Outdoor Masochism

After catching some of the delightful videos people have posted online about their housebound entertainment activities, I thought I’d take a walk on the lighter side myself this week.

The title of this blog might bring to mind different activities to you as we all try to keep ourselves amused close to home this summer, but I’m talking about the venerable and frustrating game of Golf.

While a few people love the game unconditionally, if you ask most people you’ll find that they lean towards more of a love-hate relationship. After a good round we’re bubbling over with enthusiasm and confidence, which often gets flattened the next time we play and everything goes to hell-in-a-handbasket.

Golf requires a challenging combination of hand-eye coordination plus mental focus, taken out onto courses that are designed to throw kinks at you.

Where else would you find sand traps that are directly in line with where you need to aim, or that are so deep you might think you’re going to strike oil when you swing at the ball? Trees wait to grab high-flying balls in their branches and dump them straight down to lie forlornly at the roots, or bounce them backwards past where you hit from. Pretty little ponds wait with strange magnetism to draw your ball, which you were sure you were aiming in another direction, down into their murky and irretrievable depths (and then your golf club, which frustrated golfers are sure is the cause of all their troubles and so often fling into the same pond).

Even the pros, who practice so much that they should have robotically-perfect swings, engage in public hissy fits when they find themselves, despite their best efforts, making the same bad shot several times in a row.

The evil genius of the game is that our minds and bodies don’t always agree to cooperate. We know we can hit the right shot, it just sometimes refuses to appear until the second try, when we invariably grumble “Should have done that the first time!”

So why do we keep playing this ridiculous game, that Mark Twain was erroneously attributed to refer to as ‘a good walk spoiled’?

Well, for one thing, it’s a great excuse to spend some time outdoors in beautiful surroundings, away from everything else going on in your life. While we’ve seen the odd person bring their cell phone onto the course, it’s generally frowned on. Nothing must distract us from our pursuit of that elusive great round, and golf etiquette demands that we maintain a reverent silence near anyone else struggling to find their own Grail round.

In between shots, though, we may speak to fellow golfers – there’s a camaraderie brought on by shared frustration punctuated by whoops of joy when a ball actually does what we want it to or laughter when sheer luck defeats the course’s hazards. Last summer I had several fellows come over from a different hole to congratulate me after my shot bounced off a rake and avoided going into the sand trap.

Sand traps, or bunkers as they’re more commonly known, are devoutly to be avoided. We watch helplessly as our ball seems to make a beeline for these little slices of beach that aren’t nearly as much fun as the real thing, then either lays a track to a spot that’s never as easy to get out of as it was to get into, or – even more fun – plugs itself halfway into the sand (amusingly called a fried egg). In a deep ‘pot’ bunker this can be a disaster of epic proportions – you have only to watch the British Open Championship to see seasoned pros get stymied by trying to dig a stuck ball out of the steep sides.

The scenery sort of makes up for a poor game. Here in North America course designers like to make the most of the landscape, which can make for some wonderful, if challenging, layouts.

One of the challenging holes at Island Pointe, trying to land safely across the river

One of our favourite courses is in Tennessee, Island Pointe Golf Club. It picturesquely meanders in and out of the French Broad River, among high cliffs and utilizing three islands in the river itself. The water is deep and rushing, making the island holes quite exciting as you’re surrounded by what can feel like a raging flood. It’s not a well-known course – we stumbled upon it a few years ago and are so fascinated by it that we play it whenever we’re in the area.

Heading into the unknown for the men’s tees

Ladies have it a bit better than men – our tees (where we hit from) are placed closer to the pin, that little hole that seems to be like the exhaust port on the Death Star, something that seems impossible to get your ball into. At the course my hubby and I played last weekend, the path on the sixth hole branched off to the men’s tees through a dark mysterious wood so removed from the fairway that there was almost an ominous hush. My hubby had to whack the ball over a wide clump of nasty, grabby wild plants, while from my tee block I enjoyed a pleasant vista down the fairway.

