Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Massie comments on Christmas

I have a pretty good life, so I really shouldn't complain, but I really don't think this picture of me is very flattering. My "Christmas outfit" was quite tight, with my winter coat and all, but it didn't cost me a nickel so, I guess beggars can't be choosers. Tell me honestly - do you like this look on me? Does it make my legs look fat? You would tell me wouldn't you? There's been a fair bit of travelling for us these past few days - I'm not really sure what all the commotion is about, but it's been a nice break from my regular routine. Let's see - things started to be a little strange about 3 or 4 days ago - honestly, I sometimes lose track of time. Jim and I went into the office as usual. My bench seat in the truck was a little crowded with parcels so I was a little cramped, but no matter, it's only a 3 minute ride. Jim brought all these parcels into his office and started this mad frenzy of carefully wrapping each one in paper - not sure what that's all about - they looked fine to me without the paper. I munched on a couple of biscuits, had a sip of water - I really wish he would change it more often, but I can't say much, especially when he catches me drinking water out of the toilet, but at least it's fresh. I wandered downstairs to see Russet - she's usually good for a treat. When all the wrapping was done, Jim bundled everything back in the car and we headed into town again. I'm assuming he did some more shopping because he came back about an hour later and crowded me even more. I can't imagine what's going on. When we got home my friend Ozzy was at the house. I don't remember inviting him over, but what the heck - he's good company, except when his stomach gets upset from eating my food and he passes some very unpleasant gases. We hung out for a while and then Jim took me for a car ride to Matt and Sarah's house. Courtney was there - I'm not crazy about her - she's a bit of a whiner and not much fun - she must be about a hundred years old. The humans had dinner - I think it was lamb - I got some leftovers, but I really don't chew my food well enough to know what it is I'm eating, but it was definitely meat. The next day we all piled in the truck again, more parcels crowding my space and took a long drive. I had to stay in the car, while Jim and Dave went inside for what seemed like hours. Jim came out and took me on a walk. I have no idea where we were, but there were lots of great smells around. I got kind of carried away sniffing and peeing on every second snowbank, but what the heck - I had been left in the truck for quite a long time. We finally left, Jim and Dave got in the truck smelling like shellfish and pasta. I think I picked up the scent of another dog on Jim's leg - but I'm not really sure - I was too tired to care. Then yesterday morning there were a few parcels opened at our house. Jim got a new hoodie and some new jeans. Dave got some work boots (not sure what he's going to do with them), and a nice looking winter jacket. There were a few books, some bottles, gloves, and chocolate, which I love, although I always feel as though I shouldn't eat too much of it. That's when this lovely Christmas outfit of mine made it's auspicious debut. Jim and Dave left in a terrible hurry, forgetting to take me with them. I'm not sure where they were but they came home about an hour later smelling like other people and incense looking holier than holy. Later that day we loaded up the truck with more parcels and off we went on another long truck ride. This time I got to go in to the party. I met this other dog there named Gus - he was pretty hot. Something about him really turned me on - I just couldn't keep my paws off him. Everybody kept telling me to behave, but I just couldn't help myself. The humans helped themselves to huge plates of food, while Gus and I politely looked on. I used my best sad eyes to score a few pieces of white meat - I think it was turkey, and a nice chunk of what looked like ham. I also got to lick some gravy off a few plates - big deal. After a few hours of chit chat we all piled back into the truck, now finally emptied of parcels and headed home. Today things seem to have returned to normal; we're back in the office and I'm just about to lay down for a nap.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Have yourself a hairy Christmas

This past Sunday the Ste. Anne's team had our annual Christmas party (this was our 22nd) hosted by Roger and his outstanding team at the Best Western in Cobourg. Despite the dire predictions of the weatherman, and a little bit of snow on the roads, most of the team made it out for a nice meal followed by the presentation of our P.R.I.D.E. awards, some gifts, and some dancing. Front desk man Robert O. stole the night, not only with his ample display of chest hair (which was later challenged by Operations Manager Richard R., both pictured above), but also with some pretty sassy moves on the dance floor as the DJ belted out tunes from the 70s, 80s and 90s. The highlight of the night was the "Pass the Zucchini Lip Syncing Contest" (you had to be there). Fun was had by all; no fist fights broke out, and everyone made it into work the next day, so all in all I'd say it was a good night. Pictured above, dining room manager David S. is receiving the P.R.I.D.E. award for Excellence, as selected by his peers. David wins 3 nights at Miraval Spa in Arizona in recognition of his achievement. Other winners were, in the category for Passion, Steve P. from Food Services, in the category for Responsibility, Cara A. from Spa Booking, in the category for Initiative, Spa Manager Natalie K. and Guest Services/Duty Manager Tanya R., and Operations Manager Richard R., in the Category for Determination, each taking home 75,000 RBC Rewards points. Congratulations to all the winners. Now, if I may, I'd like to vent a little bit about the damn weatherman. When did Canadians become such a bunch of scaredy-cats? Today's all news channels are so starved for news that they make a big deal of a little snow storm, so much so that otherwise rational people find themselves sitting at home frozen in fear in front of their television sets. We were born in a part of the world that enjoys and celebrates the seasons! Pick up a shovel, apply some common sense, allow a little more time, invest in the right equipment, (i.e., snow tires), and you'll get there safely, despite the weatherman. If all else fails, take the train, or spend the night. We had tons of cancellations this past weekend, all because of the weatherman, despite the fact that we provide door to door service from the VIA Rail station in Cobourg. If you haven't been to Ste. Anne's Spa on a snow covered winter day, you don't know what you're missing. The outdoor hot tub, the fireplace, the crunch of snowshoes on the walking trails, a great meal after the warmth of a mud bath and a massage, and all of this set amid incredible snow covered scenery. As one of my red neck associates is prone to say, "suck it up buttercup". See you in a snow bank!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Preparing for Christmas - What comes around goes around . . .

