Join my mailing list to be sent the latest news, and the latest installments of my weekly column.

Weekly Column

12/16/18: Backward Bigfoot Bumpkins  

Joe and I needed an outdoor adventure to more fully appreciate Northern Michigan’s winter face.  

“Let's try something different,” said I. “How about snowshoeing?”  
Years ago my downhill skiing had been frequently plagued by acute ski-tangle. Any topographical anomaly encouraged them to mount each other: down I’d go. Rising again was comically difficult, as the mile-long skis refused to be reasonable. I’d flail around, graceful as a walrus on a dance floor. Joe, finally realizing I wasn’t behind him, would ski back, hunting for pole-sign under six feet of powder. After one 12,000- foot triumphant ski experience down---and three spectacular wipeouts in the Rocky Mountains, high, I huddled in front of Winter Park’s ski lodge’s blazing fireplace and firmly declared that the odds were against me. Downhill skiing would henceforth morph to the cross-country sort. It was just too frustrating, otherwise. 

But those (even longer) skis proved just as irritating. I found myself entangled more than upright. Face it, I grumbled to myself: you’re just too short (barely 60 inches high and shrinking) for such long fellows. 

This time, though, I’d acquit myself well. I mean, what can happen to a reasonably nimble person wearing little tennis racket-type thingies?   
Besides, I’d already mastered walking. 

So, off we went to rent some snowshoes at the Timber Ridge Lodge, about twenty minutes southeast of Traverse City.  

The clerk measured us and brought out two pairs. He was surprised at my surprise. I’d never looked closely at snowshoes; these plastic fatties looked weird! Bristling with teeth underneath and sprouting buckles and straps topside, they were strongly reminiscent of steroidal Bigfoot feet. Intrigued, I strapped them on (with his help) over my sturdy boots.  
If ducks could walk flatfooted, then so could I. 

Awkwardly staggering out of the lodge we set off through a huge, mature forest with powdery snow deep and crisp and even. Initially lurching, legs spread out like two-year-olds with a load in their pants, we soon found our strides, relaxed into a rhythm and began looking around the spectacular woodland with deep pleasure. The curved trail, which seemed to meander on forever, was wide and nicely groomed. Though the weather was incredibly cold (high teens) there was no wind. Plus, we seemed to be alone out here. 
Wow. We could love this. 

Crunch, crunch.  Lovely iPod music filled my headphones as I padded, buoyed by Bach. 

Half a mile later, I glanced back.  
Huh. Where was Joe? I listened. Nothing. 
I waited, sure he’d slide around that bend and wave, but no... 
Backtracking, I grinned. Was it possible I’d find him down?  

A few turns later there he was, lying on his back, waving those broad, webbed feet, chuckling.  
“I tried to back up to look at something more closely—unwise. I figured you’d find me sooner or later....”  
Oh.  Backup difficulties hadn’t occurred to me! 

Clumping over to him I extended a mittened hand to pull him up- and foolishly reversed, seeking more leverage. With a squawk of dismay, I fell backward. There we were, two prone stuffed sausages, flailing away in a deep snow bank.  
What can one do but laugh?  

Struggling to sit up (not easy, with protruding equipment swamping both boot ends) I finally managed to remove my gear, pull Joe up, and then re-buckle- which was a struggle, as my fingers went numb. But. Alas, all this huffing and puffing was for nothing.  Teetering to one side, I tipped into the snowy depression we’d made. OMG. 

Upright Joe fell against a five-inch tree trunk, laughing. Jolted, the tree dumped a large pile of snow smack onto my face. Sputtering, I rolled onto my side, noting glumly that our winter sports history was gleefully repeating itself. 
This footgear, though much shorter, was wider and, well, ducky, presenting its own challenges. 

On the bright side, only the forest had observed we two backward city bumpkins.  
It was small comfort.  

But now we’d become disoriented. Snowshoe and cross-country ski tracks went both ways, so it was tricky to decide which direction would take us back. After some discussion we simply trudged along the trail, reasoning that sooner or later, it would end up back at the Lodge. 

There was another problem. I was really hot! My snowsuit would be hard to take off, though. I’d have to remove my snowshoes again. And my gloves... 
I had warm, layered clothing underneath, but would then have to tote the suit... (Friends had warned against overdressing for this adventure but I didn’t listen.) To peel off the top layer now would eat up the scant minutes we had left. (Our rentals had a two-hour time limit.)  
Cooking, I carried on, with Joe firing off verbal pictures of roasting marshmallows melting the snow. 

The trail wound around and through the countryside and, a good while later, did eventually lead home. We were very late, though. The kind clerk let it go, noting snow where it shouldn’t be.  
He knew. 

All in all, though, it had been a thumbs-up adventure. Snowshoes are fun!  
Timber Ridge was beautiful, but we’d buy our own equipment and explore trails much closer to Traverse City. The Commons, for example, offered gorgeous possibilities... 

Joe has occasionally tried to get me to reconsider skiing, but I’m resistant to wearing anything skinnier- and longer-- than I am. 
These fatter pseudo-feet, however, promise a cool future! 

12/9/18: Cesar's Simple Gift 

Exercise, discipline, affection.   
In that order. 
Cesar Millan   

One Saturday night a few years ago Joe and I went to the beautiful Midland Center for the Arts to see and hear Cesar Millan talk about his life with dogs. Cesar, the world-famous dog whisperer, is incredibly wise about how to approach, understand and train them- and rehabilitate their owners.  

“There is no such thing as a problem breed. However, there is no shortage of problem owners. With a dog, people are not disciplined. They think that by spoiling a dog, it will love them more. But the dog misbehaves more because people [involved with them] give affection at the wrong time.”  

“Dogs in America get more affection than most women in third world countries.” 

-But not exercise, or discipline, which should always happen before affection is offered.  

Here was the auditorium scene that greeted us: 
On a large, deep stage with muted lighting sat a sofa, an end table, and a small rug with a coffee table on it, all set well back from the stage’s edge.  
It portrayed a typical living room. 
(Oh- and there were three huge screens set in a high triangle so that folks up in the highest balcony- like us- wouldn’t miss a thing.) 

Cesar popped onto the stage, his famous grin lighting up the big (sold out) auditorium. He was dressed casually in jeans and a long-sleeved gray tee shirt- simple attire designed to focus our attention on what he came to teach, rather than on him.   

Straightaway he commented that humans are the hardest to rehabilitate. They can be stubborn, or blind to why their pet’s objectionable behavior occurs. It can be humbling- and embarrassing- for owners to realize- and accept- that they, not their pet, are the problem. 

In his TV series (lasting nine years) desperate clients would come to him highly motivated to understand and change their enabling behavior. Viewers would watch the liberating changes with deep interest, hope, and not a little chagrin. 

  

First, Cesar would listen to the owners’ complaint, and while they talked he’d size them up. And their dog, too.  
The challenge? To coax the folks to see themselves as their dog did.  
As submissive.  
A Bad Thing. 

Didn’t matter if their beastie was gigantic or teeny. His message was always the same.  
Dogs, to be balanced, require a Pack Leader.

No pack leader around? Then the human will find him/herself with a willful, disobedient, confused, irritating, obnoxious, dominant dog.  

That final descriptive adjective is another Bad Thing.  

  

Dominant (‘alpha’) dogs have free rein to do whatever they please to their submissive humans- for up to fifteen years! Exasperated, frustrated, baffled owners might dump the dog, or have it euthanized, or give it away ruined. Then they’ll buy another, ‘better’ dog and repeat the same submissive behavior, expecting a different result.  
Or, resigned to their situation, they’ll submit to their out-of-control dog until it finally dies. How awful for both parties. 

Joe and I saw a lot of bobbing heads out there. 

Cesar asked us to move into our dog’s moment. “Dogs learn mostly with their noses. ‘I’ll believe it if I see it’ for dogs translates to ‘I’ll believe it if I smell it.’ So don’t bother yelling at them: it’s the energy and scent of calm confidence they pay attention to, not your words.”  

Humans, he mused, need to know how dogs sort out the world.  

Now came part 2- demonstrations.  The three dogs brought to him had never laid eyes on him. 

A local humane society handler trotted out a big, handsome, shorthaired dog obsessed with balls. He’d been returned to the humane society over and over by frustrated families because of this infuriating obsession. The staff was despairing. Charley-dog had an impossible-to-cure problem. Could they ever get him successfully adopted? 

