Another Tip for Frugal Living

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If you were to be able to look at our biggest non-essential expense, it would be dinner out. Hands down. There are a few reasons we go out to eat. The first is that we didn’t go grocery shopping so we have to get food to make food and that seems like too much work. But the second most common thing is that the food out at the restaurant sounds so much yummier than the food we would make at home. Over the years I’ve found a solution to that problem: Instead of being places to feed one’s self, restaurants become places to do research, and then you cook at home.

Take the photo up above. This is a red curry tofu we’ll be having for dinner tonight. We go out for Thai food a lot – it’s one of our go-to cuisines. After going out so many times for Thai food I decided to learn to cook it at home. I took a basic Thai cooking class to get some of the basics and then afterward relied on recipes and Youtube channels to figure out how to make the dishes.  I estimate the ingredients for this cost $6-7 but give me enough to feed three people two meals worth of food. In other words: $60 worth of take-out.  For me to get to the nearest decent Thai restaurant I would be 40-60 minutes by transit and then I would have to wait another 20 minutes to actually eat.  Compare that to the alternative: with the ingredients already in my fridge (and really, if I have fish sauce, curry paste, Thai red chilies, coconut milk a few staples like lime leaves, and some sort of protein I can make this) it will be ready to eat in 30 minutes.  So it takes 1/4 of the time and 1/10th the money.

Now why am I talking about this? Because I am stagnating. I’ve got a handful of really easy (but delicious) staples we eat on a regular basis but the time has come to add some new items to the dish. And so over the next little while I’ll be not only sharing some of the meals we’re having out, I’ll then share my research as to how to make it at home, and how successful my attempts at mimicry are. So watch this space…

Update: I found the original source for the recipe. If you’d like to make this for yourself, you can find the recipe here.

Toronto by Library 3/100: Toronto Reference Library

After an unexpected late night of work last night I was able to take the afternoon off. My task? No, not eclipse-watching (though we did see some of it). It was to look for a location for Sage to record episodes of the High Stakes Storytelling Podcast. She needed a relatively quiet space where she could record people telling their stories.

And so off we went to the Toronto Reference Library.  This is our city’s biggest public library. It is over 400,000 square feet in size and has over 1.6 million cataloged items. As this is a reference library, most of these cannot be checked out though they do have a small collection of books that can be checked out and many pick up their holds there. They also have a variety of spaces available for study/working.

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What drew us there was the fact that it is one of three libraries that offers a free recording studio. Our plan was to try recording some there and then try some other areas in the library in case that one is booked.

The studio happened to be open for a half an hour which was enough to test room tone and try recording talking in there.  The tone was nearly perfect.  The room itself had a few things we didn’t expect like a Mac with recording/editing software and studio speakers:

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On the other side of the room is a green screen – if you’re interested in filming your next sci-fi epic taking place on another planet this could be the place for you.  There are a number of lights available and they loan various cameras for still and motion photography.  While you’re filming you can make your own soundtrack using the instruments in the room.

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Though the sound was excellent in that room we wanted to be sure that she had some other options should that be booked at the time she needed it. So we recorded a few different options here and there and got to see a bunch of what was on offer at this library:

 

A selection of 3D printers are on offer for use along with the software to make your own creations. Some of the creations people have made at the library were in a display case:

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Signs posted in the area talked about other equipment available for exploration:

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Not only that, workstations are available to do the following:

  • Audio/Video Editing (27″ iMacs, Audio Mixer, Ultra Studio Express)
  • Document/Photo Scanning (PCs, Epson scanners)
  • 3D Scanning (27″ iMac, Makerbot 3D Scanner)
  • Analog Video Conversion (27″ iMac, VCR to digital converter)
  • Web/Graphic/3D Design (Mac G5 & PC, large-format Epson photo scanners)
  • Coding/Programming (Driveless PC)
  • Adobe Creative Suite

The great thing is that there’s not a charge for the time, only materials used.

We left there and headed upstairs to try our next possible recording area, a study pod. If there’s anything that looks like what we in the 80’s thought 2017 might look like, it’s this. Glass cylinders that keep most sound out (or in as our case might be).

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As we left the study pod behind, a flash of green caught my eye.

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Up close I could hear a trickle of water behind it.  As I looked at Wikipedia to get the stats for this, I found out what this was: “The design of this library was influenced by the hanging garden of Babylon and therefore plants were located around the edge of each floor facing the atrium. However, due to financial constraints, the plants were later removed.”  I guess not all of the plants were removed.

One of the things we saw a lot of were old school card catalogs. They’ve got over 2.5 million catalogued materials like films, tapes, microforms, maps, and other ephemera.

20170821_134346.jpg20170821_134325.jpgIt felt good to see this old friend of mine. There really is something about searching through a card catalog. Note that this one was cataloging old service manuals from cars to VCRs to other electronics. Need to fix your 1970 Oldsmobile Toronado? The library’s got you covered.

Looking for sheet music or plays? They’ve got you covered there also:

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Maybe you can’t play music, though. What about if you want to just listen to some on record or CD? Head to the top floor. Just ask for the one you want to listen to and go to the listening station of your choice.

 

What about if you just want an old photo, maybe an ad with someone tight rope walking. No problem:

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How do you know where to find it? It’s all catalogued by subject in a file cabinet. These apparently can be checked out for up to 3 weeks.

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Looking at the website listing everything on offer at this library I can see we only saw a tiny fraction of what was there. There really is something for everyone and so much space for people to enjoy it.

As I walked through I felt really grateful and content. We live in a city that values knowledge and technology and moreover, access to it to such a high degree that this place can exist. There have been attempts to cut library funding in the past but it’s always been violently opposed by the people and for that I’m hugely grateful. It’s a fantastic resource for our city.

So to summarize using our usual criteria:

Neighbourhood: This  library is at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor. The busiest subway station in the city is right below and within a short walk from the library. The area is rapidly gentrifying with condos going up on all sides. It’s not an unpleasant neighbourhood by any stretch but it is a fairly bland one in my opinion. If you like chain stores, chain restaurants, and chain coffee bars then you’ll be happy here. I can’t say as I know of any real hidden gems here, though.

