Saturday, February 20, 2010

Fingers crossed ...

I am probably going to get on an Antarctic cruise starting March 1st ... have been waitlisted, but it appears that some of the people registered have failed to make their final payment. So that means they open up the waitlist to other people (like me) who have expressed an interest.

Whoo-hoo! Keep your fingers crossed for me. I should know in the next day or so.

I decided it would be very cool to hit every continent this year, so Antarctica had to be on the list. And since I was planning on going to South America anyway ... well, why not start at the very bottom, after cruising down south, and work my way back up? That way I'll have made it to the Inca Trail part of South America after the rain has gone away, and I won't have to hike through knee-deep mud. And I'll spend time down south while it's still warm and sunny. In fact, I'll spend a few weeks in Ushuaia afterwards, as they have a pretty good Spanish school and I'd like to improve upon my very rudimentary knowledge.

I'll let ya know. If I get in, it means sailing for Antarctica on March 1st. Watch this space!

Ladies who lunch, and J.K. fries

Some of you are probably wondering what the hell I'm still doing in Toronto. This year off was about travelling, wasn't it?

Well, I alluded to some of what I've been up to in a earlier post (knocking off every single thing that has been lingering on my to-do list for years). But I've been having fun as well as being practical, too. This is a great city when you have time to enjoy it!

I got a glimpse one day of what my life might be like if I suddenly became independently wealthy and didn't ever have to work for a living. Because I was Toronto Symphony Orchestra subscriber last year, they invited me to their launch at Roy Thomson Hall of the 2010-11 season. On a whim, I opted to go; as well as the scoop on next season, we were also invited to stay for a rehearsal, which I was curious to see.

I wasn't exactly the norm for attendees at this event; there was a guy sitting next to me who summed it up succinctly when he stage-whispered to me "You know, between us we bring down the average age in the room by about 30 years." Makes sense, I suppose, since most people my age or younger would generally have to be at work at this time of day; if you're older and retired you have the time to go to these things, and if you're wealthy and not required to work at all, even better.

So I was quite a bit less glossy than most of the women there. I have moments from time to time when I go all out with hair and make-up and coordinated outfits (including, of course, fabulous shoes), but mostly I live in jeans and boots when I don't have to go in to the office. Most of the other women there, however, were done up to the nines: perfect sleek bobs (expensively cut and styled), understatedly elegant suits, conservative but expensive shoes, and make-up so expertly applied that they scarcely looked made up. A few looked me up and down in what might have registered as horror if they weren't so terribly gracious and soignee.

I realized as I talked to some of them that these were all women who were wealthy and professionally-social: the ladies who lunch. I'd never actually encountered the breed before, and they're interesting to observe in a pack. I almost wished I'd dressed up as well so I could attempt to infiltrate and learn first-hand what it was like to be one of them.

I have always worked for a living. Everyone I know works for a living. Most of us come from comfortable backgrounds with parents in professional occupations, but we didn't grow up rich. Some of us now have reasonably well-remunerated careers and can afford to indulge ourselves (gourmet restaurants for the foodies, Jimmy Choo stilettos for those with a shoe fetish). But we still have to work for it -- it doesn't get handed to us on a platter, silver or otherwise.

These women had a completely different attitude. The sheer sense of entitlement that radiated from them was almost palpable; I'm sure it never crossed the minds of most of them that they would ever have to worry about a paycheck. I can't quite imagine what it would be like to have a life made up of charity lunches, spa days and regular salon appointments, couture-buying trips to New York and patron-of-the-arts events like the TSO launch.

It definitely isn't me. I'm not sure I want to go back to schlepping into an office every day, but I do know myself well enough to know that I have to have a challenging job of some kind. That doesn't necessarily mean climbing the corporate ladder or making tons of money; it means something that I find stimulating and stretches my abilities.

But it was kind of fun having a glimpse into that other world.

My version of being a "lady who lunches" was to take myself to Hank's afterwards for a scrumptious sandwich and some of Jamie Kennedy's imcomparable fries. That's as glossy as I need to get.

Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy

(To the friend who keeps reminding me I haven't updated my blog regularly ... you see? I listened and I'm catching up. :-) )

If you've read the previous two posts, you know that I took the train from Toronto out to Vancouver, where I visited my sister. (Poor Steve, my brother-in-law, had to put up with both MacLellan sisters-in-law in less than a month, as Shelley also went out a couple of weeks later. Fortunately he's a very tolerant and patient man. Lots of practice living with Julie, I expect ...)