After Cesar pulled these few scraps of information from the handler he asked her to bring out the ball she’d been hiding behind her back. “Please set it down some distance away.” She did. 
Ohhh...it was a lovely big red one. Charley-dog came alive with a fearsome, laser intensity. His eyes gleamed! 
Ball was All. 
Cesar picked it up, ‘owning’ it. Charley, released by the handler at his direction, rushed toward Cesar, ignoring everything else.  
BallBallBall! 

Cesar slipped on a simple collar/leash (one looped line) and continued to hold the ball while the dog visually devoured it.  
Then, he set it down in a spot he chose.  
When the animal went for it he made a noise:  
“Sssst!!”  
Startled, Charley’s focus broke. He looked up at Cesar for an instant before shifting his laser-gaze back to the Ball again. At that exact instant, the sound came again.  
“Ssst!”  
Translation: That. Ball. Is. Mine.  
This time the dog stared at him, uncertain. Cesar moved the slim collar/leash high up on his neck (to achieve excellent control with minimal effort) and led him away about ten paces. Charley went willingly, but kept glancing back toward his beloved Ball. Cesar asked the dog to sit while pulling the lead straight up as his left foot tapped Charley’s hind end.  
Plop. Charley sat immediately and stared up at Cesar, totally attentive now, to this interesting human.  

Charley-dog instinctively knew he faced a Pack Leader. Happily absorbing Cesar’s calm, assertive energy and quiet confidence, he relinquished ball-thoughts without fuss.  
Poof.  
Gone. 
No problem, Boss. You own that ball. 

Cesar walked him toward his property, and a millisecond after Charley glanced at the ball, Cesar tapped his hindquarters gently with his left foot and made that noise. A reminder
“Ssst!”  
Charley snapped to attention and looked up at Cesar intently.  
Ohh, right! That’s your ball, Boss. 

Redirection- and a new focus, Cesar- at precisely the right moment, was the key to Charley’s successful behavior modification. We watched the animal mentally switch to obedient, submissive respect. I could almost hear a ‘Click.’ 

Again, Cesar led him toward the ball. They padded around it and past it. Charley-dog, watching Cesar for cues while heeling, ignored it. Why?  
It wasn’t his.  

Satisfied, Cesar freed him. He wandered around to sniff the furniture and explore the whole stage, nose working busily. But he completely, permanently ignored the big red ball that sat before us.  
The handler and audience were gob-smacked. Dead still. Stunned. Blown away. After a long, dead silence, fierce applause. 

Next:  

Punkin, weighing about 35 pounds, had a food obsession. The owner, a pleasant older lady, was going nuts. All her dog thought about was FOOD. Countertop food. Table food. Her granddaughter’s food. She always found a way to snatch it. Her owner couldn’t shame/scold/scream her out of her bad behavior. She felt helpless. Arghhhh!  

Cesar attached his slim collar/lead high up behind her dog’s ears and got its full attention by offering a delicious chicken morsel from one of three chicken-filled, cereal-sized bowls an attendant had quietly placed on the end table.  
Punkin scarfed the gift down. (Cesar had demonstrated, by hand-feeding her, that he owned the food.)  

He asked the owner to keep her (leashed) dog from following him while he walked away to set his three meaty bowls of chicken bits on the stage floor close to the audience, leaving perhaps five feet between each bowl. Punkin watched every move. Then he led the eager, wide-eyed, straining, salivating dog toward them. Ohboyohboyohboy....Her nose worked frantically. As she lurched toward the bowls he made ‘the sound’ and touched her flank with his sneaker, which came up behind his other leg, very fast. 
“Ssst!”  
Translation: ‘No. Mine.’ 

No exclamation point necessary. It was a simple fact. 

Startled, she looked up at Cesar. He re-adjusted the slim collar/leash toward the top of her neck again and maneuvered her into the ‘heel’ position. (Remember, he’d never seen this dog before.)  Each time she microscopically tilted her body or eyes toward the food he got her attention with ‘that sound’ while keeping the collar situated high on her neck behind her ears and straight, but not taut. One minute later they began deliberately walking past the bowls.  
Around the bowls.  
Between the bowls.  
Back and forth.  
In and out.  
Round and round. 
Punkin never once looked at them.   

Your food. Understood, Boss. 

Cesar removed the lead right there by the bowls. Punkin wandered off to entertain herself while he chatted with us. She went deeper into the set to sniff the couch, end table and little rug. But. When she sneaked a furtive glance toward the food bowls from that long distance away, testing, Cesar was instantly ready. ‘Ssst!’  
(He’d been waiting for that long-distance glance, and had seized the moment to reinforce the lesson.)  
Punkin was startled!  
Oops! This Alpha sees all... 

Snapping to attention, she looked over at him. He held her gaze quietly. She dropped her eyes, a submissive gesture, and continued to explore the big stage.  
Just checkin’, Boss. 
The aromatic chicken was never acknowledged again. 

The dog’s owner stood there flatfooted, open-mouthed. The audience was too stunned to clap. It was pretty darn quiet in there for a long time, as we absorbed this. 
Finally, once again, the applause was thunderous. 
These two demonstrations were, in a word, Sensational

Last- a male handler from a local rescue group brought in a super-timid cream and white Labrador puppy about seven months old, who seemed glued to the fellow’s legs. The little guy wound apologetically around them, twisting the leash every which way as he hunched and fawned and crept about while being slooowly coaxed and tugged out onto the stage. The puppy looked thoroughly intimidated by life.  
The sad journey took awhile. 

Cesar went to him, knelt and patted him calmly, and then encouraged him to sniff his hand. He quietly positioned the slim collar/lead correctly, got the pup’s attention with a tiny tug, and began to walk steadily forward across the stage, radiating confidence.  
He owned that moment.  
He. Was. Alpha.   
An Alpha human represents Safety. Power. 

As they strode along the puppy’s confidence grew by the second. The little guy began to prance and gambol by Cesar’s side. He’d tapped into Cesar’s energy and made it his own.  
Life was good!   

There were gasps, then huge, sustained applause!  
What stellar demonstrations of ‘Own the ball,’ ‘Own the food,’ ‘Own the moment!’   

How could such effective training be. so. simple?  

He’d never laid a cross hand on the animals, never raised his voice. He did command their full attention by radiating calm, assertive energy, and by living in their moment. For Cesar, the dog in front of him was all there was. 

That’s focus

There was no mystery or magic here- only a man with a simple plan. By offering calm, assertive energy directed absolutely toward the dog he was working with, along with a deep understanding of how they worked, he offered them, their handlers, and his audience- a new way of operating.  

Everyone, he reminded us, has the power do this.  

He told us: “Never beg, never plead with your dog- ‘Sit! Sit! sitsitsit-sit! I said sit....’ or... ‘Stay, oh, please staaaay? Staaaaaay? staaaaaaaaaaaay...?’” Cesar, half-stooped, palms out, backed away from an invisible dog, pantomiming this all-too-familiar behavior, to great laughter. (He’s a fine comedian.) We ruefully recognized ourselves, all right. No decent dog would be motivated to obey a pleading human victim who would shrug sadly and sigh-but never take command when his pet routinely ignored his timid requests.  

Cesar demonstrated, over and over, that being The Pack Leader is essential for developing a balanced dog.  
And a balanced owner. 

It really is that simple.  

It was a pleasure to witness Cesar’s ability to change a dog’s life, just like that. His books, found in libraries and bookstores, are packed with insight and information.  

Joe and I understand how to be pack leaders.  
We deeply love our Bryn.  
She is our pet, not our child.  
We’ve set clear boundaries and defined the behaviors she’s had to master to enjoy a happy, balanced life.   

A few examples:  
Human furniture is for humans. Always.  
Never jump on humans.  
Chew only what is permitted.  
Pee and poo outside.  
Never beg at dinner tables.  
Be gentle to any smaller dog or child. 
Obey our commands immediately

And on and on. 

One other important note: make sure your dog is paying attention before you issue a command. Make sure it is looking at you and listening. Eliminate distractions.  

Bryn’s life-lessons are taught with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of quiet confidence.  
She is so pleased when she gets it right. 

Bryn-dog is respectful, knows her place, and loves us right back, in full measure, largely because we’ve accepted, and used, brilliant Cesar Millan’s simple, profound gift.

