for Grandma – kitchen tables

A week behind on posting this… it’s me talking to you from the past!

20180306_141856Last week was a different kind of week for our little clan here in the great white North. My last little Grandmother and veteran of 93 trips around this pale yellow sun had a stroke a little over a month ago and a week ago last Friday she breathed her last.  She died surrounded by family and after a long life well lived… we should all be so lucky.


This of course meant family and a funeral.  My parents were here for her death and my brother Nate flew in from Ottawa with his family and we hit the pause button on life for a bit and focussed on each other and saying goodbye.  Hitting the pause button on life seems harder these days and suspending and postponing and cancelling sets up an interesting next week, but that is a tomorrow me problem.


Take that tomorrow me.


Today me is focussed on Grandma and the family she helped build and it has been my habit to wax eulogetic (is that a word?  It is now.) on this little blog and Grandma Brown has certainly earned that honour.
During the funeral each one of Grandma’s kid’s families presented a bit of a tribute and it fell to me to go last and I found myself summing up my Grandma with the image of a kitchen table.  One of my last visits with Grandma was after her stroke and it was kind of a tough visit.  The stroke left her half paralyzed and I couldn’t understand what she was saying and so I took it upon myself to tell stories.  I talked about the farm and her huge garden and eating peas out of the shell.  I talked about the fruit trees in her little orchard and crab apples and the old dog Ginger herding the turkeys and her Indian Runner Ducks.  I talked about her kitchen and fresh baked buns at which point she interrupted me clear as day:

“And pies!”

And pies. My Grandma did make delicious pies.  It is the memory of that kitchen that lingers with me.  My Grandmother’s kitchen always had something yummy cooling on the counter or in progress.  In my memory there was always sun streaming in the window and a warm hug and sweet treats.  It was always so important that we be cared for with food; that we be made to feel welcome around her table.  This importance carried on with the move to town and a smaller kitchen there and then to Aspen ridge where grandma would make coffee and serve cookies in her little kitchenette and in the later years it was an insistence that we go down to the café in the lobby for something wrapped in cellophane from the counter.

Grandma cared for us by inviting us to her table and in that way she was the center of our family.  When we drew together it was around her and it was usually around a table for a meal.  Now I fear we won’t be invited to that dinner anymore.  My Uncles and Aunts and Cousins on the Brown side are diverse and far flung… without a kitchen table to draw around will we draw together?  I worry and I wonder.

Except that I don’t worry too much.  I look around this family and I see kitchen tables everywhere.  My family lives this legacy of welcome and care in all of our stories.  My cousin Karen made Grandma’s famous jam jams for the funeral, my cousin Trish made portzelky (new year’s cookies) for the viewing, and me?  Maybe it’s time to bake some pies and then invite someone over to eat them.

My Grandmother’s kitchen table is not gone.  It is in my kitchen now and kitchens across this country as the generations of those who bore witness to that welcome and care carry it forward.

We miss you Grandma.  Thank you for teaching me about the importance of pie.



Well it’s time for the semi-annual travel somewhere interesting with the Olfert-Wienses again.  Seems we won another set of tickets to fly off somewhere (darn our luck) and that combined with a few travel points and a longing for all things hippie (mostly Nik, but you know…) and a hankering for somewhere new brings us to Sedona AZ.  A destination highly recommended by all the hippies out there and Kevin’s brother.  He is probably a hippie too… I mean, he likes Sedona so much.


And so we blasted off Phoenix bound on Tuesday and picked up our faithful rented minivan.  I don’t know if it makes me less of a man (as disgraced former and now once again pastor Mark Driscoll was fond of saying “If you drive a minivan, you’re a miniman.”) but when offered the upgrade to a land-yacht sized SUV I stuck to the minivan.  But then I’m probably just compensating for my enormous… ego.  So we rolled on north for the almost-two-hour drive into the wee hours to arrive at our condo in Oak Creek, just up the road from Sedona.


