Superfluous Matter
Books - The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson

If I were to make a list of the most important and cherished bits of my childhood from my current perspective as an adult Calvin and Hobbes would be very close to the top of that list. I also believe that if I were to form such a list from my perspective as a child it would also be near the top of that list. I still own all of the original Calvin and Hobbes books, many of which I bought myself with whatever money I received as gifts or allowance. I spent countless hours reading and re-reading them and they are dog-eared with love.

Thanks to Adrienne, who had an extra copy, I now also own the beautiful hardcover edition of "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes" which gathers all of the strips and bonus material ever produced by the masterful Bill Watterson into a three-volume collection with the glorious Sunday strips printed in full colour. It is truly a monument to his creation (quite literally as it weighs 23.7 pounds).

I have not re-read any Calvin and Hobbes in many years, so it was an absolute joy to read them all start-to-finish in large format with full colour. Also, with years of additional life perspective many of the strips and the overall tone of the work take on new meaning. The art in the comic is frequently gorgeous, but the text is the true strength. Many strips are dense with words. The vocabulary is extensive and the social commentary subtle. I like to think that although I did not understand everything in Calvin and Hobbes as a child it still shaped my world view and provided me with a point of reference upon encountering new situations as I moved through the end of childhood and the first stages of being an adult.

Even now, the themes continue to be valuable. Presence in the moment; appreciation of nature; the value of friendship; finding fun in all that is around you; and most importantly imagination. These topics never become insignificant.

Like Neil Gaiman's The Sandman Calvin and Hobbes is not "just a comic." It is art. For parents of young children I cannot recommend Calvin and Hobbes strongly enough as a way to entertain them while encouraging them to think differently about the world around us.

If you've never read Calvin and Hobbes, the best way to experience it is to get a physical copy of one of the many collections and just read it. Preferably someplace quiet and alone, without the distractions of life. For anyone looking for more perspective on the work and its famously private and principled creator Bill Watterson, check out the excellent documentary Dear Mr. Watterson.

February Snowboarding

My blogging has been a bit non-existent lately as I've been travelling a bunch in the pursuit of my favourite winter activity: snowboarding. First I went to Tahoe and then to Whistler. Both were amazing and I was able to share them with amazing friends. I've written up the usual trip journal with lots of photos. The text is a bit more terse than I'd prefer because I made the mistake of not keeping notes while travelling.

Sadly the season has come to an end for me. But I'm already starting to think about where to go next year. Utah perhaps? Or maybe Colorado. Or...both?

Books - The Love of a Good Woman, by Alice Munro

I really enjoy Canadian literature. I could patriotically assert that it's because Canadian authors are the best, but I suspect my enjoyment is more a result of a greater sense of place. When you live nearby to the setting of a story, or when it is someplace you yourself used to visit regularly as a child, the story becomes much more powerful.

I've read a bunch from many Canadian authors including Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Michael Ondattje, Douglas Coupland and more. But never Alice Munro, a fact that made me feel a bit remiss until her win of the Nobel Prize in literature turned that feeling into one of outright negligence. Not only is she highly decorated (three-time winner of the Governor General's Award and winner of the Man Booker Prize), but she is a specialist in short stories (which I love) and much of her work is set in Huron County, Ontario (a place I spent a lot of time in my childhood).

So I picked one of her collections at random (and found out later it happened to have won the Giller Prize in 1998 -- just another in her stack of awards). The eight stories in the collection are some of the most powerful I've ever read (David Foster Wallace's Oblivion is the only other collection to have touched me as deeply). Munro seems to have an amazing knack for communicating emotion and as a result the stories are sticky. They stick to your brain and won't leave. I read the book slowly due to busy-life-syndrome, but just now a ten second flip through each story brought them all back to me in stunning clarity. The level of characterization she achieves is incredible given the length of the works. The way her narratives can go absolutely anywhere is literally breath-taking.

I will definitely be reading more from Munro soon.