12/01/18: ‘Let It Rain, Let It Pour’…  

Funny, the memories a drenching rain recalls.  

One wet day a few years ago I grabbed my biggest umbrella and strolled to Hannah Park, just across the street.  Every so often I get the urge to walk in the rain. It didn’t hurt that I’d just enjoyed Gene Kelly making dance-magic in a downpour an hour ago- I wanted to recapture his exuberance for a while.  My day had been ‘bumpy,’ so gazing at the Boardman River, dotted with delighted, vocal ducks, will always lift my spirits. 

I carefully descended the steep cement stairs to the river—and came upon an amazing sight.  A large golden retriever stood squarely in the middle of the meadow, legs spread out, paws splayed, head slightly raised, eyes closed, utterly transported. The rain was pouring down in buckets; even the ducks had sought shelter under one of the big trees. But that dog, drenched to the skin, had planted himself out there, willing it to fall even harder. The wetter he got, the better. His fur actually parted in the middle of his back from the all that water.   

His owner, decked out in raingear, waited patiently under a tree.  He noticed me watching his dog, and chuckled.  “Sailor lives for these times. He does his rounds, then finds the perfect spot and places himself like that. Odd, eh? He’s too old now to manage the river; it moves pretty fast- so he gets his ‘fix’ this way. I think the experience must be similar to a massage…” 

“Sailor?  What a great name!”  

The man smiled. “Yeah; when my wife and I brought him home- he was ten weeks old- we noticed he took a great interest in the kitchen faucets.  Then, when she decided to take a shower and turned it on, Sailor was thrilled!  He yipped, hopped in and began snapping at the spray, inspecting the drain, and generally making himself at home.  Eventually, he just stood there, in the same position he’s in now, and let himself get pummeled. I swear that pup smiled.  We knew then what to call him.” 

I looked carefully; nine-year-old Sailor hadn’t moved.  And, by golly, he was smiling. That dog was the picture of contentment. 
“He’s lucky we’re willing to indulge this; it’s rarely convenient for my wife and me to walk him in torrential rain, but we’re always rewarded.”  

For nearly ten minutes we enjoyed his golden’s enjoyment. Chatting and laughing, raising our voices to accommodate the downpour, he told me his dog’s story.  
The couple had seen their daughter off to college, but within two months began suffering an acute case of ‘empty nest syndrome.’ Finding themselves moping about the house too much, they marched off to the local animal shelter. Their lonely puppy was waiting.  
They were cured. 

The rain lessened; it was time to break the spell.  The man whistled and shook the leash. “Wrap it up, partner!” 

Reluctantly Sailor opened his eyes, gave a heartfelt sigh, and shook himself mightily.  A ton of water flew every which way.  Two more vigorous shakes, and they squelched over to a blue van. After a thorough toweling, Sailor hopped onto the tarped front passenger seat, accepted a large milk bone, and dispatched it with relish. “We bought a heck of a hairdryer when the house started to reek of ‘sopping canine.’ Making him acceptable takes time, but it’s necessary. He settles down to wait again for rain. When he dreams, it’s not about squirrels, believe me.” 

A cheerful wave, and they were off to join his wife. Sailor sat, sodden and happy.  Obviously this was a familiar routine.  

I sloshed home, grinning in the rain.

11/25/18: Timeless Questions; Garden Reflections on a Gloomy November Day...  

Gardens possess an elixir that tinkers with my sense of time. I’ll ponder the rapidity of growth, the colors and perfumes, the variety of life out here and the science behind it all, and forty minutes will vanish in an instant. 

Canna lilies, for example, begin as dirt-y bumps. These tropical plants often grow two inches every sun-drenched day in here, to eight or nine feet high! Whenever I want to see something marvelous emerge impossibly fast from practically nothing, I’ll trot over to my cannas and stare. 
The despised, gorgeous Japanese beetles add a dash of delicacy as they voraciously chew those giant leaf tips to lace. What is it about cannas that they love? 

A drab-looking hummingbird moth hovers nearby. The heavy insect is easily as large as its namesake. Absurdly insubstantial wings hum: the creature hangs suspended in front of the big kitchen window as if inspecting its reflection…Imagine the huge amounts of energy needed to accomplish this feat! How long can it hover before refueling is necessary? 

A honeybee staggers around inside a huge hibiscus flower, its black and gold body completely blanketed in sticky white pollen. Even its eyes are coated. Yet it flies, undaunted. Just a skim of ice on a airplane’s wings changes the aerodynamics. Add an inch more, and it falls out of the sky. How has the bee’s aerodynamic design canceled this danger?  

Hundreds of unblinking black-eyed Susans — most minus their orange ‘lashes’ – dot the lush landscape. Each seed-packed orb demonstrates design perfection. There are no square, rectangular or sausage-shaped Susans. (Why is everything in our universe round?) 

My four massive sweet autumn Clematis vines are in spectacular bloom, blanketing fences, huge steel spider webs, gates and evergreens... They’ve grown fifty feet from little sticks in just three months! Millions of white starflowers bob with every tiny breeze: their perfume fills the garden. Their nectar intoxicates frenzied bees.   
Clematis isn’t bothered by mildew, mold, or beetles. Why? It’s chemistry. They’ve figured it out, somehow, over the centuries. 

The ‘bling’ of the garden bell roused me from my reverie. 

A dad and his teen son entered; the boy propped his glasses up on his nose as the two looked around. We began sharing thoughts, and favorite musings. Both loved science, so I shared some thoughts about organisms that prefer certain plants. 
His son glanced at me, glassed eyes gleaming with mischief. “Hey, Dad, here’s an experiment: microscopic life on a clothed human is the most varied and prolific on pants zippers and waistbands. To prove it I’d swab your laundered pants--the zipper, button, and the area around both-- for contaminants. There’d likely be nothing.  Then I’d test that area again before you tossed your pants in the wash. Remember, we zip up first, then wash our hands after using the toilet. There’d be residue there, from alien doorknobs, your flowerbeds, food, dirty dishes, grocery carts...  
The result – quite a microscopic population, compared with other clothing areas – should prove my theory!” 

We gasped, then howled with laughter. Todd grinned. He’d been joking, but I thought he might pursue this germ of an idea sometime, just for fun. 

“Seriously, what really interests me are the rapid multiplication of bacteria and viruses, and the chemistry behind their mutations…Why do bugs attack only certain plants, for instance?” 
His father smiled. “Yeah, you might have fifty years- a tick of time- to delve into things. So you gotta specialize. That’ll be a challenging part of the next few years. Choosing what to concentrate on.” Todd stared ahead for a moment, overwhelmed. 

Then he propped up his glasses and turned to me, his face lighting up. “MIT’s accepted me. I want to explore biological engineering, and maybe aeronautics —” 
A hummingbird, then a huge bumblebee, whirred by… "Dad, how can they do that? Doesn’t the math say it’s impossible for those bees to fly with that equipment?”  

Ah, a man after my own heart!

11/18/18: Dead Boring 

Dear readers; Bryn and I saw two field mice zipping through the parking lot near the library: the sight of them triggered a memory I thought I’d share again. This column shall serve as my 2018 annual rant. I always indulge in one per year.  

  

I’m nestled in my favorite chair, watching firelight create interesting shadow-pictures on the walls. They make me reflective. I’d been researching mice- especially field mice, who have a peculiar set of back legs reminiscent of kangaroo legs, and a little tuft of hair right at the end of their tails.  
What a year 2010 was! One memory remains particularly vivid.  

I lived in England for the first half of 2010, to be near David, my late mother’s English husband, who’d had a stroke. (He died in August of 2010.) During his last February he was temporarily transferred to a small hospital forty minutes away, because Ross Community Hospital, much closer to David’s home, had been plagued with a virus and needed disinfecting, from ceilings to sublevels. It would take weeks to scrub it down. When the massive job was done, he would be transferred back. 

Meanwhile, I motored daily to this far-away, much smaller facility... 
and found a surreal scene in David’s wing. Eight elderly men, who, as far as I could see, had working voices, active minds and movable limbs (they could sip tea and munch biscuits just fine)- who lay propped up in their ward beds, four to a side, in the immaculate room. As usual, there was no medical equipment in sight. Paper cups housed various pills.  
There was nothing to look at- no magazines or newspapers, no television, no soft BBC radio music/patter, no joke-y nurses, nothing to think about, or to see or do.  