Book Selection: There’s a great book selection here. And since you can’t check most of the collection out you’ll find what you’re looking for on pretty much any subject. There are also special collections here so you’ll find rare and interesting things. The book selection in the “Browsery” – the small area where you can check books out from is good and has good variety. There’s also a huge foreign language collection for nearly every major language and these can be checked out. There are a ton of Hindi books available also but sadly they’re all grown up books and I’m still reading early readers. So in some ways I’m back where I was in Grade 2 where I could only use a tiny fraction of our school library and the big kid’s section was off limits. Someday.

Atmosphere: Fantastic. One of my favourite places in the city. It’s huge and there are many nooks and crannies throughout the building to find a quiet place to read or a more genial social area. Big windows on the west side of the city look out at busy Yonge street, and those on the east side look out across the Rosedale Ravine and its greenery. Beyond that in the distance we saw a few of our city’s highrises including the one I’m currently sitting in. If the last library was a place that reminded me of my small town 80’s childhood, this is a place where I go and am reminded that I live in a big, cosmopolitan and really interesting city.

The Verdict: I don’t come here often but I adore it when I do. I think I need to plan to spend more time here exploring the resources, going to lectures (Salman Rushdie’s speaking there soon), taking classes or just grabbing an old record and listening to some music. I could also see myself going there to work on days when I don’t have conference calls to participate in. They’ve got great quiet workspaces and free wifi.  I’ll definitely be back

Household Chores and Frugality Made Fun

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A few months ago our son came across an old video of ours in a box. It was taken in our house in Bethlehem, PA a few years before he was born. In it you could see much younger versions of Sage and I spending time on the computer and lots of footage of our old house. Looking back, I think that while it was not huge  – a bit over 1400 square feet with additional storage provided by an unfinished basement – we had the least amount of stuff we’d ever owned. This is due in equal part to our just starting out as a couple and our terrible money management skills. At the same time it was one of the messiest times of our lives. This was in great part due to our having had eight cats but also in great part from the fact that neither of us wanted to do any household chores.

Things improved a bit when we became parents but there was still a great deal of clutter, and we still weren’t great at money management. We made good money, and always had enough just after getting paid, but the closer we got to the next payday the worse off we’d be. Rather than budgeting, we would just use our balance to determine whether or not we could spend more or go out to dinner. Fortunately for us we didn’t have any credit cards so we were always just a few days away from being completely fine and even reforming our habits by spending less.  Possibly the worst example of this was when we suspected that Sage was pregnant and we were both very excited. On the other hand, we weren’t going to get paid for a few more days.  We wanted a pregnancy test because we really wanted to know but we had spent nearly everything we had. And so, we grabbed a few CDs, headed over to the used CD store and sold them – then we went next door and bought the test. (and it was positive – in a few months we’d be parents and our lives would change forever).

In the intervening years our experiences with household management waxed and waned in levels of financial responsibility and avoidance of mess.  For a couple of years we moved in to a 300 square foot yurt in the woods where even at its messiest we could have it completely tidy in 30 min. At that time, both of us were also working very little so we could both be at-home parents as much as possible. The result is that we were able to live on as little as $300/month. We lived without electricity, running water, heated with wood I gathered and cut, and without a fridge, we couldn’t buy lots of prepared foods so I cooked most things from scratch: dried beans, fresh veggies bought a few days before with occasional fish that would be cooked as soon as we brought it home since we couldn’t keep it cool. Many of those things we bartered for so we didn’t even need money for that.

In those years we did really well with money and household management in great part because we minimized the number of things we had to manage.  It was the ideal path for us at the time as having little to manage and little need for work meant we could spend a great deal of time together as a family.

After that time, though, we eventually moved back in to a more conventional situation with an apartment and with my having a full time job. With all that came some of the old challenges, albeit much less severe. Money was generally better though with a small child, keeping the house clean was more challenging than ever.

A couple of things addressed both issues:

Much of our problem with keeping a tidy house had to do with our feeling there were so many better things to do together than clean. About 10 years ago, we came across a fantastic idea: We loved playing cards, backgammon, and other board games. We would now add gambling to the mix.  We would sit down on an evening or weekend and start a game with the loser obligated to do a chore that was determined before the game. The person who wasn’t working would read aloud to the other person to entertain them. The chores wouldn’t be long, tedious ones – they would be small ones like “Sweep and mop the kitchen” or “clean the toilet.” The change was almost immediate. We love playing games and the “high stakes” made it more fun.

As for money management, this one is a relatively recent change.  We’ve experimented before with each of us having an “allowance” – a set amount of spending money that we could use in a week. This is intended to keep our variable expenses – mostly dining out – to a minimum. In reality, though, it rarely lasted. One or the other of us would find ourselves out in the world with no more allowance left but ravenously hungry and head for a restaurant where we’d overspend and then the idea would just fade away for a while.

But a recent change to this has really changed this for the better.  The tweaks we made are:

  • Reduce the allowance to an amount a little below what we might actually spend in a week. Right now that amount is $25 but it may drop further based on the success of the other point.
  • We created a list of routine chores from cleaning the fridge to washing the dishes to going grocery shopping and gave them small financial rewards. We get $0.35 added to that week’s allowance for loading and unloading the dishwasher, a full grocery trip gets the person doing it $2. Making dinner gets me (it’s almost always me) $3 – which is far cheaper than a dinner out would be.
  • We encourage not spending by allowing us to carry over half of what’s left at the end of the week to the next week and then adding that week’s $25 to it.

The result is that we now find ourselves seeing where we’re at allowance-wise, seeing that if we want to grab a fancy coffee we might need more money and then doing a small series of necessary chores to get the money to do it. The house ends up cleaner, we spend less, and we have fun doing it.  This combination of playing games for chores, having an allowance and then supplementing that allowance with more chores has resulted in our having the best home/money/leisure balance we’ve ever had.

