Cover photo by Kai Chan Vong, used under Creative Commons license

2013 annual report: adjustments

I suppose it’s the custom that I begin these annual report posts with a rundown of how many movies I saw (65) and how many albums I bought (20) and how many books I read (just 3) this year, and how that compares to last year (54, 14, and 4 respectively). It also raises the question of what conclusions can be drawn from those numbers, if any. I’m leading toward none, other than that I’m prone to over-quantifying things. And in that spirit, I considered figuring out how many TV shows I consumed, but that would be beside the point: it’s the quality of what I watched this year that was so outstanding, not the quantity.

I do enjoy going back through the year, though, and recounting the things we did, like events in and around Toronto: a Game Of Thrones exhibit, a Leafs game where I got to see Sidney Crosby play live, another Leafs game which I saw live with my dad (his first live game in 49 years), a few Hot Docs screenings, Woofstock, the 3rd annual Session beer festival, Canada Day / Pride weekend, the city’s massive summer rainstorm, the Roundhouse craft beer fest, a special screening of Jaws at the Lightbox, our 12th consecutive TIFF, Nuit Blanche, a Thanksgiving feast, the ice storm, and of course the ongoing saga of our idiot mayor.

We also tried a number of TO dining establishments for the first time: Richmond Station, Bellwoods Brewery, Le Paradis, Woods, CarismaMonk’s Table, Bar Isabel, Hawthorne, and George. Richmond Station has since become a favourite, and I felt Bar Isabel earned it’s reputation among the top new restaurants in Canada. We did manage to host a few events at our place too, naturally centered around food and drink, like Bachelderannalia, a visit from the Thirphy girls, and a big dinner with our friends Matt & Kaylea (and assorted others).

We busted out of the city quite a lot this year too: Niagara-on-the-Lake twice and Grimsby twice, with winery visits part of all four trips. We also had a memorable dinner at Eigensinn Farm in Singhampton, and made three trips to Minden: Bat Lake twice, and Matt & Kaylea’s epic wedding weekend in September.

We didn’t do as many weekend trips out of the province/country as last year, but we did visit Boston for the first time, and Nova Scotia for a week, before making the big trip to Africa. That the Africa excursion was probably our best trip ever made up for the lack of other small side trips. Of course, I did still take a few trips for work, notably Phoenix, Chicago, San Francisco, and two more hops to Boston.

But all of that is really the same as last year, with slight variations in frequency or destination. Perhaps the three things which defined this year more than any other were the slight adjustments in our lives:

  1. Getting used to our new condo. By New Year’s Eve last year we’d barely settled in to the new place, and hadn’t gotten around to many of the enhancements we’d planned. We still haven’t gotten around to many of them, but it at least now feels like home in that unfinished way that everybody’s first real adult home does.
  2. Sonny’s passing. When a 20-pound ball of medication and affection who demands constant attention for ten straight years isn’t there one morning, it changes the atmosphere in your home. Five months later we’re all still adjusting.
  3. I left my company after 14 years, and started a new job. Two months in, I’m still getting used to this latest shift. It was a good move for me, and still roughly the same work rather than a career overhaul…but it’s definitely an adjustment.

There were other, more subtle things. I just realized this week that I haven’t been out to see live music all year, the first time that’s happened since I moved to Toronto. I also realized that my social networking contributions have slowed to a crawl, maybe out of overload, maybe out of lack of interest. I’ve already begun turning off a bunch of it and reconnecting with physical things, like books and outside air. The start of next year’s trend, maybe?

.:.

Cover photo by Kai Chan Vong, used under Creative Commons license

Photo by Clint McMahon, used under Creative Commons license

Best movies of 2013

It feels very, very strange to write this list this year because — for the first time that I can remember — I can barely put together a serious top-ten list. That’s always my target, and I usually have no trouble doing it, but seriously…of the 31 films released this year which we’ve seen, I can only just say ten of them were good enough to be on my ‘best of’ list at year’s end. And frankly, I’m not even sure Pacific Rim is of the same calibre as films I’ve recommended in previous years.

Now, keep in mind that I haven’t yet seen any of Mud (update: amazing), Gravity (update: stunning), 12 Years A Slave (update: good, and important, but not a great film), American Hustle (update: disappointing), The Wolf Of Wall Street (update: disappointing), Dallas Buyer’s Club, Inside Llewyn Davis (update: fantastic), Captain Phillips (update: great), Her, Frances Ha, Blue Jasmine, In A World… (update: loved it), Nebraska, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Stories We Tell, The Act Of Killing, A Hijacking, War Witch, Fruitvale Station (update: incredible), Sound City (update: good), Muscle Shoals (update: excellent), The Square, 20 Feet From Stardom, All Is Lost, Call Me Kuchu, or Room 237. So I might be short-changing 2013.

