Monday, 22 July 2013

A Trip tp Manotick

After trips to Niagara Falls, Disney World and Calgary last year, we've decided not to take any big trips this summer.  So, we're going to play tourist in our own little part of the world.  Last week, we visited Manotick, a small, rural suburb of Ottawa where we had a surprisingly good time.

Kate, Lena and Lena's friend, Sidney and I first stopped at Watson's Mill, a 19th century flour mill along the Rideau Canal.  The building houses plenty of artifacts and equipment demonstrating how wheat was received and transformed into flour.  The mill also holds demonstrations of the machinery in action and grinds and sells small batches of the flour it produces. 

If that isn't enough, a ghost is said to roam the property.  Apparently, one of the mill's owners, Joseph Currier married a young American woman, Ann Corsby, shortly after the mill began operation.  At an event marking its first year in business, Currier was showing young Ann around the joint when her dress got caught in some of the machinery and pulled her violently into a beam, killing her instantly.  Alas, her spectre was not in evidence the day we were there.

After the mill, we headed across the street to the Dickinson House, where the family of the other co-owner, Moss Dickinson, lived until the 1930s.  Again, the house is furnished in a mix of the Victorian and Edwardian styles and the resident interpreters gave an excellent overview of both the Dickinson family history and of life in the 19th and early 20th century.  I love this kind of small "h" history -the history of everyday life and every man and woman - very much.  Sadly, one of the interpreters mentioned to us that the City of Ottawa is considering selling the property and shutting the museum.  Losing this little piece of local history would be a shame.

We had worked up quite an appetite after our fix of industrial and social history, so we headed to the corner of Mitch Owens Drive and Main Street where a two-trailer food truck sits on a vacant lot.  Pizza All'Antica is the kind of mom-and-pop operation I love.  Actually, the operation seems to be run by a man and his mother-in-law.  The front man, Joe, is clearly proud of what he is doing with his business.  He is a big friendly guy who is quite happy to talk about the pizzas he makes with fresh ingredients, many imported from Naples where, many allege, pizza was born, and then baked in a mobile wood-burning oven.  Just sitting at the picnic table in the lot smelling the smoke was worth the trip, but the pizza is quite possibly the best I've ever had.  Very fresh toppings, including a wonderful fresh-tasting homemade sauce, sit on top of a perfectly cooked and very thin crust.  As Kate said, the pizza quells your hunger without it feeling heavy on your stomach.  I really can't say enough about this place.  If you're ever in Manotick, you have to stop and try it.  Even if you're not in Manotick, this place is worth making a special trip to try.

Right across the street from the pizza place is a store called Chilly Chiles.  This business sells hundreds, if not thousands, of different kids of hot sauce.  The store used to be located in the Byward Market and I used to shop there regularly, then it moved to Navan, which is too far afield for us, before more recently moving to Manotick.  After lunch, Lena and I went across to check it out.  Shelf after shelf hot sauce.  Even if you don't like hot sauce, the store if worth checking out for the art on the labels, many of which are, well, saucy.  Derrieres, often with flames shooting out of them, feature prominently.  After sampling several (sauces, not flame-throwing butts), I left with nearly $30 worth of sauce.  Another great store - a locally owned business selling products that the proprietors are passionate about but that probably aren't making them rich.

For such a small town, Manotick has quite a lot to offer and I can recommend it as a day-trip destination to anyone living in the Ottawa area.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Young People and the Ottawa RBC Bluesfest

Every year, Ottawa, Ontario hosts North America's second largest festival celebrating blues music.  Acts from around the world attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.  What may be less well-known is that the Bluesfest is also very active in the community throughout the year, bringing blues history, culture and the music itself into local schools (through their Blues in the Schools program).  Also, through their Be in the Band program, they bring together youth from across the city who are interested in playing in a band and matches them with potential bandmates, providing mentorship and rehearsal space, and giving them an opportunity to perform at Bluesfest.

This year, our daughter, Lena, got to take advantage of one of the Bluesfest's youth-oriented good works.  Lena has been taking guitar lessons for the past year and a half at the Ottawa Folklore Centre (OFC) with local blues musician and awesome instructor, Jesse Greene (in fact, Lena, Kate and I think she may be the awesomest in the city).  A little over a month ago, Jesse informed us that every year for past several years, American blues and folk musician, TJ Wheeler, comes to town for Bluesfest and in the week leading up to the festival's final weekend gathers ten OFC student between the ages of 8 and 18 and provides instruction, teaches them some songs and how to play together as a band.  The kids get together with TJ for two hours every day for five days and perform on stage at Bluesfest on the festival's final day.  In addition, each participant would get three passes to the festival for the day of their performance.  All, incidentally, at no charge.  Jesse encouraged Lena to sign up for the program.