Last year around this time, I remember reflecting on the cost of all the "stuff" we north Americans go out and buy in the name of Christmas. My immediate conclusion was that this very self indulgent practice would be much better directed towards people in need through donations to organizations specializing in fund raising for developing countries. On further reflection though, I came to the realization that buying "stuff" creates the economic activity that creates wealth and puts it into the hands of people who need the jobs that are created as a result of our buying. This weekend I took my mom and David to the Oshawa mall on Sunday afternoon. More than anything I was thinking it would make for a nice drive, although I use almost any excuse to visit the Telus store, where I am always greeted with a big smile and an abundance of help with my telecommunications challenges. While on the 401 we listened to yet another news story about the number of Canadians - (apparently now 1 in 5) who are hustling off to the U.S. to save money as they exercise the new found strength of the loonie. The latest angle is that Canadians are not good tippers! Although the Oshawa mall was busy, given the proximity to Christmas, it certainly could have been busier. Our first stop was at Canadian Tire where I picked up a squirrel proof bird feeder for my mom's back yard. It's quite ingenius, and it's already brought a steady stream of colourful customers, much to my mother's delight. A spring loaded device closes off the supply of food if anything heavier than a bird steps on it. There are a few chubby Bluejays that might have a problem with this feeder, but the squirrels are definatley out of luck with this one. Next we stopped in for a visit with the ever friendly staff at Telus where we were treated like royalty, as per usual. As it turns out, the VP for the Oshawa region, who's wife comes to the spa, read my blog (Tuesday September 11th, 2007) telling about the great service we always get at this store, and took all the staff out for breakfast. No wonder the staff are so nice - they are appreciated by management! Next we spent some time at Chapters reading and picking out gifts (OK, most of the gifts were from me, to me), another favourite pastime, before heading home. Although there were crowds, there were no line ups or delays at any of these stores. My message is this. Those Canadians who are rushing the border intoxicated by their zeal to save money by travelling to the U.S. should really pause and reflect on the long term impact of this kind of short term thinking. If the Canadian dollar continues to trade at par, (which it probably will as long as we are willing to compromise our environment to sell oil and other natural resources and as long as interest rates are low) there will be adjustments to retail prices once old inventory and old currency works its way out of the system. However, expecting these changes over night is not realistic. The impact on manufacturing jobs, (which by the way started long before the dollar hit par), is just the tip of the potential economic iceberg. There will be a domino/vicious circle effect as lost jobs in manufacturing, shopping and travelling abroad start to impact on each other. First the loss of these jobs will result in reduced spending and investment by these people without or between jobs. Ultimately the burden of these lost jobs will multiply across sectors and then be passed down to the taxpayer as our costs of an economic slowdown start to be noticed and responded to by government through our already strained and expensive social safety net. Irony is, all of this will ultimately weaken the dollar. So the old adage - what comes around, goes around comes to mind. Do yourself and your fellow Canadians a favour - shop at home and travel at home this holiday season - buy Canadian, give to the poor, and save yourself some long term pain.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A year of blogging, and life is a carnival

I can't believe that I've been blogging now for a year. My first blog was published after the 2006 Santa Claus Parade in Toronto, and here it is winter again. Today I went up to Reid's Arctic Cat and picked up my sleds - all tuned up and ready for another year of snowmobiling. I'm hoping that the snow conditions will be a little better this year; last year I put on less than 300 miles and that was probably in 2 or 3 outings. Last weekend I sat in on the Ste. Anne's book club, while Noah Richler talked about and read from Giller Prize winner Elizabeth Hay's book "Late Nights on Air", along with various musings about Canada's north, politics, journalists, and his father Mordecai. Noah is a great guy, a talented writer and a regular spa guy to boot. There's definitely something nice about being read to. Maybe it brings back the comfort of being read to by kindergarten teachers, parents, grandparents and babysitters before we mastered the technique ourselves. Inspired by Noah's regular readings and the influence of other souls like our Reverend Ed, Debbie and Darlene, Nancy and Chef and their willingness to lead our hikes and our guided meditation, we're going to make some changes to our fitness program at the spa, starting in the new year. Our goal is to mix it up a bit - make it more spontaneous and try to cover a broader spectrum of activities that are good for the body, mind and spirit. We hope to include more readings, more walks, some dance classes, meditation, yoga, and other activities that we hope can be lead by guest writers (like Noah), staff, and other local friends of the spa. Hopefully this new direction will be popular with our guests. I don't really think people come to Ste. Anne's to get fit - most just want to be taken care of, to relax and unwind in a gentle, non-judgemental and caring place. I'm currently struggling my way through Janet Wallach's "Desert Queen - The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia". It's an interesting read, but certainly not a book that you just can't put down. It is giving me a fresh perspective on the history of this region, in stark contrast to how it and it's inhabitants are portrayed in the media, and of course more evidence of the potential of a strong willed women who puts her mind to something. A funny little side note, when I searched on this book on Google, it also brought up references to the movie, "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert", one of my all time favourite movies. I have great memories of playing the soundtrack to this movie at full blast across the deck of a 30 foot Searay Cruiser(boat) careening at full speed across Rice Lake in the dark with 12 very intoxicated friends dancing under the moonlight with coloured beach towels blowing in the wind doing our best to reenact the movie's bus ride through the desert. I suddenly realized that I had no idea where we were, and worse yet, I had no idea where the old rail bed was that I had to safely navigate my way through in order to get back to our mooring, preferably without having it remove the bottom of the boat, the engine and both propellers. I believe that was also the night that I decided that alcohol and boating really don't mix (for the captain, that is). Miraculously, we made it to shore safely with all of our bodies and good memories intact. Who ever said that learning can't be fun?

Monday, November 26, 2007

A new look

Many years ago, when Ste. Anne's Spa was more of a bed & breakfast than a spa, my youngest sister came to me looking for a job. At the time, we needed some help with our accounting, so I offered her an entry level job as an accounts payable clerk. Over time, Marijo started to show an interest in the marketing side of the business. Bit by bit, I turned over more and more of the marketing decisions to her. Before long she had taken the reigns and developed sales, marketing and front desk into a tight, well organized operation. As the business grew, Marijo anticipated that the job she had grown into might ultimately outgrow her skills and she decided to go back to school. She selected a 3 year program in Graphic Design at Durham College. For 3 years we tried to find a replacement for Marijo, but we weren't successful. I suppose one could conclude that because we knew Marijo was eventually going to come back, we really didn't try very hard to replace her. In any case, while Marijo was at school, in addition to single handedly raising her 2 beautiful daughters she became an active participant in the Maranatha Church in Belleville, both very life changing events. Today Marijo owns her own graphic design company. She has also published a book. Most recently, she redesigned our website, and I just love it - I hope you do too. Marijo, like many of the women who have come to depend on Ste. Anne's as a place where they can reconnect with themselves and recharge their batteries, is an incredible human being. I have been blessed with 4 incredible sisters, a wonderful mother and a great team of women who work with me at the spa. Today I want to loudly applaud the working women in our society who are responsible for so much hard work, dedication, creativity, beauty, love and compassion. As employers we need to support and encourage our daughters and our sisters as they continue to make a difference in our world. It's hard to believe that they had to fight for their rights.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Making the best of a situation . . .

I guess you could say that generally speaking, I'm not really a big fan of the whole marriage concept. Not ever having been married myself, one might assume that I'm just a sore loser; bitter at having been left behind. But honestly, I think I've just grown to be a bit sceptical about the whole "and they lived happily ever after" fairytale myth. Let's admit it, as great as life can be, it has it's fair share of bumps in the road, and I'm not entirely convinced that the western marital model provides the best structure for accommodating them. So, it was with some trepidation that I considered an invitation to my third wedding of the year from my third nephew to wed. The greatest selling feature was also a potential downside. This wedding was combined with a week long trip/holiday (with family) to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. What I really didn't give much thought to was who else might be on the guest list. There-in lies one of my great quandaries about matrimony. I can see having this ominous event witnessed by immediate family members, and maybe a few close friends, but I'm not sure I understand the point of including crowds of one or two hundred. This issue, when considered relative to a three or four hour event is magnified when applied to an event spanning an entire week. However, it seems as though these kind of weddings are gaining in popularity. In the course of aging over the past 25 years, I guess I'd forgotten how much fun it could be to drink yourself into a comatose state, pass gas on a bus and deny culpability, jump naked into a pool and wake up the other hotel guests at 3 a.m., apparently just a few of the key ingredients to a successful wedding in the islands. So, in an attempt to find a source of amusement more suitable to my age group, my brother-in-law Paul and I discovered the St. Maarten past time of "riding the fence". This entails standing at the end of a runway hanging on for dear life to a barbed wire fence while a jumbo jet takes off pelting us with high velocity jet blast. What a rush! As each day passed more and more of our group rode the fence as we became more familiar with the schedules, and the type of aircraft most likely to give you a good ride. Another related activity that provided almost as much of a thrill involved lying down on the sand as one of these massive airships dropped out of the sky to the runway beyond - breathtaking! So, if you are planning a trip south and think you might want to try something a little different, book yourself into the Sonesta Maho for a few days and have yourself a blast - a jet blast that is. FYI, the wedding was beautifully executed, on the beach, at sunset, stunning bride and groom, garnished with lots and lots of love from a very nice group of adoring family and friends. Congratulations to Mark and Shawna and best wishes for a lifetime of happiness.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Keeping it fresh