Here’s what I have as of now:

UPDATE: on second thought, I didn’t like how this was working out. I felt like I had to split it up. There are movies which drew me in and affected me as I watched them (the first list) and others which, while enjoyable, won’t really stick with me (the second list). As we continue to catch up on 2013 I expect both lists to grow. Or not?

The best

  • Before Midnight
  • Blackfish
  • Captain Phillips
  • Drinking Buddies
  • Fruitvale Station
  • Gravity
  • In A World…
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Mud
  • Muscle Shoals
  • Why Don’t You Play In Hell?

Near misses

  • 12 Years A Slave
  • Don Jon
  • Miss Violence
  • Prisoners
  • Watermark
  • The World’s End

.:.

Photo by Clint McMahon, used under Creative Commons license

Photo by Clint McMahon, used under Creative Commons license

Best music of 2013

First, the caveats: I haven’t yet given thorough listenings to this year’s releases by My Bloody Valentine, Pearl Jam, Quasi, Colin Stetson, Upset, or Swearin’, . But here are my ten favourites as of right now, listed alphabetically:

  1. Bass Drum Of Death . Bass Drum Of Death
  2. Black Angels . Indigo Meadow
  3. Basia Bulat . Tall Tall Shadow
  4. Heliotropes . A Constant Sea
  5. Little Hurricane . Stay Classy
  6. National . Trouble Will Find Me
  7. Phosphorescent . Muchacho
  8. Rogue Wave . Nightingale Floors
  9. Marnie Stern . The Chronicles Of Marnia
  10. Vampire Weekend . Modern Vampires Of The City

The biggest shock for me by far was how disappointing Arcade Fire‘s Reflektor was. I was disappointed by the albums from Low, Neko Case, and Frightened Rabbit, but Reflektor just stunned me.

Anyway, here’s what comprises my “best songs of 2013” playlist, again in alphabetical order only:

  1. Courtney Barnett . “Avant Gardener”
  2. Bass Drum Of Death . “Shattered Me”
  3. Black Angels . “You’re Mine”
  4. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club . “Let The Day Begin”
  5. Basia Bulat . “Never Let Me Go”
  6. Neko Case . “Local Girl”
  7. Dodos . “Confidence”
  8. Heliotropes . “Awake”
  9. Valerie June . “Somebody To Love”
  10. Little Hurricane . “Grounds For Divorce”
  11. Lorde . “Royals”
  12. Majical Cloudz . “Bugs Don’t Buzz”
  13. Men . “I Saw Her Face”
  14. Phosphorescent . “Ride On/Right On”
  15. Joel Plaskett . “Lightning Bolt”
  16. Quasi . “You Can Stay But You Got To Go”
  17. Radioactivity . “World Of Pleasure”
  18. Rogue Wave . “Everyone Wants To Be You”
  19. Marnie Stern . “Year Of The Glad”
  20. TEEN . “Big Talk”
  21. Thermals . “You Will Be Free”
  22. Vampire Weekend . “Worship You”
  23. Yeah Yeah Yeahs . “Despair”
  24. Yo La Tengo . “Ohm”
  25. Phosphorescent . “Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit)”

.:.

Photo by Clint McMahon, used under Creative Commons license

Photo by Mike Lutz, used under Creative Commons license

Luckily for us, Ang Lee’s version was more exciting

I know Thanksgiving is them traditional time for, uh, giving thanks, but I’d just like to go on the record and say how glad we are, and how lucky we feel, that we never lost power because of the recent ice storm. Not on Christmas, not on boxing day, not on our anniversary…there was never even a flicker. We have friends and co-workers who went for days without power, and apparently there are still people in the dark six days later. There were a few brutally  cold days in there, so…once again: we feel lucky.

Really, the only immediate evidence we could see was the coating of ice covering our balcony and trees on our street.

.:.

Photo by Mike Lutz, used under Creative Commons license

Photo by postbear eater of worlds, used under Creative Commons license

Tin

So, as of yesterday, Nellie and I have been married for ten years. Cool, right?

To celebrate we had dinner at George, a perpetual top restaurant in Toronto, which we’ve somehow never been to despite it being just around the corner from us.