Wednesday was a groggy type of morning with kids unusually out of sorts.  We decided that getting our bearings was the ticket and rolled into town to explore.  We found a town full of public art and art galleries and eventually landed at ChocolaTree, a vegan-hippie-healtheearth-freehugs kind of a place full of the smell of amazing chocolate and earnest looking young staff.  We got a bit of an introduction to the concept, ordered some food and the most expensive coffee I have ever consumed in my life ($14. USD. I’m not making this up) and enjoyed every damn minute of it.  When the coffee came I thought to myself “This better be the best coffee I’ve ever had in my life.”  -takes a sip-  “You’re lucky.”  This all happened in my head of course because I’m far too Canadian to say anything like that out loud.


So the coffee was good and I’m told the beans are grown in a co-op in South America somewhere by a group of women and blessed by an elder or something and washed in unicorn tears and dried in the heart of a volcano using vortex rays.


I made some of that up but not as much as you’d think.


But the food really was exceptional and earnest and I think my spirit feels healthier now.  Or at least full.


IMG_6238Our next order of business was Vortex the first.  See Sedona talks about vortexes and brags about having four of them.  Apparently they have something to do with electromagnetics and will change your life or something.  The first one on the list was Bell Rock.  We meandered over that way and after a few false starts and turn arounds, we found the place.  The approach hike is about a mile and then you can hang out around the base of this very cool, very red pile of rock.  IMG_6242The boys and I had a great time climbing up on it and Nik did some metastating (as then 2-year-old Sam called it) and maybe I felt something?  Sure is pretty though.  All red light and rock.  But seriously… beautiful


So Sedona is pretty all right and the hippies are here so we’ll see what we can see.  It’s a travel blog again!  At least for five short days.


The details:

We are staying at The Ridge by Diamond Resorts and $178USD/night (average) gets us a one bedroom and a bachelor condo with adjoining doors.  The price is not too bad and the destination is superb (pool, hottub, fitness centre)… but they keep trying to sell us a timeshare and that is getting sort of annoying.  Anyway.

ChocolaTree ( really does make exceptional vegan organic gluten free food.  You pay for it though… all that love doesn’t come cheap.  The coffee, for the record, ended up being a large press of it and poured more coffee than I wanted plus coffee for Nik and the kids with some still left over.  The chocolate treats are also exceptional.  We spent $140 USD on lunch for five, but that included drinks and dessert.



Oh man, spring snuck up on me this year.

Now I’ve got no problems with spring in a theoretical sense… transition to summer and all and trees budding out and baby animals and on and on but I happen to be a fan of winter.

Just don’t tell anyone.

Being a fan of winter in this Northern climate makes me… unusual.  When people complain about snow and cold I nod along and smile but don’t add too much to the conversation.  I like it cold and I love snow.  Whenever I express this out loud people say “But you must be tired of winter by now right?” with disbelief evident in raised eyebrows and exasperated tone of voice.

“Oh sure.”  I mutter because nobody wants to be the weird friend.

I suppose complaining about winter is a national pastime in the great white north; right up there with hockey and putting on shorts on the first sunny day warmer than +5 but I can’t buy in.  I love winter and I love snow and I suppose that stems from summer being my season of labour workwise and a keenly honed love of winter sports, particularly skiing.

I’ve got the boys hooked too.  Ben in particularly lists skiing as his #1 with piano and then soccer trailing in that order.  Basketball may make the list soon too as the boy played this year and loved it though I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  Sam and Jonah participate eagerly with Sammy whooping and dancing down every hill in a solid snowplow and Jonah looking for every little jump he can on the side of the run.

Side story about Jonah:  A few seasons ago he decided he wanted to throw a 180.  Now I had spent all season working up to one.