It seems as though my family has been renovating one thing or another for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories as a child are of our farm in Nashville, where every minute that we weren't in school, my dad had us involved in some kind of project, from fence painting to wallpapering, to plumbing and electrical upgrades. Looking back to 1981 when we moved to Grafton, anything that we had taken on in Nashville looked like child's play. I remember going to see the Tom Hank's movie "Money Pit" and thinking, 'this is my life'. But in those days, we could pretty much renovate at our own pace, as it was only us who were affected by the upheaval that emanated from such projects. Once we opened our doors to the public though, especially with guest rooms that tend to run at occupancy levels of 85% all year round, it became a different ball game all together. I remember one renovation back around Christmas 1991. My sister Anne, her husband Paul, and their 3 sons Ben, Brian and Matt were visiting for the holidays. Somehow we got it in our heads that this would be a good time to redecorate the Cathedral Suite. We were literally applying the last strokes of paint to the ceiling as we watched the guests walk into the courtyard. You would think we would learn! As it turned out, Paul and Anne and the boys enjoyed this frantic state so much, (and after much begging on my part), they decided to accept my invitation to leave their home in Westport to join me in launching Ste. Anne's Spa. I will be forever grateful for the tremendous contribution they made, and I can honestly say that the four years we worked together were some of the most exciting and the most fun. Anne's incredible decorating skills, and Paul's hard work are still very visible throughout the spa. Anne and Paul returned to Connecticut, where they have recently launched their own rental property, where we visited them this past weekend on our way back from New York. It is an absolutely stunning lakeside cottage in New Hampshire - check it out! This past week, our newest Facility Manager, (and I/T guru) Jake, and his team, Debbie and Steve took on the task of renewing a 1981 vintage bathroom in the Blue Room (Jake and Debbie hard at it and the ensuing chaos, pictured above). They did a fantastic job - Jake has surprisingly good taste (for a man, ha, ha), but once again, we found ourselves putting the final touches on the job just as the guests were arriving for the weekend. My job was to run into Home Depot every couple of hours to get that one last thing that we forgot about. I think I made a total of 6 trips. I guess what they say about history repeating itself rings true here at Ste. Anne's.
Here's a tip for you: If you, like me, enjoy writing but struggle with grammar, check out this web site. I just stumbled on it and found it to be quite helpful. We're off to attend my nephew's wedding in St. Maarten this weekend. Seems like a long way to go to witness someones nuptials, but hey, what do I know? Catch you on the rebound!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Bored at the border

On Tuesday morning Natalie, David and I set out for New York city to collect our Reader's Choice award from SpaFinder Magazine. This year the awards are being handed out as part of a consumer trade show at Grand Central Station. We had our truck all loaded up with signs and props to make our little 10X10 booth look inviting. As we approached the checkpoint at the border David told me that I shouldn't make any jokes with the border guards. Probably good advice given the power these guys have over you. Our guy was nice enough, asking the usual questions about citizenship, where we were going, how long we would be away, and the purpose of our trip. When we told him we were going to a trade show in the big apple, we seemed to pique his interest. He made his way towards the boxes in the back of the truck and started pulling things out, starting with a bar of Aveda soap (made in the U.S.A., but still suspicious). He was soon joined by two more members of the Homeland Security team who also started rummaging through the boxes as though they had just stumbled upon a Saturday morning garage sale. One of the burly men pulled a bathrobe out of a box, and exclaimed "oh boy", while his colleague pulled a teddy bear out by the scruff of his neck, saying "have a look at this". Trouble with a capital "T". We were ordered to park the truck and come inside their headquarters, where there were at least another 10 or 12 very bored, but serious looking men and women in black, armed to the hilt. I was the only potential criminal in the joint. You see, there are very specific rules about importing textiles into the United States, not to mention teddy bears. In the end, I was given a stern lecture, charged $10.75 and sent on my way. All in all though, I felt better knowing that our border is safe from the forces of evil, thanks to the increased vigilance of our men and women in uniform, and the great wisdom of George and Dick up in head office. Holding a spa show at Grand Central station was an interesting concept. Quite a broad cross section of people have passed by our booth, most asking where Ste. Anne's is, a surprising number wincing when we say Canada - a place that a majority of New Yorkers apparently associate with unbearably cold weather. The booth next to us was handing out little individually wrapped pieces of chocolate, which they had to hide from regulars who would circle their booth grabbing a handful of chocolate at a time. My favourite visitors were the elderly New York matrons who visited us, fully bejewelled, hair dyed and made up as though they were on their way to play a part in a Broadway musical. I'm not sure how many of the people we spoke to will be heading north any time soon - the new found weakness of the U.S. dollar is bound to impact their enthusiasm for travelling too far afield. However, I always enjoy New York, and sincerely hope that things will soon improve for this once great "super power", who I found myself feeling sorry for, more than anything. Not only did their leaders let them down on 9/11, since then they have kept them in a prolonged state of fear and isolation.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Why all the fuss?

When I was a little boy, birthdays were really something to look forward to. For one day of the year, all the attention was focused on ME! But now, as I draw perilously close to the big five-oh, I really don't know that I want to make such a big deal of it any more. Sure, I'm grateful for the life I've been given, and the many blessings I enjoy, but I'm not sure I need to commemorate it with a party or any kind of fuss. It seems a little self serving when there are so many people in the world who are lacking the very basics of life, like clean drinking water, or dignity, or peace. So today, please join me in praying that we who have something to celebrate will be given the opportunity, the wisdom, the encouragement and the inspiration to do something meaningful for those who are less fortunate than us, by fully using the gifts that have been bestowed upon us to make our world a better place.

Monday, October 22, 2007

How your family heritage can lead you to strange places . . .

