Fun and Games at the Lotus Hotel and Casino

When Leah and I were still reading together each night, one of the last book series that were read through was Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. Leah loved the books. Me, not so much. However, there was one scene in the first book, The Lightning Thief, that resonated with me as we read it together. It still resonates with me today. It was a chapter called The Lotus Hotel and Casino. In this story (which borrowers freely from the structure of Harry Potter), a young boy named Percy discovers that he is a demi-god and goes to a camp on Long Island Sound in New York to hone his Olympian skills. There, he becomes friends with a smart girl and a goofy male centaur and they end up on a cross-country adventure to retrieve Zeus’ lightning bolt, which has been stolen. Eventually, their trek brings them to Las Vegas. If you are familiar with U.S. geography then, you will appreciate that it is a long way from Long Island in NY to Las Vegas. In the story, the three kids are tired and hungry and willingly enter a place called the Lotus Hotel and Casino. Once inside, they are amazed by what they see. The casino is filled with beautiful people, music is pumping, lights are flashing, everyone is having a blast! They are offered as much cool drinks and tasty food as they can manage. The staff of the casino welcome the three friends with open arms and cater to their every need and desire. It is almost as if the three friends have stumbled upon paradise. It is only after talking to some of the other casino guests that Percy realizes those folks have been there for fifty years or more! He shakes off the drug-induced effects of the tasty treats they are being fed and realizes that, in fact, the Lotus Hotel and Casino is a trap; a pleasurable trap but, a trap, none-the-less. Percy manages to shake his friends out of their stupor and escapes back out into the real world, where life is tougher but, where he and his pals are meant to be.

The reason this scene resonated with me is because I often feel that my social media world is a lot like the Lotus Hotel and Casino. This is, especially, true of Facebook.

One of the appeals of being involved in social media is the ability to have contact with people we like without ever having to leave our homes. The Internet connects us all effortlessly. It is easy to reach out to many like-minded people at the click of a button. If we don’t want to be connected with someone, we don’t have to be. We can pick and choose who we interact with and, because we usually pick people we like and who like what we like, we often find ourselves in a positive-feedback loop. In this loop, we post things like photos of our families, songs that we like, places we are travelling to, recipes and so on. In reply, our like-minded friends send us “thumbs up” or “hearts” and reinforce our opinions of what we had posted as being worthwhile. We exist happily in this positive-feedback loop which is why it is so easy to spend way too much time on sites such as Facebook.

That is why it is often shocking when one of our “friends” posts something controversial. I don’t mean controversial, in the sense of a topic such as child abuse or animal testing but rather, controversial in the sense that is goes against the belief system of your social media family; the ones who think like you and who always reinforce each others opinions and posts. What happens when a “friend” strays out of their lane, as it were? Here are three examples of this happening recently, what this tells us about the person who made the post and why our responses to such a post are important.

First of all, I have a relative who almost exclusively posts funny memes. Keri and I get a chuckle most days from what this relative posts. She is a good person. But, every now and again, she will post something that has a nostalgic-bent to it. Something like how life was back in the “good old days” when kids were taught respect with a strap at school and a spanking at home and how they ended up turning out “ok” in life. Sometimes, folks, especially if they are older, find the multi-cultural, multi-task oriented way of our world overwhelming. I get that. I may not agree with it but, I get where they are coming from. So, when this relative recently shared a meme that said, “There is only one Messiah and His name is not Allah. Share if you agree”, I took note. I did not share her post as I did not agree with the anti-immigration undertone it was trying to promote. The meme was created by a group called Canada Proud which is a group whose aim is manipulate public opinion through social media, particularly, promoting a white nationalist agenda. Many of their posts are anti-immigration. So, what to do about my relative who shared the meme? Well, first of all, I know this person and she has a good heart. In my heart, I truly believe that she did not completely understand the subliminal messaging going on. My guess is that because she lives in a small town served by Post Media newspapers (who promote a Conservative point of view) and because of her longing for the “good old days” when life appeared simpler that, she was drawn to this message of a white Christian God being venerated. My response was to note how susceptible she was to right-wing Conservative messaging and to start sending her posts about the positive contributions immigrants are making in Canada so as to counter-balance the information she is getting. While I acknowledge that not every immigrant is a wonderful person, I do, generally speaking, believe that most are good and I welcome the opportunity they present for me to broaden my own horizons, as well as, to indulge in my penchant for wanting to be helpful to others who may need help. I believe in multiculturalism, as do many of my Facebook friends but, as my relative’s post indicated to me, not everyone shares the same opinion as I do and that is an important reminder to receive.

My second example of a post that caught me off-guard came from a respected friend of mind who had grown tired of, what she termed, “political correctness run amok”. She shared a video of a statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, being removed from its pedestal in a public square. The person in the video decried the rush to erase “our History” based on people judging the past actions of others through the lens of modern day values. I was surprised that my friend had shared this video because, normally, she is on the Left, politically, and usually supports a Progressive agenda. So, unlike how I reacted to my relative in Example #1, in this case, I reached out directly to my friend. I asked her if she was aware that the statue was being removed because of what we have learned, as a country, about Sir John A. MacDonald’s role in the establishment of Residential schools and the attempt at cultural genocide inherent in that policy against our First Nations peoples. I had read the recently published report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was established to look into policies and practises surrounding the establishment of Residential schools. In that report, it was noted that one of the intentions of the government’s policies was to “take the Indian out of the child” and accelerate the assimilation process of First Nations peoples into white society. My friend and I had a robust discussion, with each of us presenting our opposing views in a respectful manner. Neither of us wanted our friendship to crash on the rocks of an argument so, in the end, we agreed to disagree. But, the whole incident brought home another point for me and that was, how easily we can become seduced by, what we deem to be, the “obvious” moral superiority of our belief systems. To me, if we are going to criticize Trump for separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border, how do we not equally hold a historical figure like Sir John A. MacDonald to account as well? Well, as my friend showed me, sometimes the lens I view life through is not the same one that others apply to their decisions. It is easy to criticize a decision someone makes that varies from one’s own beliefs but, to ignore the idea that others think differently about matters that seem crystal clear to you, is pure folly.

My final example is about something I recently posted and about YOUR reaction to it. It was on the subject of Abortion and of a woman’s right to control what happens to her own body. I shared a letter from a female friend of mine who wrote a well-stated, passionate letter about women’s rights and how frightening it is that those rights seem to be under attack from Conservative elements across Canada and the U.S. Knowing that this post was important to her….and, because I wanted to show my support of her views….I shared her post on my feed. I did so with a fair degree of confidence that her views would be well-received by my Facebook “friends” because, as stated above, the vast majority of my friends share my views on a lot of things. My Facebook “friends” did not disappoint! Her post received many Likes and Shares and earned her lots of supportive comments. Most of what I post turns out like this. People, generally-speaking, agree with the positive nature of what I write or of what I share on behalf of others. But, it was the reaction to what I posted a day later that tells an important tale here.

After posting the “My Body, My Choice” post from my friend, I heard from my high school pal, Eric. As I said in my second post, Eric was one of my best friends all through high school. He has gone on to become a Church Minister back in Nova Scotia. He said that he had seen my friend’s post but felt obligated to reach out to me because he said I wasn’t getting the whole story on this issue. He went on to tell me about how many of the women he counsels in his capacity of a Minister have taken Jesus into their hearts and are morally conflicted about ever taking the life of, what they consider to be, an unborn child. He added that, for many of these women, they feel that following the teachings and philosophies of the Lord trumps their own quest for rights as a woman. Eric offered up a video that I ended up sharing because, as he stated, it is important to be able to have a conversation about contentious topics in as respectful manner and, in his mind, the woman in the video was speaking as gently and respectfully as he could want her to be. In my post of his video, I stated that I was posting it with his permission because, if there was to be blowback from my facebook “friends” I wanted him to be prepared. Well, there was blowback but, instead of Eric, it all came to me. As it turned out, I had strayed outside of my lane and violated one of the unwritten rules of the positive-feedback loop by promoting a viewpoint at odds with a majority of the group. I know that some people were disappointed with my decision to post Eric’s video. I am sorry if I disappointed you in my attempt to balance the viewpoints I was presenting. I do support a woman’s right to decide for herself what happens to her body. But, I feel it is important for those of you publicly expressing your disappointment to temper that with the knowledge that one aspect of what Eric pointed out is very true. That is, like it or not, there are women out there who do not share the same viewpoint on abortion as most of you do. You can disagree with the viewpoint of that lady in the video…as I did….all you want but, that doesn’t change the fact that Pro-Life women exist and to ignore them is something you do at your peril. Pro-Life women vote in elections, just like you do. They just tend to vote for candidates that support their world view and, in this case, those are candidates that don’t usually support a woman’s right to choose.