I got up at 4 a.m. one dark and damp Vancouver morning, and caught a flight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I travelled through most of the States as a child (lots of travel being a fringe benefit of having two teacher parents with summers off) but hadn't ever made it to this particular corner of the country.

After a long, long layover in Denver -- I was flying on airline points and couldn't be too fussy about connections -- I finally made it to Jackson as the sun was setting. Sunset over the Rockies was spectacular, and I got to get off the plane down the stairs to the tarmac (for some reason, I always find this very amusing), so I was off to a good start. I had tried to organize the entire trip -- Toronto to Vancouver to Jackson and back to Toronto -- by train, but the American rail system, at least for this particular itinerary, is just silly. (Hence the arrival at the airport instead.)

A transplanted Canadian friend (he now lives in England) had arranged a ski trip for himself to Jackson Hole, so I'd opted to join him. The reviews I'd read ahead of time about skiing in Jackson made me a little bit nervous -- it's challenging, and I knew how out of shape my legs were going to be, since my very good intentions to do lots of squats beforehand did not turn into reality (at least not very often ... I kept forgetting).

I did eventually get up the courage to try a few black runs, however, and since I am now writing to tell you so, you know that I lived through the experience! I didn't even injure myself. Although, by the standards of the boys staying in our hostel, that meant I wasn't trying hard enough -- they seemed to gather in the common room at the end of every day specifically to compare injuries and see who'd hurt himself the worst. That guy "won". Ah, the joys of testosterone.

Oh, yes, the hostel ... did I tell you I stayed in one in Jackson? It was pretty basic, but perfectly respectable as hostels go, and uncrowded enough that we didn't have to share our bunkroom with any of the testosterone-fuelled snowboarder boys. I'm not a hotel snob, so I was pretty happy with the hostel environment ... at least once I got used to being, oh, twice as old as most other people there! (But I look younger than my age, don't I?

We stayed in Teton Village, which is the purpose-built village at the base of the ski resort, but went into Jackson (the town) a few times. (Jackson Hole refers to the entire valley, as well as the ski resort.) It looks like a John Wayne movie -- a perfect little Wild West town where I could easily picture a gunslinger or two hitching up their horses outside the saloon. The dominant decorating theme is antlers (the elk variety): antler arches in the town square, antler lamps and wine racks and coat hangers for sale in shops all around.

I declined to buy any Western-themed souvenirs, although I was very tempted by a pair of cowboy boots with teal embroidered flowers (and a stetson to match). I think I would have looked very fetching.

Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, Jackson
Lots of cowboy hats and western drawls everywhere I went ... on balance, I'm a big fan of the cowboy look. This possibly wouldn't be so entertaining if I saw it every day -- maybe then I'd ooh and aah over men in banker suits instead. But, being the urban Toronto chick that I am, I see the guys in suits all the time. Cowboys? Never. Well, except at Pride, but that's a different kind of cowboy.

We even hit an authentic cowboy saloon, called (appropriately enough) the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. Saddles for bar stools, classic bluegrass band on stage, and couples two-stepping in perfect sync ... and steaks large enough to feed you for a week, should you wish to order one (I stuck to the modest 6-oz version). I think I found this place much more amusing than my friend Steve, but I'll chalk that up to his jet lag and not to any prejudice against cowboys.

National Elk Refuge, Jackson Hole
As well as the cowboys, I got up close and personal with other wildlife -- thousands of elk take refuge in the valley during the winter, and are not at all bothered by horses pulling a sleigh-load of camera-happy tourists through the herd. The elk were magnificent, but I am too much of an urbanite to tell you the difference between elk, caribou, and reindeer, so we'll just have to take it on faith that the guide knew what he was talking about.

The coyotes I recognized, although they were very much smaller than I'd expected; I think an average-size Siberian Husky would be larger than a coyote. And I also learned that, in Wyoming at least, it is a "KY-yoat", not a "kye-OH-tee" as I would pronounce. Not sure if this applies to ALL coyotes, or just the Wyoming variety, but it sounds oddly charming in a flat Western twang.