Toronto By Library 2/100: Highland Creek Library

Yesterday Sage and I had planned to go use a Groupon we had for all you can eat Chinese hotpot. Unfortunately, though, that plan fell victim to one of the biggest traps I set for myself.  As often as I find that limited planning means increased unexpected activity, in this case it meant that I didn’t know that the restaurant didn’t open until 2PM. That alone wouldn’t be a problem but it was out in the less transit-friendly suburbs meaning that instead of a 25 minute drive that Google suggested, we would face a 90 minute transit ride each way.  Sage had a commitment in the early evening and so it was clear we needed another plan.

Enter a new tool I expect to use often: the Random Point Generator for Google Maps. Simply put in the address of a centre point, specify a maximum travel radius and then click “Go”.  A random point will be chosen near wherever you ask. So I asked for one within 20 km of home. After a couple of clicks that put me out in the depths of Lake Ontario, I found one an hour’s bus ride from home. I then searched near there for a library and off we went.

Yesterday’s library was the Highland Creek Library. The transit trip took two buses and about an hour to get there.  We ended up going from close to downtown all the way out to almost the eastern edge of the city. The east/west bus route we were on terminated only a few blocks further away and there were even a few more Durham Region buses than Toronto Transit Commission buses to be seen there.

Where our last trip to Scarborough took us to an area that felt like the a crossroads of suburbia, village life, and industrial park, we were now fully in the village. It felt as rural as the small Louisiana village I often find myself working in. That one has really only a couple of major roads, a few strip malls, a school, and a library. But where we were yesterday lacked most of the strip malls. Only a tiny one remained.  It did seem like a very quiet place where someone who likes visiting the city often but doesn’t like actually living in one might choose to live.

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The library itself fit in the neighbourhood perfectly. If this was the small town from the 80’s movie, the library was where the kids would bike to…

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But it had been a long bus ride and we were hungry. Fortunately nearby was a single small restaurant.  If we were in an 80’s movie it would likely have been a small diner or a pizza and sub shop. But this is Toronto and so while those options might be likely sometimes, here was Raani Fast Food.  Entering the restaurant we were greeted by the electronic chirp of the door chime which also had a built in electronic “Welcome!” built in.  A woman came out and took our order.  Needless to say we had a lot of choices.

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We chose a mixture of veggies: channa and long beans (I’ve never had those together – they were amazing), eggplant, greens, dal, potato and cassava all on rice. (Sage had hers with Roti)

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The food was delicious.  As we sat, a kabaddi match played on the television, narrarated in Tamil. I spent a bit of time reading up on the rules last week so it was fun to watch and at least understand a bit of it.

We headed out to the library after that. As I write this, I’m realizing there are several things I look for in one of these trips and I’ll try to capture them below – and take more formal notes in that way in the future:

Neighbourhood: You heard a bit of it above. I definitely enjoyed the visit. The area felt pleasant. There wasn’t a lot of traffic and there were lots of trees and a large park nearby. The effect of this was measurable in one way: it was a bit cooler out there than back home closer to downtown. That said, I coudn’t see myself living there as it seems to lack things like grocery stores in walking distance but as a place to walk around and visit on a beautiful summer day, it was excellent. I’m not sure if I’d have the same impression on a blustery February day, though.

Book Selection: Where the Albion branch had a great collection – the type of selection that makes me say “I will never be able to read all of these in time!” when I get home because I grab so many amazing books, the Highland Creek branch had nothing at all that got my attention. There was also no Hindi collection (I know, a very specific criterion for me alone, probably) but there was a reasonably good Hindi movie selection. That said, they’re so cheap in my local paan shop that I can own them for the price of a day or two of overdue fines.

Atmosphere: Both Sage and I loved this library a lot for this. Toronto has so many libraries with different flavours. The Albion branch was modern and slick with lots of light and cutting edge design with lots of seating and charging plugs everywhere for both AC and USB.  Highland Creek, on the other hand, was a trip to the past. There were a few computers in the corner but mostly it was an old school library – the kind I remember from my childhood.

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There were a couple of nice touches – the first being a lovely skylight above the centre of the room:

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The second being an outdoor space for reading. While it was mostly concrete and not terribly welcoming, it was a cool idea to be able to grab a magazine and head outside and read in the sun.

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The verdict: in the end was that while it was a lovely library quite suited to our “Children of the 80’s” sensibilities, if this were our home library it would be less of a place for browsing (something I adore, Sage not so much), and more of a place to pick up books you’ve placed on hold through the website.  The neighbourhood was nice, as long as you have a car to take you wherever you need to go (and you don’t get one of the houses with a poltergeist inside).

What I’ve Been Reading (WWW Wednesday Post)

This meme just went by in my feed and I thought it sounded interesting. Participants simply answer three questions about their reading habits and link back to the original post. (Feel free to post in the comments if you’d prefer or don’t have a blog to post to) I feel like you can tell a lot about a person by what they are interested in reading and so when you’re done here, click on over to the original post and see what others are on about.

What are you currently reading?

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I’m a huge fan of literary travel and have always liked Paul Theroux. I’ve followed him around the world for a couple of decades now starting with reading Riding the Iron Rooster aloud to Sage and (then about 1 month old) Daegan back in 1998. He would wake up in the night and not want to go back to sleep and so to entertain ourselves and keep awake I’d read aloud from a book that Sage and I liked. (It would be another year or two before he’d get his own preferences on what we should read).

Deep South, though, is pretty heavy. Interestingly enough, Daegan bought it for himself (See the power of parental influence?) but I snatched it away from him as I’ve been working in the deep south myself off and on from late 2014. It is always shocking to go from politically and socially progressive Toronto to a small Louisiana town and I really wanted to understand more about why things are the way they are there.  I can’t say as I fully understand why they still are the way they are, but his travels throughout the region mixed with historical details and interviews with locals give an idea of how they got there. Progress when it comes to racism is slow and as we saw this past week, some folks are really reluctant to give up their beliefs – likely due in part to a reluctance to give up their privilege.