We had the seven-course tasting menu…which might have been a bit much, since we’re both still sick with colds — I ran down somewhere around course #4. It wasn’t the best tasting menu we’ve ever had, but we agreed that it might have come with the best, and most interesting, wine pairings. I wasn’t taking copious notes; while there were generally 5+ flavours on each plate I’ve only captured the main ingredient.

  1. Amuse-bouche of Carrot paste, caramelized root vegetables, rye toast (2004 André Clouet Champagne)
  2. BC spot prawns (2007 Weinrieder ‘Birthal’ Weissburgunder – Austria) // Crusted black cod (Ontario Spring Water Sake – Canada)
  3. Tuna (2012 Valle Dell ‘Acate ‘Zagra’ Grillo – Italy) // Smoked trout (2010 Kew Vineyards ‘Old Vines’ Riesling – Canada)
  4. Tempura lobster (2012 Alheit Vineyards ‘Cartology’ Chenin Blanc/Semillon – South Africa) // Scallop ceviche (a white Bordeaux…don’t remember which)
  5. Squab (2008 Argiolas Korem Isola dei Nuraghi Bovale/Carignano/Cannonau – Italy) // Cornish hen in a pastry (2009 Azienda Agricola COS ‘Maldafrica’ Cabernet/Merlot/Frappato – Italy)
  6. Lamb (2010 Ramey Sonoma Coast Syrah — USA) // Beef tenderloin (2011 Hendry Ranch Vineyards Zinfandel – USA)
  7. Some kind of ash-y blue cheese (2002 Domaine Rolly Gassmann Stegreben de Rorschwihr Gewürztraminer – France) // Blackburn Washed Rind Raw Cow’s Milk – Québec (Villa Late Harvest ‘Tregenda’ Papiano – Italy)
  8. Chocolate cake (20-year-old Tawny Port) // Apple cake (some kind of apple cider) // Moscato D’Asti

And this happened at dessert. Thanks George!

.:.

Photo by postbear eater of worlds, used under Creative Commons license

Photo by pwbaker, used under Creative Commons license

Marble and mud

It seemed ridiculous that we’d never been to Hawthorne, since we could probably hit it with a well-aimed golf shot off the roof of our building. So, on Friday, with a few friends over and my appetite suddenly recovered from the flu, we went.

It was pretty dead in there, but the lone server kept the five (eventually six) of us us well-supplied. Poor guy. He put up with a lot from us, but since he gave us free coffees to end the meal I guess he found us more funny than annoying.

The meal, by the way:

  • Starters: smoked salmon cakes, roasted squash salad, quinoa salad
  • Mains: buttermilk fried chicken, beef brisket & tongue dip, smoked pork ribs, farmer’s sausage, ricotta gnocchi, pulled pork poutine
  • Wine: Kew Vineyards Marsanne Viognier, Kew Vineyards ‘Soldier’s Grant’ Cab Blend, Organized Crime ‘Pipe Down’ Cab blend

The whole thing was family-style, especially when friend #4 showed up at the end and ate what was left on everyone’s plate.

We made another stop back at our place before grabbing a few late-night beers at C’est What. I drank the C’est What Big Butt, which is almost as much fun to say (c’est?) as it is to drink.

.:.

Photo by pwbaker, used under Creative Commons license

 

Photo by Takashi H, used under Creative Commons license

“Now, if you will excuse me, I have to not speak to you people any longer.”

I guess our DNA leads us to binge-movie-watch in the month of December, because we went on a tear this weekend. The most recent four:

  • Olympus Has Fallen (imdb | rotten tomatoes): actually, Nellie watched this one without me a while back…I just watched it one evening while I was sick, but recovered sufficiently that I could look at a backlit screen without puking. Anyhoo: it was far from a great movie, but it was an order of magnitude better than the pile of Die Hard-thieving shit that was White House Down. Usually film violence seems either brutal or stylized to me, but in this one the violence felt brutal and stylized.
  • Still with locations central to Greek mythology, I was a little disappointed with Elysium (imdb | rotten tomatoes). The acting was too stilted too often — also, what the Jesus was with Jodie Foster’s accent? She speaks fluent French and was made up to look like Christine Lagarde…but then for some reason spoke like a bad-SNL-skit caricature of a French person speaking English — and the effects, while usually pretty stunning, drowned out the story.
  • I wasn’t sure what to expect from Don Jon (imdb | rotten tomatoes), Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut. It ended up being less funny than I expected (down to my mistaken impression from the trailer, not a weakness in the movie…it was still quite clever) and more heartfelt, in spite of the subject matter. I’ve continued to think about it for the last day or so, and it gets slightly better in my mind each time.
  • From the light and fun Don Jon we take a massive turn toward Prisoners (imdb | rotten tomatoes), which was intense and creepy. I really liked it, but probably couldn’t recommend it to my brother with kids. Or anyone who considers Hugh Jackman a heartthrob and wants it to stay that way.