Back in 1990, when I took over the operation of Ste. Anne's Bed & Breakfast from my brother and his wife so that they could spend more time raising their family, I moved into a room above the kitchen that was known as the nursery. It was a small room, sparsely furnished, but it was all I needed; it always had a nice breeze coming in from the lake and it was nice to wake up to the smell of breakfast cooking downstairs. The room came furnished with an antique dresser that had at one time belonged to my paternal grandmother. As I explored the dresser, I found that the top drawer contained a gun, similar to the one in the picture. I'd seen this gun before - probably in my dad's top drawer, so I wasn't too alarmed. As the story goes, this gun had belonged to my grandfather - my namesake - who had been involved in a number of ventures in the Niagara Falls area - at one time owning the Clifton Inn (so I guess you could say that I had innkeeper's blood in my veins). At one time he worked for Gooderham & Worts selling booze, but with the onset of prohibition, my grandfather became a bootlegger for the same outfit. I never knew this grandfather, so it's hard to say when he came into possession of this gun, but my guess is that it was during his days as a bootlegger. I have a feeling that he ran with a pretty rough crowd. For years, the gun sat in my dresser drawer and I didn't think much of it. We never had any ammunition, so I wasn't worried about an accident. On one occasion I remember using it as a prop at a Murder Mystery dinner we had, but other than that, it maintained a pretty uneventful existence, certainly as compared to the days when it travelled around Niagara Falls in the glove compartment of my grandfather's car. Then came the great Canadian gun registry (or billion dollar boondoggle as it came to be known); an interesting piece of legislation for many reasons, but in my case it effectively turned me from a mild mannered collector into an out and out enthusiast. As a good citizen, I filled out the paperwork so that my government would know that this gun existed. A few months after filing, I got a phone call asking for more details on this gun. As I described it, the person on the other end of the phone told me that I had a restricted weapon, as determined by the length of the barrel. In order to legally own a restricted weapon, I needed to take a hunter safety course so that I could get my non-restricted licence, and then take a firearms safety course so that I could acquire and own firearms, and then take another test so that I could own a restricted weapon. The alternative was to turn this piece of family history in to the local police department or have it rendered inoperative. To get the ball rolling, I bought the text book for the first course and tried to study it. On first blush, it had much more detail than I cared to learn about hunting and firearms in general, so I put it in a pile of things to do on a rainy day, where it collected dust for several years. I also locked up my gun in a safe place. This past weekend, I finally got motivated to take the hunter safety course, step one. I found myself in a classroom full of men and women aged between 12 and 70 all of whom were pretty keen about hunting. My mother was quite disapproving - "guns are for killing", she lamented, but I persisted, and by golly, I really enjoyed the course. I'm not sure that I'll ever take up hunting, although I suppose every time I order a cheeseburger, or chew on a rack of lamb, I'm exercising my place at the top of the food chain, we just don't like to think about the messy bits. The other contradiction for a peace loving Canadian comes when we pay our taxes, when in effect we are buying weapons for the police and the military to use for but one purpose. As a result of my little adventure, I do have a new found respect for firearms and the people who use them, and I can hang onto a little bit of my proud Irish heritage without breaking any laws. Did you know that the greatest number of deaths caused by firearms in Canada is suicide (over 80%), and did you know that the greatest threat to wildlife is loss of habitat? If I've piqued your interest in hunting, click here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

How can you not love this cuddly little planet?

I went home at lunch time today. I found some leftover Chinese food in the fridge from Sunday night. While I was waiting for the food to heat up, I noticed 4 forlorn looking helium filled balloons on the kitchen table, left over from my dad's 80th birthday party. In a fit of spontaneity, I took the balloons out onto my deck and released them into the atmosphere. As I watched them rise, each heading off in a different direction on their skyward journey, I closed my eyes and made a wish for each balloon in hopes that my wishes would be carried away and found somewhere in the sky by a higher force. After lunch, I came back to work and started to work on my blog entry. I used google to search for images of balloons drifting off into space. The first link that came up lead me to a site that talked about the environmental impact of releasing balloons. If they land in the sea, turtles can eat them. To read more about the possible environmental impact of release balloons into the environment, click here. Needless-to-say, I was feeling a little conflicted about my balloon release, and a little concerned about the fate of my wishes. Yesterday was blog action day. Bloggers were supposed to use their soap boxes to preach about saving the planet and protecting the environment. Don't get me wrong, I care about the environment. When I was a little boy, I used to hang out with a friend after school. We would watch The Commander Tom show, followed by Batman. My friend was quite a bit bigger than me, and he used to like to wrestle. His secret weapon was to sit on me - my only secret weapon was to tickle his big belly until he got off me. One day, my friend asked me if I wanted to go with him and his family to their cottage. I accepted the invitation, and off we went. On route we stopped for a bucket of chicken (dirty bird), which we ate in the car. When the meal was finished, my friend's mom put everything in the Colonel's bag and tossed it out the window. I was horrified, but there was nothing I could do. At Ste. Anne's we try to be environmentally and socially responsible. We use cold water for the laundry, (although I heard on the radio today that southwestern Ontario is experiencing a resurgence of bedbugs, the treatment of which is a hot water wash cycle), we separate our garbage, although our municipal recycling plant is getting more and more particular about what they want to accept as "dry" waste, so we're sending more and more "uncertain" waste to the landfill; we changed all our bulbs to the new compact fluorescent type, although some people believe that the mercury levels in these bulbs presents a health hazard. I drive a north American made hybrid truck, but it uses just as much gas as a regular truck and much more gas than a Japanese made compact car, but I need and like my truck. Do you see my point? I love the planet, and I want to be a good person, but it seems to me there's a lot of grey out there. I'm still conflicted about so many things - I guess they call that being alive.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Two giants

Yesterday Dave, Chef, Natalie and I boarded our return flight home from Heathrow on a brand new Air Canada 777 jumbo jet. We had arrived in London from Paris the morning before so that I could give Natalie and Chef a very quick tour of the highlights of London before crossing the big pond. As always, London was spectacular, although extremely expensive and crowded. We opted to take a tour on one of the double decker buses, which turned out to be a good decision as the main streets were just packed with people from every part of the world. I have often heard Canadians complain about Air Canada, saying what a terrible experience they've had and how they'll never fly with them again. I have also heard people complain about Heathrow, but I have to say, I've had generally very good experiences with both Air Canada and Heathrow, and this trip was no exception. The new plane was great - very spacious and modern, and the service was superb. I still can't get over the fact that these huge machines can actually get off the ground, and then gently drop down in just the right spot; truly amazing. Heathrow, for all the masses of people who fly through there every day, was very efficient, and I always feel that the security is above and beyond any other airport, so, I have no complaints. Our flight arrived 1/2 an hour early due to favourable headwinds, and the drive home was quick and easy. I noticed that the new over 50 km. law has come into effect - you can lose your car and your licence. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Generally the traffic on the 401 moves between 130 and 140 km/hr. with a few cars zipping past even at those speeds. All in all, I would say our trip was a success. It was great to spend some extended time with 3 key members of my executive team, and I think we all found this trip to be educational. However, I think I may be getting too old and too set in my ways to act as host and tour guide - maybe I'll find someone else to play this role in the future. I've heard good things about Butterfield and Robinson. As always, it was great to be home. Family gathered for a turkey dinner last night at John and Nancy's. Massie really missed me - he gave me a very enthusiastic welcome. No matter where I travel to, I always feel pride when I return to Ste. Anne's. Not meaning to sound boastful, (as I really believe we only get to care for, not really "own" things in our lifetime), but Ste. Anne's really is a stunningly beautiful place full of warm and genuine people that I love to come home to. As far as the "budget priced" hotels we stayed at, I would recommend without hesitation, the Hotel des Halles in Paris, The Holiday Inn Express Hammersmith in London and the Killy Hevlin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. If you're planning a trip to Ireland and like to travel a little more up-market, and if you like to golf, we did visit and snoop around the Manor House in Enniskillen and the Slieve Russell Hotel in Ballyconnell, Northern Ireland and found them to most most luxurious and well run. On a previous trip to Ireland I've stayed at some wonderful hotels in the south - just email me if you'd like a recommendation. Finally, my father and my inspired mentor turns 80 this Friday. If you've met Carl at the spa over the years and would like me to pass on your birthday wishes to him, send me an email and I will gladly be your messenger.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