 

Here’s the weird part. Nobody made a sound, though most were awake and alert. I couldn’t even hear them breathe.  

  

It gets stranger. Their Visitors were silent. They just sat there by their loved ones’ bedsides, exactly like spellbound Hobbits. Reflecting now, I suppose that they, being naturally reserved around so many other strange men, and having zero privacy, had chosen to say nothing at all. There weren’t even sheeted barriers between the beds to encourage whispers, or maybe a kiss?  
But no. Only stares were exchanged. Everyone was too shy to say anything.  
I was witnessing an extremely slow-motion checkout- death from boredom. 

If I were in charge, I’d offer some good gossip! Who were these elderly men going to tell?  
How about passing along village news?  
How about bringing along a young child who could chatter about her day at primary school? 
Why not have a caregiver offer to read short stories for an hour every day? It would be a highlight, I bet.  
Or, why not trade life-stories? Those long-lived men could relate some pretty lively episodes, I thought. Each man might await his turn with something like- anticipation. 
But oh, dearie me, it was not the British way. 

This silence was toxic. It can still give me nightmares. 

Sometimes British stiff upper lips are a huge pain. The British dislike making a fuss, and so were politely queuing up to meet Dr. Death. Chuckles and relaxed chatter were as unlikely here as dormice in teapots. All that was missing were eight coffins and some dirt. 

 Lunch and tea were served, ever so quietly.  I seriously considered dropping a teacup, just to shatter the silence. Maybe I could pass gas. Or bring a radio to play some great music.  
Jeez. I’d go absolutely bonkers in here, in a New York minute. (David would endure it for nearly three weeks.)  

I blew in every afternoon to chat, but he’d opted out. In fact, I never heard his voice again after that experience. 

The head matron was crisply unhelpful when I asked why he slept so much. Questions, especially from meddling foreigners, were unwelcome. Was he given sleeping tablets? She wouldn’t confirm or deny it. Any medical information was closely guarded.  

The doctor was, as usual, unavailable. (British doctors regularly insulate themselves from patients’ families. One asks ‘matron’ to notify his office, which is often in another part of town. Then the doctor’s receptionist rings to fix an appointment for perhaps a week later. By then one’s question is irrelevant.)  
American docs are infinitely more accessible. In fact, one often bumps into them on their hospital rounds.)  

Fighting back, I chose crackly brown paper to wrap a book of outrageous cartoons by George Booth, which I presented to David with a ta-da flourish. (This went over poorly. The British don’t do ta-das.) He remained determinedly asleep. I understood. This gangrenous silence was surely to blame. It was very like a pseudo-death. If waking up offered the same dreary blankness that sleeping did, why bother to wake up? 
Perhaps that was the point. 

The British National Health System is long past bankrupt. Though old, sick bodies are tidied, kept warm and decently fed, old minds are abandoned. 
There are no funds for “frills.”  
A nurse told me this. 

One day, fed up, I brought along two realistic wind-up mice and placed them on his taut top sheet. They busied themselves circling. David didn’t notice.  
A nurse delivering pills did, but wasn’t amused. I didn’t care. “Everyone here’s dying—of boredom, ” I commented loudly. 
One bedridden gentleman looked astonished at my boldness, but by God, he nodded. Nurse pursed her lips. Typically brash, rude American, she thought. 

I knew the indulgence was stupid. With this mouse silliness I risked making David’s life more difficult –but- how could his life be worse than having to endure these naked green walls, the bare air, and this dead-silent room? 

Two days later he was transferred back to Ross’s antiseptically scrubbed hospital. I was so glad! At least it bustled with activity and visitors, mostly farmers who sometimes chuckled in the big ward.  
Sometimes there was radio music.   

The starched Matron here was surely glad to be rid of me. I was disliked, mainly for talking out loud and actually being inquisitive.  
What rubbish! 

But I had the last laugh. I left those mice with two patients. Intrigued, they quickly palmed them. Other men noticed. At least one pair of alert eyes twinkled.  

I will always wonder what happened next.

11/11/18: Our Post-Halloween Treat- or Trick  

There is magic in the night when pumpkins glow so orange and bright... 
  

Halloween season stood out this year for Bryn, Joe and me.  She’d sniff her way up and down our street until her startled ‘pause-n-freeze’ pose would alert us to another neighbor’s newly installed lawn additions- such as skeletons sprawled on porch chairs or oozing out of graves, and witches that clung to overhanging tree branches, their capes twitching in the light breeze. Distorted, bone-thin men in rags- what Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury might call ‘bump-in-the-night bogies,’ were animated by their owners from after dusk until well into late evenings so people driving past could enjoy the scenes. 
Humongous spiders waited on giant webs or swarmed over houses, climbing nearly to their roofs... 
One home advertised itself as a “Dead and Breakfast” establishment, causing lots of their front yard skeletons to climb out of their graves to snare a room with a decent bed. “Bein’ dead must be boring,” mused one child to his dad on Halloween. “That’s why they come up to the party out here...” 

My unsettled doggie preferred to trot on the street side of the wide sidewalks. (Too many bones without an ounce of meat on them?) 

One early evening a week before the big evening we strolled by a smallish yard that happened to light up just as we passed.  Alarmed, she leaped straight up into the air, landing stiff-legged, ears quivering and nostrils flared. What was this?? 
Four big wagons, one hitched to a skeleton-horse, had been set out. Skeletons manned the driver’s seats while their skinless friends lounged in the cargo beds. Ghosts, leering pumpkins, long deceased doggies, tombs and all manner of creepy stuff filled the lawn. The amazing scene attracted crowds of people holding their phones high to take pictures. It stopped cars dead: drivers and passengers were blown away by the awesome spectacle.  

Just before ‘The Event,’ even more homeowner marvels popped up. One really sweet one, an inflatable, full-size Cinderella-like carriage, pulled by two pretty gray horses, appeared on a front lawn three homes away from ours. Its generator purred almost inaudibly, keeping the airflow even.  
Wow! It was possible to peek into the carriage’s lit up interior. “Maybe Cinderella’s in there,” shouted one tiny child dressed as a ballerina. A six-year-old boy jumped up and down to sneak a peek. “No,” he pronounced. “No - ‘cause it’s not at her house yet- ‘member- she lives in the country!”   
The perfect answer! 
Everyone admired its charm.   

(Today, reading what I was about to submit, Joe chuckled. “Dee, that carriage was a hearse, not a princess’s carriage.” I was taken aback, then thoughtful. Ah...that was why those horses were dark gray, not white.  Silly me. But hey, the little dancer had thought the same thing...)  

Down the street a single skeleton horse was hitched to a wagon, accompanied by a Boston terrier-sized ‘bone’ dog; Bryn skidded to a stop to stare, baffled. 
It was an inspired, very effective tableau! 

Sixth Street had been truly transformed!   
Later, we decided 2018 had offered the best displays yet. So many well-lit exhibits had certainly thrilled loads of visitors.  
Joe and I arrived back in town only 40 minutes before ‘Trick-or-Treat’ was scheduled to begin. We tore inside, dressed up in the witch and warlock costumes I’d laid out days ago, dumped tons of candy into huge bowls and sat out on the front porch in hastily set up folding chairs to join in the fun. Near the end, Joe carried on distributing treats at a furious pace while I walked three blocks in my costume to see for myself what was happening. 

What a huge turnout- but fewer children had shown up compared to last year (when nearly 1,350 kids had trudged up our stairs).  Just over 1200 children trick-or-treated this time, and received our tribute. Almost every child thanked us. 

The morning after, I fretted about taking Bryn for her walk; she always sniffs diligently around trees, along sidewalks and into bushes for interesting news, and I’ve caught her many times trying to sample someone’s discarded summer hamburger bits or discarded pizza. But she has a serious medical problem, reacting violently to anything other than her special diet. Even a tiny bit of the wrong food could send her straight to the hospital. Halloween candy bits are routinely dropped or discarded, making the next day unnerving for us.  I’d tried a muzzle one year, but my normally silent dog actually cried until I removed it. So now, extra vigilance was necessary.  

Even though we walked well away from the most visited areas, and most lawns had been raked, making discarded candies easier to discern, she’d still managed to scarf down a 4-inch square, thin hunk of veggie pizza without our noticing until too late. Brightly wrapped candy always stands out, but this partial snack had blended too well into the leaf-mottled, curbside landscape. 
Horrified, all Joe and I could do was wait. 