Lena is quite a shy and reserved girl, at least when she is among a group of people she doesn't know, and she has been uncomfortable performing even for a small group of family friends.  Also, since the program is advertised as an acoustic band, Lena was not entirely enthusiastic because she found her own acoustic guitar a bit difficult to play.  Nonetheless, after talking with me and Kate and with gentle encouragement from Jesse, Lena decided to register.

Two months ago, I had never heard of TJ Wheeler.  Today, I am one of his biggest fans.  He is, simply, great with kids.  Part music historian, part philosopher, a healthy bit of a comedian and 100% musician and teacher, TJ kept the mood light but focussed and managed over the course of 10 hours of instruction to turn this rag-tag group of mostly pre-teens of varying ability into an impressive and well-choreographed band, which TJ ended up dubbing the Cacophony Blues Band.

Throughout the week, Lena would go to class, sit quietly in her chair without interacting much with the other kids, and rehearse the songs with her bandmates and TJ.  As I say, she is shy and reserved and so didn't volunteer to sing any verses or do any guitar solos but that was fine with us because her just agreeing to do the program was a big step for her.  I sat outside the rehearsal room for most of the sessions and had a great time seeing the kids have a great time, listening to TJ's corny jokes and seeing the group come together.  TJ taught them three songs:  The House of the Rising Sun, Take me to the River, Hey Bo Diddley and together they wrote a fourth song, which I'll call the OFC Bluesfest Blues.

As the day of the performance got closer, Lena began getting nervous about being on stage and playing in front of a crowd.  She became quite quiet backstage in the hours leading up to their performance.  But, when the time came, she climbed on stage with TJ and the other kids ssought out a spot behind the other kids.  She looked a little overwhelmed.  But as they got going on their first tune (House of the Rising Sun), she banged away on her guitar and by the end of it, she had a BIG smile on her face.  The crowd went wild with every song, every guitar or harmonica solo, every verse sung.  The kids were clearly having a great time and the parents in the crowd, Kate and I included, were damn near bursting with pride.

Lena came off the stage PUMPED.  She told us that once they started playing that first tune her nervousness disappeared and she absolutely loved the experience.  She thought the crowd's applause and cheering was very cool.  Where during the course of the week and concert, she was happy to stick to the background and go about her business, she came off the stage saying how if she's lucky enough to do it next year, she'll definitely want to sing (though she's a little uncertain about doing a guitar solo) and take on a bigger role.

I talked with TJ backstage before the concert and was telling him that more than anything the kids may have learned musically during the week, I thought the real value of the experience, which would spill over in all parts of their lives, was the confidence they gained from doing it.  He agreed and shared an anecdote of one kid he taught who had some clear problems socializing with others and who emerged as a solid performer and who he saw year after year develop into a more confident individual who made friends more easily and who was courted by a number of bands.  TJ also shared that being a musician and performer has had a profound impact on his life and that's why he works so much with kids:  "Just passing it on" he said.

Amen and thank you, TJ


The whole day the Cacophony Blues Band performed, all the bands that benefitted from the Be in the Band program also performed.  They were all awesome.  Getting up on stage and performing in front of a crowd, many for the first time, can be intimidating but they all did it with enthusiasm.  I really enjoyed seeing these kids giving it their all.  The head of the OFC music School, Alan Marsden, was responsible not only for bringing TJ Wheeler into the OFC, but was also the coordinator for the Be in the Band segment of Bluesfest and deserves massive praise.  He did a bang-up job.


As I said earlier, Lena was a little hesitant about performing with an acoustic guitar because she's got small hands and finds fretting on the acoustic a lot harder than her electric guitar.  Kate was talking about this with our good friend, Joe, who is both an accomplished musician and guitar technician.  So, he came over and took away Lena's half-size acoustic.  He restrung the guitar with better strings, shaved a good bit off the bridge plate and did whatever else guitar techs do and returned it to her the next day.  My God!  It sounded like a completely different instrument and Lena found it so much easier play.  Joe is an alchemist - turning musical lead into harmonic gold.  Joe says he is frustrated by the general poor quality of student guitars and how they are (or more accurately, are not) set up.  Nothing will turn kids off learning music than  a poor instrument.  Lena said that if anyone had asked her about her acoustic guitar two weeks ago, she would have said it was a decent guitar.  Now, she said, she realizes how wrong she would have been.

As if Joe's generosity in tuning up Lena's guitar was not enough, he also brought over his first guitar, which is a full-sized acoustic to lend Lena for her rehearsals and performance.  Being bigger, the guitar also had a much bigger sound and Lena found it very playable.  So, this is what she walked on stage with.