Facebook, like the Lotus Hotel and Casino, is a wonderful place to hang out in because everything is dreamy and cheerful and everyone loves what you say and do and think. But, as Percy Jackson discovered to his chagrin in the Lotus Hotel, Facebook is a trap. It isn’t a forum to change public opinion much at all. It is more a forum to gather support and firm up beliefs. But, with a Federal Election in the offing, it has never been more important to try to influence the opinions of those who think differently than you do. Those conversations are never easy to have because there is no guarantee that differing points of view can be reconciled respectfully. But, venting to a choir of likeminded peers is not the type of activism that will stem the tide of Conservatism that is sweeping North America. Someone out there voted for Trump in the U.S. and voted for Doug Ford, here in Ontario and for Jason Kenny, in Alberta…….no one in my positive-feedback loop, apparently…..but, someone, somewhere certainly did.

So, moving forward, if you have a bone to pick with life and want to vent about it, feel free to blast away on Facebook because you will be smothered in virtual hugs for your efforts and you will probably feel better for having so vented. But, if you have a bone to pick with the world and want to affect some sort of actual change in the situation, then, my “friend”, it is time to check out of The Lotus Hotel and Casino and venture out into the real world, where life is tougher but, where you need to be.

I’d Like To Schedule A Protest, Please.

This post is all about standing up for yourself, knowing your rights and doing what it takes to protect and preserve them. I will start with a disclaimer and that is, I am a Union guy. I have belonged to Unions throughout my teaching career. I have borne witness to the power of collective bargaining when it comes to establishing humane working conditions, levels of professional autonomy, as well as, reasonable income levels. Thanks to Unionism, the middle class of our society has had the opportunity to grow and thrive for many generations. Although I am now retired, I still consider myself an interested observer in Union matters; especially, when it pertains to Education. In today’s post, I want to focus on one aspect of Unionism that I have experienced several times over the course of my career and that is, the right to protest. So, if you think that Unions are awful things and you are against their mere existence then, you might as well sign off now because you won’t care for what this post has to say. But, if you are like me and find the current state of world affairs have your knickers in a knot (whether it be Trump, Brexit, Wiki-Leaks, Russian hacking, abortion clampdowns, alt-right extremism, the cutting of social safety nets, etc.) then, this post is for you. Please read on and enjoy.

The impetus for this post happened last week in my town of Cobourg, Ontario. It, also, happened on the same day throughout my province of Ontario, Canada. The short strokes of this incident revolve around a series of fiscal cuts to things like Education, Healthcare, the Environment and so on by the provincial Conservative Government of Premier Doug Ford. I am not here today to debate the nature of the government’s decisions but, suffice to say, the relentless onslaught of cuts to services that many ordinary people depend on has gotten citizens riled up. In addition to the fact that the government is cutting back on funding important services, what many people find most difficult to swallow is how the members of the Conservative Party are conducting themselves. The old saying used be that “all politics are local”. But now, all politics appear to be highly centralized. Members of the Conservative party speak in unison, using centralized talking points given to them by Party officials. They applaud every utterance of the Premier, as if he were God-like. Their social media accounts are all often synchronized to promote political spin. It is, almost, as if they don’t even control the words posted under their images on social media. It is very difficult to even book an appointment in the local constituency office to see any of these members of the legislature. So, not unexpectedly, citizens are growing frustrated and protests near MPP Constituency offices are becoming more frequent.

Of all the groups around the world who have become politically active in the past few years, one of the most vocal have been young people of High School or University age. These young people realize that the world is burning while our politicians most often fiddle about. So, around the world, with examples such as those striking for Climate Change, those fighting against gun violence in the US, in particular and those fighting against sexism and racism, the kids of today are motivated, educated and highly organized. Which brings us to the incident in question from above. A small group of local high school students….members of their school’s Amnesty International Club (a club that deals with issues of social justice) decided to protest recent cuts to High School education by holding a peaceful sit-in in the constituency office of our local member of the legislature. The date of the sit-in was well-advertised in the hope that our Member of the Legislature would make himself available to hear an airing of their concerns. When the students arrived at the constituency office, they were met with locked doors and a note that included the line, “Sit-ins are not permitted within any constituency office.”

That line, “Sit-ins are not permitted within any constituency office” killed me. It raised my hackles. It ruffled my feathers. It certainly got my dander up. To me, it said that the government won’t be inconvenienced by those who are being inconvenienced by them. They are trying to thwart public protests by simply refusing to acknowledge the protesters or their grievances. Last time I checked, we were still living in a democratic society and, one of the hallmarks of living in a democratic society is the Right to Lawful Assembly and to peaceful protest. It is something that is enshrined in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is something worth fighting to protect. It is, certainly, something to get angry over.

To their credit, the students met the appearance of locked doors with civility and politeness. They did not attempt to break down the doors or trash the office in outraged indignation. Instead, they spoke with the Member of the Legislature via the phone and arranged to meet at a time convenient to his schedule. How mannerly of them to do so. I hope when that meeting does take place that he actually converses with them instead of reciting lines from the provincial script.

I’m a calm fellow 95% of the time but, I recognize the value and power of anger. When used selectively, great change can come about because of righteous anger. When I read the sentence about sit-ins not being permitted, my first thought was how ridiculous a proposition that was to make. Essentially, anyone with a beef against the actions of this government is being told to schedule their protest at a time and place convenient to the government. Well folks, that is not what protest is all about. There is an anger and an energy and an urgency to a protest that gives the protest its strength. So, as I read that line, I thought about how the government and their backers are trying to discredit the notion that protesting is a credible response to feeling aggrieved. And why wouldn’t they? History has shown the power of mass movements such as those during the Vietnam War, the US Civil Rights marches, the Solidarity demonstrations in Poland at the Gdansk Shipyards, the Black Lives Matter folks and the hundreds of thousands who marched for Women’s Rights a year or so ago around the world.

Mass protest is one of the few tools ordinary workers and/or citizens have to stand up to authority. Collective action is often more powerful than individual action. Anger is ok, when channelled properly. So, this lead me to thoughts that I often have when times seem dire in our society and that is, that music and poetry and literature are often the way that the masses are informed and aroused and called to action. Artists play such an important role in helping to motivate citizens. Immediately, I began thinking of protest songs and the circumstances that led to their creation. As I began thinking about this, the first person that sprang to mind was a man named Henry Rollins.

Henry Rollins came to prominence in America as lead singer of seminal hardcore punk band, Black Flag. His schtick was anger. He railed against injustice everywhere he saw it. As a result, Black Flag shows were known for the intensity of the energy Rollins and his bandmates exuded. At his shows, you sweated, learned lessons and were challenged to stand up and fight back out in the real world in which we all lived. Henry Rollins has morphed into middle age and now, tours the world giving spoken word lectures. Still angry. Still intelligent. Rollins is able to readily articulate what is on his mind and, as result, I have a lot of respect for him. Recently, he was on the Stephen Colbert show and was asked about whether being angry was “part of the problem” in our society. Rollin’s response was perfect and can be found here.