We were incredibly lucky.  
Just an hour later up it came, having been inspected by her stomach and then summarily rejected.  She deposited it on the carpet still in perfect condition, still with the various veggies arranged nicely across the thin dough. It was WEIRD. 
To say we were amazed is to severely understate our reactions. 

Bryn, chagrined, left the room embarrassed and upset, though I’ve never scolded her for vomiting. That misery means ‘sick.’ ‘Sick’ means not her fault. Nevertheless, she wanted only to distance herself from this baffling barf. She couldn’t look us in the eye. 

We simply picked it up, scrubbed away the coffee can-sized stain and breathed a deep sigh of relief. 
No emergency room.  
No life-and-death situation.  
The invader was happily trashed.   

It was, if you will, as though lingering Halloween ghouls had seduced Bryn into gobbling down a potentially lethal Treat, but had then relented and taken it back again- call it their unlikely, gross, reverse Trick- for reasons we’ll never fathom. 
But who cares? Bryn had coughed up The Scary Thing. That’s what mattered. 
Life is good!

10/04/18: Montreal; Canada’s Island Jewel- Part Three  

We woke early On Tuesday to another bright morning with few clouds, 55 degrees or so, with a light breeze. The plan: to explore Montreal’s Old Town neighborhoods and then venture downtown. The city has quite an impressive profile, with slim, modern office buildings piercing the sky. It’s the second largest primarily French-speaking city (after Paris) on the planet. We identified Hindi, German, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese. 

Later we came upon a restaurant called Eggcellent, tucked into a cobbled street, which specialized in breakfasts. With a name like that we had to check it out!
I ordered crisp bacon and avocado slices to set atop my (backpacked) gluten-free bread, which they were happy to toast. Joe had homemade sausage and eggs. The coffee was robust, tasty and black. We’d come back soon! 

Most shops weren’t open this early, so we biked on Old Town’s sidewalks. (People in cars tended to work their phones as they slowly navigated the ancient streets, making us nervous.) We looked into lots of little shop windows and constantly wove around construction. Big machinery, stacked cardboard boxes, portable barriers, piles of earth, sand, and displaced cobblestones made for tricky biking. 

The best place to travel turned out to be in the heart of the very busy downtown! 

Here’s a great promotional statement from GoBiking.ca of why Montreal is considered a world-class bike-friendly city: 

Major cycling publications and organizations have consistently rated Montreal as one of the top bicycle-friendly cities in the world during the past decade -for good reason. The creation of hundreds of kilometres of bicycle lanes, paths, and trails, and the establishment of the self-serve rental system with 5000 Bixi bikes, puts Montreal at the leading edge of what large cities can do to facilitate and promote cycling. 


Downtown bike lane on De Maisonneuve Boulevard.  

The amazing thing about all of this is that a little over 20 years ago Montreal had the opposite reputation: it lagged far behind Ottawa and Toronto for being bicycle-friendly. Not long ago Mount Royal Park was the best Montréal could offer cyclists looking for an interesting place to ride. If you want to do some hill climbing, or get a fantastic view of Montreal’s downtown core, Mount Royal is still a great place to cycle. However, now the city has so much more to offer. 

One example is the recently completed bicycle lane, which transverses the entire length of Montreal’s downtown area. It’s not about painting a white line and a few bicycle symbols on a narrow strip of pavement. This bike path takes up a whole car lane on De Maisonneuve Boulevard: it’s separated from the rest of the street by a substantial cement curb. Well thought out traffic signs help cyclists to safely navigate through busy downtown intersections. Moreover, Montreal is serious about keeping this bicycle facility open all year round. At one point motorists were actually complaining that the city was removing snow from the bicycle lane faster than the roads! 

Eventually, well past two o’clock, we were too pooped to pedal. A French meal, imaginatively served, would restore us. The Vieux Port Steak House’s prices made us pale- until we remembered we could whack off 25%. Much better!  

Revived, we biked to the Basilique Notre Dame, a Catholic Cathedral not far from our hotel. Built in the 19th century the magnificent, colorful neo-Gothic interior boasts a stunning pipe organ with 7000 pipes. Celine Dion was married here.  
Arranging one’s wedding, though, requires patience. Its wedding calendar is booked seven years in advance! 

There was a long line to get in as part of group tours of twenty, and a fee (around $10/person) to boot. As time was short we decided to forgo it. Do view the evocative videos offered on the net, though. 

We pedaled past a huge Observation Ferris Wheel located on a nearby island, which offers all-encompassing views of the city (for $25/person), its multiple bridges (lit at night) over the huge St. Lawrence River, and the smaller islands. Open from 10-11 p.m. the cabins are air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter.  
Next time... 

 

Not once did we see any sign of law enforcement. Large groups of cheerful young adults, most likely students from McGill University, Loyola College, Concordia University and The University de Montreal, just to name a few) never seemed over-boisterous or unruly.  Many smoked. 
Every evening soft pastel lighting enhances the huge Boulevard’s restaurants, shops, Cathedral, and other architecturally interesting buildings. It’s a great draw. Jazz and pop music inside and out enhances the scene.  

College students who like soccer, American football and hockey (the world-class Montreal Canadiens are based here) visit bars with wall-hung screens featuring these games. Brassiere Sportive was good for a glass of wine- and it offered free popcorn. We ‘wrinklies’ stuck out a bit, but nobody minded. 

In the twilight, almost all the people gathered on the great pedestrian Jacques Cartier Boulevard itself were over 50. Most, in fact, were over retirement age. 

 
There was one ‘monumental’ curiosity. 
Right at the top of the Boulevard, which slopes gradually to the mighty St Lawrence, stands a 50-foot high statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, erected here in 1809. To me, it looked almost exactly like the one in London’s Trafalgar Square. Great Britain’s premier sea warrior died fighting the Battle of Trafalgar.  
It’s the oldest monument in Canada. 
Curiously, Nelson is positioned looking inland, not out to sea.  
(But I think I read somewhere that the British Admiralty headquarters used to be up that way...) I didn’t know he’d lost an eye and a good part of his right arm in various battles. The statue depicts this. 
Anyway, just after the turn of the 20th century, the original 8-foot-high Nelson showed signs of deterioration, and so was moved to a local museum. This one’s a replica. 
Wikipedia adds its own comment: [* signifies my own comments] 

As a monument which may be seen as celebrating a British victory in a city that is predominantly French-speaking, it’s garnered its share of controversy. In 1890 a Quebec sovereigntist faction plotted to blow up the column. In 1930 [*as a clever, non-confrontational compromise] francophone Montrealers responded to Nelson’s presence by erecting a statue in a nearby city square (now known as Vauquelin Square) commemorating Jean Vauquelin, a French naval officer who valiantly fought during the Seven Years’ War. [*The two statues glare stonily at each other from a safe distance; so far, neither man has blinked.] 
Still, many French Canadians continued to object to Nelson’s presence. In 1997 the city proposed moving the monument to a distant Anglophone district, but public opposition has kept Montreal’s oldest monument in its original place.

On Wednesday morning we awoke to heavy rain, predicted to last all day and throughout the night. But at 6:30 a.m. it stopped; local radar showed we had a few hours to zip around town, so we wheeled our bikes to the huge gate, unlocked it, and were off. Up and down the avenues, along the river, through the streets, around the old clock tower, and finally, back to Eggcellent for coffee and a hot breakfast. YUM!  


We’d barely returned to our hotel before the heavens opened again. Rain drenched everything. Alas, I’d brought no raincoat. The rain intensified.  
Before lunch, the room cleaner knocked. When I answered, that kind man offered me a brand new foldaway raincoat in its own pouch, left behind by another guest. It was posh! He’d been saving it for a small guest without adequate rain gear. It was perfect for dashing outside and directly across the street to explore Marches Bonsecours, a huge, beautiful Palladian style two-story domed building finished in 1847.  For many years it housed Montreal’s City Hall, a 3700-foot meeting room and the Farmer’s Market, as well as accommodating banquets, exhibitions and other festivals- until 1878. 

{Wikipedia comments that] The building continued to house the farmer's central market, an increasingly multicultural mix of small vendors with business mainly conducted in the French language until the building was slated for demolition in 1963. [*However, calmer heads prevailed; it] was later transformed into a multi-purpose facility, with a mall that houses outdoor cafés, restaurants and boutiques on the main and second floors, as well as a rental hall and banquet rooms on the lower and upper floors, and municipal office space. 