I have found the book tremendously interesting but also very heavy reading. I need breaks from it every now and again to read something lighter.  I should finish it this week though which, as good a book as it is, is a bit of a relief.

What did you recently finish reading?

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For probably 30 years I’ve wanted to visit India. It seemed so different from anything I’d experienced before on so many levels. In the past few years, though, I’ve been looking at the things I say “Someday I will…” about and actually putting them in to action.  In 2014, 20 years after learning the Hindi words for various foods and spices from the back of a cookbook and thinking it would be interesting t o learn to speak and read the language, I started to learn Hindi. In early 2016 I remembered I wanted to visit India someday. A really busy project with lots of overtime had recently given me a bit of extra cash and so I decided to dive in. It was William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns – a Year in Delhi combined with a preference to go somewhere where Hindi was spoken widely that made me choose Delhi as my starting point.  (Tahir Shah’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice would help me with decisions about my itinerary after arrival).

Delhi and William Dalrymple have me caught in an infinite loop, I’m afraid. After reading City of Djinns I visited and found the city fascinating. I was only there 3-4 days but saw a number of places that got me interested in the history of the city – Humayun’s Tomb and the grounds there, the Qutb Minar, and one of my favourite spots, the Mehrauli Architectural Park where I would come across “Metcalfe’s Folly” a tomb that a British Colonial Administrator decided would make a lovely summer home. I remember looking at it (now back in its proper role as tomb), reading the plaque and thinking “What kind of jerk goes somewhere and does this?”

The second piece of the loop is that after seeing all of these sites, I needed to know more about what I’d seen and the history there. I asked my Airbnb host who was well versed in Mughal history (and who coincidentally happened to know Dalrymple well) what I should read if I wanted to know more about the Mughal dynasty and she suggested this book.

Another tough read emotionally. It talked about the 1857 Uprising in India (To my readers in India: Is there a proper name for this event? “Uprising” seems a bit colonial and maybe somewhat inappropriate).  What a terrible mess that was with evangelical Christians pressuring locals to give up their religions and their practices which made many feel threatened followed by a really foolish move by the British providing ammunition to soldiers (including Muslim and Hindu soldiers) lubricated in beef and/or pork fat with packages that were to be opened with one’s mouth.  Tensions boiled over and Indian soldiers fought against the British, eventually expelling them from Delhi and killing many of them in the process.

Then there were a few things on various sides that sound familiar – like everyone’s just repeating history over and over:

The soldiers who rose up against the British then started harassing residents in Delhi (all Indian now – the British either died or fled) for money and food to the point that the so-called liberators, along with extremists who came along for the ride were now making daily life for residents of the city hellish. People began to starve.

The British started spreading rumours of rapes perpetrated by Muslim soldiers against the British (later completely disproved). When the British finally retook the city, they used this as an excuse to rape many women in the city.

The British soldiers, traumatized by the actions of the rebel soldiers, used their trauma as an excuse to commit further atrocities and kill many people – often with little or no cause. Metcalfe, of  “What kind of jerk does that?!?” fame became very fond of hanging people to the point that officers wrote to their superiors expressing concern that what he was doing was wrong. At first they would excuse it because he was traumatized by the rebellion but eventually even they had to admit that he was going way beyond what he should. (This answers “What kind of jerk does that?” I think). He was eventually shipped back to England to stop him from hanging any more people.

Despite all of this it was a fascinating read and had so many parallels to the current world situation I had a hard time putting it down even though like the Theroux book above, it was really difficult reading, emotionally speaking.

Of course the final piece of the infinite loop is this: Having read more about Delhi and its history, I really want to go back and see more. Or maybe I need my own “Year in Delhi”.

What might you read next?

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Another genre I like are books on the subject of how our brains work and what we can do to use them more effectively. This one is for a book club at work that we’ll be talking about at the end of the month I struggle with motivation myself and so often have to re-read a quote from Oliver Burkeman: “You don’t have to feel like doing something to do it.”  True, but how much more fun is it to do it when you feel like it? And how great would it be to make myself “feel like it” more often.

Along with that, looking at my past reading, I think it’s clear I need some light reading. Something funny or some really interesting science fiction. I think I need to make another library trip to find something that fits that bill. (And to go to a library I’ve never been before in a part of the city I’ve never visited)

So what’re you reading?

A Distracting Commute

I do a lot of business travel – last year alone I was on the road for over 120 days. In most cases that means flying somewhere, renting a car and with my latest client then driving over an hour to the town where my client is. In a lot of cases this also ends up putting me somewhere not particularly bicycle-friendly. (Take my current client: they’re in Louisiana – a place bike touring blogs talk of people throwing things at cyclists, and deliberately passing too close. It’s a place where people have been known to shoot at cyclists with paintball guns, and has the the second highest cyclist fatality rate in the US with only Florida topping them).

But one trip was different. A few years back I was sent to the small town of Delta, BC – a short taxi ride from the Vancouver airport. For this trip I packed my folding bike in to a large suitcase and decided I would use that instead of a rental car.  Why did I choose this? Well look at the scenery I had on my route! I have to admit, I wasn’t able to be as fast as I usually am – this kind of scenery demanded riding slower and occasionally stopping to enjoy the view.

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I admit, my client was a little surprised to see me show up with a bicycle but they eventually got over it. It was BC, after all, I wasn’t that unusual.

On my third day there I headed home and saw a couple of really big birds off in the distance. I am pretty sure that other than flightless birds at farms or the zoo, I’ve never seen any bird bigger. I watched them land in a tree a few metres ahead and decided to have a look and caught my first glimpse of one of these:

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There above me were two bald eagles and in a bit more secluded area of the tree was a nest where I could hear babies making noise.  I spent quite a while there watching them – they didn’t seem too upset by me but I was keeping my distance. (I used the zoom function quite liberally to get that picture)  Later, when I got back to the hotel, I found out that there was actually a webcam installed nearby and so I did catch a glimpse of the babies eventually.