So, I thought, who better to talk about the importance of “protest songs” as a means of unifying and focussing the energy of anger in a protest, than Rollins. Here is another video of him. This time, he is in a record store…..remember those…….talking about influential protest songs. The teacher in me wishes I could share this with every person, young and old, who is fed up with what is going on in our world. It is ok to get up and stand up for your rights. Please watch Rollin’s video before going on. Once done, come back and I will play every song he mentions and give you a bit of information to put each group/song in context. His video can be accessed here.

The first group Rollins mentions is his own, Black Flag. That is a much younger Rollins in the photograph, just given’r. He mentioned a song called Revenge. The lyrics are raw and begin, “It’s not my imagination, I’ve got a gun at my back” and goes on from there. To listen to it, click here.

Rollins next mentions a group called Bikini Kill. They were a powerful feminist band and one of the best of all the grunge and punk bands that came out of the “Seattle” scene in the late 80s/early 90s. They were led by a singer named Kathleen Hanna who, in addition to doing her own thing with Bikini Kill, served as muse for Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in their formative years. Anyway, Bikini Kill sang about things still on the minds of women today; objectification, rape culture, female empowerment and so on. Their music continues to inspire and empower many women, a full generation later. You can get a taste of their music from this video for Rebel Girl, from the soundtrack of the cult classic movie, Ghost World. The video is here.

The Clash are fairly well known. They exploded on to the music scene in England during the rise of Punk Rock. As Rollins noted, they often spoke of the hardships and frustrations of working class folks and/or about the political scene at the time. They are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a reason. This song, “Guns of Brixton” is about a series of race riots in Brixton, England. The video is a live recording and can be found here.

Jimi Hendrix, like The Clash, is well-known. He was a guitar virtuoso, the likes of which we have rarely seen since. Like Bob Marley, with his song “Buffalo Soldiers”, Hendrix was angry about how the government was using US soldiers against its own people and, more specifically, how soldiers of colour were being given the dirtiest of jobs in War. Rollins mentioned his song, “Machine Gun”. The video is here.

In the early days of Hip-Hop, many of the artists and the songs they sang reflected the politics of their lives on the mean streets of America. Race was, and continues to be, such an issue. So, it was no surprise that racially-charged tunes began gaining in popularity during the mid-80s. One of the most forceful of Hip-Hop’s early groups was Public Enemy. Led by Chuck D. and Flavor Flav, Public Enemy blew the roof off of the simmering unrest that characterized life for so many people of colour during that time with battle cries such as “Don’t Believe the Hype”, “911 is a Joke” and their biggest hit, “Fight the Power”. The video for “Fight the Power” can be found here.

All throughout recent history, protests have been held to oppose injustice. There is power to collective action and, as it turns out, there is good music, too. The best thing about a good protest is that you don’t need an appointment, all you need is a just cause.

Here are some more powerful protest songs and singers. Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Midnight Oil, U2, GrandMaster Flash and the Furious Five, Macklemore/Lewis/Lambert, Alanis Morissette, Bob Marley and the Wailers. There are many other great songs, too, that all have something important to say. Do you have a favourite protest song that helps fuel your fire? If so, feel free to post the link in the comments.

Words Into Action

As a core principle of my life, I believe that it is important to live with the mindset of making things better for others. When you step forward into the world with kind intentions and a compassionate heart, good is likely to follow in your wake. With that having been said, I wish to take a few moments to introduce you to a friend of mine. Her name is Rose Wilton. Rose runs an organization in Port Hope, Ontario, called The Rose Project. I want to showcase Rose and her good works because she is a perfect example of the good that comes from having a charitable heart, a determined mind and a willingness to step up and turn those thoughts and words into action that makes a difference. Although young, Rose is becoming a community leader. This is her story.

Rose and her sister, Jules, have lived fortunate lives. They were raised by parents who both possess kind and generous hearts. Larry and Deb Wilton have lived their lives filled with love for each other, for their family, for their friends, for Nature, for the Arts and for humanity, too. They are well-known for sharing meals with anyone who is lonely or down on their luck. They are the type of folks who walk along the Lake front trails of Port Hope, stopping to pick up litter as they walk so that the beauty of the trails can be maintained. They have lived lives of charity and have inspired others to look at life with more compassionate eyes. One of those most profoundly moved by their example was their daughter, Rose.

Approximately six or seven years ago, Rose found herself with a collection of small soaps and other tiny toiletries that she was given or had acquired from hotels on family vacations. Rose didn’t really need these toiletries for herself but, she felt guilty about simply throwing them away when there were others who could possibly use them. So, she came up with an idea. Rose decided to sort her toiletries in a way that allowed her to make up kits that contained deodorant, tooth paste and a tooth brush, some shampoo and so on. Rose decided to take a kit into Toronto the next time she went, to see if a homeless person, living on the mean streets of Canada’s biggest city, might have some use for the contents inside. There were no shortage of potential candidates. Rose opted to approach someone living outside of the Eaton Centre Shopping Mall. She cautiously approached and then, quietly offered the person her toiletry kit, asking if it could be of any use. Her gesture was greeted with much appreciation. Rose’s heart was filled with joy at having been able to make a difference for this one person. That moment helped crystallize an idea that, previously, had seemed like a flight of fancy but now, outside a bustling mall in Toronto, was brought into sharper focus. Rose felt empowered. She decided to dedicate a large part of her life to helping to bring some small measure of dignity to those on the edges of our society. Thus, The Rose Project was born.

When Rose returned to her home, she went on social media to ask her friends and neighbours for donations of new, unused/unopened toiletries. She was met with an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from the local community. To fast forward a bit, since her first request for donations, until today, Rose has been able to fill kits that number into the thousands. She has broadened her donation reach, based upon experience, and now collects new socks, mittens, hats, Tim Horton coffee gift cards, too. Rose continues to provide kits for the homeless in big cities such as Toronto but, as word of The Rose Project has spread, she has been contacted by Women’s Shelters, local schools and other community-based organizations that work with folks in need in her area. Rose has become a community leader in Port Hope and has been recognized with multiple Port Hope Community Civic Service awards for her volunteer efforts.

While Rose’s decision to help others continues to make life better and is worth celebrating for that fact alone, there is more about Rose that I value. Just like Rose’s parents, Larry and Deb, I, too, believe that one of my most important roles in life is that of setting a good example for my children. Sometimes, that takes the form of being a good role-model, myself and leading my girls to do good deeds by the example I try to set for them. But, in addition to that, there are times when I seek others to help reinforce the messages I wish to impart. As a teacher or as a father, any time I can place my girls/my students in the presence of a strong, successful female role-model, I jump at the chance. For that reason, I am very grateful to Rose for helping to play a significant part of my eldest daughter, Leah’s birthday a few years ago. Here is that story.

Leah loves the TV show, The Amazing Race Canada. So, for her with birthday, we used the format of the show to take Leah and her friends…all girls….on a nine-stop race around Cobourg and Port Hope. Most of the stops had some connection to Leah’s life but two, were different. I wanted Leah and her friends to have an opportunity to “give back”, as it were, during the course of this party. So, one of the stops was at our local animal shelter (where the kids walked dogs, cleaned cat kennels and where we made a donation of food, blankets and money when we were done). The other stop was at Rose Wilton’s house to help prepare some kits.

After the kits were all filled, Larry and Deb invited the girls to gather round their table for some delicious brownies and chocolate milk. Leah was even given a special present at this time; a beautiful rose pin that she still treasures to this day. The kindness and generosity of the Wilton Family helped make Leah’s birthday resonate in a way that most birthdays don’t. My gratitude to them and, in particular, to Rose is immeasurable.