Bonsecours Market was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1984.
We strolled through the main floor’s many separate shops that house attractive, often pricey merchandise, like clothes, jewelry, and fine memorabilia. But the second floor was dark and empty.  

This splendid building is safe from the wrecking ball, though. 

We left our snug digs very early Thursday morning, drove through nearly constant rain to the Canadian border, zipped through Customs and found ourselves back in Saginaw that evening. It had been an uneventful 13-hour drive. 

As our younger daughter may move there, we’ll enjoy returning to this appealing city in future, knowing the territory much better now.

10/28/18: Montreal: French Canada’s Island Jewel: Part Two  

The drive to Montreal seemed too long; anticipation made time drag. I finally rolled up into a ball on the front seat and went to sleep, something I rarely do. It helped enormously to hurry time along. Joe drove well, sipping hot chocolate and munching a cookie while listening through his earpiece to a good story. When I woke we’d began to nibble at the edges of the big city. Its population numbers nearly two million souls.  

The traffic was reasonable, as it was Sunday. Our GPS lady was mostly unruffled. After just one mistake she took us off the Big Road and into the old city. The island of Montreal (named after Mt. Royal, a small mountain in the island’s middle section) from which the city is named, is huge. 
Here are some thumbnail statistics: 


192.74 miles in area 

31 miles long  

9 miles wide 

Official language: French.  

Ancient Rue St. Paul, just a couple of expansive blocks away from the St Lawrence River, is elevated almost 100 feet above it. This part of Old Montreal boasts original cobblestone and brick streets, which wind appealingly through the neighborhoods’ side streets. Our tiny hotel, Auberge BonSecours, was set well back from that old thoroughfare. We turned off St. Paul Street to immediately face a very tall, arched, long brick and stone tunnel into which were built two 12-foot-high ornate iron gates dating from the 17th century, which are still swung closed and locked every night at 8. Every resident has a key, should they want to stay out later for the nightlife.  

From relative darkness, the tunnel opened into a longish, ancient open courtyard. Long, very high stone/brick walls framed a charming little seven-room hotel at its far end, which is, in fact, a converted stable. It is reached by climbing up three steps to a generous cobblestone patio set outside its front door which offers a couple of little iron tables with chairs to enjoy morning coffee and croissants. So French. So charming! Three ‘stalls’ on the courtyard’s right side had sheltered carriages centuries ago... and now, cars. 

The warm brick and stone façade outside was decorated with black iron hayracks planted with thriving, vividly red geraniums, to stunning effect. I rate picturesque scenes like this in terms of ‘sigh value.’ (My scale moves from 1 to 10, with ten being tops.) This one earned a firm 7.  Keeping designs simple, with lots of ‘POW!’ value, makes a most satisfying first impression.  

The concierge, who spoke quite reasonable English (far better than my abysmal French), escorted us to our pleasant, simply furnished room on the second floor. A glass-paned door at the sun-filled end of our boudoir opened onto a huge roof patio with a fine view of the cobblestone courtyard one story below. This roof patio was much bigger than our quarters.  

Inside, pale yellow walls set off two double beds and a smallish hand-painted, very French red armoire. A small chair sat snugly against a tiny tri-corner table holding a little telly set against the wall. The small bath was equipped with a square porcelain toilet and sink and a glass-door ‘phone booth’ shower with excellent water pressure. The towels were thick and white.  

We relaxed happily into our nest. 

  

Having spent nearly all our time indoors investigating the Royal Toronto Museum’s treasures, we decided to explore Old Montreal’s outdoors for most of our three full days here, as the weather, though rather cool, was sunny and a bit breezy, perfect for biking the area. Also, the huge, main pedestrian boulevard, only two blocks away, offered cheery pubs and restaurants featuring wonderful food. We never ate a mediocre meal. French food, imaginatively presented and freshly flavorful, rarely disappoints.  

The first day, Monday, after our free continental breakfast (fresh coffee, fresh o.j., fresh baked bread, an assortment of cheeses, olives, bagels, hard-boiled eggs, thin ham slices, fresh berries and other fruit), we unlocked the huge iron doors just after 7 a.m. and wheeled out to bike the length of the St. Lawrence River as far as we could, using the wide paths lining its edge, which was brightened in spots by lots of small trees planted in long lines. Later in the morning people walked up and down its green swath eating baked goods and sipping coffee, enjoying the sun. There was plenty of room for bikers. We stopped frequently to explore the various jetties and structures that line the river.  



 

One in particular, the Science Building, rose above the St. Lawrence. We love science exhibits! Closer examination, though, revealed zero activity inside. What? We locked our bikes and tested the big glass doors. They were open. Inside reflected the outside; all gray steel, stone and cement. There were no carpets. There was, in fact, nothing at all. Well, almost nothing. Two people, looking busy, manned a nearly barren desk against the right wall of the huge lobby, but no other souls, save we two, were about.  This building was empty- of color, of people, of any softness (like comfy lobby seats, or maybe some large potted plants, which would thrive in all this natural light). 

Then we heard faint, canned music. A large, round, candy-stuffed carousel, manned by two young men, was recessed well away from the traffic that should be flowing through this big entryway. A huge gray cement pillar had made it effectively disappear. There were lots of soft drinks, too- and even croissants and some sandwiches under glass. The candies’ bright wrappers provided visual relief from the gray that gloomed the interior. 
This kiosk made no sense. 

The two ‘greeters?’ in the lobby seemed didn’t mind our wanting to climb to the second floor. Surely there’d be something to look at up there! But, no. Floor-to-ceiling windows did display the fast-flowing river. Otherwise, only two colorful 50s-style movie posters and closed, unlabeled doors broke up the long walls.  

Silent emptiness reigned. Baffled, we descended. 

The building felt vacuumed of everything that would give it purpose. Most tourists had gone, but still...I found its nakedness exceedingly odd. What ‘science?’ Where? We looked at each other, shrugged, turned, and left. The desk jockeys, still at their posts, didn’t meet our eyes. The whole thing was unsettling. If there was nothing to see, why have it open? We didn’t feel like asking them for clarification.  

The wind had picked up; biking now was a challenge, as the temperature had dropped to the high 40s. We pedaled on, though, wanting to view the Old Port’s docks, and maybe even see some interesting boats.  

There was just one- a huge, gorgeous yacht. I’ve never seen anything like it. Her beauty and clean, elegant lines enchanted us.  

Blue Moon would stand out anywhere.  Pure white, she is privately owned, cost over $75,000,000, is just over 175 feet long, has a captain, a crew of 15, and can accommodate 12 lucky guests. Her graceful lines are arresting. We stood in the late morning sun for a long time, talking about, for example, how very tricky it would be when the captain eventually must back her slim length out into that fast-moving river before turning one way or the other.  What a feat that would be to witness! 

Nobody seemed to be inside. Blue Moon sat there quietly, awaiting her next adventure. 

Go to Google and ask for ‘Montreal’s huge yacht at Old Port.’ The short video shows her in late summer, when lots of much smaller boats were moored nearby, costing a mere million bucks or so. Moon’s arrival had apparently created a local sensation. The nattily dressed TV announcer reporting on her stood amid a crowd of summer-casual folks who had gathered at the docks to admire her and speculate about the beautiful boat’s background. 

Old Port officials declined to say who owns her. 

After biking up and down the swiftly flowing St. Lawrence we’d worked up quite an appetite, and were now shivery cold. The wind, quite gusty at times, was increasing every hour. So, round about two o’clock, six hours after we began, we pedaled wearily home, shed our wheels and walked to a restaurant our concierge recommended. Jardin Nelson is located right at the corner of Rue St. Paul and Place Jacques Cartier, the huge pedestrian boulevard. Flowers gushed from very large planters attached to its open patio, completely enveloping the five-foot-tall wall. Inside, a slim female vocalist sang popular French music, accompanied by a fine small band just behind her. Appreciative people ate and clapped. The singer, well known locally, can really deliver a song. Even in mid-afternoon the big indoor lunchroom was packed. Our salmon salads were delicious! 

After exploring some of the little souvenir shops that line the boulevard we returned home at twilight and settled in for the evening. It had been a long, interesting day.  

Auberge BonSecours is set so far back from the street that, for me, time seemed to slow, and then- reverse.  