Side-side story: I’m not what you would call a trick skier.  A few years before this I had gone to Rabbit Hill, a small local hill in Edmonton and after getting bored on the run ventured into the park.  I found some young grommet (as my British friend Greg (Hi Greg!) would call him.  I believe this roughly translates as “punk”) and recruited his coaching.  “Teach me a trick.” I asked.  “Ok, slide up on that box, turn sideways, then straighten out and slide off.”  Sounds easy enough so up I slid and as soon as I topped the box panic alarms go off in my brain and I freeze right solid and slide off the other side.  Over and over.  To the continued hilarity of said grommet.

Back to original side story: So anyway I spend the year skiing backwards, getting comfortable and all and working up my nerve.  Jonah, on the other hand, declares “Dad, I’m going to do a 180 today.”  And then he did.  Just like that.  I did one too that day and though mine may have been smoother and more technically sound (I worked up to it remember) it didn’t hold a candle in the guts and instinct department.

So anyway, we like to ski and this is the super long way of explaining why two Mondays ago we were at Sunshine, the boys having been sprung from school and me not at work enjoying some great snow.

Then we got busted.

Or rather Ben did.  It was kind of a nothing thing really.  An off balance fall on what Ben insists with indignation is “the EASIEST run” (For the record it’s a black diamond, but to his credit it’s not a crazy steep one.) and I slow up to make sure he gets up ok and then he doesn’t.  He rolls over and lets out a scream to raise the dead and I think (and I kid you not, this is exactly what went through my head)

“Uh oh.”

I know, eloquent right?  And it hurts and it’s not getting better and so I get all first respondery (make the scene safe, do the assessment, activate needed resources) and when the patrollers get there and I update on what I know I get “So you’re a medic?”  Nope, just a dad.  Well and a firefighter but no big deal right?

And we get him down and then drag him up (with a snowmobile) and then assess him and hm… could be a dislocated shoulder… so Canmore and x-rays and no drugs yet because maybe surgery and then it’s a broken humerus but no surgery and here’s some drugs and a sling and go home and rest.

And well that all kind of sucked.  It sucked less because my friend Justin was with us and he skied with Sam and Jonah while Ben was assessed.  It sucked less because my brother-in-law showed up with coffee for me and took Sammy and Jo to his place while we waited out the hospital emerg.  It sucked less because Sunshine has a stellar patrol team and Canmore has great doctors and nurses.  It sucked way less because we live in freaking Canada and health care is Universal.

Thanks Justin, Stephan, and Erica… call that favour in any old time.

It was a super tough first week with lots of pain and difficulty sleeping for my Ben as he had to sleep sitting up and be in a sling all the time (no casting a humerus) and only Tylenol and Advil to take the edge off, but he’s mending.  Today we saw the specialist in Calgary and another blow with at least 4 and more likely 6 weeks to go and spring soccer off the table and no band trip and no running yet but piano is back in play and he can lie down to sleep now.

And so you carry on.  Ben is still not real happy with the situation but age has given me the understanding that this will shortly be a less than pleasant memory and maybe even a good story.  You get to decide on that last one.

On Tuesday I’m going skiing.  No kids this time just a brother in law (it’s his birthday!) and some buddies.  I think I’ll take a few dozen donuts to the patrol shack and hand them over with the blanket we took with us from our last visit.

Spring?  Spring can wait one more day.

millions and millions and millions

I was spending more time than is advisable (that is any time at all really) on social media today and stumbled upon a story about American immigrants illegally crossing the border to Canada.  I was immediately proud of the professionalism and compassion displayed by the RCMP officers in the article and considered posting the “Yay us!” response so I scrolled a little.


And the comments… oh my heavens the comments.  Yeah.


There was of course some “Yay us!” but there was also some constructed false dichotomy “We need to help our own instead!”, some general disillusionment “They’re just going to get sent back anyway…”, and then the classic “But where do you draw the line?”