In this photo, Rose’s sister, Jules, helps to deliver kits to Port Hope High School. The Rose Project is very much a family affair, with all members of the Wilton Family helping with the processing of donations (which often fill every nook and cranny of their cozy home), the preparing of the kits and the delivering of them to local spots, as well as, going on road trips to bigger cities. It is hard work to do what the Wiltons do but, as Rose would readily attest to, it is work that is important to do and work that she and her family wouldn’t hesitate to do if it meant bringing dignity to those for whom life has turned a blind eye.

For me, the impact of The Rose Project extends beyond the immediate helping of those in need. What Rose and her family have done for my girls and their friends is to make it seem normal for women to be successful agents for change. They give my girls the impression that being a female who has achieved great things is just a regular thing for a woman to do. Because of Rose and Jules and Deb, my daughters don’t really worry themselves about such arbitrary concepts as glass ceilings. My girls look at the Wiltons and believe that being of service to others is ok for them too. So, they do lots of good things, as well. From where I sit, I don’t get the sense that the girls think they are anything special because of what they do, for them, they just think it is what all girls can do.

Whether it is her Battery Bucket or cleaning the beach with her friend, Sophie is becoming quite an empowered young lady, just like Rose.

As well, Leah is developing quite a name for herself as a young historian. In this photo, Leah is giving a history talk on the sinking of the Titanic to senior citizens at The Rosewood Retirement Residence in Cobourg. The folks there have taken a real shine to Leah and think she is quite something for being so smart, mature and well-spoken. Leah, from her point of view, thinks being an intelligent and successful female is not that big of a deal. Thanks to Rose, Leah thinks that there is nothing unusual about being a girl in the spotlight.

Ideas and intentions are wonderful things. But, ideas and intentions put into action become powerful things. Rose Wilton is changing the lives of those in need around her and inspiring other girls to believe that they have the power to bring their own ideas to fruition. What a tremendous legacy to have. What a truly accomplished woman you have become, Rose. Thanks for all that you do for everyone. The link to The Rose Project’s Facebook Page can be found here. ***Just fyi, Rose cannot accept cash donations because The Rose Project is not yet a registered charity. But, if you wish to make a donation of new, unused toiletries, socks, etc., you can contact Rose directly through her Facebook page or else, you can contact me and I will make sure Rose gets whatever you might care to donate.

Love is a Hockey Card

National Hockey League Hall of Famer, Leonard “Red” Kelly passed away yesterday at aged 91. Kelly was a member of eight Stanley Cup Championship teams over the course of his illustrious career; four with the Detroit Red Wings and four with my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Upon the completion of his playing career, Kelly served several terms as a member of Canada’s Parliament. He, then, returned to the NHL, holding several coaching positions before finally retiring for good while in his late 60s. I never met Mr. Kelly in person but, he came to be the central figure in one of my most cherished moments in life. This is the story of that moment and why Red Kelly’s passing holds such a special place in my heart.

If you look past the surface of most cliches, you will often find a grain of truth. For me, a Canadian boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s on Cape Breton Island, that cliched truth was that I loved hockey.

I loved playing road hockey with the guys who lived on my small street. Sticks with spear-like curved blades, taped just like our NHL heroes did. Playing on that street, I scored more goals than Gretzky ever did. So did everyone else, too. We shot! We scored! Tennis balls for pucks. We would play for hours on end, stopping only when our Moms would call us in for dinner.

I loved watching hockey on TV. Back in those days, we only had three tv channels; CBC English, CBC French and CTV. Hockey was only broadcast on CBC on Saturday nights. At 8:00pm, in living rooms all over town, the anthem of my youth….the opening theme to Hockey Night in Canada….would play. We would all be transported; one week, to the Forum in Montreal, where we would listen to the dulcet tones on Cape Breton’s own, play-by-play man, Danny Gallivan, as he described the exploits of the Flying Frenchman who wore the bleu, blanc et rouge of the Montreal Canadians. The next week, we would find ourselves listening to Bill Hewitt, “live from the Gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens”. I loved the Leafs. Being just a small boy, I am not sure if my attraction to the Leafs was more of a cultural one because, after all, I was English and the Leafs represented English-speaking Canada. But, never-the-less, the Leafs were my team and those Saturday nights, watching with my dad when they were shown on TV, were among my favourite childhood memories.

But, there were lots of days in the week that hockey wasn’t being shown on TV and that the boys weren’t gathering to play road hockey. On those days, I got my hockey “fix” from my hockey card collection. I was a big hockey card collector as a boy. Opee-Chee hockey cards, to be precise. They were sold, eight cards to a pack plus, one stick of hard, hard pink bubble gum, for ten cents a pack. I used to get $1.00 per week as an allowance, which was a King’s ransom in those days, and blow the whole dollar at Mary MacQuarrie’s corner store, buying ten packs of cards at a time. Without any exaggeration, the moments when I would start opening those packs were as exciting a few minutes as I had as a boy. Every pack contained the stories of my heroes. I opened each pack, hoping against hope, that I would find Toronto Maple Leaf players inside. Sometimes I was lucky and added to my collection. Sometimes, I just found cards I already had…or traders, as we all called them because, those would be the ones I would take to school the next day and trade with my friends or else, sacrifice while flicking them against the school wall….closest card to wall collected everyone’s cards. One time, for a couple of bucks, I sent away for a hockey card locker, as advertised on the Opee-Chee wrapper and kept all of my cards in that. The locker was cardboard and had storage slots for each team. I wore that cardboard locker out, to the point where the doors would fall off simply from being opened and shut so often.

As I left childhood and entered adulthood, my love of hockey stayed true. But now, there were mid-week hockey games to watch on TV. I joined organized hockey pools and placed small wagers on the outcome of games and of the scoring prowess of my favourite players. In my early twenties, I moved to Toronto and even got to see a few games at Maple Leaf Gardens. If hockey was my religion then, Maple Leaf Gardens was my church. Being there felt like history coming alive. My only regret about watching my Leafs play in person was that I was unable to share that experience with my father, who had passed away when I was eleven years old. He would have liked to have been there, I’m sure. In his memory, on the occasion of my first visit, I walked up and placed one hand upon the old building and thought about all of those evenings at home, sitting with dad in his Lazy-Boy chair, cigarette smoke curling skyward. The Leafs actually won that night. I credit my dad with having offered some Heavenly intervention on behalf of my team. The thought of it still makes me smile.

But, in my thirties, something happened that changed everything. In my thirties, I met my wife, Keri. She is my soul-mate and I knew that right from our very first dates. Everything was different with her. I recognized that right away and felt enriched beyond measure by her love for me. Love is a funny thing, though. It is the tsunami of emotions. It rolled through my life and obliterated all that had previously seemed so important….including hockey. I no longer hung on the plus/minus stats of certain players or what my position was in the pool. What I cared about was being with Keri and, believe it or not, I happily traded hockey for her and felt the better for it when it happened.

That brings to mind the opening stanzas to the song, Fireworks by Canadian band, The Tragically Hip.

“If there’s a goal that everyone remembers,
It was back in ol’ 72
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
And all I remember is sitting beside you. You said you didn’t give a f*ck about hockey
And I never saw someone say that before
You held my hand and we walked home the long way
You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr.”

Keri didn’t give a hoot about hockey. Still doesn’t. But, she gave a hoot about me and, still does. Love works both ways; sometimes it is all about you adapting to the person you are with and, at other times, it is all about how your partner adapts to you. For Keri, falling in love with me meant falling in love with someone who loved hockey, even if my love for hockey was not as obsessive and all-encompassing as it had once been. She was hitching her wagon to a man who wore Toronto Maple Leaf socks and sweatpants and who, to this very day, wears a Toronto Maple Leaf ball cap. She knew I bled blue but, she loved me anyway. And love makes you do things you could never have imagined yourself doing.

For our first Christmas, we decided to set a small limit of $10-20 on our gift(s) for each other. I have no idea what I ended up getting her for Christmas but, from her, I got a gift that proved her love for me better than any words could do. For Christmas that year, Keri got me a hockey card.