I started to get sick before I came home ... which is why I'm now so delayed telling you about it all, as I slept almost round the clock for a few weeks with pneumonia. All's now well, though, so watch this space for further developments!

Friday, February 19, 2010

The grass isn't greener, it's just different

There will always be people who think they know how you should be living your life. Maybe you SHOULD have a successful career and tirelessly climb the corporate ladder. Maybe you SHOULD have no paid job at all and stay home to raise a family. You SHOULD play the field, or you SHOULD settle down with a nice, sober, responsible man. (I can hear my former therapist's voice in my head now: "Stop SHOULD-ing all over yourself!")

Being female, most of those opinions I've heard centre on me finding a man, having several children and getting a set of matching china. I'm luckier than many of my friends my age -- I didn't have one of those mothers like theirs whose first question always was "So do you have a boyfriend yet?" -- but even without that constant voice in my ear, I still absorbed some of the expectations. This, despite a staunchly independent spirit and decidedly feminist worldview ... such is the power of the feminine mystique.

Growing up Catholic probably had something to do with it too. As a good Catholic girl, I was to save myself for marriage and welcome as many children as God chose to send me. Again, I was lucky in that I had parents with a somewhat more liberal interpretation of what it means to be Catholic -- but an old-school grandmother, among others, that I probably made the happiest I'd ever made her the Christmas I showed up at her house with a boyfriend in tow. (An experience which I never repeated -- oh, of course I had other boyfriends, I just never brought them 'round again!)

Now that I'm 40-something and living in a (mostly) gay neighbourhood, the voices and opinions I hear have changed decidedly. And I'm a lot more comfortable in my own skin than I was when I was, say, 16, and a lot more sure that I get to make up my life to suit myself, not anyone else. But still, occasionally, that niggling little voice whispers in my ear that I need to settle down, find a mate ... in short, get a "real" life.

I have the career thing under control, so I don't ever get bothered by that little voice. I can climb the corporate ladder perfectly well, thank you very much ... I'm just not sure I want to keep doing it any more. (This year off will help me figure that one out.) It's the personal that always gets me, where I'm occasionally beset by doubt that maybe I SHOULD start listening to those voices after all. I was reminded of this when I went to Vancouver recently to visit my sister.

Julie is the sister who's closest in age to me, and the one I have always inevitably been compared to. (Shelley was far enough behind in age that we never had the same rivalry.) I was gifted academically -- well, so was Julie. Some musical talent and a love of writing? Guess what, same for Julie. The one area that I was always, always able to best her was math -- so it may not be a surprise that I ended up doing a mathematics degree. It's the one field I could make entirely my own!

This comparison never came from her, of course -- she's not mean-spirited. It was teachers, relatives, friends ... we generally dealt with most of the same people till we went our separate ways at university. But regardless of the reason, I internalized some of the pressure, and would sometimes compare myself to her and feel that I came up short.

I still do this occasionally. She has a life in Vancouver that obviously makes her very happy -- sweet and loveable husband (who was a friend of mine at university, incidentally), a job that she has wanted to do since she was a little girl and a close-knit circle of friends that she often gathers in her lovely 1940's bungalow. I look at that, or hear her talk about it, and think she seems utterly content ... and then reflect on my own turmoil and uncertainty about where I want to go next, how I want to live, and feel once again that maybe I've come up short. What's wrong with me, that I haven't figured it all out as she has?

But I realized something finally when I visited her in Vancouver recently. Yes, she has a great life, and yes, it's probably perfect for her. But you know what? I wouldn't choose it for myself. This isn't in any way a criticism of the choices that she's made -- just a recognition, finally, that what's right for me will probably not be the same thing.

And I realized that I kind of like not knowing what's coming next ... from high school to university to travelling to work to climbing the corporate ladder, I've always felt like the next direction was obvious. Maybe not everything I've done was the best choice I could have made, but you know what? Every good and bad choice along the way have combined to get me where I am right now, which is pretty good, actually.

I don't know exactly what's next, but that's also exactly what makes it fun. Instead of barrelling along a highway in a pre-determined direction, I'm standing at the crossroads. And whichever fork I pick is up to me -- I can even try out a few if I want, who says it has to be just one? Maybe I'll keep trying out different paths, and never land on a final destination at all.