.:.

Photo by Takashi H, used under Creative Commons license

“350 pounds of fun”

I’ve avoided writing about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford until now, in part because I’m ashamed and didn’t want to acknowledge it, in part because I assumed it would all end soon (“soon” never happened, obviously), and in part because there’s a disgusting abundance of material out there about him already. Not that I haven’t wanted to write about it, mind you; writing helps me make sense of senseless things, and I’ve been baffled since the day the man became mayor.

I won’t get into the long litany of offenses and outrages committed by His Worship (the standard honorific for the mayor of Toronto) — they’re listed here in a Google Doc. Well, up to November 20th, at least. Certainly mayors and other politicians have resigned for less: Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay resigned amid corruption rumours. Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress because he got caught tweeting a picture of his clothed junk. And so on.

The immediate push-back from those who still support Ford (more on that later) ran along the lines of, “Who cares what he does in his spare time, he does a good job and tries hard and saves me money.” Forget the national, and international reputation of Toronto being dragged through the mud, so long as he’s saving the taxpayers money, right? So commentators began discrediting his most common talking points: that he has saved the city a billion dollars, that he’s a fiscal conservative, that he’ll stop needless city spending, and that he’s a blue-collar everyman. These, the biggest planks in his political platform, are bullshit. They always have been, but Ford’s supporters no longer had these narratives to fall back on.

And yet this dismantling of his more egregious lies hasn’t changed the minds of Ford Nation: as of three weeks ago his approval rating stood at 42%. This, again, was baffling to me. His behaviour as the city’s ambassador has been embarrassing (believe me, Ford was a prominent news story on CNN International, the BBC, and Al Jazeera while we traveled around southern Africa) and on top of that his actual job performance is a fabrication. How, then, to explain his base of support? It’s undeniable that Mayor Ford (and his brother Doug) are popular in their neighbourhood. Doug handing out $20 bills at a community housing complex doesn’t hurt, but that can’t account for such a large number. And even the most tinfoil-hatted can’t believe this is all a media conspiracy, and rally behind their guy: when the Star, Globe, Post, and Sun all agree that the mayor needs to step down, there’s no media spin left.

Equally wacky, in my opinion, is the theory that suburbanites will support anyone they see as sticking it to the downtown elite latte-sipping liberals. I don’t buy that. I don’t think those 42% are diabolical or scheming, or wish particular harm on everyone south of Bloor. In fact, I don’t think they give much thought to anyone outside their own household. And therein, I believe, lies the problem.

“We have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that wealth is wisdom.”

The constant refrain from those who still support Ford is that they believe he will reduce, or has reduced, their taxes, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. The reduction of burdensome taxes seems to be their primary concern. I can understand this, particularly for low-income families. But low-income families don’t account for that 42% who still support Ford (besides, anyone who’s paid attention knows Rob Ford’s tendency over the years has been to cut city services used by the working poor), so it’s not just low-income families. In fact, I have plenty of personal, anecdotal evidence of affluent acquaintances who support Ford solely because they want him to cut their taxes. They acknowledge that he is a buffoon, an embarrassment to the city, and an erstwhile racist and homophobe not reflective of the city’s values, but are willing to overlook all that for the possibility of paying less tax next year. I’m not alone in hearing this either.

Again, this baffled me. These are not idiots who’ve said these things to me, but rather educated and intelligent people. While I knew the basic premise of fiscal conservatism was to reign in government spending, I underestimated the degree to which a) fiscal conservatism has been oversimplified into “taxes are bad, full stop”, and b) people will overlook bad behaviour if a tax break is involved. I couldn’t articulate it until I read a piece in the Guardian last month in which Harry Leslie Smith summed it up perfectly:

“By far the worst error we have made as a people is to think ourselves as taxpayers first and citizens second.”

Suddenly, the lights came on. I got it now. I understood. It’s simplistic, to be sure, but no less reductive than this tax-break-or-else mentality. Some people have made this leap, this assumption, that the primary function of government, trumping all other functions, is to limit itself. This manifests as people referring to themselves as taxpayers, as if that’s all they are. I still believe the primary function of a government is to care for the citizens who elect it. Fiscal responsibility, just like household responsibility, is one of the ways in which it ensures and sustains that care…but not the only way.