In the Fall of that year, Keri had noticed an ad in our local newspaper that indicated that “Toronto Maple Leaf Hall of Fame legend, Leonard “Red” Kelly” was coming to a mall not far from our house and would be autographing hockey cards for a buck a piece. Keri did not have a clue who Red Kelly was nor did she care that he was a key member of the last Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup in 1967. No, all that Keri knew was that I loved the Leafs and this man was a Leaf. She rolled the dice and gambled that I would appreciate who this man was and that her gesture would bring about the desired result which was, that she would have been able to make me happy.

I did know who Red Kelly was. But, more than having an autographed card, her gift had meaning because of what she did to get it for me. My Love, who didn’t give a hoot about hockey, stood in a line for 45 minutes in a skanky little mall, surrounded by dozens of hockey nerds (like I used to be), all because she loved me and sought to make me happy. Her efforts resonated in my heart then and now, with Mr. Kelly’s passing, those pangs of love surface once again. I received this hockey card eighteen years ago. I have not felt the need to buy another since. My autographed Red Kelly card is the last hockey card I have needed.

Mr. Kelly’s passing is timely because it happened during the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. The dream of every hockey player is to win the Stanley Cup. Red Kelly did that eight times, which is an amazing number. Most players are lucky to win it once. Red Kelly is, indeed, a legend in the game of ice hockey and has more than earned his eternal rest. For a man who never crossed my path, Red Kelly sure left his mark on my life. For sometimes love takes the form of diamonds, roses or hearts and flowers. But, for me and my wife, love took the form of a hockey card. Thank you, Red Kelly. Rest in peace.

Little Cakes

I love being around creative people. I love their energy. I love their originality and ingenuity. Most of all, I love their Art. Creativity manifests itself in numerous ways; everything from painting, pottery, gardening, woodworking, writing, performing on stage and so much more. Regardless of the form that it takes, when creative people do their thing, the end result is Art. I love Art and the artists who create something out of nothing. This post is about creativity and those who possess it. It is about how Art makes our lives brighter and better. Finally, this post is about how, when done properly, the act of creativity attracts others, like a flame attracts a moth.

My daughter, Sophie, is an artist. She possesses a creative mindset that is interwoven in all that she does and all that she is. I wrote about her previously, in a post entitled, Maker Sophie. What I particularly like about Sophie’s brand of creativity is that it is relatively pure. By that, I mean she creates things for the joy of creating them and, not for the purpose of drawing attention to herself. Sophie, the Artist, does not wave her own flag when she makes what she does. Instead, Sophie, simply, creates and then, she lets her Art speak for itself. Quite often, Keri and I don’t even know she has made something until we stumble across her work by accident. Here are a few examples.

In Sophie’s bedroom, she has a pair of cube shelves. There are eight cube spaces in each shelf. In each empty space, Sophie has a canvas cube holder. She uses these canvas cubes to hold bits of this and that so that her bedroom has some semblance of order to it. However, the problem that she (and, by extension, Keri and I) was having was knowing which canvas cube held what, when it came time to clean up her room. So, in order to help solve her own problem, Sophie decided to label her cubes. And Sophie, being Sophie, didn’t just write on the handles or on a piece of masking tape (which, I admit, would probably have been what I would have done). No, one afternoon, Sophie quietly got out her hot glue gun, some glitter glue sticks that we had gotten at the craft store and then, she proceeded to make “tags” in writing, out of glitter glue. Then, once the glue was dry, she peeled it off the parchment paper it was on, grabbed some yarn and tied it to the handles of her canvas cubes. The glitter glue tag in the photo says, “Odds and Ends”, all in one connected piece. She also made tags that said, “Toys”, “Papers”, “Beanie Boos” and so on. Each tag glitters in a different colour and helps us all know what each cube is being used for. Art, as an organizing tool.

As Sophie matures, she is displaying a tendency toward liking Mathematics. In particular, she has a good spatial sense and often sees the world in a geometric manner. Here is a good example. This photo shows the front of our dishwasher in the kitchen. Like many families, our kitchen has long been used as a gallery of sorts to display drawings, photos and souvenirs of importance to us. When we recently re-did our kitchen (which I wrote about here), we had to strip our fridge and dishwasher surfaces down and put all of our magnets and photos away. Now that the kitchen reno is over, I asked Sophie and her sister, Leah, to go through what we had taken down to see if they still wanted everything. If not, then, we could purge the unwanted magnets and start fresh on our displays. Without saying a word, Sophie went about her task and created what you see in the photo. The dishwasher has always been her display space while Leah uses the fridge. But, what struck me about what Sophie did with the dishwasher was that her display is perfectly symmetrical. If you ignore the row of her school photos on the bottom, the entire rest of the dishwasher display is symmetrical. And she didn’t say a word after she was done. She was content to have created something interesting and, in this case, Mathematical. Art, as Math.

But, one of the ways that Sophie most enjoys being creative is when it comes to cooking and baking. For a while now, Sophie has shown a desire to create colourful, tasty treats such as her unicorn milkshakes and her three-layer, rainbow cake. She is able to do most of the work herself (*with an exception granted for using the stove to melt butter). She measures, mixes, cuts, adds ingredients and much, much more. Because she is so interested in creativity in the kitchen, her repertoire of creations is growing; everything from homemade pizza, to cookies, to her own breakfasts on the weekend, to fruit smoothies and to what you see above. Sophie does a good job getting the ingredients ready first then, mixing and creating her food. She is, also, good at cleaning up afterwards because, when she first started expressing a desire to cook, we insisted that she had to do so in a responsible manner which meant, among other things, leaving the kitchen as clean as it was when she first entered the room. Sophie is gaining independence over when she eats, how much she eats and, specifically, what she eats. Art, as food, means a lot to Sophie. Like all things with Sophie, when it comes to baking and cooking, it is almost the case that she enjoys the process of creating her treats almost more than she does consuming them. But, let’s be honest, she likes that, too.

The thing about being quietly creative is that, at times, you can attract the attention of admirers and like-minded creative types, without having to make a production out of yourself. Today’s post is about how Sophie came to recently make a French dessert called Madeleines. Madeleines are little cookie/cakes and, believe me, they are delicious. The story of the Madeleines is a story that is almost thirty years in the making. It is a story that began in a classroom in Courtice, Ontario and, more specifically, with a report card written about another little girl who was quite something special, too.

In my third or fourth year of teaching, I had a really nice group of Grade 2 students. Among that group was a little girl named Stacey Duggan. Stacey was a smart little girl and was a valued leader in the classroom. She was a good friend to her peers and a hard-working student for me. So, when it came time to write her first term report card, I gave my honest assessment of Stacey which was, simply put, that she was a wonderful human being and that I was happy to have her in my class that year. When her parents, Will and Gloria, came in for Stacey’s report card interview, they wondered if I had mixed up their kid with someone else’s child. I told them I had not and we proceeded to have a chuckle over the whole thing. As the school year closed, the Duggans invited me over for a barbecue. Accepting that invitation changed my life for the better because we have been fast friends ever since, for over thirty years now. In fact, I was asked to be the emcee at Stacey’s wedding. Will and Gloria, in turn, have been an integral part of my life, with Will acting as one of my two Best Men at my own wedding, among many other things that have gone on over the years.

