Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Dish soap made me think of this topic , but I'll get to that a bit later.

I think the amount you get to know your neighbours is inversely proportional to the size of your building. In big condominiums it's hard to get to know neighbours, or on country houses with huge lots. In smaller buildings or houses close together, you really get to know people, for good or bad.

When I think of neighbours, I remember a variety, including:

  •  growing up as a child in a middle-aged to elderly suburb full of adult neighbours
  • living in the country later as a child, and the neighbours who would snowplow the street.
  • the cat-fighting duo across the hall from me in residence..
  • my first summer living out of residence with some roomates, we had some awful neighbours who caused a cockroach invasion next door, then moved out and left the critters to invade the apartment through the ductwork.
  • the friendly chain-smoker in my very sketchy Toronto lowrise building, who had lived there over twenty years and kept a good eye on things.
  • the not-so-friendly drug-dealing 'family business' at the apartment next door when we lived above a store in Uxbridge
  • The couple Jarod and I rented a basement apartment from when we were first married - two workers with the school board. They were both divorcees with 3 kids each, and later in life they met, married, and had another child. The little guy's costumes ("I'm wearing Spiderman to the pool!") were the best.

My next door neighbours have mostly been good ones. I like the idea of next-door neighbours, and I have several friends who have recently purchased properties and been glad to find mostly good next-door neighbours.

I haven't, often, though, had neighbours that I got to know well - especially in large buildings. Until I moved to Hamilton. When I moved to Hamilton, my next-door neighbour was Mats - a German Ph.D. student finishing up his doctorate (on particular ecological details of escarpments). He was quiet, worked hard, had the very occasional six-pack of beer or smoked a pipe outside with Jarod, and had a couple nice guitars.

Mats had to make a difficult choice between two jobs - one in New Zealand, or another in Ireland that would also hire his girlfriend, and was a bit closer to his family in Germany. He chose the latter.

Thankfully, my good friend Jacklyn had just become engaged, and was looking to move to a larger space in preparation for getting married - she moved in next door. And since Mats couldn't take his furniture with him, he left a lot of it for them, which worked out perfectly. And when Jacklyn's fiance Andrei needed to move out of his other place prematurely, we just so happened to have a spare bedroom available at our place.

So we've lucked out with our neighbours so far. Jacklyn moved in, Andrei lived in our spare bedroom until they got married, and then he had the long move next door.

And it's been great to have neighbours we're friends with too. Even with little details like parking spaces. We have a parking space for our car. Since we've sold it, we can share our parking space with our neighbours when either of us has a guest over that drives.

Have extra food? Made too much spaghetti sauce? Trying out a new coffee cake recipe? Your neighbour makes a readily available taste tester/leftovers recipient. And they like it. Everybody wins. (Dear Andrei. Thank you for perfecting your coffee cake recipe. We are happy to try any future refinements you make.)

If one of us goes out of town, the other can come by, feed the pets, get the mail, borrow a movie... Food is easy to share. Need a cup of sugar? The neighbour will probably have it? (Want to share some of the cinnamon rolls you just made? You have a neighbour next door who just lent you sugar...) The same for extension cords, Scotch tape, Scotch, screwdrivers, and a whole lot more. My neighbours are great.

Not to mention the upper deck isn't "this side" and "that side" when it comes to parties, it's easy to entertain twice as many.

And like everything else, you want to be considerate and thoughtful and set good boundaries, and if you're like me you're not always considerate, but thankfully I have forgiving neighbours who like food. It's worked out pretty well. And while sound's not much of an issue. Andrei told Jarod the other day that he heard him playing guitar, and applauded when he finished the song. (Jarod didn't hear him, unfortunately)

And a couple days ago when I was out of dish soap and the dish pile was getting higher and higher, and it was too late to go to the store.... they were away for the weekend, so I just borrowed theirs and bought them a replacement bottle when I was at the store next.

Good neighbours, good stuff all around.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

michael pollan, mark bittman, and why i'm no "foodie"

This past summer, I worked at the Juravinski Cancer Centre. On my final day of work, I decided to buy a lunch as a treat. I normally don't eat lunchmeat or white bread, but I really like a good sandwich - crusty Italian bread, ham or turkey, good cheese, tomato, so I thought I'd go for something like that, since the cafeteria normally had specials that looked pretty good.

