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The edible helium balloon!

I don’t have an actual bucket list, but if I did, inhaling helium would have been on it. I finally got my chance to do it a couple of weeks ago, in the most unlikely of places. An edible helium balloon was served as a dessert course in a fancy restaurant!

I took GC to Atelier for a very special birthday dinner. It’s tucked away in a nondescript house on Rochester near Carling, and from the street it looks like nothing special. There’s no sign, and no hint that it’s even a restaurant. Inside it’s pretty understated too – it’s small and unpretentious and it’s decorated with the owner’s three-year-old child’s artwork.

There’s no menu. And there’s no oven. The food is prepared in the kitchen using some wizardly combination of science, magic and the culinary arts, called molecular gastronomy.

You just sit back and prepare to be served a magical 14-course parade of unusual combinations, tantalizing tastes, surprising sensations, and creative presentations. It’s about entertaining all your senses, not just taste – although the tastes are astonishingly good. You have odd conversations (“Did that yellow powder just turn to liquid?” and “I wonder why this bubble is ice cold?”) We opted for the wine pairings too, so we got pretty high. We were there for almost four hours, but the time just flew by. The waiter and the wine guy were both cheerful and friendly and they served everything with a twinkle in their eye.

The edible helium balloon was the wackiest thing ever. You put your lips on it and breathe deeply and then you talk (I sang Tiptoe Through the Tulips, and GC recited a poem in a British munchkin accent). Everybody in the whole restaurant laughs whenever anybody has an edible helium balloon. Then you eat your sweet balloon and the string, and magical towelettes explode from little pods when the waiter pours a few drops of water on them. (You use the towelette to wipe any remaining balloon sugar from your face.) Then it’s on to the next course!

It wasn’t just a great meal, it was an extraordinary culinary experience, a lot of fun, and a very special way to celebrate a very special occasion.



It’s a teeny-tiny backyard, but this year we added six bird feeders, some native plants, a composter, a bird bath and a mister. Now we’ve got a bunch of regulars who visit throughout the day, including cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees, woodpeckers, purple finches, squirrels, chipmunks, butterflies and bees. And we’ve been certified by the Canadian Wildlife Federation as a wildlife-friendly backyard habitat!

I’m unemployed now, and my favourite thing is sitting in my back yard with a book and a handful of peanuts, which I pass out to all the squirrels and chipmunks who visit.

My great grandmother – my mother’s father’s mother – lived in Canada for the first few years of my life. I think she went back to Germany when I was three or four. She spoke very little English. She was short and round (everything about her was round, including her face and her glasses.) She loved to cook. She had a dachshund named Mitzi. I don’t know if any of these things I remember about her are my own memories, or just memories of photographs and things other people told me about her. But I do distinctly remember one thing. She used to sit out on the back porch and feed peanuts to the squirrels. They would come right up to her and take the peanuts out of her hand. I was so impressed by that.

I wanted desperately to feed the squirrels too, so she would park me on the back step with a peanut and tell me to sit very quietly and don’t move and wait patiently. I tried my best, but I was too little to pull it off. I’d sit there for what felt like hours, but the squirrels never trusted me the way they trusted her. (It sure made her job of babysitting me easy, though.)

Anyway. I’ve been thinking about her lately, now that the squirrels take peanuts from my hand. I think she’d have liked my back yard. I think we’d have gotten along.

Ernesto goes to Italy: Part I

I was going to blog about Italy today, but I didn’t get around to it. Here’s the thing: an Italy post needs pictures. I have a new camera (a real one, not a phone) and I’ve started learning Adobe Lightroom but I’m still figuring it out. So far I’ve imported our 1,987 Italy pictures, sorted them, keyworded most of them and fixed the color balance on some of them. But I haven’t yet finished editing or exporting any photographs. So I’m not quite ready to blog about all the wonderful things GC, Ernesto and I did and saw in Italy.