Fine Dining

On a bit of a whim, Rob (who is up from Houston on work) and I decided to go to Canoe for dinner tonight as neither of us had ever experienced what is widely considered one of Toronto's best restaurants. Situated on the penthouse level of one of the TD buildings it certainly has one of the best views!

Although Winterlicious is on, it's almost impossible to get Winterlicious reservations at Canoe so we were "stuck" with the regular menu (and prices). We each ended up getting the chef's tasting menu, which was as follows:

Chef's tasting menu tonight at Canoe (I had the venison for my main course)
Chef's tasting menu tonight at Canoe (I had the venison for my main course)

Both Rob and I loved that the theme was chocolate and absolutely everything on the menu was superb. The other nice thing was that nothing on the menu was something I currently have the skill to reproduce myself. As far as the food goes, the most revelatory thing for me was the vanilla poached apricots that were part of the dessert. I've never tasted apricots like that before, and now I never want to taste any other kind again.

Despite the awesomeness of the food and the amazing views and the excellent service, the highlight for me was the beer. Last May I dragged my mom down crazy single track roads in Belgium in order to visit the Westvleteren Brewery so that I could buy some Westvleteren XII; considered one of the best beers in the world and rather hard to acquire outside of Belgium. Unfortunately they were all out when we arrived so I had to make due with one of their other (still excellent) brews. But tonight I remedied that failure because Canoe has bottles of Westvleteren XII! And not only that, they allowed me to keep my empty bottle and when the manager noticed me walking out with it he stopped me to give me a "special gift." Two Westvleteren XII branded glasses!

Westvleteren XII glasses and bottle!
Westvleteren XII glasses and bottle!

So yeah, I'd definitely recommend Canoe if you're ever looking for fine dining in Toronto.

Books - Telling Tales, edited by Nadine Gordimer

The only thing linking the twenty-one short stories contained in this collection is the pedigree of the authors. Side-by-side are works by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Gabriel García Márquez, Arthur Miller, Salman Rushdie, Christa Wolf, Woody Allen and John Updike.

But there is no central theme. The stories have been donated for use royalty-free by the authors and the proceeds of the sales of the book are being donated to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

And with no central theme it is difficult to write about the collection as a whole without discussing each story individually; a task too large for a single blog post.

So I'll just say that it is an excellent little book with stories that take you all over the world while touching on a huge range of the aspects of human life.

Books - Oryx and Crake; The Year of the Flood; and MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood recently released the final book of her speculative fiction trilogy that began in 2003 and with "Oryx and Crake." In order to properly prepare myself for "MaddAddam" I reread the first two books and so I should be able to talk about them here all at once with some level of clarity.

I use the term speculative fiction for the trilogy because that is how Atwood sees it. A less considered classification would file the novels as science fiction but that would be a disservice to the work. Atwood explicitly points out in the afterword that, "Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies of biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory." She has tried to paint the story of a plausible future, a task for which she is well-skilled (see "The Handmaid's Tale" for example). The trilogy is intensely dystopian for sure, but at no point are the events unimaginable.

MaddAddam follows a similar format to the other two books, tracking the trials of characters in a post-apocalyptic world while in parallel reliving the events leading up to the apocalypse through flashbacks to the characters' past. MaddAddam sees the characters of "Oryx and Crake" and those of "The Year of the Flood" meet up in the present and struggle to find safety and security in the new world. It provides a satisfying end to the trilogy without giving easy answers to the problems of the protagonists. It's not clear they will survive, but it is possible to see how they might.

Like the human protagonists, the future of the Crakers (a genetically-engineered species of neo-humans) is also left uncertain. They are peripheral characters in all three books, but even in that role it is possible to see them evolve and change. Their progenitor intended for them to be perfect and to avoid the mistakes of humanity's runaway intelligence, but it's not clear he succeeded.

I think all that is left unsaid is part of what is so great about the books. Atwood strikes a nice balance between explicit exposition and leaving things open to your own imagination. The unanswered questions are not frustrating, they are intriguing. They stick around in your mind for days.

This trilogy was excellent and I think it would appeal to anyone.