And when I thought about this for a moment I decided I wanted to tell a story.  The comments section not being a particularly effective place for story telling I decided to write it here.  I leave this here with no grand illusions.  I won’t change your mind, I don’t expect you to even like it really but here are two stories that jumped immediately into my mind when I reflected on the “There are millions and millions and millions of people who need help around the world. Where do you draw the line?”  So read on if you wish; your mileage may vary.


There once was a boy on a beach littered with starfish drying in the sun (“Oh no.” groan my kids, “Not that one again”).  The starfish had been left behind by the retreating tide and were slowly drying and dying.  Amid the beautiful dying stars, the boy stood, gently picking up each one and tossing it back into the water.  A man came along and observed the boy.  After some thought, he asked:


“Boy, why do you bother?  Don’t you see there are millions and millions and millions (added for powerful symmetry to original comment… I’m smart like that) of starfish on this beach?  You can’t hope to make a difference.


The boy looked down, shrugged, picked up another fallen star, plopped it into the water and replied:


Made a difference to that one.


Story number two takes place at Tim Hortons with still-in-University Jon.  I had a job at Timmies in Calgary.  It was not too bad really.  All the donuts a guy could eat and flexible shifts.  Anyway, on Fridays, my boss would send me downtown to help at another store he owned there.  Fridays at a downtown Tim Hortons are madness with every office jobber stopping in to grab a dozen donuts for the office.  The lineup would literally stretch out of the store, down the block, and around at least one (sometimes two) corners.  The first Friday I jumped to with a passion, working at a frenetic pace to serve customers as quickly (or more quickly) than humanly possible.  After several hours of this I was exhausted and the line unabated.  I slowed.  I worked.  Eventually we converted the back of the line to the front of the line and I went on my merry way.


The next week I started steady.  I made eye contact.  I smiled.  I helped who I could as I could and didn’t stop until the line went away.  Moral of the story?  You decide.  I know what it means to me.


So, kindly Police officers working with frightened immigrants, know what you do/we do/Canada does makes a difference.  It is Canada to its core to treat people with dignity and respect.  It is Canada to its core to keep working until the back of the line becomes the front.


Can we help everyone?  Of course not.  Should we quite trying?  No

the most beautiful place(s) in the world

IMGP8713It is always hard to write the day after post and so I find it taking me a few weeks to wrap up St Lucia as we finished our latest adventure and stumbled home into a world white with snow and 40 degrees colder than the one we left a few weeks ago already. Travel hangover is a tough thing.

But it’s good to be home… really.

St Lucia may just be the most beautiful place in the world with towering, jungle covered mountains and picture perfect beaches and beautiful people on every corner… it really is something to behold. If you are a big fan of lying on gorgeous beaches, enjoying wonderful food, and want to throw in a bit of shopping all without a language barrier then this is the place you need to be.

Our last two days in St Lucia slipped a bit in the activity department as the full brunt of a tropical cold fell in on my poor Nikki and we were reduced to beaches and coffee and staying closer to home. I know, horrible right?

It took me about that long to get past the “I have to see and do everything” mania that I can be guilty of and I found myself rising earlier to do less and spending more time wandering along the beach and reading by the pool. I took a pass on kitesurfing, which looked like just so much fun ($120 US for a two hour jet ski assisted lesson at Cotton Bay if you’re interested) and skipped out on snorkeling at Pigeon Island as there were two cruise boats in the harbor that day and literally hundreds of people on the island. Instead I ate grilled mahi-mahi and watched the kitesurfers while I nursed a refreshing piton.

Maybe I could get used to this.

So the “must dos” of our experience are as follows:

Go to Soufriere and see the volcano but drive yourself or take a sailboat (we were quoted $125 per person for the sail, tour, and all the booze we could drink) as riding a bus over those roads seems like a recipe for carsickness. Be prepared to smear mud on yourself and hang out in the wonderful warm at blackwater pools at the volcano. Be warned, the mud stains swimsuits.

