A class act… or not?

Call me old-fashioned, but I like the word “classy,” even though I never gave it much thought before reading this blog last week.

Katy Waldman, in slate.com’s language blog, makes the case that there are more precise and less offensive alternatives. I’m still wrapping my head around the “offensive” part, but the other adjectives she suggests strike me as less precise, not more.

The great thing about the word “classy” is that it can combine meanings of proposed substitutes like “elegant” and “courteous.” When it’s used admiringly to describe someone’s behaviour, both style and intent are implicit.

But some people find the word classist and offensive, because its origin lies in a description of the upper class. I confess that – much as I dislike stereotyping – I have trouble seeing it. I believe that wealth and access to education aren’t necessarily correlated with class, and that lack of money and education don’t preclude it.

I don’t think “classic” means the same thing. But language evolves, and I may think differently in the future.

“Classy” has yet to fall into disuse. I’m sad to think that it might. What do you think?


What I read on my way to Japan

I usually read at least one book when I’m away on vacation, and more often than not it’s fiction. But on my way to Japan for a two-week trip that began at the end of November, I started with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

Keeping my clutter manageable is an ongoing issue (it took five months after I was downsized to deal with my work stuff and get it out of my dining room).

So, naturally, I was drawn to this book when I read about it online in The New York Times.

The author is a 30-year-old Japanese decluttering guru who advocates a clean sweep approach to paring down your stuff: go through everything once and for all, and get rid of anything that doesn’t bring you joy.

She prescribes a category-by-category method (instead of room-by-room), and advises starting with clothes and working your way through categories that are progressively more difficult to make decisions about.

Her approach appealed to me, and felt natural: I’ve always liked to start with easy tasks, even when I was a student doing homework assignments. It’s kind of like warming up before a workout.

Also, I like her what-sparks-joy criterion. It makes the first few decisions easy, and gets the momentum going.

I started going through my clothes this past weekend, even though there are always so many things to do after a trip that I wondered if I should wait.

But I realized that editing your possessions after a trip makes sense. You have to make the same kind of decisions before you go away, ideally packing only what you need. If you do it right, you realize you can get by very well without everything you have at home. So you’re already in the right mindset.

Reading the book on the plane to Japan provided a low-key introduction to some aspects of Japanese culture that only became apparent once I was there. As a North American, I found it strange that Marie Kondo, the author, anthropomorphizes her possessions, treating them as if they have feelings.

But when I learned more about the Shinto religion, particularly the belief that everything has a spirit, the book just seemed more “Japanese.” On a day trip to Mount Fuji, for example, a guide told us that in the samurai period, people believed the mountain would get angry and erupt if women climbed it.

Kondo places a lot of emphasis on how to fold clothes, an allusion not just to origami and the proper folding of a Japanese kimono, but to folding as an inherent part of Japanese culture, something I noticed in the wrapping of purchases.

I feel as if my new organizing project is an outgrowth of my trip. It will be interesting to see where it takes me. According to Kondo, some of her clients have found new career focus (and even new life focus) after organizing their homes. Getting rid of items like books that no longer reflect current passions can make evident what is most important, because that’s all that’s left. I guess that’s why “life-changing magic” is part of the title.




An “alternative” birthday cake

Life has gotten in the way of blogging recently, and one of the things that took  time was planning a big family dinner to celebrate my husband’s birthday earlier this month.

He told me in advance that he didn’t want an unhealthy birthday cake with overly sweet icing. I took it as an interesting challenge, and headed online to search “healthy birthday cakes.”

The ones I liked best weren’t actually cakes – they were fruit, usually watermelon.

This is what I ended up making – Ta-da!

watermelon cakeIt got a lot of oohs and ahs, and nobody was disappointed that it wasn’t a “real” birthday cake. We had one of those too, for my sister, as well as a couple of other baked desserts.

Before attempting a (literal) fruitcake, I studied online images and directions. My two main sources were this blog post on estherodesign.com (I thought her cake was stunning), and this YouTube video, which shows how to cut the watermelon. I cut mine freehand, so my circles weren’t perfect like the one in the video.

There are a few things I learned along the way. See below.

How to Make a Watermelon Cake

1. Choose a good watermelon. This is harder than you might expect, especially in winter. Not all supermarkets carry whole watermelon. A friend suggested I try Coppa’s Fresh Market on Dufferin Street, which not only had a big selection but also a very helpful and friendly produce guy who told me which one to buy. Actually, there were two helpful and friendly produce guys. The first one referred me to the “real” melon expert. I told them what I wanted the melon for, and I think they found it an interesting challenge too. We looked at the sizes and shapes of the watermelons to figure out which ones would work best. The watermelon I took home was slightly narrower at the top, and “Mr. Melon” told me to use the wider end for the large drum-shaped base of the cake. He estimated that the melon I bought weighed about 15 lbs. It was enough for three tiers, with leftovers.