As a postscript, it seems that birds are always going to be a distraction for me. We live in a very tall building in a neighbourhood of highrises. Some red tailed hawks have recently moved in and they spend a good amount of time screaming outside and doing aerobatics between the buidlings. A week or so ago I was on the phone with a colleague (I work from home when I’m not traveling) and was sitting looking out the window. All of a sudden I saw something that made me gasp and then had to explain to my colleague why. At that moment one of the hawks, with an enormous wingspan was flying directly at our window and at the very last moment turned away.

A few days later I was sitting at my desk and some motion caught my eye. I turned to look and one of the hawks had landed outside the window of Sage’s office and its wings were so wide that as it unfurled them to balance, they went in front of my window in a whole different room.  I ran to tell Sage to look out her window and nearly bumped in to her as she came out to tell me what had happened.  She was sitting at her desk at the back of the computer and heard a noise that sounded like a cat clawing the wall as they’ve been known to do as they stretch. (they’re gentle, it doesn’t damage anything but makes a ‘nails on the chalkboard’ noise) and she turned around to get him to stop. Then she saw something outside the window and at first thought “Oh no! How did the cat get outside the window!” (we’re well over 400 feet up so it’d be a bad thing) and then realized: It was a hawk, clawing on the glass.

Did they want in? Maybe! A few months back I was waiting in line for the library to open (have I mentioned how much I love that there are lineups at the library in this city?) and was watching some hawks on a nearby highrise. A stranger pointed them out and struck up a conversation. Apparently in her building, one person she knew kept their balcony door open for the breeze quite often. One day he came out to the living room and there inside was a hawk.  Eventually he spent more and more time inside, following him to the bedroom or the kitchen but always going outside, presumably to hunt. This went on for quite some time until one day they left and never came back. We both agreed that we hoped they’d found a mate and started their own life.

Wow – from cycling to raptors, this has been a bit of a journey.

via Photo Challenge: Ooh, Shiny!

Appreciating My Own Backyard #2: A Dinner Excursion

A couple of nights ago time got away from me as it often does and though it was clearly time for dinner, I hadn’t done much in the way of preparation or even shopping. Fortunately I’ve been pretty good about eating at home so our dining out budget was in really good shape. And so I invited Sage to come with me for some Malaysian food in Scarborough – the easternmost part of Toronto formerly it’s own borough but now absorbed in to the city proper.

For those outside Toronto, Scarborough has a bit of a bad reputation as a place with a bit above the average level of gang activity, wide busy streets and car-centric infrastructure and the poor cycling, transit, and pedestrian options that come with it. While not completely unwarranted, I think this reputation is exaggerated a bit by folks – especially those living downtown.  So while some of those things might be true, I also really like a number of things about it.

While there is definitely a car-centric nature to that part of the city, there also are a number of small hubs with “town centres” – small shopping malls with maybe a grocery store, possibly a department store, a lot of other small independent stores, and almost always one or more of the following: dollar store, cell phone store (usually several), discount clothing store, produce market, and Chinese bakery. There is also quite often a food court that contains several standard restaurants but sometimes a hidden gem. (The one next door to us, for example, houses an excellent Indian restaurant with some of the best channa masala in the city and delicious homemade naan and roti.)  What, specifically, is in those malls is often a function of the other aspect of Scarborough – tremendous cultural diversity. People from all over the world live in Toronto. However, real estate prices in downtown often mean that only stores and restaurants that cater to the broadest cross section of the city will be there.  Just look at the restaurants in Scarborough and you’ll get an idea of the diversity of people who live there: food from Western China with Halal mutton stews and skewers of lamb, fresh fish cooked Singari-style, restaurants from nearly every state of India (Sadly no food that I can find from Andhra Pradesh or a huge Gujarati thali but I’m still looking), Sri Lankan hoppers and lampries bursting with sweet delicious fresh-cooked crab..

Today took us to the area near Sheppard and Midland – an odd little corner of the city that seemed to the border of several different areas.  At first glance it’s a bit commercial but perhaps down on its luck.

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Look a bit further east and it doesn’t look much better. Just behind a strip mall you’ll find a factory. A Google search tells me it’s a wax factory. On the one hand, factories are not the nicest thing to have around. On the other hand, hooray for manufacturing jobs still in the area.

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But looking that way would only tell half the story. Right behind me in that picture appears to be a small village church and cemetery and the road next to it looks more like a country road than a busy suburban artery.

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We headed northeast until we got to the strip mall where we found One2 Snacks.  From the outside it looks completely unassuming.

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And inside it’s very basic. The menu is above the counter, with a few descriptive pictures on the wall. There are a few small counters with low stools if you want to stay and eat but really this is primarily a takeout place and so we ordered Char Kway Teow and Mee Goreng and then went next door to the mall to wander.

There wasn’t much to the mall itself – all of the shops were closed but the food court was open so we found a seat and entertained ourselves for the 20-30 min we had to wait for our food by playing Upwords.  As we sat there we looked at the other restaurants which looked equally intriguing.

20170813_190010.jpg20170813_190013.jpgMaybe we’ll have to make a return trip. Another restaurant outside advertising “Warm Casserole Rice” also caught our eye..

When we got back we picked up our food and walked to a nearby park.  There are two things that should be kept in mind when traveling to Scarborough for food. The first is that there are many tiny take out restaurants that have amazing food. The second is that Toronto is a city of parks with a park likely to be a short distance from any take out restaurant you would choose. This is a recipe for an amazing and interesting summer picnic.

We walked past a community centre with a large indoor recreational pool (as opposed to a lap pool) that was getting a lot of use and in to the park. We had headed north which put us in to an area that looked more like a small village than part of Canada’s largest city.

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At first we had a bit of trouble finding a place to sit – last time I went here with another friend, we ended up sitting on a concrete wall. This time we looked first near the bocce courts. There were some picnic tables there but it was locked up – they were beautifully groomed so perhaps they were worried that people would disturb them.