From the men’s tees on No. 6, it’s hard to even see the distant flag
Much friendlier view from the ladies’ tees

Hitting straight onto the fairway is a definite advantage, and much harder than it looks. Going off-course into the ‘rough’ is fraught with danger – things like the shimmering ponds and tall fescue grass that waves pleasantly in the breeze while it waits to wrap your club in bands of steel. Courses in the southwest United States feature thorny cacti that will capture your skin and not let it go, or homes along the fairway with patios that may transfer your ball straight into someone’s swimming pool (better that than their plate glass windows anyway).

Our favourite course in Ontario is attached to the Taboo Resort in Muskoka. It’s a beautiful course in any season, although we love to be there in the fall especially. Last summer the resort added an outdoor seating area on top of the hill by the driving range, before you approach the first tee, with a food truck and a bar that offers passion fruit margaritas so good that they (almost) make your play irrelevant.  

Rock-strewn hole at Taboo Golf Course

The course is set among the granite outcroppings of our Cambrian Shield, and my husband will attest that you can achieve some spectacular arcs as your mis-hit ball bounces off the rock high into the air and away into the woods.

Many players’ golf balls have been permanently sacrificed to all these devilish ambushes.

On the plus side, other bonuses are the weather – on a beautiful fall day, with the sun shining and the scent of wood smoke and fallen leaves all around, there’s nothing better – and the wildlife, contingent on whether you mind having a flock of geese or ducks as your watchful peanut gallery. Great Blue Herons, one of our most spectacular birds, seem to like hanging out by the ponds and completely ignore the people flailing away with their clubs.

The end of a round, which may come too soon or not soon enough depending on how you played, always deserves a refreshing beverage (maybe more margaritas!) and a good meal. The score card may be kept in triumph or stomped on, shredded and then burned to ash. You may have to separate your head covers that have been quarreling in your absence.

And the next week we do it all over again, because near the end of every round there’s always at least one great shot that sucks you back into the game.

Whatever your favourite form of self-inflicted torture is, make the most of it – at least it’s a good distraction.

Feeling Peachy

It’s peach season here in southern Ontario! Beautiful reddish-gold peaches are ripening on trees, ready to eat in all their juice-dripping freshness or – even better to my mind – to deepen their flavour through cooking.

August peach time means a few things to me: the advent of ‘harvest’, with its connotations of gathering in supplies of food to share with family and friends; the approach of cooler weather (hopefully); the upcoming return of my favourite season, autumn, and all that it brings (sweater days, log fires, changing leaves, pumpkins, Thanksgiving meals, and the delightful spookiness of Halloween).

Now the peaches are ripe…

… the grapes are growing heavy on the vines …

… the corn is getting tall and tasseled.

Here we’re blessed to live in a tender-fruit agricultural area, with over 1500 farms growing a luscious selection of bright fruits and vegetables – a special boon for those of us who are garden-challenged like myself. Roadside markets dot the country byways, another great reason to do some exploring in our regional back yard and enjoy milder sunny days in the fresh air while bringing back a splendid haul for our kitchens. I’m happy to support our local restaurants and take-out spots during this time, but there’s something soul-warming in cooking a great meal yourself and then enjoying it out on the patio (or balcony, or a picnic table in a local nature area).

These meals don’t need to be elaborate – in fact, the simplicity of putting together delicious food using a few quality ingredients is the epitome of a more relaxed, down-to-earth lifestyle that this pause in the global rat race is giving us a new chance to appreciate.

After a strenuous weekend adding a new privacy garden to our back yard (with evergreens and shrubs, the two categories of self-sufficient plants I’ve been able to grow successfully) and some new cushions for our patio furniture, my hubby and I chilled out on the patio enjoying the cooler evening air and eating uncomplicated summer food – grilled sausages with corn and tomato salad, and ham and asparagus pasta with Fontina cheese followed by fresh peach and cinnamon cake.

Peaches belong to the “tender fruit” category, a somewhat vague term that I’ve never been able to find a definition for other than that it means cherries, nectarines, peaches, pears and plums – as opposed to “crisp” fruit (i.e. apples), grapes and berries.