Swim in a waterfall. You know you need to do this at least once in your life. There are numerous options by Soufriere, we went to Toraille and it was great.

Go to Reduit beach in Rodney Bay. There is a reason it is the most famous in St Lucia. Eat at Spinakers.

Send a day at Pigeon Island. Hike to the fort, eat lunch at the restaurant, and spend time at the beach. Snorkeling is optional but wonderful I am told.

The “things you should consider” list:

Renting a car was a great decision for us, but you need to be a confident and adaptable driver and navigation takes almost as much intuition as map reading skill. We had some notable detours. The car cost just over $500 Canadian for a week. A small car is just fine, no need to upgrade to an SUV. Airport shuttles to Castries are reputed to be in the $75/person range.

Power is 220 volt, so make sure you have a voltage adapter (not just a plug adapter) or that your devices (our computer and phone chargers worked, but read the fine print on your device) can handle the voltage change as North American standard is 110. Plugs are also different, so you will need a plug adapter regardless.

Be careful with your cash and be prepared to say no right off the hop. Mind the guys with palm fronds as they will fold you some little thing, insist you take it for free, and then demand a “tip” for their troubles. We were cussed out once when I refused (I’ve never been called a racist before) and it was an uncomfortable experience.

If you can, stay home when cruise ships are in harbor. Particularly when there is more than one. I have a working hypothesis that cruise ships are the undoing of the Caribbean as they disgorge thousands of people into an otherwise sleepy town and the locals who depend on that money fight to get it from the tourists who would rather not part with it and it creates bad vibes all around. By the end of our stay, if we could see a boat in harbor we stayed home or veered well off the beaten path as the beaten path would be shared with hundreds or even thousands of others most of whom were grumpy and feeling undervalued. That said if you are coming in on a cruise ship… enjoy your day I guess.

So yes, St Lucia just might be the most beautiful place in the world, but it will have to compete with our little house in the woods . The snow in the trees as the sun reaches its weak fingers through is something to behold and the mountains aren’t too hard to look at either. Ski season is here now and maybe we missed the kids a little.

It’s good to be home.

Jon and the volcano


The view from our table at Hummingbird… not too shabby

After a bit of a sleep in on Monday (we both seem to be a bit under the weather… Nikki blames the evils of air travel) we grogged through a breakfast and then made a plan: Soufriere. Soufriere (a local told us it is pronounced “soufrae”)is a town on the South West corner of St Lucia and the site of the original capital of the island’s government. It’s also the other place (0ther than Castries) that cruise ships land and the site of the iconic Pitons, the two volcanic plugs (not volcanoes, I didn’t know that either) that make St Lucia so justifiably famous. I had visions of us climbing the Gros Piton (a stiff, but doable four hour guided hike) but we pull back from that due to grog and under-the-weatherness and decide we have to see the “world’s only drive in volcano”, the mud baths, and at least one waterfall. And so we do.

As we head out Keith asks us what we are up to and asks if we are sure of the driving. I tell him we went as far as Anse La Raye a few days ago (about halfway there) and it didn’t seem too bad to which he replies, “Yes, but it gets hilly after Anse La Raye.” The road to Anse La Raye, while drivable, is anything but flat with switchback climbs and ups and downs. There is about 2 Kilometers of flat straight road in there as it goes through a banana plantation which might be the only place in St Lucia to use your cruise control… maybe that’s what he means? It’s not what he means. Past Anse La Raye the highway devolves into an endless series of switchback climbs and descents with the only flat sections being the parts that roll over the top of the ridge and the part where you cross the bridge at the bottom. The only Western Canadian comparison I can come up with is if you were to meet someone traveling east across Saskatchewan and tell them “Yes, but it gets flat after the Manitoba border.”

We putter along at 30-40 kph because that is about the best the little pig can do on these hills and make our way to Soufriere. Upon arrival we stop at the Hummingbird restaurant just as we come into town as my seatmate on the airplane recommended it. It is beautiful and the food is good with views of the Petit Piton and seafood gumbo.