All this to say, we are very thankful to Joe.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Losing Some Weight

Way back in February, I posted about my desire to lose some weight.  After Kate's diagnosis, I had packed on about 35 pounds.  In the February post, I had lost about 17 lbs.  Since then, I have lost another 12, weighing in at 206 lbs this morning.  So, 190 is my intermediate target weight, and maybe hopefully at some point after that I can work my way down to 180, which, I think, would be ideal.

I have managed so far to lose this weight largely through exercise.  I started a cardio program in April 2012 and have been fairly religious about exercising.  My cardiac scare of last year, and the subsequent all-clear I got from my doctors committed me more than ever to maintaining a decent level of fitness.  I am probably in better shape (physically, at least) now than I have been in a few years.  While I was on the psychiatric medications (the cause of the above mentioned cardiac scare) I was suffering from tachycardia, which is a resting heart rate of over 100 beats per minute.  After I came off, I seemed to be stuck at around 76-80 beats per minute for quite a while.  Now, I am regularly getting a reading of 58-63 beats per minute.  I am much more comfortable with that.

I have also made some progress with my snacking problem, but that is the area I have to work on the most, so we'll see how that goes.

I'll check in again in a few weeks.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A Visit to Montreal

A few weeks ago, we decided to celebrate the end of school and the beginning of summer vacation by taking a trip to Montreal to see one of our favourite singers, Holly Cole, perform at the Montreal International Jazz Festival.  While we were organizing that trip, I got an e-mail from my cousin, Judy, saying she was cleaning house a bit and had some cool artifacts from my grandfather's stint in the Australian military during World War I and would I be interested in taking over as the family custodian (I'll post on the goodies I got separately)?  Indeed, I would and so we included into our plans a trip out to South Durham, a small burgh in Quebec's Eastern Townships.  We just got back from our trip yesterday.

Saturday's Holly Cole concert was, as usual, awesome.  It took place in the Théatre du Nouveau Monde, a venue I had never been to before.  Kate, Lena and I shared a loge with a delightful woman who either spoke no English or chose not to speak English, so she had to listen to me murder her native tongue all evening.  My French has never been very good, but I am out of practice, to say the least, and so not very good has deteriorated to pretty fucking awful.  In any case, she seemed pleased with the effort.

Two things struck me about our night out.  As many of you know, Kate has some significant mobility issues these days and gets around with a cane, or on longer outings, with a walker.  Montreal has a great transit system.  Except if you're handicapped.  I had to haul Kate's walker up and down escalators and stairs.  If you are alone with your walker or bound to a wheelchair, I am afraid you are out of luck.  You cannot access the Metro (Montreal's subway system, for those who do not know).  The other thing that struck is how the masses simply don't care that you're handicapped.  They will not move out of your way, let you go first through a door, or in any other way facilitate your passage through a crowded space.  Precisely one person, as we were exiting the theatre, made a point of letting Kate in front of him.  That among the tens of thousands of people we encountered that night.  Chivalry is dead.

The next day we headed to my cousin's house in South Durham, which is about an hour and a half east of Montreal.  She lives in the house that her mother, my aunt, used to live in - a place I visited many times as a kid, but haven't been to in probably 20 years or more.  It is a beautiful 19th century home sitting on four or five acres.  The peacefulness of the place made me hate suburbia even more.  We had a great lunch with Judy and her husband, Claude.  She passed along the amazing family treasures to me (about which I am still overwhelmed and which deserve their own post).  Then I visited with my aunt who turns 89 later this month.  She is an amazing person and we were happy to have seen her.

On our way back to Montreal, we stopped in small town called Beloeil, which is south-east of Montreal, for some dinner.  We stopped at a restaurant called  Rouge Boeuf - a small town eatery with big town pretensions.  It was very stylishly decorated, but it still had a paper cover over a linen table cloth and paper napkins.  I grew up in the greater Montreal area and at one time was reasonably bilingual, but I have to admit, I was kind of uncomfortable in this restaurant.  We were the only English speakers there, including among the staff who were unilingual French.  I felt conspicuous.  Nonetheless, the food was alright.

The next day, Monday, was our last in the city.  My grandfather had died in 1984 at the ripe old age of 92 and through all the intervening years I had thought he was buried in the Eastern Townships, but learned that he was, in fact, buried in Pointe-Claire, a suburb on the West Island.  So, we visited the grave, which also contains the remains of my uncle, Lawrence, who died in 1946 when he was only 24 years old, and my grandmother and my grandfather's third wife, Lotty.  I was glad to finally get to go to pay my respects, but frustrated that I could have done it years earlier.

After the graveyard, we took a drive along the lakeshore on the West Island and had dinner at an old favourite restaurant in Lachine called Il Fornetto.  The food is decent without being spectacular, and the service is friendly if not the most efficient.  We dined al fresco and had a great view of the parkland bordering the Lachine Canal and the St. Lawrence River.  A nice way to end a nice trip.

And that was our weekend in Montreal.