Bay Area Food

I went to the Bay Area in October and I had an absolutely fantastic time. But it wasn't the sort of trip that warrants an entry on my trips page. It was a trip of fun times with the best of friends. But there's no real cohesive narrative and not many photos so it wouldn't work well in my usual style.

Half-way through my trip I realized that everything I had eaten to that point was special so I started writing it all down and continued to do so for the rest of my time in California. I meant to make a quick post of it all upon returning home, but time gets away. So I'm doing it now, better late than never.

Saturday was the beginning. Mike and I hit up the Ferry Building where I had this epic turkey and avocado open-faced bagel sandwich thing from Wise Sons Deli along with a slice of Pluot-blackberry pie and a bunch of free hummus samples. Oh, and also what have to be the best tomatoes I've ever tasted. Seriously, it was like summer in my mouth. Is produce always that good in California? Later on we went to La Boulange Bakery and I had quiche, a really good almond croissant and this amazing mango pop. Finally, as if this wasn't all good enough, Mike and I went for dinner at the Nihon Whisky Lounge. We had an array of Japanese-style tapas dishes including a mushroom tempura that was so good. And I hate mushrooms. Plus I had three different new scotches which were all pretty great too (Nikka 21yo, Caol Ila 16yo, Ardbeg Corryvreckan). After dinner we got hummus, beer and mochi ice cream from Healthy Spirits, a speciality liquor store near Mike's house. All three of these things were great.

On Sunday we got up and met Frank, Jess and Michal for brunch at Gussie's where we had fried chicken with waffles, cheesy grits, buttermilk biscuits, deep fried cheesy grits and candied yams. This was served with brown sugar syrup and it was all totally delicious. Like stupid good, and incapacitating. So we rolled on home and didn't eat again until supper when we had homemade salad with more hummus and mochi ice cream as well as an ataulfo mango and some fresh guava. To drink we had this brilliant tea made by TWG in Singapore especially for Dean & Deluca. It was a mix of green and white and is possibly the best tea I've ever tasted.

On Monday I had mini bananas (so cute) with almond butter for breakfast and then went to this cool Mexican restaurant for lunch with some people from the Autodesk San Francisco office. The place was packed and I could tell why given the food. Dinner was with Mike and Sivanny at a Chinese restaurant called Spices 2 where we shared a bunch of dishes, the best of which was a basil and eggplant plate that was just so good. For dessert Mike and I shared a Blueberry Cheesecake crepe which was as good as it sounds.

Tuesday breakfast was a repeat, but for lunch I went back to the ferry building and had a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw and a really good (but pricey) apple. For dinner Mike and I went to Super Duper Burger and had garlic fries and pickles in addition to one of the best burgers I've ever eaten. Then we went to a free Macallan Scotch tasting event where we got to try the 10yo, 12yo, 15yo and 18yo Macallan's while a Scottish MC led us through with tasting notes. Super amazing. After that we had spanakopita and some Stalk and Barrel whisky back at Mike's place.

On Wednesday I switched from staying at Mike's house to staying with Matt and Adrienne in Cupertino. For breakfast I finished up the mini bananas and then didn't eat again till I got to south bay. First I had some homemade fig newtons from Adrienne which were great and I hope to make myself soon. For dinner we had stuff from the Apple cafeteria including a really good salad and this thai-style soup along with a chickpea noodle dish. The Apple cafeteria is kind of glorious. For dessert we had some awesome apple cake Adrienne made using four different types of apples along with some "Sea Salt and Turbinado Sugar" dark chocolate almonds and some chile-spiced dried mango, both from Trader Joe's.

On Thursday I had toast with fig butter for a quick breakfast and then met some co-workers back in San Francisco for brunch at Brenda's French Soul Food. First we shared some apple beignets which were basically the ideal form of doughnut. Then I had pork belly and a poached egg on top of cheesy grits with onion relish. I could eat that breakfast every single day and never tire of it. It was that good. I had lunch in the ILM cafeteria and it was sushi and seaweed salad prepared fresh in front on me by an actual sushi chef. So friggin' good. To drink I had raspberry-chia kombucha which seemed properly San Franciscan of me. For dinner I went back to Super Duper Burger with Matt and Adrienne and then I finished the day with the same food I started with: I took them back to Brenda's for more apple beignets. Oh, and later on we had the most gingery ginger beer I've ever tasted and it was great.