Instead, I will blog about what we didn’t do. We didn’t go to San Michelle’s cemetery in Venice, or the Catacombs in Rome. We didn’t do any geocaching. I didn’t eat any olives. But we did eat truffles, mushrooms, chestnuts, anchovies, pasta, gelato and deep-fried artichokes, and we drank an impressive amount of wine. (For the record, I was very proud of myself for eating truffles, mushrooms, chestnuts and anchovies, because I don’t like those things, but “when in Rome…”)

untitledThe rest of the adventures will have to wait until I get a little further along with the photographs. But I just this minute tried exporting a single picture to see if I could do it, and here it is: the first picture of the vacation. This is Ernesto with the friendliest Air Canada ticket agent at the Ottawa Airport!


GC and I are off to Italy tomorrow, for two weeks of exploring, eating and drinking wine! We’re starting in Venice, then going to Florence, followed by a few days in the Tuscan countryside, and finishing up in Rome.

We’re going to the San Michelle’s cemetery in Venice, the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence, the Tuscan hill towns, the Catacombs, the Vatican! We’re going to geocache! We’re going to see the Sistine Chapel! We’re taking a 4-hour eating tour of Rome! We’re staying on an agriturismo farm in Pescina, Seggiano! We’re going to bathe in the hot springs of Saturnia! I’m going to try to acquire a taste for olives and chestnuts and truffles (the fungus kind, not the chocolate kind) since it’s olive and chestnut and truffle season. (If that doesn’t work, I’ll just drink Chianti and eat pizza.)

I’ve got my sweetie and my passport and Euros and guidebooks and adaptors and a money belt. I’ve charged my Fitbit and packed my clothes, cables, camera, Ernie and everything else that matters into a carry-on suitcase. I’m READY.

Meanwhile, we’ve hired a housesitter coming to look after all the animals. She’s got lots of parrot experience. I’ve made a bunch of bird toys so hopefully the critters won’t be too bored. I’m going to miss them, though, especially at bedtime…they’re always so snuggly and sweet when we’re tucking them in for the night.

If our plane crashes or vanishes into thin air, I hope it does it on the way back from Italy, instead of on the way there.

Ciao for now!

Rutting Farm Animal and Lung Cake

Remember back in the winter I started a migraine prevention medication which is also a popular anti-seizure medication, and which is known to cause significant cognitive impairment? Apparently more than half of the people who take this drug don’t last more than a couple of months on it because of its side effects. Well, I’m a trooper. I stuck with it for 10 months, in spite of the fact it turned my brain to jello. It did reduce my migraines from about 22 a month to 10, so that was good. But after many months of slow consideration, I came to the conclusion that it was better to have a brain that hurts than no brain at all.

I saw my neurologist two weeks ago and told her I’m done. So now I’m tapering off the meds. I looked up the side effects of withdrawing from this medication, to see if there’s anything I should be watching out for. Check it out: eye-rolling, grunting, and foot-stomping. The last time I saw this particular set of symptoms it was in a rutting bull. So far I seem to be okay, but I’m keeping an eye open to see if I start sprouting horns or something.

What else is new? GC celebrated his first decade without a cigarette last weekend, so I baked him a cake. Congratulations, GC!

GC's Pink Lung Cake by Zoom!

And here’s something Grace sent us, in honour of the occasion. Personally I think both lungs look a little disturbing, taken out of context like that. But the non-smoking one does look…more appetizing? Meatier?

Favourite Field Trip

pp_cooperLast weekend we drove out to Smith Falls to visit the Parrot Partner bird sanctuary in their groovy new digs. Since our last visit, they’ve become a registered charity and they’ve moved out of Judy’s house, which had been taken over by all the parrots she had rescued. You know how it goes. One parrot turns into two, then five, then seventeen, as people keep bringing you parrots because “you’re so good with them” and you can’t say no. The parrots eventually take over your house, and then they eat it, starting with the moldings and trim, and you end up living in the closet in your spare room. (I’m only half joking.)

