Goodbye Ethel, 1999-2016

(It took this event to prompt the first post to this neglected blog in almost 2 years…)

Click photos for larger images.

EthelThis afternoon, we said goodbye to Ethel, who’s been with us since she came here as a kitten in October, 1999.

But age has been hard on her for the past several months. Her arthritis has been painful, although helped by codeine treatments we’ve been giving her. To ease her joints, she began spending more time lying on the heated bathroom floor. Since we cranked the heat up for her, she rarely left that floor, except to cry once or twice a night for us to lift her onto our bed.

She has been eating less and less, and so today, we brought in Dr Faith Banks, a vet who makes house calls, and who came here about 4 years ago for Ethel’s “sister”, Lucy. We were glad Ethel could have a quiet, peaceful final time in her home.

Lucy & Ethel (kittens)

Lucy & Ethel (kittens)

Ethel was a mischievous soul. When she & Lucy came here at about the same time, they were utterly inseparable, at least for a few months. Then Ethel’s inner pest developed, alongside Lucy’s innate victimhood. It wasn’t a good combination for Lucy.

When Charlie came into the house about 8 years ago, Ethel made it clear to him that she was the boss of the house, using well-timed bops to his head, or swats to his bum. (Charlie didn’t mind). A couple of their boxing matches are on 2 brief videos at the bottom of this page.

Ethel was a great mouser in her younger days. Our elderly neighbour, no fan of mice, would often say “God Bless Ethel”. Other neighbours have fond (or not) memories of falling asleep to, or being kept up by, the sound of the two of us walking up the street, very late at night calling “Ethel… Ethel…”. She would come home from her nocturnal rambles when she was ready.

Those days were in the past for her — for some time now, her night time has been spent watching TV beside Oksana — but we’ll always remember how much she once loved the night, and how, in her much younger days, she could leap 3 feet in the air, when she was playing with some of her toys.

She’s in our back garden now, together with Jade, who died, very young about a month before Ethel was born.

Click photos for larger images.

Ethel & Charlie
… this was how they played. (You can click the full screen icon in bottom right).

“Keep a Knockin’…”


Fighting winter boredom.
This box has occupied our living room for the past several winters. No need for it this winter.

Biking to the Islands #2

When I went to the Toronto Islands last week, I didn’t have much time to bike around beyond Ward’s Island, but did want to get the chance to go further, and poke around Centre Island – a place pretty much overrun with people on summer weekends.

I hadn’t been to Centre Island for over 50 years(!), except for one memorable blues festival in 1974 which featured Son House‘s last public performance, plus the great Johnny Otis and Roy Buchanan among others. (Just found a terrific video from the early 70’s of Johnny with son Shuggie playing with Buchanan. Video quality is bad, but the music is great!)

The weather forecast for tomorrow is snow, but today was another gorgeous January day, temperature a few degrees below freezing, sun shining and not a cloud to be seen.

A perfect day for biking.

Co-incidentally, while on the island, I came across a couple of tweets from Sean Marshall (@SeanYYZ) about the islands.  One tweeted a link to an article on the Spacing website, “Exploring “downtown” Centreville in the winter: A ghost town in more ways than one” about the history of the Islands, as a once bustling (relatively speaking) residential community. The other tweet linked to a post on Sean’s website about his day biking the Islands last December.

Besides Centre Island, I looked forward to the fun of ferrying through the ice there and back, watching the ice split and move away from the boat, and then gather back together after we passed, all accompanied by a great ice-crunching sound track.

While buying my ticket, I got into a conversation with the ticket collector about what a beautiful day it was, and how much I enjoyed the icy trip across the bay. She told me she has worked there for 27 years, but has never taken the ferry to the Islands! She said she knew she had to one day, and I told her to make sure she did.

A one minute clip, to the island and back:


What’s an Internet without cat videos?

Why not some cat videos?  These three all feature Charlie and Ethel in one of their favourite play activities: boxing.

1. Combating boredom (Fox version)

In the spring of 2010, a family of foxes moved into our backyard neighbourhood. Squirrels and baby raccoons were slaughtered regularly, and each of our cats was chased down at least once.