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We continued on to the tennis courts and there we found what we were looking for, albeit in an odd little space.  Next to the fenced in courts was a small 10′ x 10′ separate fenced in area with two unused picnic tables. We sat down at them but as you can see behind me, our meal would be accompanied by the rhythmic “pock!” of tennis balls being hit.

20170813_200257.jpgWe opened our packet up and were not disappointed. We got a huge quantity of food: six curry puffs (forgot to get a photo – they were about the size of a samosa and a little less greasy with softer pastry. The potato filling was very similar to a samosa but slightly differently spiced. There was definitely more ajwain than I’m used to but that’s fine – I am a huge fan of it.), we also got two bottles of water, and two massive packages of noodles for $24.  This was actually too much food for us and we would likely have been fine with one order of noodles.

20170813_194738.jpgHere is Sage, along with me in our odd little dining cage. On the left are the Mee Goreng and on the right are the char kway teow.

The mee goreng was a little disappointing – very heavy on the tomato sauce and a bit bland. There were a few shrimp and chicken along with some tofu.  The char kway teow, though, was to die for. These were richly flavoured with lots of onion, garlic, and seafood. We got two kinds of noodles (you get a choice of rice noodles, vermicelli, or both – we picked both). We both liked the rice noodles much more so next time (you bet there’ll be a next time!) we will get only the rice noodles.  When we go to restaurants from cultures known for spicy food we always ask for it very spicy and this restaurant didn’t disappoint. While somehow the mee goreng absorbed the heat along with much of the flavour leaving us with almost a spaghetti dish, the char kway teow was flavourful and really hot. (in a good way).  We ate everything but left most of the mee goreng – next time I think I’ll replace it with curry laksa soup instead which looks delicious.

The trip there and back was surprisingly fast. This is one of the things that I find really interesting about the city: you can totally change your surroundings and feel like you’re in a whole different city (or country!) with just a short transit trip. For example, if I ride on the subway for 30-40 minutes I’m downtown at the CN tower in the tourist heart of the city. Go a little further – only 45-55 minutes away by transit and you’re at this place. Go 30-40 minutes by bike and you are next to the lake surrounded by birds.

On the trip back there was a very upset toddler on the bus. She was clearly exhausted and at her wits end. While she was almost asleep, she would still summon all her resources and scream “I WANT TO PULL IT” – we thought she wanted to pull the stop request cord even though their stop came much later.  She was remarkably tenacious. But what I really appreciated most was how patient everyone was. The parents clearly knew that this child was tired and irrational and really couldn’t be reasoned with and so, unlike many folks, didn’t scream back or escalate. They spoke calmly to her. I don’t know about the other riders but that turned the tension level down a whole bunch. So much of the stress of those moments is waiting and worrying that the parents will scream at the kid or worse, hit them and that always, for me anyway, is far more bothersome than the kid.  Eventually the mom encouraged the kid to climb in to her arms. She took a couple of steps up/down the aisle and within a minute or two she was completely asleep with her head leaning on her mom’s shoulder.

Not long after that we were at the station, only a short ride from our own home where we, completely satiated, fell asleep our own selves.

Facebook Profile Deleted

unplugIt is funny that today’s Daily Post Prompt is “Delivery” as today is the day that my Facebook profile was scheduled for irrecoverable deletion. And yet, the result of this has been a number of things that feel like they’ve been delivered to me.

Time: I got a massive delivery of free time from leaving Facebook. It had become a huge time sink for me as I could spend quite some time posting there and then checking back, responding to posts, liking other posts, hoping for likes on mine. And like in the old days before we got rid of TV it promised an infinite loop of surfing to see what was on. “Surely there’s something I’ll like here. Let’s keep scrolling to find out!” I certainly continue to spend time on the computer, my job requires it, and other things like this blog – both writing and trying to build an audience, Hindi practice, and a bit of time at twitter where I’m connecting with folks but also trying to build an audience there as well.

This blog: I blogged from 1999 to about 2007 and then, when Facebook came along it petered out. My writing impulse faded away as somehow posting statuses and photos and seeing their reactions felt like enough. But writing here has allowed me to reconnect with my writing in a way that no number of clever statuses ever would.

Online connections: Facebook proved to be a good way in some ways to feel connected. There was always someone around to like a post, leave, or respond to a comment. But it was a gated community. Few new people came along and in that sense it became an echo chamber. I’ve got a number of new follwers here and many have already connected in one way or another which as been really cool.

Offline connections: In theory, Facebook enhances this. We connect online and make great plans to meet and catch up. But what do we catch up on when we’ve seen each other’s statuses for months?  “So I’m going on a bike tour next week, I’m really excited!” “Yeah, I know, I saw your post all about it.”  was a common sort of offline interaction. On the other hand, while we’re there some of us are editing to only put positive information out, while others are trying to maintain their personal privacy. The result is a set of bland, middle of the road posts often missing big news. In the time since I left Facebook, I’ve had one person I follow there tell me they were homeless for a year, another that they had been split up with their spouse for over three years. None of this was clear from any posts we saw on Facebook.  I must admit, though, that it has been quite difficult to get a number of folks to connect via email. It seems to be heading the way of letter writing in terms of “lost arts”. Fortunately for many folks, it seems that connecting in person is still something they like to do and so I’ve been doing that.

Focus: OK, this one isn’t entirely Facebook related, but it bears mentioning anyway as it is related and happened about the same time.  In the past month I’ve removed anything personal from my work laptop and no longer use it for anything but work and the occasional email home. My browser profile hasn’t got any interesting links in it as it is a different profile than my home one.  I have a separate Chromebook for personal and fun use. I have also removed any of the usual time sinks from my phone and turned off 90% of my notifications including work and personal email. If I want those I’ll check them.  Folks who know me know that they should text me if anything urgent comes up.  The result of this is that my phone is completely unattractive to me. There’s nothing of interest on it so it stays in my pocket. This makes the book in my backpack about 100x more interesting.