We arrived in Paris on Sunday night, September 30 and took the Metro to our hotel, which is located in Chatelet, close to Pont Neuf and Notre Dame. Once we got settled in our rooms we met up with Dan and Rebecca and set out in search of a place to eat. There are many choices, but everyone was a little tired and hungry so we picked an Italian restaurant in nearby Les Halles, a very busy shopping area with a busy night life. Wine flowed freely and before long we were all feeling pretty good and very happy to be in Paris, a city where every way you look is a piece of art. After dinner we set out for a walk along the River Seine towards the Eiffel Tower. It turned out to be a long walk, but full of beautiful sights. We ran into lots of inebriated Irish drowning their sorrows after losing in a rugby match to Argentina. Natalie selected high heals for her first walk about in Paris, against my advice, I might add - a big mistake! She ended up barefoot, and the next thing I knew an Irishman was giving her a foot massage, with the best intentions, I'm sure. By the time we climbed the stairs to the Palais des Congress (littered with more revellers) we conceded defeat to the walk and hailed a taxi. We asked the driver to take us to our hotel via the Champs Elysees, making for a spectacular ending to a perfect day. The following day (Monday), we spent at the Villepinte Exposition Park - a massive conference centre out near the airport. We spent the better part of the day looking at spa products and equipment. There certainly is no shortage of choice. One of the more exciting areas was the "green" area, full of "Eco-Cert" products made with natural and organic ingredients. After returning to our hotel for a rest, we set out on foot to Sacre Coeur, a spectacular basilica overlooking the city. Just as we completed our trek and made a final dash up the last set of stairs, a thunderstorm erupted. We all took this opportunity to lose ourselves in this beautiful and holy place. One member of our party was brought to tears, she was so moved. When the rain let up, we assembled with the intention of making the last part of our journey to Montmarte to have some dinner and check out some of the art on display in this area. Unfortunately, in all the commotion we lost Chef Christopher. We had arranged that if anyone got lost they would leave a message in a prearranged voicemail box, failing which they would return to the hotel. I looked everywhere for a pay phone, and finally found one after walking at least 3 miles. I guess cell phones are making phone booths obsolete. Not finding a message from Chef, I returned to the group and we decided to head back to the hotel, where we found Chef, who had arrived a few minutes before us. I was really proud of him - finding your way around Paris is not an easy task. We went out for a pizza supper in our neighbourhood once again, and turned in for the night. On
Tuesday we set out for Notre Dame and then to the Chateau Versailles. There really isn't any point trying to describe either of these places - you just have to experience them. For me, visiting Versailles and Marie Antoinette's Maison after seeing the movie by the same name, was exciting. In previous visits I'd never been able to find her collection of buildings. They are quite unique. One can't help but feel for her - she must have had a lonely life. That night everyone was really tired, which made for an early night. Dave, Chef and I went out for some sushi, a nice light meal to end another perfect day in Paris.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


A couple of months ago, I received an invitation to attend a spa conference in Paris called Beyond Beauty. The agenda was intriguing; especially considering some of the changes we are anticipating in the year ahead, but I thought that the practicality of attending such a show was out of reach. Before long, I received a call from an agency promoting the show. They told me that we were VIP guests, meaning there would be no charge to attend. This news, coupled with an accumulation of Aeroplan points threatening to expire if not used gave me a reason to casually ask Chef Christopher and Spa Manager Natalie if they would be interested in accompanying David and I to the show. I had also been talking to my friends Dan and Rebecca about a fall trip. That's the short story of how we ended up in front of the Eiffel Tower on Sunday night. I really believe in involving my key staff in decision making. Giving them the tools to participate is one of the joys of my job. For those who are interested in the minutia of our travels, I have kept a dairy of some of the highlights. I am a couple of days behind, uploading this entry from an internet cafe just beyond the gates of the Chateau Versailles, (with a French keyboard - so please excuse my typing mistakes). I will try to catch up in a couple of days: For those who are not interested, feel free to close this window now.

Tuesday Sept 25 - leaving Ste. Anne's; Hitched a ride with a couple of regular spa guests (and good friends) Neil and Belinda. As soon as we're on the 401, all of us, including the driver are absorbed in our PDAs as they start beeping, clicking and ringing. Stress levels start to rise. Approaching downtown Toronto, there are shades of road rage on the DVP as time becomes our unseen combatant. This trip gave me some insight into the stressful lives our clients live when they leave the spa and return to their real lives; Neil seemed so blissfully calm at the spa enjoying his lunch while gazing out over the gardens towards the rolling Northumberland without the interference of technology and time. Once we arrived in the city I took the TTC to the Old Mill where I met up with Dave, Natalie, and Chef. After attending a media event for Ontario's Finest Inns we made our way to the Valhalla Inn where we would stay the night prior to our departure the following day. The Vallhalla is a bit of a throwback to the 60s. I think my parents used to take us there for special occasions when I was a kid. It hasn't changed much, which was comforting in a strange sort of way.

Wednesday September 26 - We got up early only to find ourselves fighting through a traffic jam on the 427 caused by yet another tractor trailer accident. A smooth flight on Air Canada's newly made over 767, complete with a very advanced entertainment system, something that immediately brought back memories of a doomed Swiss Air flight. Our crossing was more fortunate. Thanks to strong tailwinds we arrive ahead of schedule at Heathrow despite leaving half an hour late. The captain brags that we'll reach a cruising speed of 1,000 km per hour! We took the hotel hoppa (£4 per person, about $8.50CDN for a short, 1 km. ride) to the Thistle hotel. Why is it that tourists are given such a rough ride? The Thistle, (who would name a hotel after a prickly weed?) is a typical airport hotel. We arrived to a lobby full of crabby old English people lined up to check in. I followed the lead of the Brits in the line ahead of me and made a fuss so that we could have the room we asked for with two beds. We then then tried to get something to eat, but were told the hotel restaurant was closed. We were referred to a nearby McDonald's, which was also closed except for the drive through. We took our Happy Meals back to the hotel where the manager promptly told us we couldn't eat at a table because he wanted to turn the lights off and go home. Another fuss ensued, after which we were allowed to eat our meals in peace. We returned to our micro sized rooms, which were nice enough except for the hair and black mold in the bathtub. Lights off at midnight so we could get a little shut eye before our 6:40 a.m. connecting flight to Belfast (an Aeroplan rule forces you to take the first flight out, even if it is at an ungodly hour). Aeroplan can be quite annoying in the travel rewards department, always acting as though points have not been paid for, something that I, as a merchant knows simply isn't true. Good night!