And I'm going to stop with the SHOULD-ing already.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's the Journey, not the Destination

[NOTE if you’re reading this on Facebook: it’s an imported snippet from my blog, which you can find here Or click the link at the bottom of the Facebook note.]

Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, it’s both: the journey and the destination are both an important part of the experience. I had that recently, when I hopped aboard “The Canadian”, the Toronto-Vancouver train that covers four time zones and about three thousand miles.

This is the luxury of my year off: how long it takes me to get anywhere doesn’t have to be a consideration. (At least not until November or December, when I start to realize that my time is almost up!) So when I went out west at the end of December to visit my sister in Vancouver, I could indulge myself and travel the way I most love to go: the train.

Getting back on the train in Hornepayne, Ontario
There is no better way to travel, really. How else will you get to see the trees and lakes and rocks of northern Ontario wilderness slide into the vast horizon and stark clear light of the Prairies, which in turn give way to the gentle swell of foothills in western Alberta and then the jagged peaks of the Rockies, doused in snow and ice? How else do you get to meet an odd assembly of Canucks from all corners of the country and all walks of life, as well as a scattering of foreigners? How else are you going to eat and drink and be merry for four days straight, while uniformed employees scurry around to fulfill your every whim?

It beats the heck out of flying. Who wants to be squashed uncomfortably into a metal canister that hurtles through the sky, when you can glide over the countryside with a gentle rocking motion that lulls you into a state of utter relaxation? And train food (the Via Rail variety at least) delivers decadence in spades, when you travel Sleeper class out west – I think I ingested approximately 5,000,000 calories between Toronto and Vancouver, and enjoyed every single one. A plastic-wrapped sandwich in economy class on a plane, on the other hand, doesn’t even pretend to be real food.

The first (and only other) time I took the train across Canada, it wasn’t quite the same. Oh, I still enjoyed it, but travelling economy (the euphemistically-named “Comfort” class) doesn’t deliver the same sense of indulgence, or the nostalgia of feeling like you’re stepping back in time to the Golden Age of rail travel. Economy class means a seat, not a cozy little cabin, and food either purchased on the fly at random train stations along the way or from the limited selection in the little cafĂ© on board. And it means getting very up close and personal with all your fellow travelers for the entire time (no doors to shut for solitude), and those fellow travelers may or may not have bothered to line up for the shower each day.

Travelling sleeper class, on the other hand, is a delight from start to finish. I stepped on the train on a Tuesday night after Christmas, with a very deferential porter taking my bags to my cabin and another attendant meeting me in the lounge car with a complementary glass of champagne. And it only got better from there.

I have already mentioned the food, but it's worth noting again – the four-course dinner on New Year’s Eve (which I spent on the train) was particularly pleasing. The exclusively Canadian wines served on board were equally delightful. The round-the-clock coffee, cookies and snacks laid out in the lounge car were entirely too tempting every time I walked by.

My cabin was a single, just for me; you can also opt for double or triple (presuming you’re travelling with other people), or a berth which is a seat by day and folds down into a bed by night, with a curtain for privacy. Showers are plentiful, so the company of Sleeper class patrons is still bearable up close by day 4 in a way that Economy class passengers aren’t.

The single cabin (picture to the left) was a marvel – everything you could require in a living space, in very compact form. It was just about the size of the bunk when it was pulled down at night (which I found in surprise by pulling on a lever and wondering, “Well, now, what does this do?”), and a comfortable couch to lounge on during the day. I brought along James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I bought in the Irish Writers’ Museum in Dublin in 1994) with the intention of finally finishing it, but found myself more often just gazing out the window and daydreaming.

My little cabin on the train
It’s hard to beat train life. You wake up in the morning, whenever you please, and meander down to the dining car for breakfast at any time in the generous period allotted to it. By the time you get back to your cabin, the bed has magically disappeared and your toiletries and towels have been refreshed by an unseen hand. You can while away the hours staring out the window at an ever-changing landscape, or wander down to the lounge car to chat to your fellow passengers, join in an enthusiastic game of cards or a cut-throat game of Monopoly. And you can always have a glass of wine, whenever you like.