So for a couple of months, they were mostly kept indoors (or on a leash). After a long winter, they weren’t happy. But Charlie at least would amuse himself with a good game of billiards (and a bit of boxing with Ethel):

2. Combatting boredom (winter version)

Every winter since we got our TV, the big box comes up to the living room, and becomes play central. Usually in this fashion…

3. Back door battle


January biking in Toronto

When I decided to retire at the end of December last year, I briefly thought that wouldn’t be a good time of year, as I planned to use some of my free time for biking around Toronto. But (knock on wood), as long as we don’t have the constant snow/ice/Arctic temperatures of last winter, I figure I’ll be ready to explore Toronto on bike in the cold.

So far, it’s been great. I bought some good winter biking gear from two of my favourite bike shops (Sweet Pete’s and Urbane Cyclist), replaced the lights that some lowlife stole recently(!), and since I retired just before Christmas, I’ve traveled a lot more kilometers by bike than by car.

Here, a few photos and one short video from the past week:

Monday, I took a ride to check out the spiffy new cleaned-up Union Station. Thursday, a gorgeous, sunny day just a few degrees below zero, I took a quick trip over to Ward’s Island, my first winter trip to the Toronto islands. It was great fun watching (and listening to) the ferry grind through the ice (already broken by an icebreaker), but the chunks would come together again after we passed through.

On the way to Ward’s… (Note: click icon in bottom right for full screen)

Photos from Monday & Thursday (click for larger image; click left or right to scroll through pics)


A Christmas time to remember

Posted Christmas Day (with a Boxing Day update)

Click thumbnails for larger images

The great Toronto ice storm of 2013 left us in the dark (and cold) for about 43 hours, from 9 am Sunday (Dec. 22) until about 4 am on Christmas Eve.  At the peak, there were 300,000 homes in Toronto without electricity or heat, just as some terribly cold weather approached. We had already gone through a 46-hour blackout in July following that month’s “Great Flood” Toronto had experienced. One lesson we learned from that time was to not keep a lot of food in the freezer! We threw out a lot of spoiled food last summer; a lot less this time around.

If our dark and cold house wasn’t enough of a connection with the problems Toronto was experiencing, we had a fallen hydro lying on the road right in front of our house. Falling tree branches pulled it down on Sunday, severing the house across the road from us from the main electrical feed. (Which of course was dead at the time). A police car sat on our street most of the day blocking the street in case anyone touched the completely dead electric wire. The car left, but the street was blocked off with police tape.


Below: Police guard a dead (for now) hydro wire. We had emergency supplies stockpiled

A hydro wire came down Sunday. Emergency Rations


We watched (and our cats, Ethel and Charlie experienced) the dropping of temperature in the house hour by hour. Sunday night, many on our block gathered in a house across the road to enjoy a fireplace, candles and wine. By Monday, some were moving out, to stay with friends and family who had heat and power. We decided to hold off one more day; moving would be traumatic for the cats, and we thought we could survive one more night. Monday night, we went around the corner to a neighbourhood restaurant, Classico, for dinner. The owner also filled up our hot watter bottle. Back home, Charlie and I sat by the fire, while Ethel crawled under the covers and against the hot water bottle. (She stayed near it all night, as we all huddled together in the bed, with plenty of covers).

xmas-freeze_ch-fire-w xmas-freeze_w-bottle-w


I woke up about 4:30am. I knew what time it was because the electric clock told me. Santa had come a day early! I went to the basement to make sure the furnace and hot water heater had come on (they had). I checked the thermostat: 8C — but climbing! How happy all of us were. Soon, the cats settled in in one of their favourite places in winter — on top of the living room radiator. They didn’t move for a long time…


Now, on Christams Day, there are still tens of thousands of homes without power or heat, as crews work around the clock to clear trees, fix wires and restore hydro. We certainly appreciate — once again — having a warm and bright home, especially for Christmas.

Today, a hydro worker showed up to disable the downed hydro line on the street. The house it had come from was the only one on our block which didn’t get power back on Tuesday. Our neighbours moved out that day to stay somewhere with heat. We understand they should get power back sometime tonight.

Below: a couple of other photos from our power-less days.
– Our 1940’s-era Northern Electric phone came through for the second time during a blackout
– Our Ukrainian and Canadian flags in the ice storm.