Judy and the parrots now live in a wing of the old Rideau Regional Institute. It was built in 1951 as a residential institution for physically and developmentally challenged people, and was shut down in 2009, as Ontario moved to the community living model. The building is now called Gallipeau Centre, and it houses, among other things, a theatre, a seniors’ residence, and the parrot sanctuary.

ppshowerYou can visit any Saturday or Sunday. It’s a blast. You get to interact personally with about 30 different parrots in their cheerful new quarters. You can even put on a raincoat and hop in the shower with a parrot if you want.

Upon your arrival, Judy gives each person a little bowl of cut-up grapes and a skewer and takes you to meet the birds.

Each bird has an individualized behaviour modification plan, depending on the issues it is working on. You reward each bird with grapes for different good behaviours.

Crackers the cockatoo, for instance, was given up because she was a screamer. Now she gets a grape if she says “Hello” instead of screaming.

Molly, a little Caique, gets rewarded for stepping up nicely. One untamed bird gets rewarded if he trusts people enough to come to the skewer to take a grape. Sammy the 60-year-old cockatoo gets a grape just for being 60. A whole bunch of macaws get grapes for spreading their huge wings and showing how magnificent they are. A gorgeous, gregarious blue and gold macaw, Cooper, performed relentlessly and hung upside-down from a ceiling net and nibbled on GC’s hair. My personal favourite was a sweet, tentative African Grey named Freddie.

Parrots are complex wild animals who live for a very long time. Judy only allows educated and trained people to adopt them. Too many of these birds wound up at the sanctuary precisely because their former owners didn’t know what they were getting into, or didn’t know what to do when behaviour problems developed. Some of them were rehomed many times before reaching Judy. In order to maximize the odds of a successful adoption, Judy rehabilitates the birds and trains all adopting families. There is no adoption fee charged for the parrots, but there is a fee for the human training.

In addition to the day-to-day work of running the shelter, Judy’s been figuring out ways to raise money to pay the shelter’s bills.

There’s a gift boutique, where feather artwork and jewelry, made by volunteers, is sold.

pptrainThere’s a Summer Day Camp program, where kids learn about and work with parrots, take them for walks, make toys, and do parrot-related crafts and activities.

She depends on an active volunteer program that includes everybody from teens to seniors. She says there are volunteer tasks suitable for every ability level. “Some elderly people, all they can do is sit in a chair next to a cage for an hour,” she says. “And that’s exactly what some parrots need.” Some of their more active elderly neighbours are growing vegetables for the birds, and taking them for daily walks.

She also offers Parrot-themed birthday parties and provides parrot boarding services. And she’s always got one eye on the future, dreaming up creative ways to improve the lives of the parrots, like an outdoor aviary.

Parrot Partner is definitely worth a visit if you live anywhere around Ottawa. Take kids or fun grown-ups.

100 Happy Days

GC and I were walking to the bus stop the other morning and he asked if I wanted to do the 100-Day Happiness Challenge with him.

“Absolutely,” I said. “What is it?”

So here’s what it is. You can start anytime. You register. Every day you take a picture of something that makes you happy that day. It doesn’t have to make you happy all day. It doesn’t have to make anybody else happy. It’s not a competition. Just one thing that made you happy for a moment of your day. You post that picture to whichever social media platform you’ve chosen (I chose instagram, but I’m also posting some of them to facebook), using the hashtag #100happydays. You do that for a hundred days.

We’re on Day 5. I’ve posted pictures of the Bobby McFerrin concert, my bunny out for a walk, the aromatherapy garden near the Fletcher wildlife garden, my massage therapist’s room, and Canada Day on Parliament Hill.

I’m really liking this challenge, and I’ll tell you why. It’s making me realize that there are a lot of happy moments in my days, despite my depression. When the bunny does a happy leap or I get a whiff of lemon or I arrive home from work or GC brings me a cup of coffee or I get a glimpse of the new baby lovebird in the nest…there are just a few of the many things every day that give me little jolts of joy. The 100-Day Happiness Challenge just makes me more aware of them.