One of the things that attracted me to Will and Gloria from the very beginning was that they are both creative. For instance, Will is a master carpenter, whose work can be seen on Twitter by searching for Gryffon Wood Designs or @gryffonwood. As for Gloria, for as long as I have known her, she has loved to cook. I have had many a good meal at the Duggan Family table because of Gloria’s prowess in the kitchen and Will’s skill on the barbecue. Not long after I started blogging for the first time, I began to encourage Gloria to start a blog of her own that could be used to showcase her great cooking. Reluctantly at first, Gloria decided to give blogging a try and, as a result, she started a blog called Homemade & Yummy that would talk about food that was all “homemade” and would taste “yummy”. Gloria applied herself with great determination and, in a relatively short period of time, her blog has taken off in the cooking world and she is making a name for herself on the Canadian cooking and blogging scene. Not surprisingly, when you become known in an industry, you end up making connections with others. One of the connections that Gloria ended up making was with an author called Mardi Michels. Mardi had just published a cookbook of French recipes for kids to create. About the time that Gloria was crossing paths with Mardi, we were publishing photos of Sophie making milkshakes or cookies or whatever on Facebook. This gave Gloria an idea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For Christmas this past year, Gloria gave Sophie the cookbook that Mardi Michels had published, along with a special pan for making Madeleines (which were featured in the cookbook that Sophie is holding). At the time that Sophie received her gift from the Duggans, we made them a promise that, once our kitchen renovation was completed, the very first thing we would make would be the Madeleines and that, when we made them, we would invite Will and Gloria over and, in addition, we would take photos to send to Mardi Michels (who had autographed the cookbook for Sophie, by the way). So, that is what we did. Here is the proof, in photos.

Madeleines are little cakes that have a seashell design on one of their sides. In this photo, Sophie is preparing the Madeleine pan. In order to do so, I melted butter for her and then, she applied the butter with a butter brush; making sure to get inside all of the seashell grooves. Then, Sophie sprinkled a bit of flour into each mold. The pan was then, put into the freezer for thirty minutes to chill. ***Just to answer those of you with eagle eyes, this is Sophie at the start of our second batch. We have a batch already done in a container just north of her hand.

While the Madeleine pan was chilling, Sophie made the batter. Eggs, sugar and vanilla extract comprised the “wet” ingredients, which were blended with an electric beater. Flour, baking powder and a pinch of sea salt made up the “dry” ingredients, which were folded into the wet, using a spatula. Sophie mixed everything for several minutes until it was silky smooth.

Once the Madeleine pan had finished cooling, Sophie was able to spoon in the batter. Then, we put the batter-filled pan into the refrigerator for an additional twenty minutes. At that point, everything went into the oven (set to 400 degrees) for 10-12 minutes and the end result was a dozen Madeleine cakes that simply slid out of the pan and on to a wire baking rack to cool. At that point, we put them in a container and told the Duggans that we were ready for them to come over. The Duggans arrived the next day.

Being a chef, it seemed like the obvious next move to invite Gloria to, not only check out our new kitchen but, to actually work in our new kitchen. So, Gloria and Sophie completed the recipe by working together to make a lemon glaze and then, sprinkle some icing sugar over top of the glazed Madeleines.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Over thirty years ago, I recognized the potential that existed in Gloria’s daughter, Stacey. This past weekend, Gloria returned the favour by recognizing the creative potential that exists within my daughter, Sophie. This photo was sent to Mardi Michels who, in turn, replied that she was delighted to see how well the Madeleines had turned out and how thrilled she is whenever she hears from folks about how children are using her book and her recipes to create good food. ***As an aside, I have come to know that published authors are no different than a blogger author, like me, when it comes to receiving feedback. I love reading your comments and so do “real” authors. We never hesitated contacting Mardi Michels and involving her, even from a distance, in what we were doing with her book. I know that she appreciated our thoughtfulness. So, if you read something you like somewhere, take a moment and leave a review on Amazon or on Chapters-Indigo or on the author’s website. I can guarantee you that they will appreciate your kinds words.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Creative expression takes many forms. This past weekend, it took the form of tasty little cakes called Madeleines. Thanks to Gloria and Will Duggan for helping Sophie grow as an artist and as a young woman and for sharing a creative partnership with me that has spanned three decades now. Caring about each other’s children is about as important and privileged a responsibility as there is. Of course, I encourage you to please feel free to check out Mardi Michels‘ website and Gloria‘s, too and leave a comment if you like what you see and read there. I know both ladies…..both artists…..will love to hear what you have to say.

And finally, to Sophie, thanks for being the amazing young lady you are. I am continually awe-struck by the things that your mind conjures up. Being a creative thinker is such an important skill in life; not only for solving problems and findings solutions but, simply, for making the world more beautiful and more interesting, too. You have the gift of seeing the world with an artist’s eye. It is my pleasure to understand that and to recognize the wonder of what you create as you go about living your life. I am proud to be your father. You are my favourite artist.

Believe

I have been a writer since I was a kid. I have always loved telling stories and, more importantly, I have always loved using my words to make other people happy. Believe me when I tell you how humbled I am any time someone contacts me to say that they were moved by something I wrote or that they learned something or else, that they had a laugh or two that brightened their day. Those comments fill me up and inspire me to continue writing words for others to read. It is a large part of the reason why I created this blog.

The thing about having a blog, at least for me, is that I rarely actually meet the people I interact with. Those who comment and share my work do so, most often, on the Internet, from the comfort of their home. I never see them and they never see me but, just the same, a familiarity comes to be and a relationship starts to take shape. While we never meet, my social media “friends” help shape my life. I am enriched by their cyber presence. I am comforted in their binary embrace. Over time, they have become “real” to me. I consider myself the better for having had that happen.

So, I write. I create. I share. And, hopefully, I help make things a tiny bit better….for my friends and, because of my friends.

The story that I wish to share with you today involves a recap of a story I posted just prior to Christmas and a more, in-depth look into the circumstances of something unexpected that spiralled out of that post. That post was entitled, “I Hope Your Can Hear the Bell” and can be found here.

In “I Hope You Can Hear the Bell”, I talked about a dozen or so Christmas books that I had used in my classroom during the course of my thirty-year teaching career. These were books that had become beloved by my students over the years. Books that I wanted to share with my readers so that they, in turn, might share them with their children and grand-children. I have always considered good books to be like treasure and, as such, I have always wanted to share them with as many people as possible so that the magic and beauty they contain can extend ever onward.

As I listed the books, I saved the Chris Van Allsburg book, The Polar Express, for last because it was the most requested and loved Christmas book in my collection. Children in every class I ever taught were drawn to the message of believing in something greater than themselves. They loved that the first gift of Christmas…..Santa’s sleigh bell….only sounded for those who believed and, since they were all young kids and truly believed in the magic of Christmas, to them, the book felt like a special secret that only children knew. It sought to validate their belief system. It reinforced their willingness to trust.

I selected The Polar Express as the most popular of all of my Christmas books because experience had proven that to be true. I found reading the book aloud to be very special. If truth be told, I always considered it an honour to invite a new group of students each year into Van Allsburg’s wonderful world; to share that secret that only a child can know. Whenever I read aloud and got the end of the story, I would grow silent. Then I would reach into my pocket and pull out a cloth bag. Inside that bag would be a tiny sleigh bell. The kids always inched forward as I pulled the little bell out. I always gently shook the bell. The kids always heard it ring. The magic was always, always real. They believed and so did I.

So, when the writing for that blog post was completed, all that was left for me to do was to find a suitable photo to act as my “cover photo”. I try to use my own photos as much as possible, for copyright reasons. But, I no longer had the little bell so, I could not take a picture of it. My next course of action was to go to the public domain photos that are available. But, try as I might, I could not get the photo that seemed worthy of my post and how I felt about The Polar Express. So, as a last resort, I simply Googled “Santa’s Sleigh Bell” and the photo above came on to my screen. THAT was the photo I had been waiting for. So, even though it was not my photo, I copied it, attached it to my post and hit the “PUBLISH” button and sent my story on its way to my loving readers.

Not long after that, the guilt set in.

Some people would have ignored that guilty feeling; rationalizing that the odds were slim that the owner of that photo would ever come in contact with my post. But, what if they did!? What if they were checking out other sleigh bell photos and saw their picture on the link to my post. I knew in my mind that they would have every right to be upset and that I really wouldn’t have any excuse for having done what I did. So, with my conscience suitably guilty, I decided to try and make things right.