Once again, our 1940's Northern Electric phone came through during a blackout. Our Ukrainian and Canadian flags in the ice and snow


Boxing Day update…

The original worker yesterday didn’t remove the downed wire. This morning I discovered he’d just looped it up, and stored it safely (!) on our property, covered in much yellow police tape.

Live wire tied up on our yard.

About 11:30 this morning, a crew showed up. They re-attached the wire and restored power to our neighbour’s house.

Onward into winter…

Remembrance Day, 2013

Poppy-Field-Wallpaper-1024x640My mother had four brothers who all went overseas to fight in World War II. They all returned home safe, and all lived long lives. (The last of my uncles died earlier this year, just short of his 100th birthday. My mother made it past her 100th).

But for some reason, when I think of Remembrance Day, I think of a tenuous connection I have with World War I.

We bought our house in Swansea in 1976, and at the time I worked in the Robarts Library. I made use of the old Might City Directories to look up the history of our house, and its former inhabitants. It was built about 1936; the original owner was a woman named Ida Gray who lived there until she moved out or died about 1970. (Her son held the mortgage when we bought it). Following her back through earlier years I figured out that she was married, briefly to a Walter Gray who disappeared from the directory about 1917-18.

A young war widow was my guess, and indeed, for a number of years after we bought our house, we benefited from that, as the City had granted tax reductions for war widows, and somehow that stuck with our house for a few more years after we moved in.

Later, courtesy of Google, I did confirm that Walter Gray was indeed killed in WWI, and I learned a bit about what happened to him. The little I found out about his story is sad, and echoes the horror and futility of that war.


He signed up to go overseas on Aug. 3, 1915, listing his occupation as “commercial traveller” (travelling salesman?).

He was promoted to Lance Corporal, but later demoted. These are the events noted in his Veterans Affairs biography

  • Nov. 16, 1916: treated for 3 fractured ribs “by unknown causes” at the end of the 4 1/2 month Battle of the Somme, where almost a million men were killed or wounded.
  • Dec. 9-12, 1916, went AWOL, and was punished by losing 4 days pay
  • Jan. 3 1917, for disobeying an order was “tied to an Artillery guns wheel for 3 days”
  • Jan. 22, 1917: “for undisclosed reasons” was punished by “tying the rifle behind your head to your arms and pace the trenches for 3 days”
  • April 10, 1917: Walter Gray was killed by a gun shot to his right shoulder at Vimy Ridge — one of about 3600 Canadians to die in that battle.

I know nothing about the man beyond the skeletal information I found on that page, but in my imagining his situation, I see a man in his 20’s, newly married with a young son (did he ever get to see his child?), thrown into the horror of war, including one of the bloodiest battles in history.

What happened? I imagine him just wanting to “get the hell out of there”. Call it PTSD, fear, trauma, whatever you want. I picture a desperate urge for survival, one no doubt held by thousands of other scared young men who should still have been travelling salesmen, husbands and fathers.

He is buried at Lapurgoy Military Cemetary, near Bethune, France.


Poppy field photo from

Benghazi… and Libya

We love Benghazi

We love Benghazi

One year ago this month, we experienced overwhelming joy and optimism in Libya when we spent a week there as election observers. We knew that there would be very hard times to come on the road to a new, freer and more just nation, but over the months, we have watched events unfold with increasing despair as small groups with big and dangerous agendas have done their best to try to derail that hopeful future.

Our Libyan friends here and in Libya express even more frustration and anger, although for us, the worst moment occurred in June when we learned of the senseless death of one of our great Benghazi friends, accidentally caught in gunfire as one of that city’s militias fought with authorities.

Over the past few days, there has been terrible and sad news from  Libya: assassinations of four individuals who had been committed to Libya’s freedom; bombsings, including one that attacked the courthouse in Benghazi (the scene of all those moving freedom rallies in 2011); and more tragic and sad events. (See also this article by the excellent Libyan ex-pat author, Hisham J. Matar)

But those attacks have not destroyed our optimism and hope for the country.