2. Try to ensure that your melon doesn’t roll around in your trunk like mine did. A box would have been a good idea. No harm done, but I did wonder if the melon would end up too bruised to use.

3. “Mr. Melon” said to cut the watermelon a few hours before serving, to prevent the juice from draining out. I didn’t listen to him, because if I ran into a problem, I wanted time to buy another melon. Instead, I cut the watermelon a day ahead of time, but wrapped each layer in paper towels to absorb moisture. I wrapped the largest one with plastic wrap, and slipped the smaller layers into Ziploc bags. It worked out fine.

3. When I put the pieces together the day of the party, I used a couple of child-sized chopsticks to connect and stabilize the layers of the cake. Online instructions suggested skewers. I decorated the “cake” with blueberries, cape gooseberries, sliced kiwi, and starfruit.

4. I was hesitant to use toothpicks to attach the fruit that I was using to decorate the cake, because I didn’t like the idea of someone possibly ingesting one. I used a few, and I think it’s hard to miss them, especially if you leave them whole, so I don’t think I’d worry about that if I was making the cake again.

5. As an alternative to toothpicks, I used whipped cream as “glue” for some of the fruit. It was fun and tasty, but toothpicks alone would have resulted in a cleaner, more professional-looking cake. In the picture, you can see the cream oozing out the edges at the base of each tier. Also, you need very little whipped cream if you want to use it the way I did. The leftover cream was a decadent accompaniment to the healthiest cake I can imagine. I can’t remember the last time I had real whipped cream! I made it myself, using whipping cream, icing sugar and vanilla, and I remembered to chill both the beaters and the bowl first. It was delicious!

6. I also hollowed out circles on the sides of the cake with a small melon baller, thinking that I could fit the gooseberries in the indentations without needing to use toothpicks. It worked for some of the gooseberries, but not others.

7. The entire cake was very heavy, and I thought it wiser to not carry it with lit candles!

My ten-year-old niece told me that dessert exceeded her standards. I couldn’t ask for higher praise!




An evening with Jodi Picoult

Last week, my son and I went to hear Jodi Picoult talk about her latest novel, Leaving Time, at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto.

It was a delightful evening – quality mother-son time, fun with family friends who also attended, and a talk that resonated for me as a writer. Not to mention that admission to the Canadian Living “VIP” event included a signed copy of Jodi’s book, a lovely dessert spread, and a giveaway bag.


From left, Ryan, me, Jodi, and our friends Laurie and Susan at the signing table.

As a writer and freelance journalist, I left feeling inspired. A few months ago, I tried my hand at writing a short children’s story, and the experience made me think that maybe I do have the imagination to attempt fiction – even adult fiction! I certainly enjoy reading it.

I loved hearing how Jodi came up with the idea for Leaving Time, the story of a 13-year-old girl who enlists the help of a psychic and a detective to find her mother, an elephant researcher who disappeared years before.

It started with an article she read about elephant mothers and daughters who stay together their entire lives. The article piqued her curiosity at a time when she was dealing with her own feelings about her daughter leaving the nest for college.

The back story captured my imagination. To research something purely out of interest, and spin it into a novel – an entire fictional world – is an enticing idea.

Research for a novel would draw on my journalistic skills, and now that I’ve had a taste of using real life as a starting point for fiction in my children’s story, I see new possibilities.

Not that I’m unhappy writing non-fiction. On the contrary, it makes me very happy. And I do want to finish my memoir on the year I lost my dad, which I’m about half-way through.

Jodi Picoult has written 22 books, approximately one a year (the same number of years that I worked as a full-time reporter!). On working days, she said, she edits what she’s written, then continues writing, fuelled by coffee until she stops in the late afternoon. Repeat often enough… and you have a book!

I told my son, who is one of Jodi’s biggest fans, that – with luck and longevity – I can write 22 books too. Maybe I should start drinking more coffee.




My to-do list: a work in progress

You’d think by now, more than a year after I was downsized, I’d have it all figured out. I’m pleased with the way things are evolving in terms of my writing, but,  honestly, I thought my to-do list would be shorter, and hoped that my house would be perfectly organized.

I know that houses and to-do lists are works in progress. No matter how many items you cross off your list, there’s always something else to be done.