Thursday September 27 - It wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be getting up at 5 a.m. to make our early morning flight with 2 wake up calls from our friendly night auditor, an automatic alarm on the TV and my cell phone alarm, all working in unison with my full bladder alert. I left David and Natalie in the room at 10 after 5 thinking they would be right behind me. By 5:30, as we were about to miss a second shuttle bus, I started to get a little annoyed. I boarded the bus and paid the fare. Luckily an American tourist tried to buy his tickets with a US $20. The driver made a big fuss about refusing the foreign money, probably aware of the mighty dollar's recent fall from grace. I jumped in, partly as the good Samaritan offering to make change and partly hoping to create enough of a delay for the rest of the party to make it onto the bus. Just as the American and I settled up the stragglers emerged from the hotel looking defiant. It took me while to cool down: I was determined not to be a grump or a control freak on this trip. Getting through Heathrow was a breeze and in no time we were on board our efficient and short British Midland flight to Belfast city airport. This small airport is located in central Belfast. It didn't take long to get our rental car and be on our way to the M1 and Enniskillen. Adjusting to the right hand drive and the round-a-bouts, especially with a standard transmission is always a bit difficult, but once you get the hang of it not a bad way to drive. Before long my passengers were sound asleep - something that always puzzles me. When I first travelled abroad I found myself in awe of everything around me that was so different; the signs, the cars, the architecture and the landscapes. I suppose I was younger and more easily impressed back then. It wasn't difficult finding Enniskillen and the hotel where we had arranged to meet my dad. It was also pretty easy finding his new (old) boat parked along the hotels dock. It was so sweet the way he and his boating chum (Michael) had outfitted the 38 ft. river cruiser with bed linens, towels, even tooth brushes and food. However, I quickly realized that my travelling companions weren't looking forward to spending 3 nights on a boat, no matter how lovingly it had been outfitted, especially with such a lovely hotel, complete with health club and spa just steps away. Still not sure where Carl was, we wondered up to the hotel to get a coffee where we found him anxiously looking for us at the front entrance. After a few hugs and handshakes we sat down in the hotel lounge where we were treated to a spectacular and traditionally Irish view of the Erne waterway, lush green fields and distant mountains. Carl was anxious to share his favourite carvery with us, so we sat down and had an very filling lunch of roast beef, roast ham, potatoes and vegetables. By this point we had discovered that the hotel offered a choice of 2 bedroom chalets along the river as an alternative to rooms in the hotel, most of which were sold out to weekend wedding parties, as we would later discover. I booked a chalet while Natalie and David checked out the spa. We had a short visit at Carl's place - a typical but practical bachelor pad just across the road from the hotel. Carl thought we might want to have a nap, given our early morning start and the time change, not to mention bellies full of protein and carbs, but we thought we'd be better to keep going, and we were anxious to experience more of beautiful Ireland. Our first stop was at Castle Cool where the National Trust offered a well kept property dotted with sheep and a lovely manor house overlooking the grounds. We took a walk around, but weren't able to go through the house as the visiting hours had been shortened for the fall. From there we went to downtown Enniskillen for a walk and some window shopping. Its a fairly typical Irish city with lots of pubs and interesting stores. The people were very friendly and eager to please. More to follow in a couple of days . . .

Monday, September 24, 2007

Falling into fall in the Northumberland Hills

It seemed to happen overnight. Just in the last day or so I've once again been reminded that fall colours really are spectacular in Ontario. This morning, walking from my office, past Sentosa over the hill to the inn I was awestruck by the magnificent display. Last night the night sky was so clear, the moon so bright casting shadows into the woods as we walked up Clouston Road to our home. And the best part of fall - the great sleeps with a cool breeze wafting through an open window and over our bed. Of course the best way to take advantage of these Ontario fall days is (in my opinion) to take a walk, preferably somewhere on the grounds at Ste. Anne's, where you can also indulge your senses in the newly expanded forest trails. Failing that, there are no shortage of recommended driving trips offered around the province; (400Eleven, Ontario Tourism). All of this made the fact that a seemingly routine software upgrade crashed last night seem more or less manageable and not worth stressing over. Maybe I'm mellowing in my old age! I'll be travelling for the next ten days, but hopefully I'll be able to find an internet connection where I can update you on our adventures.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Its 6:17 and VIA train number 69 slowly winds its way out of the bowels of Montreal’s Central Station on its way to Toronto. As we emerge from the station, the sun is reflecting off of the glass office towers as it makes its way towards the horizon. The conductor is explaining to a passenger in a thick French accent how they will be responsible for breaking the window to create an exit in the event of an emergency. We pass a basketball court surrounded by low rise (and probably low-rent) apartments, where it appears as though a film crew is setting up large lights for an evening shoot. There are signs of a city in a state of decline, lots of unattended graffiti, dirty streets and buildings, not much in the way of new construction, There is an odd mix of architectural styles. While there are signs of increasing cultural diversity, French and white is still the predominant theme here. The people don’t look particularly happy, but then they don’t look particularly sad either. Most passing conversations are either in French or English, as are many of the signs. For the past 24 hours I have been in a Montreal hotel attending a board meeting of Leading Spas of Canada, one of a handful of associations trying to represent the interests of spa owners. Like Montreal, our industry is conflicted – we know we should be working together, and we know we have tremendous potential if we could, but we just can’t seem to get over ourselves and our petty differences. I belong to 3 of the 4 associations (at one point I belonged to all of them), always finding a few people who I enjoy spending time with as we share stories about our lives and the business of being a spa operator. I’ve always had an affinity for Montreal – a little exotic, but not too far from home, slightly foreign but comfortably familiar. When I visit Quebec my French slowly starts to come back, but I’m no longer confident enough to try to form a sentence in French, so like a bad American tourist, I speak English. Over dinner last night, one of my colleagues from Quebec explains that French Canadians speak the same dialect that was spoken in France when their ancestors left 300 years ago, setting them apart from modern day Parisians. Another tells us how frustrated he is with the separatists, as he feels they are responsible for creating the economic uncertainty that prevents the Quebecois from reaching their full potential. I’ve always looked forward to a visit to Montreal, with excited anticipation, usually choosing to extend my stay by a day or so to enjoy the city. Not this time though. I can’t decide whether its me, or Montreal, but our love affair is waning somewhat. Like my visits to Toronto, I find that I am planning my escape even before I arrive. Perhaps this trip got off to an ominous start. I hailed a taxi outside the train station and asked to be taken to my hotel, which was just a short trip up hill. Normally I would have walked, but I was tired and I had my suitcase, my laptop and my briefcase to attend to. And so, when the driver took a drive around the block I thought it was either an attempt to disorient me, or possibly to avoid one way streets and prohibited turns. However, as he managed to go just the right speed to catch every red light, and when he drove past the street that the hotel was on, I questioned him. He backed up into the intersection and made a big production out of making the turn. Not surprisingly, he was then pulled over by a police cruiser. Now I’m steps from the hotel, with the meter running and the cab driver trying to defend his driving techniques to the police. A fare that should have been $5 or $6 is now approaching $10. The police repeatedly tell the driver to turn off the meter and get out of the car, but he is too busy defending himself and blaming me. I got out, paid what was owing on the meter, and walked to my hotel while the police wrote up a ticket for the failed ambassador to this once promising city. I’m not sure when I’ll be back.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The evolution of technology (and service)