When I was in line, I saw there was a special like that, but noticed the cheese on the "display" sandwich was melty orange goo squishing out the front.

Me: "Can I get real cheese on this sandwich instead of processed?"
Worker: "Uh, no, we only have processed cheese. actually we never have real cheese unless there's a special that has real cheese on the sandwich"
Me: Uhh..... ok. (completely and utterly dumbfounded..)

I ate the processed cheese, but that was a letdown. I could have bought ingredients for six awesome sandwiches for the same price -- and probably should have. Although once in a while, I will eat the processed cheese by choice. (And to be fair, the hospital had just done a review process that also was phasing in healthier options, so hopefully this isn't always the case).

I've heard of a couple people whose views on food I find interesting, though I don't know a ton about them.

There's a guy named Michael Pollan who wrote a book called "In Defense of Food." I haven't read it, but it's been summed up as: Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The "real food" part, especially, I like hearing. Not processed cheese or "soyrizo" or Eggos... real food. Not too much. Mostly plants. (Though again, once in a while I'll do the processed thing).

There's another guy named Mark Bittman who's pretty good too - I've asked for "How to Cook Everything" for Christmas, and I like hearing about his eating choices - vegan for breakfast and dinner, and then anything (including meat and whatever else) for dinner. 

That's actually pretty close to how I eat in a typical day - usually 'oatmeal' for breakfast (boiling water poured over minute oats, because I don't want to actually cook anything in the morning), some kind of vegetarian or vegan thing for lunch (usually with beans or cheese as the protein) and then something awesome for dinner. 

I like those ideas about food.

They're simple. (Mark also says things like "Don't bother mincing, just chop").
They put a priority on real food without a lot of restrictions.
And they remind people that being able to feed yourself is a basic skill. 

Convenience foods have become so much a way of life that a lot of people think they're a right - and don't know how to make food or budget for making their own food, even as they pursue higher education. (This whole "wah, I can't afford my latte, all I can afford is cucumber sandwiches on $7.50 a day" article epitomizes that. This guy offers a cogent response.

That, to me, is so weird. Even if you don't know anything, you can always learn. And $7.50 a day is quite a bit of money for one or even two people, if you want to learn basic skills.

I started university with 2 years in residence with a microwave and a kettle - not a great place to learn about food prep. I remember the first summer I lived in an apartment, and had to figure out my own meals. I knew how to bake stuff from a recipe, and to make a few meals at home, but I wasn't used to figuring it out for myself.

I knew how to make a few things (how to brown meat and make spaghetti sauce, tuna sandwiches, baked potatoes, stir-fry) but I certainly didn't know how to do much. Between Google and a crazy work schedule of 60+ hours a week (full-time morning shifts at Tim Hortons and a night shift at the dollar store) though, I figured some stuff out. And I never, ever ate ramen noodles or Kraft Dinner, mostly because I don't like them.

Two sites taught me pretty much everything I know about recipes - and (formerly If you want to make a recipe, type it in the search box, sort it by ranking, and choose the one with 378 five-star reviews... that's been my method for years.

By year 3, I'd moved into an apartment, and the only things I really remember making were a lot of tzatziki and pitas, a lot of eggs, a lot of salad, a lot of whole-wheat toast and peanut butter, and buying huge packages of ground beef and chicken, separating them into individual portions, and freezing all the little portions. (I was also a pretty awful roommate... I even got a dog without asking my roomates, a few weeks before they moved in. Man. I don't know how they put up with me.)

I was at Jarod's a lot too that year, and everyone else living there was Chinese or Korean, so we learned a ton about how to cook rice, different sauces, and tried a lot of new stuff. We also cooked a lot of chicken or beef with rice on the side. And spaghetti. Always spaghetti, and we started buying only whole-wheat pasta then.

I find it weird when people are impressed that either of us cook, or that we can make our own meals. I don't think I'm a "foodie" at all, or that I particularly care for obscure or exotic ingredients. I tried quinoa a little while ago after we'd had it at a restaurant last year (with a $20 off coupon!) and found you can make some awesome things with it and it's pretty healthy. But I think a lot of gourmet food stuff is pretentious and expensive, and I don't care much for things like the exact flavours in a glass of wine or what's "trendy"

I guess if avocados or fajitas are strange to people, I can understand that -- but what's easier than half an avocado on toast or frying up some meat, peppers, and seasoning in six minutes and throwing it on some tortillas? I guess I just think about it as "quick and easy" (although with avocados I also think "expensive!")