I’m not sure this makes it easier to convince Ford Nation, but at least I understand the issue now. I think. Thanks, Mr. Smith.

Wolf cape

This time we made sure the Gardiner would be open.

The last time we drove around the lake to see Matt & Kaylea it was an ordeal. When the main highway out of downtown Toronto is shut down, things get messy. Fortunately there were no such closures this time, so we made good time.

Too good, in fact…we were at their place in less than an hour, and arrived before they were still in the throes of morning. Anyway, we had plenty of time before the event which drew us down to Beamsville in the first place: a structured tasting at Thirty Bench. We knew we’d be tasting the 2008 cab franc and merlot alongside the 2011, but they also added the 1996 vintage of each to the lineup. The tasting began at 11am, but we did our stretches and got ready to taste.

I won’t go too far into the tasting notes, but suffice it to say both 1996s were past their primes. Still, it was fun to taste them alongside the new, more powerful vintages. We knew we’d be buying several bottles of the 2011 cab franc to add to our collection, but it was nice to taste the 2008 again as well. And we were surprised by the 08 merlot…surprised enough that we bought a bottle. Let’s see if it lives up to our memories when we finally crack it.

After Thirty Bench we drove east to Kacaba. Kacaba’s always good for a solid half (or full) case, but they happened to be running an open house so we just jumped into the tour. We tried some tank samples of the upcoming sauv blanc, pinot gris, and riesling (and pre-ordered the first two) as well as some syrah and cab sauv, and met the winemaker and the owners, and chatted a lot with the staff, and bought nearly a case of wine. Despite their absolutely atrocious website, Kacaba is always a wise stop along the wine trail.

Our last stop of the day was Green Lane, a new winery for us. It’s small, and the room was empty when we arrived, so we took our time. We liked the sur lie chardonnay and their cab blend well enough. Not sure it’ll be at the top of my list for future visits though.

After a quick stop for provisions we went back to Matt & Kaylea’s, where Matt began prepping his feast. He distracted our tummies with a board of kielbasa, a cheese ball, and some of his homemade bread. Which was incredible.

The ladies split a bottle of Jordan riesling we’d brought back from Stellenbosch, while Matt and I sampled some beers. We had some Railway City Iron Spike blonde ale (which was ok), and some Dead Elephant ale, also from Railway City (which was a little better), and some Midtfyns/De Molen X Porter (which was horrible…and I love porters), and finally some Deus Brut des Flandres (which was spectacular…I was actually angry at myself for never having tried it before).

And then came dinner. First: a roasted parsnip + celeriac soup with parsley oil, paired with a sur lie chardonnay we’d picked up that day at Green Lane. The main course was pork loin wrapped around apricot, onion, spinach, and rosemary, served with creamy potatoes and butternut squash. That was paired with an Old Third 2010 pinot.

We decided to take a little break, clean up a little, and go for a walk before dessert and the final bottle of wine. Unfortunately somewhere in there I developed one of the worst headaches of my life. As in, it hurt to look at light, or laugh. Eventually I just disappeared into the bedroom, turned off the light, and tried to make my head stop hurting. The rest of the gang drank a bottle of my beloved 2007 Thirty Bench cab franc and dug into the massive lemon square Matt had made especially for Nellie. I missed it all because it felt like a giant hot crab was attacking my temples.

The next morning the pain had lessened — it was like a normal headache now, which was comparatively easy — and I was able to partake of Matt’s excellent breakfast. We surveyed the previous evening’s damage and went out to investigate one more winery: Kew.

None of us had ever been to Kew (it’s new! Kew is new! New Kew!) so this was a bit of an adventure. And I gotta say, it is a beautiful spot up there. They’ve done well with the space, and we all made plans to come back in the summer and take advantage of the patio & fire. The wines didn’t quite blow us away, but many of them were solid, and blessedly there was some variety from the usual Bench wine offerings. They did a blanc de noir sparkling, and a marsanne/viognier mix, and a decent little cabernet blend, and I do believe we took a bottle of each along with a fumé blanc.

Since our Kew visit took a little longer than expected we decided to just call it and get some lunch before heading back. We retired to the Judge & Jester pub, which serves onion rings larger than a Roman legionnaire’s shield and ribs the size of a washboard. Needless to say that was our last food of the day.

Our drive home was uneventful, but our stomachs were full, as is our wine rack now (almost). Another successful trip in the books.