Books: Speaking of books, I’ve been reading more. In part because of the things I talked about above, but additionally because of another change we’ve made.  I’ve created a schedule for our home wifi router.  It turns off promptly at 9:00 PM. This means that unless we are watching an actual VHS or DVD (Daegan has both still), we aren’t going to be watching anything after 9:00 PM (11 on weekends), nor will we be browsing the web.  If, by some chance, something important comes up and I absolutely must get on the Internet (it hasn’t happened yet but who knows?) I have a hard-wired connection on my work laptop.

It’s been a very exciting and productive experiment and I’m so glad I’ve done it. I am very unlikely to every go back. There are a few more tweaks coming with focus on cooking, language learning and exercise. I’ll keep you posted on those.

Engineering the Unexpected #3: When Failure is a Success

I’ve talked here and elsewhere about various bike trips I’ve made – a couple of trips to Montreal for the Friends for Life Bike Rally, the second of those taking me all the way to Quebec City, a trip to NYC by way of Ottawa, Montreal, and Vermont to promote kindness, and a few others.

One I haven’t shared publicly, though, is one that never happened.  In 2014 I was fascinated with Detroit. There seem to be so many interesting initiatives taking place there from public art to public space to urban agriculture. I registered for the Tour de Troit – a large group ride throughout the city and booked an Airbnb at an urban farm that was helping inner city youth learn agriculture.

I planned my route across Ontario, booked campsites.  The Friday before my trip I was scrambling, packing bags – I’d be bringing four panniers this time so that I had camping and cooking gear.

I loaded up my bike on Saturday morning and headed out into a cloudy and a little drizzly day.

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About 30 km in, I had the joy of meeting a Facebook friend in Mississauga for a coffee and together we rode to Oakville when he had to turn back to go home and do his grocery shopping. When he turned around, the wind picked up and the sky opened up with a cold rain. Still, I had signed up for this. I was making my way with literally everything I needed from food to tent to books to read. I pedaled onward and eventually as I passed Milton the road got a bit hillier and before long I was climbing up the Niagara Escarpment with a bicycle that weighed close to 100 lbs with everything loaded on it.

As I crested the top of the biggest hill of the day I could feel something was not 100% right. It was being really physically difficult. So much so that I stopped on the side of the road and started checking Google maps. Maybe there would be a closer place to stay than the campground I was headed for that was still 30 km away. No matter what way I looked, though, the answer was the same. I had 30 km to go to anything. And I had over 60 km to go if I just wanted to give up and go home. So I called home more for a cheering up than anything else. And wow, what an emotional outburst that was – It wasn’t long before I teared up. This was, without a doubt, the hardest physical challenge of my entire life. Hands down. And I still had more to go. Of course a more lucid part of me also knew that there was a reason I was not only really upset but also barely able to move the pedals: I had not accounted for the extra fuel it would take to carry not only my usual bike and myself all this way but I was also carrying everything I needed. I was experiencing what cyclists call ‘bonking’ – basically it is hypoglycaemia. I should have been eating far more than I was. There was no more energy to move my pedals because I’d burned it all up. Still, my stomach was just not happy with the energy bars I was eating. Even though eating a couple would have likely put me right soon I couldn’t choke them down. So I’d eat a piece or two here and there and interestingly enough I could feel within a few minutes the extra energy it would give me before it faded and once again I was physically and emotionally at rock bottom again.

Still, I pushed onward, in my lowest gear even on flats and gentle downhills at a pace 1/2 to 1/3 of what I normally would maintain. Even then it felt like I was climbing a mountain.

At one point about 5 km before the end I passed someone’s driveway with a bunch of balloons tied to the mailbox. While I know they weren’t for me specifically it was as good as. It cheered me right up.

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I arrived at Valens Conservation area just before dark with my odometer reading 88 kilometres. I found my way to my campsite and set up my tent, still a bit dizzy with hunger and effort – but I wanted to get things settled before it was dark. Finally I was done and it was totally dark. I found my way in to the tent and opened up my food bag. Inside were several bags of ready to eat food. I grabbed two potato curries (I really was needing carbohydrates) and ate them. Even store-bought, ice cold and eaten from a bag, they were, without a doubt, the most delicious curries I have tasted in my life. Finally satiated I relaxed a bit in the tent and then went to bed, lulled to sleep by the geese on the lake.

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The night was pretty cold – close to zero. While I was warm in my sleeping bag, for some reason I kept waking up partially out of the sleeping bag. Still, I slept in hours later than I usually do, waking up to the sun hitting my tent at 8:30 AM. I sat up and noticed something. I was wheezing. A cold I thought I had shaken earlier in the week was back with a vengeance. I made the call then to turn back. I didn’t need to get sicker on the road. And so I had a leisurely morning, making coffee and oatmeal, reading my book while I waited for my iPhone to charge, and then packing up and heading out – but not before making sure I’d had close to 1,000 calories (on an unladen bike I burn about 50 calories a kilometre and the previous day showed me I burned way more.). I turned due south for Burlington where I would catch the GO train home. It was still a 40 kilometre ride but mostly downhill. I was surprised at how easy it was to ride that morning. So much faster than the grinding I had been doing the night before. Amazing what a little food will do!

I got home that day and pretty much went to bed and spent almost a week recuperating. While I wasn’t deathly ill, I was sick enough to not do much more than watch TV and read for all that time. Every day I would wake up and be so glad I wasn’t in some campsite trying to stay warm while being sick.

As unpleasant as the ride itself probably sounds (at least re-reading it it sounds that way), I got so much out of it! I learned how much I am capable of when I need to be. I learned that I really can travel by bike and carry everything I need to do it. I also learned the valuable lesson of eating enough to carry not only myself but all that gear as well. In retrospect, I can see where I should’ve just broken out the stove at a park and cooked up a curry when I was near Milton. It would’ve been a different experience. So I feel truly lucky to have been through that – and even as it looks like a failure from outside, I’m more than a little pleased with myself for doing it.