Nearly asleep, I fancied I could hear carriages and horsemen clip-clop in and dismount, spurs and gear clinking. They’d stable their steeds before resting somewhere close by for the night... 

We fell asleep quickly, enveloped in Old Town’s deep quiet.  

Tomorrow would prove to be very informative, and a bit strange. 

Tune in next Sunday for the final report on our adventure. 

10/21/18: A Toronto Museum Exploration: Part Two  

Joe and I packed our two bikes, left Bryn with family and drove to Toronto to stay for three nights to explore the Royal Ontario Museum’s many treasures. Our B and B, only a few blocks away from posh Bloor Street and the ROM, was nestled into a thickly treed residential neighborhood crammed with middle to upper-class homes. (Almost every home we saw since entering Canada is made of warm red brick. A wood-framed home is rarely in evidence.)  

The drive went smoothly. Customs took 5 minutes. But as we finally began to weave into Toronto’s sprawl six hours later we found ourselves in the middle of massive, forever long highway construction. 12 lanes were reduced to one or two. We dared not blink for fear we’d miss exits- or take them erroneously. (Our GPS British lady, completely muddled by all the confusion, gave up almost immediately.)  
Finally, an hour or so later, satellite-settled, the GPS lady regained her composure and found Admiral Street, and we settled into our comfy rooms.   

Some impressions: Admiral Street winds in serpentine fashion toward Bloor Street, and Queen’s Park, and is lined with every fabulous world-class store imaginable: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Holt Renfrew, Chanel, Tiffany, Hermes and Armani, to name just a few. Restaurants are elegantly expensive.  What’s displayed in those windows is as out-of-reach financially as the moon. 

A block or so before all this bedazzlement we biked through curvy blocks of commanding, ivy-clad brick residential homes lining Admiral street, some sporting huge balconies high up, stained glass windows and even some towers, dating from very early to the middle of the last century. They’re tightly fitted into narrow lots absolutely stuffed with mature plants: shrubs, trees, struggling geraniums and impatiens- all fighting for light. As a result, there are big weeds growing lustily in between and underneath. It seems that after planting, the greenery was often- well, abandoned. The overcrowded ‘landscaping’ partially obscures the homes. It would be tricky to find one’s own driveway, I mused. Why had nobody decided to grow just beautifully kept grass, which would have framed many of these imposing homes? 

The cars parked there were elegant. We saw ladies pushing carriages, but no teens tossing basketballs in driveway hoops- because there wasn’t enough room. 
The whole plant-cluttered neighborhoods were vaguely unsettling- bordering on claustrophobic at times- for this gardener.   

Anyway, we biked to the museum by a different route the second morning and stopped suddenly in confusion. My God! The ROM’s lengthy 19thcentury brick façade had been massively breeched -chopped- speared? by thrusting, MEGA-HUGE pointy, triangular shards of steel-lined glass that jutted out over the pavement at nearly impossible angles, reminding me of Superman’s eerie Ice Home.  
It was Stunning! Awful! Horrifying! Marvelous! Scary! Weird! 
My mouth took a very long time to shut.  



Here’s how it’s described online: 

Inspired by the ROM’s gem and mineral collection, architect Daniel Libeskind sketched the initial concept on paper napkins while attending a family wedding at the ROM. The design was quickly dubbed the 'crystal' because of its crystalline shape. 

His comment: "Why should one expect the new addition to the ROM to be 'business as usual'? Architecture in our time is no longer an introvert's business. On the contrary, the creation of communicative, stunning and unexpected architecture signals a bold re-awakening of the civic life of the museum and the city." 

Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the same man helped to design the new World Trade Center in New York City.

Never, ever have I seen anything like this freaky marriage of the stately, dignified elderly brick façade and entrance arch to a giant, triangular, thrusting, powerful, angular, screaming-its presence-mountains of glass. People walked under it without a thought, but that whole gigantic, fantastic façade hanging over me was unnerving. The architect has made it impossible for anyone to ignore the ROM’s presence.   

After I’d settled down a bit I decided I might learn to really like it. 

The older building, resigned now to centuries of baffled acceptance of what it cannot change, is, I fancy, beginning to adapt to the twenty-first century with grace.    

This ‘connection’ might be the most innovative join-up I’ve ever witnessed.   

  

We locked our bikes and popped into a narrow, dark-walled corridor lined with wiry metal tables and thin chairs. People sat, sipping coffees and munching bakery purchased from its smallish vender-style snack room. Huh, thought I. It’s rather- understated. I’m used to cafeteria-style lunch/tea rooms in big-city (New York/ London) museums. But this seemed to work. People brought their own food; others downed sandwiches and water in the huge atrium off the entrance.  

There were lots of folks wandering through the exhibits. Our exploration of ‘China’ the day before had attracted Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian people, as well as crowds of Europeans and Americans. Today, though, we began to wander through less populated rooms filled with Greek and Roman works of art. Gorgeous vases portrayed beautifully coiffed women in flowing robes sitting with friends. There were rearing horses... The drinking cups, though, some with delicately painted men and women sumptuously dressed, made us gasp. One incredible cup had a goat’s head and neck attached. I could imagine some lucky owner sipping wine from that beauty. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. 

In fact, we spent a lot of time gazing at drinking cups: some presented as shallow oval stemmed dishes with handles at both ends. The ones with beautifully portrayed animals as an integral part of the cups themselves were strongly reminiscent of the museum’s fantastic exterior architecture. Ordinarily, one wouldn’t ever think of such intriguing ‘blendings/joinings, say, in the 20th century, or even in this one. But darn it, they can work! (Hmmm. Maybe Libeskind took inspiration from these gorgeous cups.) 
One little snag- it would be tricky to set down an animal cup to reach for food. Wine would tip out, wouldn’t it? Joe took a photo of this cup to illustrate the situation. 
But I could happily live with that tiny inconvenience if I owed such a spectacular sipper.   

All this wandering and mooring for a bit on benches designed to be only temporary ‘rest havens, chatting about what was before us, and then moving on made the time pass far too fast. Again, we found we’d been on our feet for over 5 hours. Enough. We were suddenly aware that lunch would be welcome. Why not visit the same pub as yesterday? It was three o'clock. 
Over a shared ale and delicious chicken/salmon salads, we decided to return in the spring to pick up where we’d left off. There is so much more to absorb! 

A few more impressions:  

- Our residential neighborhood was really quiet, especially after 7 p.m., though it lay very close to populous, posh downtown Toronto. 

- We noticed only two uniformed guards inside the museum. I’m sure more were there- just not obvious. 

- Bordering the local park, bikes were locked onto specially fashioned stands displaying rent-a-bike machines. Toronto is VERY bike-friendly (although one wonders how practical this accommodation actually is during their long, fierce winters). There were 6-foot-wide bike lanes down both sides of Bloor Street, though very few bikers. Anyway, just insert a special card above the bike you choose, which scans it to identify you.’ Unlock your bike and off you go.  
Cool. 

- The University of Toronto was right next to the museum. Lots of students wearing heavy backpacks walked purposefully here and there. Smokers abounded. 

- The ROM’s elevators are- irritating. This is a first. I’ve always felt neutral-to-grateful for them.  

We’d enter to face a curious panel of buttons and little squares of gray metal too low down (I, whopping 5 feet tall, never complain about such a thing) which blend too well into the gray metal panel behind, making it difficult to quickly discern what’s going on. The interior lights were a bit dim. Instead of showing floor numbers clearly, folks had to peer to find them. ‘Up’ and ‘down’ chevrons were set oddly and helped only to confuse; there was no info on what different floors offered.  
Besides its ‘plan’ being hard to sort, passengers were uncomfortably aware that seconds were ticking by. Way, way too soon the elevator, impatient with its load of puzzled, trying-to-discern-the code, finger-poised people, would begin to move up or down on its own. Visitors would shake their heads and mutter their annoyance in different languages as they found themselves on unwanted floors. 

Instead of facing that ‘jumble symbol jungle’ again they’d shrug and walk off to find some stairs. We did, too.   