You arrange with a pleasant attendant in the dining car which seating you’d like for lunch and dinner, and share each meal with a variety of companions. It could be the kind you’d expect on the train (affluent retired couples with the money and time to travel in style), or it might be a filmmaker from Winnipeg (who does construction on the side) on his way back from a screening of his documentary in Halifax. It might be a Montreal couple about your age, who’ve never been west of Toronto before, or a young Irish woman on a year-long adventure in North America. Whoever it is, you’ll all be fed well and as much as you like – it’s all included in your ticket, so why not?

By the time you’ve had dinner (real china and flatware, hearty portions of food exquisitely presented, and always, always a decadent dessert) and made your way back to your cabin for the night, more unseen hands have turned down your bed and made it afresh with crisp new sheets. You may choose to go back to the lounge car for a while, and imagine that you’re in an old Hollywood film with a Sinatra soundtrack, as you sip your martini. Or you may go to your cabin and read desultorily for a while, or watch the stars or the Northern Lights, but eventually your eyelids droop and you let the train lull you to sleep as it clickety-clacks onward through the night.

And when you wake up again (maybe even in time to see the sun rise), you realize anew the great benefit of sleeping on a train: you get to wake up to a new view every morning. The first morning, I woke up in the frozen north of Ontario, and was knee-deep in snow when I stepped off the train at our first break. The second morning, I woke to a larger-than-life Prairie sunrise and the clear cold of a Winnipeg morning. (And I do mean cold … -42C with the wind chill. Needless to say, my Toronto winter gloves were not up to the task. Nor had I thought to put on longjohns before stepping off the train.)

Morning three brought the portals of doom: Refinery Row in Edmonton in the half-light just before sunrise is a chilling and sinister place. Morning four, of course , brought Vancouver – ahead of schedule! Vancouver was the destination, and I love every chance I get to visit my sister and brother-in-law. But the journey that got me there was one I’d make again, and again.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I'm Baaaacccckkkkk ....!

Yes, I know. You don't have to say it. I haven't been here for a while.

Well, I was away (gallivanting around Western Canada and U.S.), then I had pneumonia for a few weeks, and then (last week) I started a massive Clean Sweep of my apartment. Totally satisfying to get rid of all that unwanted clutter; some stuff I'd kept "just in case" and some because I'd spent money on it but hadn't ever actually use it. I now have a new rule: if I haven't worn it, used it, read it, watched it or whatever in a year, it's gone. You'd be amazed how many things go out the door when you try this!

I’ve also been playing handy-woman and channeling my inner Mike Holmes-on-Homes (who, by the way, I have a secret crush on – big affable guy who knows his way around power tools, how can you go wrong?). Pictures to hang? Done, and impeccably straight. Holes in the bathroom wall to fix? Poly-filla’d like a pro. Wobbly shelves? Solid as a rock now.

There's a reason for the purge and the Ms Fix-It mania. This year isn't just about travel; it's also about figuring out how and where I want to live and what I want to do with my life beyond January 2011. So part of that is getting my home into the kind of shape that I really want it to be -- realizing that it is my "home" and not just somewhere I'm laying my head for a while, and that I'd like it to be somewhere I can gather friends without frantically stuffing all the clutter temporarily into the closet or under the bed. And somewhere I can come home and relax, instead of looking around and thinking about all the stuff I haven't done.

So that long, long list of things to fix or sort or find a home for or get rid of entirely, is getting done in what has been a remarkably productive week. I am very disciplined at work, but rarely so at home; maybe now that I don't have to go to an office, I am more able to channel that energy and productivity into my personal life. Whatever the reason, it feels good to check things off my 'to do' list that have been languishing there for years!

Non-home errands also done -- doctor, dentist, optometrist, banking, all the glamour stuff -- and I have new glasses for the first time in about 10 years. I have done well at staying away from designer shoes, but I indulged a little bit with the frames (thank you, Prada). Aren't they fabulous?

I’ve also got most of the travel prep done – getting the shots, replacing some gear, figuring out what clothes to pack – and I’m definitely heading south first. I'm still mulling over the exact itinerary, so I'll keep you posted. I am going SOMEWHERE south by the end of the month, I am just trying to decide if I can afford to go to Antarctica at the start of my South America trip. I like the idea of hitting every continent this year, so if the budget can swing it, I think I'll do it.

I'll also blog again soon to catch you up on the adventures out west -- stay tuned!