We have a provincial tender-fruit board, ontariotenderfruit.ca, that even offers a variety of recipes for each of the different fruits, including peaches.

My primary choice of what to do with a handsome basket of peaches would be a golden peach pie, deep orange-pink pieces of caramelized fruit temptingly peeking out through the slits in the sugary top crust, but I’ve yet to find a gluten-free flour that will allow me to make a double crust.

There are plenty of alternatives, through, so I’ll give you the peach and cinnamon cake recipe I just tried out that worked beautifully with Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour as a straight 1-to-1 substitution. My only recommendation for the recipe, whose provenance unfortunately I’ve lost track of, is to add extra peaches to really enjoy their lush flavour!

As our summer winds down to cozier weather, enjoy the bounty that August brings amid some quiet time away from all the crazy news and frothing global debate. Simplicity and eating good food outdoors are great, low-cost antidotes that we can all use right now.

Fresh Peach Cake

(recipe origin lost) makes one 9” sq cake

¼ lb unsalted butter, room temp

1½ cups sugar

2 extra-large eggs, room temp (not having read this properly beforehand, I ended up successfully using 3 smaller-sized large eggs)

1 cup sour cream, room temp

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose or gluten-free flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp kosher salt (I used fine Himalayan sea salt)

1 tsp ground cinnamon

3 lg ripe peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced (look for ‘free-stone’ peaches, which have flesh that separates easily from the pit)

½ cup chopped pecans (worked well with walnuts since I’d run out of pecans)

Preheat the oven to 350oF. Grease a 9” square baking pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and 1 cup of the sugar for three to five minutes on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. With the mixer on low, add the eggs, one at a time, then the sour cream and vanilla. Mix until the batter is smooth.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the batter and mix just until combined.

In a small bowl mix the remaining sugar and the cinnamon.

Spread half of the batter evenly in the prepared pan. Top with half of the peaches, then sprinkle with two-thirds of the cinnamon sugar. Spread the remaining batter on top, arrange the rest of the peaches on top of the batter and sprinkle with the remaining cinnamon sugar. Scatter the chopped nuts on the very top.

Bake the cake for 45 to 55 minutes, until a tester or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature.

All photos on this site are by me (unless otherwise specified) and all rights are reserved.

Loving the unpredictable

What kind of personality type are you?

Do you like everything planned out, in sequential steps and in every detail? Are you more of a free spirit who  prefers to wing it all or most of the time, embracing life as it comes along? Likely you’re some place in the middle, and you recognize there are situations that work better with some planning while others are more enjoyable in their spontaneity.

There are a variety of personality-typing systems to help you understand that your preferences aren’t an anomaly or a personal quirk – that there are in fact all kinds of people in the world just like you in how you handle life.

In my work at a local college for many years, I had access to analysis several times. If you know yourself fairly well, generally the results won’t surprise you, but they’re interesting to read. They also help you understand people around you and how you can interact with someone without pushing too many of their buttons.

One of the simplest personality profiles is the True Colour system. I’m very Green – both analytical and intuitive. I always want to know why something needs to be done, for example – the reasoning behind it. It helps me understand a task and give it my best effort. However, I imagine it was a challenge for my parents, teachers and managers at my different jobs 😊

There’s a part of me that really enjoys planning, but another side that loves the adventure of spontaneity. The result is that I tend to think like a mind map – central concepts with spokes all over the place as related ideas pop into my head, and then ways that those ideas hook up with others.

My husband used to be very Gold – very structured, hated surprises. He joked that he enjoyed ‘planned spontaneity’. I planned a surprise party for his 30th birthday before I understood personality types well, and you can imagine how that turned out – I had a stiff neck for days both before and after!

During our journey through life together, we’ve balanced each other out well; he keeps me on track, and I’ve cajoled him into all kinds of crazy adventures that he’s grown accustomed to. (Truth be told, they make the best stories!)

More than that, we’re very good at handling the unexpected and thinking on our feet, which has been a great asset in the past couple of months.