This past weekend I received a call from the front desk letting me know that "my lady friends" were here. You see, before I became a spa guy, I was a computer geek. My first real job was as a sales clerk at the ComputerLand store at York Mills and Don Mills. For eight years I rode the technology boom of the eighties; first with the Apple IIe, followed closely by the IBM PC. Those were heady days. My lady friends were three sisters, two of whom worked with me at Computerland, with whom I shared some great times, lots of laughs, and hundreds of chicken wings. I have lots of great memories of those years, mostly to do with the fun people I met and became life long friends with. Every once in a while one of those friends shows up at Ste. Anne's for some R&R and we invariably sit down and look back on those fun times of years gone by. It's hard for me to believe that almost a quarter century has passed! In around 1990, as I was making the transition from computer geek to spa guy, only the coolest guys were sporting these new "cell phone" gadgets. My brother John, who was managing Ste. Anne's Bed & Breakfast back then had one of the early Motorola phones (pictured above). I either took his over, or got one of my own, I can't remember. In any case, I carried (or should I say lugged) that thing with me everywhere. We must have looked so goofy with those monstrosities strapped to our waists; yes we did have holsters for them! It's no wonder that the "hip" kids of the day waited a little while before adopting this trend. From 1993 or so to about 3 months ago, I have carried a cell phone, and I've always used Bell Mobility as my service provider. You see, up until recently, Bell was the only carrier that provided a fairly good signal to our "back-woods" location (five minutes off the 401). Even today, Bell, through Rogers charges us an arm and a leg (about $2,000 a month) for our high speed connection because we're "off the main service corridor) - ridiculous. So, when things started to sour with Bell (very long story), I started looking for another cell phone supplier. Telus ads speak to me, so while wandering through the Oshawa centre one Saturday afternoon, I found myself being drawn into the Telus store. The first thing I noticed was that everyone seemed to be having fun, but in a "chillin" kind of way - and everyone looked cool. I approached a Telus representative who was playing with his HTC P4000 and asked him, "if I switch from my Bell phone to a Telus phone like the one you're using, will my love life improve?" "Ya man" he replied, "girls come up to me in the bar all the time and enter their numbers into my phone; they love it". Works for me; I was sold. Three months later, I'm still a huge Telus fan, so much so that this past weekend I took Dave back to the Oshawa Telus store to look at a new phone for him. Anna immediately recognized us and approached us with a big smile (pictured above). Again, it didn't take much to convince Dave to leave Bell for Telus and to opt for one of the new Blackberries to replace his aging Treo. This phone not only keeps you in touch anywhere in the world, it also guides you with a built in GPS! Amazing! And even more amazing is Telus technical support - a big change from Bell. So there's the short version of how I transitioned from a computer geek to a phone geek to a connected spa guy, and from conservative Bell to hip Telus all in the blink of 25 short years. Today, cell phones have become an essential business tool, providing instant access to email, and a variety of useful productivity tools. Hard to believe that we lived in a time where communication meant tying yourself to a wall or a desk with a strand of copper wire and an old phone. Those who know me well will know that as I write this last line, my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek. Have a good day.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Just how dumb do you think we are Dalton?

I may be taking a bit of a risk arguing against "Family Day" in February, but honestly, I can't be the only one who sees the desperation in this recent election promise from Dalton McGuinty. In a recent news clip Dalton scratches his head and says something like "It's a long time between New Years Day and, gee whiz, when is the next holiday - Easter?" What he doesn't mention is that Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day, 3 of 8 existing winter statutory holidays for families all fall within a week of each other. He also doesn't mention the punitive cost of statutory holidays to businesses like mine, most of whom are expected to be open every day of the year. In our case, an additional statutory holiday in February will cost about $10,000 in a month that already has enough challenges just to break even. And he doesn't mention that this election promise won't cost his government a thing - it's just another day of the year that government offices and the legislature will be closed. In fact, the government will make money by adding another statutory holiday by collecting more income tax on the premium wages that will be paid out by business that are expected to be open. So who pays the cost of adding another statutory holiday? Taxpayers like you and I do. All of the premium wages paid out on another statutory holiday will ultimately be passed on to consumers, and our economy will suffer another blow from a productivity stand point as measured against our global competitors. I'm not adverse to holidays, but I am adverse to a politician who tries to give something away that doesn't belong to him in a desperate bid to hang on to power. And last time I checked, if an employee wants to take a holiday in February, there isn't much standing in their way.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Can you see me now?

At 2:35 in the morning of January, 1981 a fire broke out in the Inn on the Park Hotel in Toronto. Six lives were lost. On Christmas day in 1992 the Oban Inn in Niagara on the Lake burned to the ground - no lives were lost. A hotel fire is probably the biggest worry a hotel owner has to live with. You have a building full of people who aren't really familiar with the building. You also have staff engaging in activities (i.e. cooking) and charged with operating and maintaining equipment that can sometimes increase the risk of fire if the proper procedures are not in place. As such, I can honestly say that among my colleagues in the hotel business, I don't know anyone who takes the responsibility of fire safety lightly. Having said that, dealing with the government officials who hold us accountable for our actions vis a vis fire safety can sometimes be a little stressful. The Inn on the Park fire is often sighted as the single most significant event in terms of formulating the thinking behind the current legislation and regulation around hotel fire safety. People charged with public safety don't like to be blamed when human lives are lost. The Oban Inn, a very old stucture with no record or drawings of it's original construction has since been rebuilt from pictures that previous guests submitted to help the owners reconstruct this treasure true to it's original form. When Ste. Anne's added 14,000 square feet of new building to our existing 24,000 square feet of old building in 2003 we were required to bring the old building up to today's standards. This was a reasonable, but very expensive proposition, but we managed to get through it. I should note that in my view, the most important part of fire safety is an early warning system (working smoke detection). Secondly, containment and easy egress out of the building is key. This is the main difference between the fire in a high rise building, and older low rise structures. In our case, one of the less onerous requirements of our upgrades was that we provide a source of water sufficient for fighting a fire, as the local municipality did not have such a source, given our rural location. To meet this requirement, we put in a large pond, and to make it easy to get the water out of the pond year round, we installed a hydrant close to the spa. This year, we found out that the hydrant needed to pass an inspection. I got a call that the hydrant inspection people were on property and that they thought I might want to participate in their inspection of my hydrant. I like my hydrant - it's kind of a little boy/man's ultimate toy. As such, I regularly (once or twice a year), open my hydrant and watch the water run out of it. I really didn't think there would be much to an inspection. Boy was I wrong! The inspection entailed hooking up a pump to the hydrant and pumping water backwards into the hydrant, then letting water flow out, to make sure there were no blockages in the 6 inch pipe that feeds the hydrant. It also involved making sure there was a screen on the pipe. I also got a lecture on the fancy wrench that is to be used to open the hydrant, to avoid over tightening, which can damage the seal. Finally, the hydrant needs to be painted so that it can be distinguished from the municipal hydrants (the closest municipal hydrant is 5 miles away), and so that the fire department would have no trouble finding it. I told the inspector that I didn't think ours needed painting (at a rate of $125 an hour) and I didn't like the idea of installing a screen, as I thought this was more likely to get blocked than an open ended 6 inch pipe. Well, guess what; even though water flowed freely and plentifully and our hydrant was municipal yellow, we failed the inspection! I'm such a naughty boy. To inflict punishment on myself, I took on the task of painting the hydrant red (not to be confused with painting the town red). I think I did a pretty nice job. Next I'm going to swim to the bottom of the pond and install a screen on the pipe. I'll probably have to hold my breath for a long time. Wish me luck.