On Friday I had some yogurt and berries for breakfast before heading to the Cupertino Farmer's Market where I got to sample the best strawberries ever. They were fresh...on November 1!! Crazy. We bought a bunch of fresh produce to make a really good salad which we topped with a Meyer lemon and chile dressing. I also tried a sample of raw milk (tasted like normal milk) and a sample of persimmon. For dinner we did Mexican and I had a really yummy pork dish with a fresh strawberry-mango agua fresca. For dessert I had an excellent imperial stout from Stone Brewery and a chocolate-peanut butter malt ball from Whole Foods.

On Saturday I had fancy Jersey Cow milk yogurt from France out of a ceramic jar with fresh berries and sprouted almonds for breakfast. To drink I had fresh squeezed orange juice which was even better than the fresh orange juice I had in Florida long ago. In Monterey I had an apple galette and a double espresso at this excellent hidden bakery. Then for lunch we ate corn chips with homemade roasted hatch pepper salsa, fancy old cheddar, fig butter, roasted honey peanut butter, crackers, almonds, strawberries, salt water taffy (bacon maple flavour and chile mango flavour) and more of the fancy salt and sugar coated chocolate almonds. For dinner we found this great Thai restaurant in Morgan Hill called Siam Thai where I had a seafood eggplant curry dish with really good spring rolls. For dessert we had a Kouign amann which is croissant-type pastry with caramelized sugar on it.

On Sunday, for breakfast, I had more of the fresh orange juice along with...a pumpkin croissant! So good! Also we shared a pomelo which is like a mild grapefruit that is super challenging to peel. Lunch was a stupid amount of amazing food from Oren's Hummus, including the best hummus and best baba ganoush I've ever eaten. The baba ganoush was so smokey, like a good scotch! I topped it off with a Turkish coffee and then went home to Toronto.

So yeah, there is my trip as told by the food. As epic as the food was, I had an even better time with the people I visited. So yeah, really good trip.

Books - David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I've owned this book without reading it for some embarrassingly long amount of time. It's sat unloved on my shelf for at least ten years I'm sure. Now that I've read it, I've learned that this was my loss. Dickens isn't highly regarded for nothing apparently. Despite it's length and dense, sometimes archaic language it was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I recommend it to anyone. And if you think you're not in the mood for literature, remember that Science suggests it improves your social skills.

San Francisco

I spent my birthday week in San Francisco visiting friends and generally having an amazing time. Seriously, I've never had a longer streak of continuous fun (thanks everyone who made that happen!). I was going to write a post dedicated to the food I ate on the trip, because, well, holy crap it was gastronomically glorious. But I realized that there was something more significant to write about. That food post may still come though, because, again, glorious.

One of my best friends recently moved to the Bay Area as a result of an acquisition by the ubiquitous fruit company. His move was a large part of the reason for my recent visit. While staying with him both he and his wife (!!) mentioned that it is super bizarre that they now live in California. They live in a constant state of WTF?!?!

Upon returning home, in a state of jet-lagged clarity, I realized that their situation has a correspondence to my own. They thought they knew what their life would be and then it was upended and now everything is strange. For me, I found someone to love, worked through a typical set of relationship issues and then got married. Outrageously, my wife Kim then developed cancer and died just before our two-year anniversary. Ever since I've been living in a constant state of disruption. Or, more accurately, WTF?!?! Honestly, that is the most accurate description of my emotional state just over two years after my life was irrevocably altered.

Seriously, how does what happened to me happen? Obviously it was a statistical possibility but my mind still boggles. Not just at the loss of my wife, but the fact that I managed to develop a mature enough relationship to reach the state of marriage at all. I still don't really consider myself to be an adult.