As the world moves forward into the unknown future, things are going to change. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there are many reports of lessening air pollution and wildlife rebounds as a result of decreased human impact.

For the past couple of decades, people have been absorbed in thinking about themselves and the next exciting thing to come along, instead of the long-term effects of materialism and endless self-promo on social media. Life has for too long largely been about the next quick fix.

But that doesn’t help you grow as a person. It doesn’t teach you anything about resilience when a major shift comes along.

It’s time to develop the skills that will carry us through whatever the ‘new normal’ may turn out to be. Everyone in the world has suddenly been ejected right out of their comfort zone, and those with tiny, restricted comfort zones have fared the worst, I think.

What skills are going to serve you well in the future?

Adaptability – it’s critical to get comfortable with change, and to understand that the best laid plans are not always going to work out. It’s a given on adventure travel, and we rather like that sense of not knowing entirely what’s around the corner. One of my favourite mantras is from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Keep calm and don’t panic. Be flexible. View the unexpected as an intriguing fork in the road, not a dead end.

Willingness to learn new things – you may need to learn some new skills for your résumé so that you can be available for types of employment you haven’t done before. When I used to help university students put together their job-hunting packages, I always advised them to develop as broad a skill-base as possible. These days, you never know what may become useful. You’re never too old to learn – you’re only too close-minded if you decide to stop.

Embracing a shift in thinking – there’s always a different way to look at life, something which has fascinated my hubby and I on our travels. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll have had a taste of life in other parts of the world and how much fun it is to explore the differences! In the near future, we may all need new ways to find fulfillment, in how we work, how we play, what really means something to us.

This past weekend, my hubby and I took an impromptu walk along the Welland Canal, which happens to be not too far from where we live. People come from all over the world to see the Canal system, watching the big Laker ships pass through the lock system that raises or lowers them between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. I’ve even spent a day on one of the ships as part of my work. We drive by it a lot but rarely stop because it’s been a part of our lives for decades.

It wasn’t the nicest day – the sky was filled with clouds, tinting the canal waters a steely blue, and rain was threatening, but we were able to get in a nice walk. There were a few people out, carefully distancing. We watched Canada geese parents hiss at walkers who got too close to their fluffy younglings, and I started taking photos for a series I’ve been thinking of doing about the Garden City Skyway that dominates our skyline. We walked below one of the lift bridges and got a closer look at the structure (we’re both construction geeks). I found a solitary buttercup, a flower that used to line every sidewalk when we were kids – we would pick them and hold them under our chins to tint our skin yellow — but for some reason have all but disappeared now.

As raindrops started to fall, we crossed the Canal to a local country diner that’s been a fixture for years here. They were still serving only through a takeout window, so as my hubby waited for our order – a chili cheese dog for me, a Whistle Dog and onion rings for him – I took some photos of the blossoming fruit trees as well.

We took our food treasures back home to eat in warmer surroundings. It was a relaxing, fun afternoon – a very off-the-cuff exploration of our own ‘backyard’. There’s value in small things these days, in things that we thought we were too busy for before. My hubby, who doesn’t actually like walking so much as a pastime (now put a golf fairway under his feet and it’s an entirely different story), remarked that he’d really enjoyed himself. There’s still a whole world out there; we just need to adjust our perspective a bit.

Twilight Zone Day – Are we living it?

Who ever thought we’d be living out a multi-episode Twilight Zone-like drama?

I’ve been a fan of the early 1960s series in reruns since I was old enough to watch it and understand what was going on. This coming Monday, May 11 is Twilight Zone Day, and given the bizarre times we’re living out in reality right now, it seems a perfect time to celebrate the ground-breaking series.

The show’s creator, Rod Serling, was a fan of pulp fiction, imaginative stories found in inexpensive printed magazines in the early days of mass-published science fiction. While these stories were often lurid and sensational, with equally lurid covers featuring scantily-clad women to catch readers’ attentions, some really well-known heroes emerged, including The Shadow and Flash Gordon.