That afternoon, I found out that the photo belonged to a company called Magical Bells. On their website, they had a “Contact Us” page. I filled out their form, explaining that I had written a post that included a section on The Polar Express and that I had wanted a beautiful sleigh bell for my cover photo and had used theirs. I offered to pay them a fee in order to keep the photo but, I said that I understood if they were upset and told them I would remove the photo if they directed me to do so. I hit the “SUBMIT” button and then, I waited for a reply.

I must admit that I was expecting the worst. The Internet is a wild and woolly place, at times. There are lots of angry people out there, eager to argue for sport. There are dangerous people, too. Folks who want to gain access to your world in order to steal your information, your money and even your identity. There are lots of competitive folks out there in cyberspace, as well. These folks wouldn’t think twice about denying a favour to someone who might, as a result, take marketshare away from them once the favour had been granted.

So, I sat there by my computer and wondered about the reaction of the person on the other side of the screen, as they were being notified that “You Have Mail”. I waited and I waited. Finally, a day or so later, I had my answer. I had mail ……from the owner of Magical Bells.

As I clicked on the email link, I did so in the same way that The Grinch did on Christmas morning, high atop Mt. Crumpit. He listened for the sound of crying and of sadness but, instead, what he heard was merry….very! He found that sound puzzling. For me, I opened that email and was prepared for a finger-wagging blast but instead, I found gratitude and thankfulness and compliments. Like the Grinch, I was momentarily taken aback, too.

The author of that email, and owner of Magical Bells, was a man named Mike Frueh. He reassured me that he wasn’t upset about the fact that I had used his photo without permission and that, in reality, he felt flattered that I thought it was beautiful enough to use in the first place. He said that he had read my post and thought it was wonderful. He talked about how important The Polar Express was to him and his family and how thankful he was that I was promoting the same view. To top it all off, he offered to send me one of his special Polar Express sleigh bells, free of charge, as thanks for writing the post, using the photo and for including a link to his website within that post.

Wait!? What!? No! I didn’t deserve that. I had broken a rule and wasn’t deserving of a reward. I wrote back to Mike and told him how gracious his offer was but that I did not do what I did in writing the post and using the photo in the hopes of obtaining material reward. I did it because I believe in the magic of a book and I told Mike that he owed me nothing. I was just grateful that he wasn’t upset. But, Mike would not take “No” for an answer and insisted on sending me a bell, free of charge, from the U.S. to Canada.

A few weeks later, as promised by Mike, there sat a pretty little box in my home. A little piece of him and his family to be enjoyed by me and my family, despite the many miles between us. The box was sturdy and clean as a whistle, the green ribbons lined up perfectly from the lid to the bottom of the box. So, before even opening the box to see what was inside, the attention to detail evident in this box spoke volumes for the care that goes into every Magical Bells product. As first impressions go, Mike had made a good one on us.

I had assumed, prior to opening the box, that I would find a lovely bell inside. I did find a lovely bell inside but, I found several other thoughtful things, too. For instance, the first thing I pulled out was a two-sided card; on one side was a picture of the sleigh bell and the words, “The Ultimate Symbol to Believe”. On the other side of the card was a message from Santa Claus, himself! It talked about the importance of believing, too, not just of Santa but, of yourself, as well. What a wonderfully empowering message to receive….and, I still hadn’t opened the bell yet! After reading the card, I next pulled out a golden train ticket needed to board the actual Polar Express train! How cool is that!? Then, I went for the red, cloth bag that lay nestled inside the box. As I began to lift it up, I noticed a smaller red, cloth bag underneath so, I opted to open that first. Inside was a pin or brooch that had one word engraved upon it…that one word was, “Believe”. Finally, it was time for the bell! I opened the larger red, cloth bag and held that glorious silver bell for the first time. It is not an exaggeration to say that it was perfect. Not a mark of any kind on it anywhere. Shiny, clean, well-constructed and, the sound…..oh, the sound that rang out when I shook the bell for the first time. It was phenomenal!

As I spread these gifts out before me, I felt very honoured to have been considered worthy of such kindness and such effort. This is especially so because Mike and I have never met, nor have we spoken on the phone. We only know each other via email, the post I wrote on my blog and through his Magical Bells website. And yet, this man and his family extended a hand of friendship to me and my family across borders and Internet wires. As I held that bell, I felt the positive energy emanating from it.

As I said earlier in this post, the Internet is filled with unsavoury characters and can be a very dangerous place to lay your soul bare for others to see. But, Mike and his family do just that with every bell they make. Each bell is handcrafted and its creation is an act of faith and of trust and of love. The story of how these bells came to be in one worth telling and, in the telling, a story will emerge that attests to the quality of the character of all involved at Magical Bells. It is a story born out of a moment, quite common in scope, that proved to be a turning point in Mike’s family’s life. It all began with the search for the perfect Christmas gift for his son.

Back in 2006, Mike and his wife, Christina, had a son named Evan. Evan loved the story of The Polar Express and had asked for a sleigh bell of his own, just like the one in the book. Christina looked everywhere for such a bell but ended up empty-handed. So, not wanting to disappoint her son, Christina created the very first magical bell herself and gave it to Evan for Christmas. It was a gift created from her heart. Evan could hear its sound when he shook the bell. The magic of a mother’s love was real.

That first bell spawned others and Christina went on to create a company called Magical Bells. Unfortunately, several years later, she passed away. It was a devastating blow to Mike and his son. But, when the foundation of a good life is built upon love, as Mike and Christina’s had, goodness follows pain and beautiful possibilities remain. As things turned out, Evan had two friends who were brothers. Their names were Owen and Gavin. These boys were dealing with their own challenges, as their father, Chad, had cancer and, eventually, succumbed to that disease, leaving the boys alone with their mother, Jenna. The two families understood the grief that each felt and found comfort together in ways that can only be when empathy truly exists. Eventually, over time, empathy turned to love and the two families became one. Mike and Jenna now live with the three boys, together, as a family. But, new beginnings cannot erase old memories completely. Mike and Jenna sought to channel that ache that wouldn’t go away despite their newfound love. They did so by turning to the magic of a mother’s love, as symbolized by a sleigh bell from a children’s book. Mike and Jenna agreed to continue operating Magical Bells in the memory of Christina. Each bell they make themselves is infused with the love they hold for those who still exist in their hearts. That’s why the bell I held in my hand shone so.

I write words and the Frueh’s make bells….both of us trying to make the world a little better, a little more loving and positive. And, while it is easy to find negative people in cyberspace, it is possible, as well, to find wonderful people, too. Thank you, Mike and family, for gifting me with the beauty of your family’s love, in the form of that bell. I am beyond humbled to possess it. I will end with a promise from me to you; for as long as I have that bell, I will ALWAYS be able to hear its sound because I will ALWAYS Believe.

I Think We Are Done!!!

It took from the final Monday in January to the first Friday in April but, I think that our kitchen renovation is finally finished. Ten weeks, 68 days, 13 trades people later, I think I can say we are done. It doesn’t seem real, to be honest. Even as I sit here in a peaceful, quiet, settled house, I am still, somewhat, ill at ease, feeling as though I am waiting for some worker to arrive to do some aspect of what they do best. But, no one is coming here today to work. Those days are over. The time to enjoy the fruits of a lot of labour is upon us. Our kitchen is ready to be revealed. It has been quite a journey. Come on along and let me give you an insider look at the transformation.

I have always believed that a kitchen is the heartbeat of any home. For the first sixteen years that we lived in this house, our heartbeat looked like what you see in this photo. Not in the photo, on the other side of the room, was a fridge (directly across from the stove) with two overhead cupboards and then, an empty space that we used as an office (with a desk, floating shelf and file cabinet). The cabinets that you see are oak. The counter top is laminate. The floor vinyl. There are no window treatments, aside from the valence ruffle thing at the top. The walls are beige. There is a built-in hutch-style cupboard at the end of the room. The kitchen looked out on to our backyard. This photo was taken from the doorway that leads to our dining room. At the other end of this room, to the left is a stairway to the basement and backyard and, to the right, is a doorway that leads out to our front hall and front entrance.