In future trips I used this information to ensure I ate enough food and kept fueled up. The difference has been shocking.  Last summer I did take my bike on a trip up to Bellfountain – not far from this route and with lots of climbing. I managed it beautifully.  And on our last bike trip I did much more climbing that that day and one day even traveled twice the distance.

I never did make it to Detroit but looking back even the hardest moments are a positive memory for me. I learned lots and as importantly, I learned that even when I thought I had nothing to give, in tears riding on a flat road feeling as if I were climbing Everest, I could push through that. I had reserves I didn’t even know I had. I would never have discovered any of this if I had comfortably ridden to Detroit, or just stayed home.

This is much of why I ride.

Engineering the Unexpected #2: Will I ever Learn?

It’s now 1989 – a couple of years after my first time trying (and succeeding – but not in a good way) to bring some unexpected excitement in to my life by lying to my parents and taking a spontaneous trip to the city.

It’s 1989, though, and I haven’t really learned. I’ve made a couple more trips to Boston without much in the way of drama. I did, however make one ridiculous trip with only one friend, $15 and a Mobil credit card my parents gave me.  My parents never heard of those trips and apparently didn’t notice the fill-ups outside of Boston on their bills.

Now, though, I’m out of university and working nights at a local grocery store. I come home one day at about 8:00 AM after an 11-7 shift. And today, I don’t want to go to sleep. I want to have some excitement with my brother. And so, I give my parents a similar story to last time – something about going to go shopping nearby. Then this time I grab my 10 year old brother and we get in to my parents’ new car. I tell my brother my plan and he’s excited.

We make for Boston again. This time we park in the Museum of Science’s parking garage – close to the highway and to the subway.  We head in to the city – back to Strawberries to get some records, over to a Japanese Steak House so my brother can try his first sushi and have his first Teppanyaki experience. Then we go to the John Hancock building – the tallest in the city.  I realize then that I’m going to be late. But it’s nice and quiet up on the top floor of the building so I give them a call from a pay phone and tell them I’ll be 2-3 more hours.

And it’s now about 3:00.  It’s about 20 hours since I woke up but I’m doing fine. Cities are exciting!  But we really do need to get home. It’s getting late and also I’m running out of money. I have about $40 left (and my parent’s gas card so it’s all good!)

We make our way to the interstate and head north. Traffic is heavy. And so are my eyelids. We’ve got over 2 hours left to go. I’m so tired that I am getting a bit irrational. I conclude that the best thing to do to resolve the issue is to stop just over the New Hampshire border – just a little ways away. My brother is old enough to know how to pump gas so I’ll have him pump the gas and I’ll take a cat nap while the car fills up and then I’ll be in great shape to drive the last couple of hours home.

I get off the interstate and turn right at the light, following the signs for the Mobil station.  The English Beat are singing on the tape player about a mirror in a bathroom.

And then everything goes pleasantly calm and dark…

But after a couple of seconds I wake with a jolt. An old 1978 Impala is stopped at a red light in front of me. And their bumper has stopped me.  I check on my brother – he’s OK. I’m OK also. I turn off the music and we get out.  Now the tables have turned. Now it is the other car that is unscathed save for a tiny bend in their trailer hitch. My parents’ new car, though, is not in such great shape. Its hood is crumpled, both of its headlights are smashed, the grille is shattered. The car runs and drives just fine, though, and the other folks are completely uninjured, so we exchange our information and get moving.

We go to a nearby mall and sort out the paperwork with the other drivers and I call my dad. He is very upset but tells me to go to the police station to fill out an accident report and to call him.

After that’s done I call him back and tell him the situation and state of the car. He tells me to go to a store and get rope (to hold the hood down),  and new headlights as nightfall is rapidly coming.  I go to an Ames and go inside. My $40 gets me one headlight and a bit of rope. What it doesn’t get me, though, are any tools or a second headlight. There is no way I’m going to fix this car. I call my dad back and he is really upset and also realizes something: If I wasn’t safe to drive a few hours before, I’m really  not safe now. We need a hotel.  He asks me how much money I have and I tell him I have about $15 left.  Not nearly enough for a hotel and I have no credit card.  He asks me the number for the pay phone I’m on and hangs up.

He calls back and tells me: “First off, if your brother weren’t there with you, I’d leave you to figure this all out yourself.” and then proceeds to tell me the plan. He’s called a hotel nearby that reserved a room for us and would let us stay as long as my dad drove down the next day with a credit card to pay. He would drive down the next day with my cousin and we’d get the other car back.

We head for the hotel and as the sun goes down I order us a pizza with the last of our money and we split that.  The next morning, with no money to speak of we divide up the left over bread crusts to eat and then wait for my dad.

He arrives and I get a very stern talking to and am told I will pay for all the repairs (of course) and we head home.  We now have only one car left so my opportunities for joyriding are hugely curtailed. That said, I’m not particularly driven to do so.


And here I can say I actually learned a lesson that would change my approach to these sorts of adventures forever. That was the last time I ever “pulled one over on my parents” as they called it. Instead I found other ways to have fun that kept the city excitement and eliminated most of the negative aspects.  A few  months after this collision my brother and I went back to Boston. This time, though, I had booked bus tickets. I wouldn’t be doing the driving. And having checked the Boston Globe before I left I learned of a special weekend rate at a nice hotel so I booked a night in the city. We rode the bus down and had a fantastic weekend of museums, dining out, subway riding, people watching, and of course record stores.  My brother also has a good time – and is likely much happier without my driving. I was even able to leave for Boston after working all night and not worry about the trip.  And hey: Some might argue that the money I saved on car repairs and insurance increases easily paid for the trip.

So yes, I learned something from this experience. Beyond, of course, the basic lessons of “don’t lie to your parents” and “don’t try to do a road trip after staying up all night”, I learned a little bit more about what I liked about the city and found a way to experience that without making poor decisions.