The first pulp magazine was published in 1896, printed on cheap wood pulp paper produced from wood chips  and bits of other plant fibres. Over the years very famous writers had stories published in the pulps – H. Rider Haggard (this movie version of his most famous story, She, is still one of my favourite old adventure movies!) and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who brought Tarzan to life.

During the Great Depression the ‘pulps’ were a popular form of cheap entertainment for people with little money. Characters like The Shadow went on to become famous in various forms of media, including the old radio shows and later in movie depictions. My hubby and I often listen to the old radio dramas on long road trips – they have great atmosphere, especially at night when the darkness frees up your mind’s eye, and you can stream them here.

All of the pulp writers let their imagination run freely, and it was this spirit that Serling homed in on when he started to work on a weekly anthology series with a science-fiction theme for television. The weekly stories were thought-provoking in their speculation about how ordinary people might handle unexpected situations.

A cult classic, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, features a very young William Shatner on an airplane who spots a hairy gremlin-like creature outside of the aircraft destroying one of the wings, and his attempts to get someone to believe him.

One of my other personal favourites is Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? The story follows two state troopers face who, after investigating a tip about an unidentified flying object, find footprints at a mysterious crash site that lead to a nearby café. When they enter, all the people inside look human, but one of them may be something else.

My own early attempts at writing stories were heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone. I think I still have my copy of a story I wrote when I would have been 9 or 10 years old, handwritten on lined, 3-holed binder paper, about a girl playing with a toy sailboat on a small pond in her back yard. She’s upset with her parents and wishes that she could just shrink and live on her nice little boat – which, of course, is exactly what happens. The story ends with her mother coming out the back door to call the girl in for dinner.

Science fiction writers get to indulge in imagining the what-ifs. Often over the decades their creative results have turned from fiction into fact – many of the future technologies imagined in the original Star Trek television series ended up being developed in subsequent decades – the flip-open communicators became flip-open cell phones, insertable computer disks on the show presaged floppy disks and all the portable storage plugins we have today.

But it’s the fun of the writers’ vision that entertains us, especially if there’s a great story that we can relate to in some way, that resonates even while it’s beyond our realm of experience. Serling himself said that “If you can’t believe the unbelievability, then there’s something wrong in the writing.” Too far-fetched and the writer loses the audience, but extrapolated from real life in some way and the writer has us hooked, wondering how we might react in the same situation.

Serling was a master of the genre, encouraging us to place ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes. I often smile when my hubby and I fly somewhere, imagining that hairy gremlin out on the plane’s wing tearing up the wiring. On the last leg of our honeymoon flight, from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, on our tiny island-hopper plane the door to the cockpit was shaped like a coffin, and when I looked out the window I could see loose bolts on the wing housing rattling in the wind. Gremlin on the wingtip? Hah! Try surviving a flight on old Prinair!

Old Twilight Zone episodes still air on television. Find some for May 11 and lose yourself in the eerie imaginings of Rod Serling and his writers. You may get some inspiration for dealing with the topsy-turvy reality we’re in right now, or at least be able to wryly laugh at it a little bit.

And if you’re so minded, please let me know which episodes have become your favourite.

A year of light

A new year, and a new decade. Let’s hope that the world becomes a better place — lately it’s been feeling like we take two steps back for every step forward.

New beginnings are always hopeful things. I prefer to be optimistic, and so, while everyone worries about climate change, I’d like to share this charming article with you about sheep in Scotland who have been consuming more seaweed and are belching less methane as a result. It’s a start 🙂

With the growing trend of ‘flight shaming’, here’s a cogent look at approaching reducing carbon emissions in a less confrontational way. I believe travel is a powerful force for understanding and peace, and would argue that there are millions of people around the world who depend on the travel industry to make ends meet. While a lot of criticism has been levelled at travellers, there are industries that have been degrading our environment for decades and need to be examined. Clear-cutting, mining and monoculture farms in the Amazon and other jungle regions have caused an enormous amount of damage, for example.