But once a month or so, Jarod gets Kraft Dinner and I get a donut. You gotta have that stuff too, just not all the time.

We've got a jar of mild curry paste in the fridge I haven't cracked yet, and I just learned to make biscotti a few years ago. (I also tried making sushi - way more time-consuming than I'd like, for something I'd rather eat once in a while and have it made for me).
But baking's more recreation than necessity (I don't do bread or anything like that) and I don't like making anything for dinner that takes more than 15-20 minutes. I don't soak dried beans, and I don't do once-a-month-cooking. Even crock-pot stuff usually requires a lot more forethought than I like. 

I also like meat in pretty much any dinner dish (though TVP and tofu do get used once in a while). My Mennonite roots tend towards the blander, starchy, robust foods, but man, they are good - though now I can make a stir-fry or fish tacos pretty easily too, and stroganoff's quick. Stuff like jambalaya or anything like that takes a lot of time and I'm just not interested in taking a lot of time. (These took a little while but I figure I only buy pumpkin once or twice a year - making them was a good decision.) Adding vegetables is what takes the effort and thought - and is usually a salad or some nuked frozen veggie, if it's not already in the meal.

That said, for Jarod and I, one of our favorite things to do is go out for dinner - once every month or two, when we can. We like trying new stuff or really well-prepared things we know. You can get 6 quail at the farmers' market for $9 - I've got to try making those some day soon - a friend of ours made us Cornish hens and wild rice a few years ago, and maybe I'll try something like that.

And no processed cheese. 

Except earlier this week, when Jarod picked up his box of KD, and asked if I wanted it for lunch... and after I made a horrible face, he proposed that it would be mixed with cooked ground beef and spaghetti sauce. And yeah - I sure did. Nothing fancy, certainly not healthy, but once in a while that's OK with me.

Monday, November 1, 2010


‎"'The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: life is a story about me." - Donald Miller.

"...if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, 'How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?' The point is that each person's pride is in competition with everyone else's pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise." - C.S. Lewis (excerpts can be found here and here)

I've been kicking these particular thoughts around for a week, and they aren't very well-formatted yet... but may as well put them out there.

I don't think of myself (much) as being a person who cares much about celebrity. Politics is not my calling, and to be known for its own sake.... seems a bit useless.

Influence and leadership, though, is definitely my currency. I want to know that I'm making some kind of difference, and the ability to bring others towards a common goal is definitely something I'm built for. But it's also something that's incredibly easy to confuse with just general popularity and being liked and agreed with.

And in some ways, they correlate - trying to lead without having the underlying character and outer charisma is a bit of a wasted effort... on the other hand, there's a way it can degenerate into simple manipulation, image, strategy.... and I'm not good with that.

Even something simple though, can show how proud I am. I think I've got a pretty healthy self-esteem, and I've kicked up enough accomplishments in the past decade for me to feel pretty good about. But whenever I have to take a job or do something that's relatively powerless, or in a role that's traditionally associated with not-leading or a job without a lot of power, it really wears on me. I did administrative work again this summer... and I was so glad to get out of it. Even when I'm asked to do something administration-related for anything else I'm involved in, it gets me. I don't want to be helping fill out papers, I want to be calling some shots. Pretty rough, eh? For a while I've had a few boxes of oak baseboard scraps (originally received because I needed some scrap wood to help repair a bookcase). I've been turning them into semi-useful, (semi-profitable?) key racks.... but the act of cutting and painting these bring up these immediate "crafty scrapbooking stay-at-home-mom" associations that make me wince. Again... not a shining moment.

I shouldn't be threatened when I have to take on stuff like that. And I shouldn't fall into the trap of assuming that just because I don't want to be in roles like a scrapbooking mom or a secretary, that those are bad roles for someone else to take on.

Dave Slater spoke at Lift last night, and referenced Matthew 20 - when Jesus was asked if he'd put certain disciples in places of honor in his kingdom: 

"But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave."

And it's easy to skim over that and go "yeah, yeah, that's a nice sentiment about being a leader that's also helping others" -- but at the core it's a lot more radical than that. Because it doesn't negate leadership. It doesn't translate into weak leadership. But it does completely change how you think about leadership's foundation and patterns.

A bit more from Lewis:

"Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed."

well.... another first step, another day.