Not all of them are easy to photograph, of course. Like today, the Snowbirds did a fly-by in formation over Parliament Hill, and I’ve never seen them so low – it was quite thrilling and it was one of those quintessential happy-to-be-Canadian moments. But it was over in a split second and I didn’t get a picture. And later, on the way home, a nice breeze cooled us down from the extremely hot muggy weather; I would have liked to have taken a picture of that happy breeze.

And that new baby lovebird in the nest? His name is Solo. I haven’t taken any pictures of him yet because I think it might upset Billie and Lester. GC and I haven’t allowed Billie and Lester to have any babies for several years now. Overpopulation and all that. So whenever they’ve laid an egg, we’ve refrigerated it overnight before returning it to them. That way the eggs never hatch. Kind of sad, but necessary. Anyway, I decided with this latest clutch of eggs, which was their second clutch this spring, that I would let them keep one egg and raise one baby. They’ve tried so hard for so long and it made me sad to keep disappointing them. So I drew a happy face on one egg and put it back in the nest. I drew an X on each of the others and put them in the fridge overnight. Baby Solo hatched on June 26th. Billie and Lester are very happy.

An honest mistake? Or a deliberate rip-off?

specialYesterday I was at Loblaws (Baseline and Woodroffe) buying ingredients for veggie quesadillas. Pesto was on sale for $4.50. I bought one. As I walked away from the store, I scanned my bill and saw that I’d been charged $6.99 for the pesto. I went back to the pesto shelf and re-read the sign.

Aha! The sale price only applied if you bought two or more packages of pesto. But look! The regular price is $5.99. If you only buy one, the “special” price is $6.99. Is it just me, or is this doubly misleading?? It’s so easy to not notice that the sale price only applies if you buy two. But then you get charged an EXTRA dollar over and above the regular price if you only buy one.

I snapped a picture and took it over to customer service. The nice young man agreed you shouldn’t have to pay more when it’s on sale. He let me have the sale price even though I only bought one.

Another example involved 20-packs of batteries where it said in large print that the sale price was $11.99. But in microscopic print it said that if you only bought one package, the price was $17.99. At the cash we were charged $17.99, and when we complained, the friendly young woman at customer service took us to the shelf and showed us the sign. Even when she pointed it out, we still couldn’t see it – that’s how small it was. She agreed it was ridiculously small. She called her manager who said we could have it for the sale price, but “in the future we should be more careful.” (I was tempted to say something like “In the future you should be more careful not to steal from your customers,” but that seemed a bit ungracious given that we had already won this particular battle.)

I’m not particularly vigilant – both of these times, I just happened to notice that I got overcharged. But I think from now on I’m going to pay closer attention, because I am not sure these are honest mistakes. They seem like deliberate attempts on Loblaw’s part to mislead and deceive customers. Are these tactics even legal?

If I had a store, I wouldn’t need laws to keep me from ripping off my own customers. I’d do it for ethical reasons and also because I wouldn’t want my customers to think I’m trying to rip them off.

Christmas in May

Parrots are smart. They need plenty of stimulation or their mental health will suffer. Parrots are difficult enough to live with when they’re mentally healthy; you definitely don’t want to push them over the edge. So parrot toys are a necessity. And, since many good parrot toys will quickly be reduced to piles of rubble in the bottom of the cage, you have to replenish your stock regularly.

I spent my income tax refund on bird toys this year. When the box finally arrived, I lugged it into the bird room, tore it open, and started unpacking all the new toys and showing them to the birds. Everybody was out of their houses at the time, flying around.

There were foot toys and hanging toys and shredding toys and chewing toys and toys that make noise and toys to climb on and toys to eat and foraging toys. There were toys to hang in cages and toys to hang from the ceiling. There were toys for lovebirds and toys for Amazons and toys for African Greys. There were toys that will make great toys for the bunny after the birds are finished with them.