However, I do love train travel and road trips. We were in Tennessee for the holidays, visiting a cousin, and if you’re looking for a place to spend your holidays in 2020, you might want to consider the Nashville area. We attended two light displays:

  • GLOW Nashville at First Horizon Park, a magical light display with skating rink, tubing slides, shops, and more, and
  • Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood Estate, where the magnificent Cheekwood Mansion is decorated to the hilt, and after dark the grounds turn into a holiday wonderland.
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
GLOW
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood

I can also recommend a great Mexican restaurant in Nashville, Uncle Julio’s, where we could have made a meal just of the scrumptious queso appetizer, and we all enjoyed our entrees — I had a fantastic salad with smoky grilled shrimp.

We also ordered a chocolate pinata for my hubby’s birthday. It comes out on a big tray with a wooden baton for cracking it. Our excellent waitress recommended hitting it from the top so that all the goodies inside — fresh strawberries, churros and chocolate empanadas — land gracefully on the tray (instead of spraying sideways onto the hitter’s lap). It was great fun and very delicious. Stop in if you’re in the area!

Personally I don’t like making formal resolutions, but for 2020 let’s all incorporate dreams, imagination, serenity and kindness into our lives. That’s a good start too.

Make the holidays your own

Do you look forward to or dread the holidays? I’ve been in both frames of mind — depends on what you have to look ‘forward’ to, doesn’t it?

This time of year, with longer darkness and — at least in my part of the world — an ever-present chill in the air, bears considerable emotional impact.

With all of the season’s challenges, it’s really important to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Have some quiet times, soften the lighting, play a board game or watch a gentle movie.

One of the nicest Christmas breaks my hubby & I ever had was the year he got a bad cold. He wasn’t dreadfully ill, but tired and bedraggled enough that we had to bow out of all invitations.

We spent our days snuggled up inside by our Christmas tree, with a fire crackling, mugs of hot tea and our favourite movies on the television. I made chicken soup and other comfort foods that didn’t tax my hubby’s tummy. When my hubby snoozed in his favourite chair, I read or indulged in some retro paint-by-number artistry (which is not as low-demand as you might think, and remarkably engrossing).

It was probably the most relaxing Christmas we’ve ever had.

One Christmas a few years ago, we, with our nieces and nephews, decided to take over Christmas dinner at my hubby’s sister’s place and have soup and grilled cheese. She was slightly appalled at not putting on a big meal, but she was outnumbered. Several of us brought tabletop grill pans, and everyone contributed something interesting — my hubby and I brought the perfect grilling bread (golden and crispy on the surface, but soft and chewy underneath), our niece made two pots of soup, people brought their favourite kinds of cheese and some delicious add-ins. We banished my sister-in-law from the kitchen and created easy, delicious melted masterpieces in very short order. Then we all sat casually around the dining table and shared the goodies.

My family’s holiday celebrations centred on Christmas Eve. One year, after several busy weeks at work, I decided to keep things simple. I made a huge pot of chicken, sausage and shrimp gumbo a couple of days ahead. All I had to do to serve it was reheat, put out a basket of fresh crusty bread and a big salad. My parents were no longer alive, but my brother came with his kids, partner and her kids, and my mother-in-law wasn’t going anywhere else so we invited her as well. The recipe turned out to be delicious, granted, but I think the cozy and simple meal struck a chord, because that enormous cast-iron pot of soup got cleaned out, even with a big bowl of delicious English trifle waiting on the sideboard.

There was a Christmas when we had both families over and expanded our meal to invite our neighbours from across the street, who had lost both their son and daughter-in-law that year and were now raising their grandsons. We weren’t sure they’d feel comfortable enough to join us, but they did, and our families welcomed them, and it made for a really special Christmas.

The point of holidays, whichever you celebrate, isn’t to drive yourself crazy tracking down gifts, or make everything look like a Hallmark moment, or grit your teeth while relatives behave badly.

Warmth and fellowship are the point. Spend quality time with people who matter to you, and include people who or hurting or would otherwise be alone. Have easy, good food and easy laughter. Put aside differences, because lost time can never be recaptured. Be kind to each other.

I wish for you whatever brings you peace and contentment this holiday season.