’t too hard at all.

Unfortunately, the results were disappointing. For whatever reason—having to scale down the recipe size, not using the best pots, whatever—the meat just wasn’t tender enough. It was tasty, but lacked that “falling off the bone” quality. If I try it again, I think I’ll go for a slow cooker method.

Osso bucco and Zinfandel

The barley side dish, though deliberately unexciting, was quite nice. I started with a recipe from Taste of Home, but made some changes: Cooked it in chicken broth instead of just water, used carrots instead of red peppers, and reduced the amount of green onion.

The California Zinfandel wine we had with this was a Christmas gift this year, and man, that was a lot of wine. Big and fruity. Nice, though.

Soundtrack was an old standby for dining, my Beautiful Ones playlist.

Dessert: Chocolate soufflé

I wanted a light (tasting) dessert to round things off, and what could be lighter than soufflé? I’d never made it before, either, so again I had to search online for recipes. I ended up with a highly recommended one from, which had the added bonus of being fine with making everything ahead and just baking it right before eating.

The ingredients were really simple: eggs, milk, sugar, and 10.5 ounces of “extra-bittersweet chocolate”. It was easily the most fun dish to prepare, starting with the need to round up six soufflé ramekins when we had no idea what those were. And the word just struck us as really funny, so we were giggling the whole time we gathered a dog’s breakfast of custard dishes, small corningware, and oven-safe storage containers we figured could substitute for ramekins.

Then it was all beating egg whites and melting chocolate and buttering and sugaring the faux ramekins, not to mention really enjoying licking all the bowls and spoons.

After baking, the moment of truth: Would the soufflés rise? But, they did, they did! (The photo is of them inside the oven.)

Souffles in oven

While we considered port, we decided to open a Cabernet France ice wine from Stratus (a gift we received last Christmas) to serve with the soufflé. It was lovely.

Souffle and ice wine

What I wasn’t expecting, and loved, was the molten chocolate pool lying under the floating soufflé top:

Inside the souffle

This (unsurprisingly for me) was my favorite dish of the night. (And Jean’s #2.) The soundtrack for this portion of the evening was, of course, “Love, the sweetest thing” (that is, romantic songs).

Happy 2011, all.

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Reno, part 1

The downstairs renovation planned out nearly a year ago finally resulted in concrete action: installation of fireplace. Isn’t it beautiful?

The fireplace itself is actually pretty attractive. The surroundings, at this point… Well…

But we are indeed pleased with how quiet the new fireplace is. We rarely used the old because the fan was too loud. Not an issue here. And now we have proof that the downstairs gets 1 degree C colder than the main floor, so a little extra heat down there is welcome this time of year.

And whatever the funny-looking results, we paid for the installation of this, so the effort on our part was zero. That won’t be true of the next step, which is to put in new flooring. We’ll be picking something like laminate (though not wood-style), which isn’t supposed to be too hard to put down. What does seem nightmarishly hard? Moving everything out of that room. All those books? The treadmill? The TV, PVR, stereo equipment? The computers? Where the heck will it all that go in the meantime?

But that still lies ahead. First, to actually select the flooring…


How does your garden grow?

It grows pretty darn well this year–certainly a damn sight better than last year!

Whereas last year we had one (1) pea, this year we actually had a handful! And they were delicious. And we’ve already eaten twice as many tomatoes (4) than we ever got all of last season–despite having far fewer plants this year–and there appears to be many more tomatoes on the way, working their way from green to orange to red.

Yes, the garden has been doing so well, in fact, that some animal has discovered it. This is a first, actually. It’s a raised bed, so that deters a lot of critters right there. I was just plain confused, at first, to find that the parsley and cilantro plants that had been so abundant with leaves at breakfast looked really… stemmy at dinner time. Took a while to realize that meant some sort of animal invader.

The next day was worse, the parsley and cilantro now completely leafless, and some of the tomatoes tried and discarded (they’re still pretty green, most of them).

Worst of all, the critter didn’t even touch the sage. Sage, I’m starting to realize, is the zucchini of the herb world: hardy, abundant, yet not very useful as a food item. That, I would happily share with anyone. Yet all of its many, many leaves remained intact, serving only tp make the naked parsley and cilantro plants nearby look more sad.

I went on the Interweb to look up “keeping animals out of garden”, and of course that just left me totally confused. Cayenne works, except when it doesn’t. Put dirty socks out there. Or smelly soap. Electric fences. Radios set CBC (human voice).

Anyway, we finally decided to try a modified fencing approach. We now have mesh fabric running around the whole garden, lowered at strategic points so that I can still get at it. I have no idea if I’m dealing with raccoon, bunny, or even cat exploring his vegetarian side, but regardless, at least that should make access more complicated, so hopefully they’ll go visit the neighbour’s garden instead.