I put new toys in everybody’s houses, and stashed the rest in the toy-rotation closet.

Simon got six new things in his house right away: a new perch, a nice big hanging toy, three foot toys and a ball that makes 10 different noises.

It was like Christmas in May. I was so excited.

But in my excitement I forgot that African Greys are not like little kids on Christmas morning. They’re the opposite.

A new perch? Alarming. A ball that makes noises? Scary. A whole bunch of new toys all at once? Terrifying.

Even though African Greys are very smart, they somehow believe that a 3-inch ball that makes 10 different noises must contain 10 different predators.

Simon wouldn’t go into his house. Not until I removed the new perch, the big hanging toy, the three foot toys, and the predator ball. Even then, he wouldn’t go into his house. I had to put peanuts and sunflower seeds in his house and be very patient and reassring over a long period of time.

That was two weeks ago. He’s just now starting to get back to normal, not startling at the slightest noise. (Or at least not more than usual…birds tend to be that way by nature.)

Kazoo, the Amazon, recoils from new food, but she’ll hop onto a new perch or object without a second thought. Simon will dive headfirst into a bowl of unfamiliar food, but he’ll sometimes avoid a new object for weeks.

kazoobp1One of the new items I purchased is a parrot backpack. Kazoo climbs right in and we travel all over the place with her on my back. She looks out the windows and talks to strangers and makes new friends. Simon, on the other hand, after two weeks of daily “getting acquainted sessions” has gotten as far as peering tentatively into the backpack from the outside, beaking the zipper, and reaching in to grab a peanut from the treat bowl. I’m optimistic he’ll be ready to go outside for a walk by the time the snow flies.

Where have I been?

Where have I been the last few months? I’ve been depressed. I still am, but I’m doing better now than I was. It was bad. It started in December and peaked in February I think. Between crazy workload issues and packing and moving and selling the house and renovations and migraines and awful migraine prevention meds and Duncan dying and other stuff I just got overwhelmed and anxious and then I couldn’t sleep and I would wake up in the middle of the night and worry for hours. And you know how that goes, it’s always catastrophizing, imagining the worst things that could happen. And everything just kept getting worse with the lack of sleep and the anxiety and the exhaustion and the cumulative effects of everything.

In February I started antidepressants. Within a few weeks I noticed a pretty significant improvement. I’ve increased the dosage a couple of times since, but the depression seems to have plateaued. I’m a 12 on the depression scale, if that means anything to you (I was an 18 initially). Last week my doctor added sleeping pills to the mix, and that seems to be making a difference. I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in six months, and now I’ve had seven of them in a row. I see two benefits: 1) I’m not exhausted, and 2) I don’t lie awake for hours stressing about work.

Anyway. Depression’s a weird thing, isn’t it? I always thought I wasn’t prone to it, but I guess that’s changed. This is my third depression. I had one bout as a teenager, and this is my second middle-aged depression.

At its worst it was really bad. I got to the point where I couldn’t handle anything else, so I was literally not opening my mail or paying my bills or answering my phone. My memory was completely shot. Even writing things down so I wouldn’t forget them felt complicated. I couldn’t keep lists. Everything felt overwhelmingly hard. I could feel gravity tugging at my face – it was an actual physical sensation. I literally felt myself aging. I cried a lot – many times a day.

GC was very supportive, of course. He was there for me, he made food, he didn’t tell me to cheer up, he took care of things.

It’s actually pretty amazing that I kept working. But I had a project I was very committed to, and that project had a looming deadline. (“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” – Bertrand Russell.)

When I went off antidepressants several years ago, I said I would never take them again because of the difficulties I had with withdrawal symptoms. But you know what? This February I knew I needed them, and I didn’t hesitate. I wanted them. I have no regrets. I’d rather take antidepressants than feel that dying wouldn’t be the end of the world.