- I found the ‘directive’ signs to galleries off the giant atrium nearly as confusing. The names of the donors for particular areas were huge, long and elegant. For example, The Elizabeth Antonia Hamblatonious Smythe Gallery (I’ve made up the name for demonstration purposes) would be set in capital letters etched deeply into creamy marble high above the entrance. 
After that, trigger words at eye level about what was in there were almost grudgingly added- a bit like an afterthought.  
I’d have designed it the other way around. Big, easy-to-read declarations for what is on exhibit, with the donor(s) names much less massive. It’s lovely-- stunning, actually, that these people cared enough to give the grateful museum the eye-popping money necessary to erect such beautiful, airy rooms. Having said that, and meant it, a nice plaque on the wall as one enters makes more sense.  It’s about the museum’s collection, not the donor. 

Well, here I am, fifteen hundred words into part two, and threatening to ramble on and on. I must leave out many more marvels we admired. 

We’d depart Toronto very early the next day, a Sunday. Most folks would be asleep pre-dawn: traffic would be reduced to a trickle. Thank God. 

Montreal was in our sights.  

Tune in next Sunday for Part three: Montreal: French Canada’s Island Jewel. 

PS: Today, I’ve decided I really like the ROM’s exterior. The whole thing is rather special. Freaky special. I want to go back if only to study it more. If you visit, note that it ‘ate’ a window on the side not shown. There is only a bit of one still showing. The rest has been- ingested... Wow. 

This thing is stupendous.

10/14/18: Our Canadian Adventure - Part One  

Joe and I had a fine adventure the last two weeks of September, exploring Toronto and Montreal. Here’s how it all happened. 

Our fiftieth wedding anniversary, celebrated in June, represented a Giant milestone. And to honor it our families went all out. Joe’s sister, Mary, and her husband Vince, lifelong dog people, offered to move into Sunnybank House to mind Bryn, who really likes them. (We’ve always included Bryn in our car adventures: she’s a marvelous traveler. But tackling Customs? Finding a Canadian hotel that took doggies? Trying to explore by bike, with Bryn sometimes left at the hotel? It got complicated. So this wonderful gift swept those worries away.)  

Our two daughters decided to introduce us to Ontario’s major city, Toronto, and French Canada’s Montreal, especially the historical area of town, which dates from the 16th century.  

Two days before leaving I told Bryn that Joe and I’d be away, but that Vince and Mary would come to stay with her. Bryn understands an amazing amount of spoken information. I know this because I constantly witness her comprehension. 

Bryn’s sense of time is different from mine. ‘Soon’ to her means within hours. ‘In a bit’ or ‘later’ signifies a day or so, maybe more.  
Unruffled, she greeted Vince and Mary a day later and I formally handed her over. (They knew all about her unusual food requirements.) 
“Stay with Vince and Mary. We’ll be back later.”  
She accepted our departure with no fuss.    

First, we drove to Toronto. Jenny and Lisa had purchased a year’s membership to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the second largest museum in North America, and only three blocks from our comfortable, spacious turn-of-the-century bed-and-breakfast accommodation.  Located on the second floor, our bedroom and generous bath were spacious. A nice kitchenette, equipped with a round table, 4 chairs, a fridge, toaster and coffeemaker, looked out onto a huge, roofed, open porch with its own comfy couch and more round, white iron tables with pretty place settings for continental breakfasts. It was lovely to relax out there for our three evenings with a glass of wine.   

We were the only guests right then.  

The museum, just 6 minutes away by bike, was chock full of fascinating exhibits. Our membership card made entering fast and easy.   

Spiders: Fear And Fascination - immediately caught our attention.  The creatures were, via holograms, dashing about the exhibit floor. Intrigued children tried to pounce on them, or follow them as they zipped around. (The spectacle was a reminder, too, that spiders are nearly everywhere...) 
We noticed some fist-sized ones behind glass, moving through their specially constructed homes and environments- in deserts, or in more familiar areas. Intricate webs were spun to snare insects that we humans find irritating.) Wolf spiders, trapdoor spiders, amazing peacock spiders (who have vivid, multi-colored abdomens as bright as their namesake’s) and a myriad of other odd ones, are exhibited, along with short videos that explain their habits and habitats. With a single button press, visitors learn how they’ve evolved (a few, perfectly preserved in amber, date from hundreds of millions of years ago), their reproduction and growth, which ones are venomous, and how to tell, and how they sense their world. Spider Man’s fantasy talents further demonstrate some of the creature’s major assets. It is a splendid, well-thought-out presentation.  

 


Understanding these creatures helps to curb irrational fears. I noticed that children who’d initially avoided the larger arachnoids were soon caught up in the adventure. Curiosity is a powerful draw.   

We moved on to China, whose history spans six millennia. The earthen Ming Tomb, large and domed, contains the remains of a revered sixteenth century general, Zu Dashou, and three of his wives. The gate and carvings that announce it are splendidly regal.    

Moving on, Daoist and Buddhist paintings, jewelry and china from as far back as 1300 BC are delicately rendered, and gorgeously detailed.  
The helmets of Chinese soldiers, though, really caught my attention. These small, beautifully fashioned metal caps and/or facemasks were tailored to fit each owner’s head precisely. The details added to their ancient war garb are exquisite!   
Today these helmets would fit only preteen children.  

(A memory popped to the front of my mind. It’s astonishing how small interior cathedral doors are. Hobbit-sized. People were pint-sized in Europe, too, when compared with the much taller, better nourished humans alive today.) 

We finally moved on to the ROM’s dinosaur collection. 
Ah- all the usual adjectives fail to express what’s there. 

One GIGANTIC grazer, Barosaurous, a recent (re)find with an amusing, true story I’ll tell in a bit, dominates the area’s vast, high ceilinged floor. The thing is INCREDIBLY long. The neck goes on and on and on, until Nature finally added a teeny, teeny tiny head. You’d have to look hard for a brain. How would it have the wit to put one foot in front of another?? Or chew?? Or poo? Or reproduce? How could anybody cogent ‘be home’ up there?   

Its massive body also supports a mile-long tail that fades into the distance before finally ending in the tiniest of tips. I fancy it was used to decapitate threats- if its thinker could remember how to do such a thing. 
One needs to walk along under it to grasp the length.  
Even then... 
I’ve never seen the like, though I’ve visited many stunning dinosaur displays in The U.S. and Europe.  
This. One. Takes. The. Prize.  

Here’s an amazing, true story of how it was (re)discovered.  

David Evans, the man in charge of the dinosaur section, looked far and wide for a sauropod to display. It would be a triumph to feature such a rare creature.  

After a long, frustrating search around the world he found himself browsing through other museum publications one day. A few words jumped out at him. Someone, decades ago, had mentioned ‘ lots of sauropod bones lying around in the Royal Ontario Museum’s basement.’ 

WHAT? They'd had one all along??? He rushed back to paw through its underground vaults and sure enough, there were piles of giant and tiny sauropod bones sitting in closets, in drawers and on shelves. It turned out all the bones were from the same beast!  

(The big museums have vast underbellies. I’ve often wondered what other rare treasures might be stored down their bowels, forgotten for decades. OMG.) 

Finally assembled, this AWESOME Barosaurus skeleton includes four massive neck vertebrae, a complete set of vertebrae from back to pelvis, fourteen tail vertebrae, both upper arm bones, both thigh bones (each of which is nearly five feet in length), a lower leg, and various other vital pieces. (Experts, who had enough bones in their museums to know how to do the job correctly, created the missing bones from plaster.)  
The entire thing, approximately 90 feet long, stops viewers cold. Total mass: probably more than 15 tons. The skeleton nearly defies gravity! (Surely it had used deep water to support that much bulk. Surely!)  
It must have eaten 24 hours a day to stay viable.  I decided it could have made no sounds- No room in that teeny throat for such a luxury... 
The trip down to its stomach had to be an extremely long, continuous one. 
But here was proof that Barosaurus had lived.  
And thrived.    

One simply must see it to believe.  

By 2:30, we realized a break was necessary. Our stomachs growled. Our feet hurt. Our brains ached. My eye ached. Our mid-morning apple snacks had worn off and we longed for lunch. The Prince of Wales Pub, set into our residential area just off the huge Bloor Street shopping corridor, was quiet and popular. We’d found and noted it the evening before when biking around the area to get our bearings. 

Meals, served in a pretty atrium, were delicious.  Afterward, we pedaled home to nap, think and plan. 

Tomorrow we’d explore more: The Bronze Age, a Bat Cave, Greece and Egypt. Not to mention the building’s waaay out there architecture. 
Clearly, it’s going to take more than one trip to Toronto to do this museum justice.  
Tune in next week for more fascinating stuff!