From a functionality point of view, this kitchen had served us well. A lot of memories happened in this space; cookies baked, hot tea steeped, meals prepared, babies crawled and explored, art work adorned many surfaces, many hugs, touches and squeezes were given and received here, too. This kitchen did not owe us anything. It was a good kitchen and we were thankful for its service. But, as we worked to modernize and update the rest of our house, (everything from the roof, to the insulation in the attic, all the way to sealing and waterproofing our foundation), the kitchen stayed as it was, bearing silent witness to the upgrades. Finally, after paying off our mortgage and saving for the better part of a year (i.e., investing what would have been used for a mortgage payment but, instead, putting that money in a renovation fund), we felt financially and emotionally ready to tackle the kitchen. So, during the Christmas break, we initiated our contacts, made our arrangements, signed our deals and waited for the end of January to arrive.

The first part of our kitchen renovation happened before any worker ever set foot in our home. It started with the emptying of the kitchen. I am not sure why we were so surprised but, the amount of stuff that poured out of that kitchen stunned us. Every fork and knife, pot and pan, spice bottle, soup tin, cereal box, mug, baking pan and so on had to be removed and stored. We ended up taking two shelving units from the basement and placed them in our living room. We filled both shelves completely! The really funny thing was that we told ourselves that this would be a good opportunity to purge some things that were old or weren’t being used that often but, truth be told, we purged very little, relative to the massive amount of things we piled onto those shelves. Kitchens require crap and, lots of it, to run effectively. A lesson we learned before the renovation ever began.

This was our kitchen on the morning of Day #1. Right from the very beginning of this process, our kitchen designer, Mandy Rutherford, told us that, if we wanted, she could probably sell our old cupboards, counter-top and sink for us. That money would be used like a discount toward the cost of our cabinets. We went with that option. So, instead of the cathartic experience of demoing the cabinets with sledge hammers, our old oak cupboards were carefully removed and taken into storage; eventually being sold to a home renovator who was remodelling a home only two streets over from ours. We didn’t get a king’s ransom for the cupboards but, we were happy to see them re-purposed and we made a bit of cash that got put toward the cost of the new cabinets so, the reno got off to a good and cost-effective start.

Our appliances were still working fine so we have kept them for now. As we move along and they start to falter, we will replace them with stainless steel but, for now, our white appliances have survived the renovation and are still here, as you shall see in the photos that follow.

One thing that Mandy said right away when she visited us was that she thought our renovation was a good chance to unify the look of the flooring in our house. At this moment in time (in the photo), we had ceramic tile at our front door entrance way, that gave way to carpet in the hallway and then, to vinyl flooring in the kitchen and hardwood in the living/dining room areas. Mandy suggested we leave the hardwood as is but, remove the rest and put in one floor material throughout all of the rest of our upstairs. We thought this made sense so, we contacted Dickson’s Flooring in Cobourg and had them put in a new flooring for us, which you will see in a moment. Before they could install the new floor, they had to prep the old floor. So, in this photo, they have done, what they referred to, as feathering. Essentially, they primed the vinyl floor by coating it with a compound that filled in all of the indentations from the pattern on the vinyl floor. The black muck that you see is that compound. It took several days for that to dry, after a couple of coats were applied. But, it did, eventually dry and then, the new floor went in.

Dicksons recommended a flooring material called Luxury Vinyl. In this photo, you can see the flooring as it appears in our front hallway and leads into our kitchen. The floor colour is a grey marble style, with wispy strands of light brown in it. The floor feels terrific and has made a big difference in how our home “flows” now, at least in the upstairs, anyway.

Once the floor went in, our custom cabinet folks from Frank Bouwmans in Cobourg started installing the cabinets. Not surprisingly, they did the lower cabinets first. As you can see in this photo, even though we did not have countertops yet, the cabinets had a solid surface so we could use the space in a limited way to prepare our meals. This photo was taken on Valentine’s Day, as Sophie made Valentine milkshakes. If you look in the background, you can see the walls are still beige, as is the built-in cabinet. But, once the lower cabinets went in, we could start to see the shape of what our new kitchen was to become.

Once the lowers were all installed, the upper cabinets were placed and put in. This photo is important because it showcases much of what is better about the design of our new kitchen. First of all, the area from the stove back to the end of the far counter, was where our office used to be. These cabinets are all new storage space for our kitchen. Because we have far more storage space than we ever did before, it has allowed us to store things upstairs that, until then, had previously been stored downstairs. So, the impact on storage, alone, has rippled through our whole house. You will, also, notice the built-in microwave. Our old microwave had been sitting on the counter. But, both Mandy and Frank Bouwmans made the point during our initial consultations that they wanted a design that would free up counter space for us. Placing the microwave where it is now, takes a big appliance out of the way. A third thing that this design does is it makes our kitchen much more efficient to use. We use this side of our kitchen now exclusively for food preparation. Our plates, mugs, cutlery, baking bowls, cereals, soup cans, etc., are all in these cabinets now so, cooking is much simpler than it had been. I hardly need to move at all to reach everything I need for most meals. The other side of the kitchen, is used for cleaning and storage.

Once the cabinets went in, our counter tops arrived. We went with a company out of Scarborough called Vogt Industries. The man installing our cabinets called them “The Russian Mafia” and he wasn’t far off the truth. The counter top installers were big, burly guys who spoke Russian the whole time they were in the house and they insisted upon being paid in cash. Anyway, I was happy when they were gone but, in their wake they left behind three dark grey quartz counter tops and a stainless steel, under-mounted, double sink. We really like the counter tops and sink. At the time, we hmmed and haaaaed about settling for another laminate counter-top because it was cheaper but, I am glad we didn’t. Even though it was the second-most expensive part of the whole reno (the cabinets cost the most), the quality of these counter-tops made it well worth the money. There is just something really special about stone.

One thing I really haven’t mentioned yet but, it was a big part of this renovation, was the fact that, up until the time that the Russians installed our counter-tops and sink…..we didn’t have a real sink! This is a month or so into the renovation! A temporary sink was installed but it wasn’t much bigger than what you would find in a camper. So, while we could wash dishes in the kitchen, it was not an ideal situation at all. So, getting the new sink installed and then, hooked up by a plumber a few days later, really made our kitchen functional again.

Once the counter-tops and sink were finished, I painted the walls, ceiling, all of the trim and the built-in cabinet. The walls are now grey, to complement the floor and counter-top. Everything else is the same white as is on the cabinets; which is a pearly white. The room seems so fresh and clean now.

For the finishing touch, we went back to Dicksons Flooring and Tile and had them install a white, subway tile backsplash. As you can see, the backsplash extends the full length of the cabinets and counter-top on the stove-side of the kitchen. We put the same backsplash on the other side of the kitchen, too.

This is the window-side of our new kitchen. Here you can see the new double-sink and faucet. The backsplash goes along the wall, from one end to the other and, as well, up and around the window, too. For a window treatment, we went with a cellular blind set from Home Depot.

The main part of our renovation is complete now. What is left for us to do is to add the homey yet, tasteful touches. We will probably add a small plant or two, as well as, some art for the walls. As you can see from this photo, I have installed two of the SnapPower guide lights that I mentioned a week or so ago on Facebook. These lights are glowing from the bottom of plates that go around the electrical outlets on the wall. They add a nice ambience to the room and were super easy to install.

Our old kitchen
Our new kitchen

Our kitchen renovation is now complete. We love being in our new space. We look forward to a lifetime of new memories happening in this room.

Now, it is time to build up our bank account back up and move on to the next project because, as you know if you own your own home, there is always something calling out for attention. At least, for us, it won’t be the kitchen crying out any longer. I think I can truly say, we are done.