We discover early that it is a quiet day in Soufriere with no ships in harbor. This bodes well for us. We run into town to find some cash and make our way out and around to the Toraille waterfall as recommended by our server. IMG_5457The Toraille Waterfall is a tourist spot with a short walk to a small waterfall. The entry is $3 US and you can swim in the small pool and under the waterfall. Managing to get there on a non-cruise-ship day was a win for us as we had the place all to ourselves for most of our time there. IMGP8697It was a great short stop, and almost made up for us missing it and driving way too far (a theme of our Lucian navigation) down the road and turning around again. TIMG_5463o the Volcano! Sulfur Springs boasts “the world’s only drive in volcano” and sure enough, you drive right into the land of Mordor with sulfur clouds and bubbling pools and that lovely rotten egg smell. We opted for the tour and the bath and headed up the hill. The tour starts with a video and small interpretive center and then you join a tour guide to actually see the thing. IMG_5477The viewing area is removed as the superheated gasses are not your best friend up close. We look and listen and I wander up the warm stream and walk into a small pool of tepid-bathtub-temperature water. Then we head down the hill to check out the baths.



IMG_5480The water coming off of the volcano is known as “blackwater” because that is what color it is… obviously. The pool is a small area that is surprisingly wonderful and warm and then you are encouraged to bath in the mud. It has healing powers apparently and I am told I need to put some on my head and then tomorrow morning “hair like Bob Marley!” No dice I am afraid, but I suspect the setup for that wonderful gag has been executed more than once. Always picking on the bald guy… T

he baths are fun but the mud comes off reluctantly and be warned that it will stain your favourite swimsuit. IMG_5492This morning finds my skin still slightly eggy in smell but I think my hair is a little thicker. And we make our way home before dark catches us on the windiest and loneliest stretch of road and have a quiet supper of rice and beans back at Espoire. It was a great day.

There are cruise ships in the harbor in Castries this morning (I can see them from my deck) and more in Soufriere so we plan to head north and east and visit the Atlantic side of the island and get off the beaten path a little. Should be interesting.IMG_5495

the island with pigeons on it

IMGP8681 IMGP8688Sunday we stayed closer to home, opting to spend some time at the local beach just down the road (10 minute walk) from our lovely home base. A leisurely breakfast preceded a leisurely walk down to a place where lots of people were doing leisurely things. Apartment Espoire sits above two resorts that have beaches and the rule in St Lucia is that every beach is a public beach so if you can reach it, you can sit on it. This means our short walk takes us to the beach in front of Windjammers, a huge resort with a nice beach with restaurants, beach chairs, inflatable things to swim on (a water trampoline and climbing tower) and lots of people who spend the whole day in the shade on a chair with a book.

IMGP8690Now I like to read a lot, but the idea of flying such a huge distance to sit and read has always been a non-starter for me and after we explore the beach, swim a little, sit a little, and chat with the rasta running the gift shop, we’ve pretty much covered it. We’ll be back, but the sitting all day thing isn’t for us.

So we head up to the apartment, change into street clothes and head to destination number two for today; Pigeon Island.

IMGP8679Pigeon Island is no longer an island as a causeway was built to it a long time ago and you can drive there now. It is, however, the site of the fort built by the British to protect St Lucia from the dastardly French at Martinique, just 45 or so kilometers north. The French actually did attack several times and the British did indeed fight them off using very big cannons that they hauled up a big hill. The park itself is wonderful with great interpretative signage, wonderful trails and facilities, a few very nice little beaches, and a small restaurant that will serve you an excellent curried kingfish for $37.50 EC. Not the cheapest place around but not too ridiculous and the location is something else and the food was very good. Getting into the park will cost you about $19 EC ($7 US)

If you like some history with your view, this is a wonderful way to spend a day.