There have been large and moving rallies in Benghazi, Tripoli, and other cities standing up for the principles Libyans fought and died for in 2011. As soon as the Benghazi courthouse was destroyed, the citizens of that great city — the cradle of the 2011 Revolution, and a city deep in our hearts because of the friends we have made there — began to rebuild it.

Citizens of Benghazi begin to rebuild the city’s courthouse

The photo at the top of this post, taken in front of our house in 2011 expresses our feeling about Benghazi, and about Libya. (The flag flew at our house throughout the months of the Libyan Revolution).

The video below, “Benghazi will not die” also expresses our feelings and support for that city.  (The video was posted on YouTube by tunafmb)

Hi-tech (1940’s version) to the rescue

As of this time, we’ve been without electricity in our neighbourood (Swansea) for 41 hours and counting, courtesy of the great 2013 Toronto rain & floods.

This morning we put out our green bin with the first installment of ruined food from fridge & freezers.

Depending on cell phones for communication and internet is a challenge without power to charge them.  Our home phones were useless, but fortunately, our classic 1940’s Northern Electric rotary dial classic works perfectly on our landline.

One of these phones is working. Which?

One of these phones is working. Which?

A Bicentennial 4th of July at Willie’s

Putting up our tent at Willie's Picnic (Click for larger image)

Putting up our tent at Willie’s Picnic

We’ve only spent one 4th in the States. It was Bicentennial year, 1976, and we spent four weeks driving around the South, with a final goal of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic (the fourth or fifth, depending), held in Gonzalez that year.

(The photo above is one of only two I have left. Most of the others drowned in our cooler while driving)

We didn’t end up staying for the whole 24 hours… probably less than half of .it. It was hot (no surprise), crowded, and we were a long way from the stage. There were other issues.

An account in the Austin American-Statesman listed some “highlights”:

Early arrivals found the site to be perilously short on water outlets and bathroom facilities and the concert ended when a downpour on the morning of July 5 shorted out the PA system – before Waylon or Willie had performed their shows. In between, one person drowned and injuries ranged from stabbings to snake bites. More than 140 were arrested – four for kidnapping – and at least three rapes were reported. Willie would later be sued by two injured picnickers, the owner of the ambulance service and the owner of the ranch.

Other things I remember:

  • Seeing our first armadillos. Pretty amazing creatures
  • A lot of people coming up to us saying “Happy Birthday”; I’d reply “It’s not mine.”, I don’t think they knew what I meant, but I was able to trade some of our Lone Star beer for smokeable items.
  • I don’t remember every performer we did see (well, we could see the stage, sort of), but the late, truly great George Jones was there. Those were his wild days; it was a small miracle he actually made this show. It was about a year after Tammy Wynette had left him, and I remember him changing the line in “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” to:

“I’m going to lay around the shack
Till Tammy comes back”

  • We also heard Asleep at the Wheel, Leon Russel, and Ray Wylie Hubbard & the Cowboy Twinkies (His shaggy dog story of how he wrote “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” on YouTube)

The account above also documented the local opposition to the Festival, led by the “Citizens for Law, Order and Decency” — yes, CLOD. The Rev. Jimmy Darnell wrote in a handbill, “To allow this invasion is to invite the anti-American, anti-Christian, hippie sub-culture right into our homes.”

The Picnic has had a lot of challenges over the years, but it was usually a bit smoother than that one. But although Willie has long been one of my favourite perfomers (Red Headed Stranger would be one of my desert island discs), I’ve still never seen him live.

I would have caught his most recent Toronto show at Massey Hall, except it was the night after we got back from a Ukraine-Istanbul trip, and I didn’t think I’d be ready for it. I did enjoyed though Brad Wheeler’s account in the Globe & Mail of the show and Willie’s entrance from his tour bus to the hall:

People waited for a sweet cloud of smoke to emerge from the touring vehicle, which would signal the imminent appearance of a kindly balladeer – the Pope of Puff. … The eyes of the new octogenarian twinkled, curiously showing no signs of glaucoma.

Long Live Willie; I expect he’ll always be glaucoma free.

And yes, we did put one of these bumper stickers on our car (a 1975 Nova).

Here’s Willie, band (and it’s mostly the same band he still plays with) along with Leon Russell (and drink) doing his classic, “Funny How Time Slips Away” at his 1974 Picnic.