I'm not sure that this clarity (or maybe it's just a slight reduction in the fog) around my current situation provides me with any next steps but it seems somehow significant.

Books - Prisoners of the North by Pierre Berton

The Canadian arctic is strangely gripping. I only spent a couple weeks there but I think of it often and I know I'll go back some day. I'd like to go further north and see the Arctic Ocean and I'd also like to see Torngat Mountains National Park at the northern tip of Labrador. After those, if there's still time in my life, I'd also like to explore the Yukon.

The stickiness of Canada's north-country is the theme linking the five people profiled by one of Canada's preeminent historians in this, his fiftieth and final book. Born in the Yukon, Pierre Berton shows himself to be a "prisoner of the North" as well with many personal asides and reminiscences woven into his biographies of the five protagonists.

This book was recommended to me by Rob before I went on my trip but I didn't have time to read it until now and I'm glad events transpired in that way. Only one of the five people in the book spends his time in the tundra area of my canoe trip and I felt Berton's description of that country was too negative. I understand that the tundra is harsh and unforgiving, but it is also surprisingly beautiful and deeply moving. Other than that minor detail I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

The people profiled are: mining tycoon Joe Boyle (1867-1923); Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962); extensive traveller and facilitator of Arctic exploration Lady Jane Franklin (1791-1875); eccentric woodsman John Hornby (1880-1927); and noted Canadian poet Robert Service (1874-1958).

There are some neat parallels between Joe Boyle and current environmental debates. While the Klondike gold rush was going on he went up and was the first to bring in large-scale, mechanized mining. The sort of mining that strips the earth and wreaks havoc on the environment. Although no one cared about it back then, it was hard not to think of the debate about the oil sands in Alberta and about gas fracking in the United States while reading his story. Apparently the damage done to the waterways up there is still clearly visible.

I'd never heard of Vilhjalmur Stefansson before reading this book, but I must say he was a bad-ass ahead of his time. Although he met with much criticism over the years (not all unfounded) it's hard not to be impressed with two things about him. First, unlike everyone else at the time, he did not consider the Inuit to be mindless savages. Instead he learned from them and as a result was able to thrive in the difficult environment he was exploring. He even adopted their diet, eating nothing but meat and fish for long periods of time without any ill-effects (pro-tip: This only works if you eat the whole animal, including offal, and if you eat at least some of the meat raw. Meat has enough vitamin C to stave off scurvy but cooking destroys it). The second bad-ass thing about Stefansson was that he had super-human strength and endurance. He would run for hours and days behind his dog sled, covering over twenty thousand miles in his career.

Lady Jane Franklin was probably the female equivalent of Stefansson of her day in terms of being a bad-ass. Over her life she travelled all over the world, spending lots of time in Australia with her husband when it was still a penal colony. She continued travelling extensively until just shortly before her death. And this was all at a time when travel was rather difficult. When her husband became lost-presumed-dead looking for the northwest passage she spent many years and much money organizing and financing voyages to discover his fate. She eventually succeeded and as a side effect the world's knowledge of the Canadian Arctic was improved dramatically.

I knew the tragic story of Hornby already from David Pelly's: "Thelon: A River Sanctuary" which I read in Fort Smith just before going on my canoe trip. Berton provides more detail in his book but I didn't learn anything new of significance. However, other than my complaint about his negative depiction of the tundra, I did find Berton's retelling to be much more entertaining than Pelly's.

I've read two of Robert Service's poems before without knowing anything about the author. They're his two most famous: The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. He wrote thousands, none of them considered high art by the literary establishment of the time, but those two especially remain popular. Personally I find the rhyming schemes and his willingness to make up words to fit quite enjoyable. Berton's biography of Service is more personal than the other four. Service lived in Whitehorse when Berton was a child there and more than once he came to dinner at Berton's family's home. Berton also did an extended interview with Service for the CBC shortly before Service died.

This book is an excellent piece of Canadiana and I heartily recommend it. I think I'll seek out some other books by Pierre Berton in the future.