Monday, September 3, 2007

An update, and thanks for the encouragement

To all of you who called or wrote to me with words of encouragement for my little building project; thank you. After a week of avoidance, yesterday I made my way back to my shack and made some significant progress with the roof. It's funny, for several days the prospect of getting a 4X8 sheet of plywood up on the roof and nailing it in place by myself kept me from trying, so to get started, I cut a sheet of plywood in half. I applied this first sheet vertically instead of horizontally, which made it much easier to align with the trusses. I did have to pull out a few nails to straighten out a couple of the trusses and set my standards just a little lower, but in the end, it all came together. The image shown above is reality, as opposed to the last photo, which is how I imagine my shack will look someday (the top one is the view from the shack, the second the shack itself). I thought it was time to let "reality" out of the closet. Lesson learned: take your time to think your problems through, and don't be afraid to break big problems into little challenges.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

When reality isn't quite what you imagined

A few years ago, I discovered a place on the back of my property with an absolutely stunning view over the rolling green fields with a backdrop of Lake Ontario. In the winter, this place is along the trail my snow mobiling buddies and I take to the Northumberland Forest and beyond for our snowmobiling adventures. Since discovering the natural calming effects of this lookout, I've had it in my mind that someday I would build a little cabin there with my bare hands. I thought that this exercise in manual labour would be good for me - an opportunity to get rid of frustration and maybe even build some muscle. I was also excited by the possibility of using the on board generator feature built into my GMC Hybrid truck. In my mind's eye, my cabin would have a big window to take in the view from a hammock or a comfy old sofa. There would be no TV, no telephone, no reliance on electricity; just me (and my dog) and the view. Maybe it's all part of my approaching middle age, but I find myself longing for the simpler things in life. I'm hopeful that this isn't the first step towards becoming a reclusive old man like the unabomber. My cabin was supposed to look something like the picture above. To get things started, I hauled some lumber up to my little hide-a-way to build a floating foundation. I had some leftover 18 foot 6X6 timbers that I thought would make a good base. At the time I made the best of the fact that these old timbers had warped somewhat; nothing a few good spikes and a sledge hammer couldn't correct. Three months later and I have four walls up, windows and doors more or less installed, and roof trusses in place. This weekend I started to install the plywood on the trusses to make my roof. The little mistakes that I could get away with in the foundation and the walls have now magnified themselves into big problems on the roof. Now the cabin itself was becoming a source of frustration. I packed up my tools with my head hung low and decided I was going to have to hire professionals to fix up my mistakes. However, after a good night's sleep, a full moon and exposure to some sunshine, I've decided that with a lot of trimming and shimming I'll eventually finish my roof and be able to hang my hammock, but between now and then I expect to be making lots of trips up and down the ladder. Lesson learned - take the time and invest in the materials to build a good foundation and the tougher parts of life will come easier, also - I have a new found respect and admiration for the men and women in the construction trades who make it all look so easy. Wish me luck and maybe I'll invite you up to my cabin!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Reflections on a world without borders, apples and Chef Christopher

Many years ago (mid '90s) I travelled to Europe with my mom, her sister Barb and David. We took a train from London to Paris, to Venice, Budapest Vienna and Prague. All in all, this was a wonderful itinerary, albeit a little rushed. However, while most of eastern Europe was celebrating their new found freedom, our trip took us through Croatia which at the time was still under the control of very serious men wearing uniforms, complete with big hats. To pass through Croatia we needed to obtain a visa. Early one morning, as our train pulled into the Zagreb station a contingent of officious sounding men boarded our car, knocking loudly on our cabins exclaiming "PASSPORT". We made our way into the police station, (my mother was in her nightie) where we had our documents inspected and stamped several times. Zagreb was a pretty grey looking place and the police station was a bit of a dump. I can't say this left me with a great impression. It all seemed so silly. I don't mean to sound naive, but in today's world with today's technology it seems to me that borders are such an old fashioned and inherently selfish thing of the past; designed to keep the unfortunate out, to intimidate and to collect taxes. Now, in one of his more brilliant moments, George Bush has come up with the idea of building walls along his borders, and Stephen Harper is arming our border guards! Wow. Fast forward to 2007 and I had the pleasure of having a shiatsu massage with our newest Shiatsu therapist, a Croatian Canadian named Drazen. I elected to have my treatment in one of our gazebos, something you definitely have to try. It was probably one of the best spa treatments I've ever had. His technique combined with his genuine warmth and sincerity complemented his professionalism and self assured knowledge of his craft. Talk about globalization - born in Croatia, practicing the Japanese art of Shiatsu in Canada! Drazen tells me that things in Croatia have improved dramatically since I was last there. I'm inclined to believe him, and will be sure to stay a while next time, if only to meet more people like Drazen. Back in the early 60s, when I was just a little boy my maternal grandfather owned an apple orchard at Dufferin and Finch which was considered at the time to be on the northern fringe of the growing city of Toronto. In their wisdom, another bunch of officious bureaucrats from the province of Ontario expropriated my grandfather's farm to turn it into either a land fill site or an incinerator - I can't remember which it was. While the plans to turn this beautiful orchard into a final resting place for the city's garbage were never fulfilled, the orchard and my grandfather never recovered from this cruel decision. I have memories of visiting the barn where a huge machine crushed the apples to make cider. The smell of the freshly crushed apples was intoxicating. This time of year, as the long days of sun start to ripen apples on the fruit laden branches memories of my grandfather, who was also an MD, and his passion for healing and farming start to float back out of the recesses of my mind. On Sunday I spent most of my day puttering around the spa, picking up after guests too relaxed to remember (or care) where they left their sunglasses or their half finished bottle of water, and moving sprinklers around to try to give the parched grass a little refreshment. As I came through the central stone archway into the courtyard with one of the sprinklers, a couple of guests opened a window on the second floor and proclaimed "We love Ste. Anne's." They made my day! Full of glee and pumped up with pride, I then went to find Chef Christopher, who happened to be picking some fresh (organic) produce from our kitchen garden for his spa dinner guests. On my way to the kitchen garden, I passed through an old orchard just to the east of the tennis courts. The branches are heavy with small but tasty, crisp apples. I wish I knew how to prune a fruit tree so that I could bring this orchard back in my grandfather's memory. I should have paid more attention to him when he was alive. As I approached Chef I was overcome with a sense of gratitude and affection for having this gifted, kind and extremely talented man in my life, and the lives of Ste. Anne's guests for the past seven years. I count him among my good friends. If you haven't had a chance to meet the man behind the culinary team at the spa, be sure to introduced yourself next time you are here supping at his table. Chef Christopher is in the final stages of launching our own line of Ste. Anne's jams, marinades and dressings - not to be missed. While the rustic, natural beauty of Ste. Anne's makes it the perfect spot for a healing oasis, it is the 130 people who have been called to work here, like Chef Christopher and Drazen, and my mother Nan - (responsible for all the decorating touches) that make it an earthly paradise for so many.