Last week, I decided to figure out why my to-do list seemed to be unusually problematic. I’ve been keeping it on my iPhone, and the list has gotten so lengthy that it’s inconvenient to scroll through.

I decided to copy the list and transfer it to a Word document on my computer, so it would be easier to read. I was horrified to see that it took up more than a dozen pages.

It took time to sort out. I think the biggest challenge is keeping the important items at the top of the list. As other items are added, older ones are more likely to fall through the cracks.

My list also gets longer when I start a task, but only finish part of it. When I email someone but haven’t heard back from them yet, I make a note beside the original item.

I also found some items that didn’t really belong on my to-do list in the first place: books to read (I have a separate list for that), credit card transactions that I don’t have a receipt for (so I’ll know they’re legit when I have to pay), and blog ideas that I may not even end up using.

But there are enough legitimate items that I wonder if I need to put more effort and creativity into plowing through them.

I try to focus on one item at a time, but sometimes it helps to pick three smaller tasks to complete in succession. It’s not an intimidating number, but finishing three tasks feels like an accomplishment.

In the end, I think about the famous Nike slogan. Just do it.








Chocolate Sunday – Chocolate Show in Toronto/Chocolate Fun in Niagara!

Toronto’s fourth annual Luxury Chocolate Show is coming up November 2, and I probably won’t get there. Sigh! I enjoyed it so much last year. It’s the final event of a larger chocolate festival, which includes chocolate high tea at the King Edward Hotel.

There are also coupons available if you click on “Chocolicious” (under events) on the chocolate festival page. One of the coupons in particular caught my eye – the one for Criveller, in Niagara Falls, Ontario – because it ties into what I wanted to write about in this post.

Last Sunday, my husband and I rented bikes in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and planned to cycle the wine route.

We added an extra stop to our route when we learned that there’s a chocolate factory in St. David’s, about a 12-km ride from where we started. It opened in 2005. How did I not know this before?

Much to my chagrin, my husband – who was leading the way – overshot the chocolate factory. Pretty much everyone I know cycles faster than I do.

chocolate f:x factory

If you don’t want to go right past Chocolate F/X like we did, this is what it looks like.

I caught up with him near the entrance to Ravine Winery, and we decided to check it out before heading back to Chocolate F/X.

We had a light lunch (soup and a sour cream/chive muffin), and after tasting a couple of wines, headed to Ravine’s “grocery” store to try an oversized, over icing-sugared doughnut.

chocolate mousse doughnut ravine winery

Ravine Winery’s chocolate mousse-filled doughnut – decadent!

I wasn’t particularly tempted by it until I found out that it was stuffed with… wait for it… chocolate mousse. Whoa! It wasn’t just a doughnut; it was an experience! Messy, fun to eat, and more than enough for two people. We got lucky with the chocolate mousse, because they rotate fillings.

While we were waiting in line, we spoke to a local woman, who recommended Criveller. We’ll have to check it out next time we’re in Niagara Falls.

At Chocolate F/X, we took a 20-minute tour. More fun, and a variety of samples. We bought some milk chocolate maple walnuts and two dark chocolate peanut butter cups. We were advised to hold the peanut butter cups upside-down to eat, because the chocolate top is thicker than the bottom. Delicious!







What I did on my summer (blog) vacation

Now that it’s mid-October, I absolutely can’t pretend I’m still on summer hiatus from blogging.

I believe that starting this blog was the best thing I did after being downsized last year – it helped me evolve and keep writing – but it was good for me to take a break.

Not blogging for the past few months has allowed me to devote more time to my other writing, and to explore new types of writing.

In the spring, I started freelancing for The Canadian Jewish News again. I’ve also spent more time working on my book, and even tried my hand at children’s fiction.

I made a note whenever I had an idea for a post-hiatus blog post, and – to my surprise – the list has more writing-related ideas than food or chocolate ones. We’ll see where that goes. It’s not that I haven’t been cooking, but I’ve been using a lot of tried-and-true recipes that are already on my blog. Time to get more creative in the kitchen again, not just at the computer.

One last thing I’ve been thinking about – earlier this year, I made a family history book as a gift for a young cousin. A couple of people have suggested that this is something I could do for other people too, professionally. The project was a labour of love, but it drew on my journalistic skills, and I enjoyed it tremendously. I’ve been looking into how viable it would be to add it to my freelance repertoire.

So I have a few new directions to consider, and I’m also thinking about where my blog is going.

Until this summer, I was posting on a fairly regular schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays about writing, journalism and being downsized; Fridays about food; and Sundays about chocolate.

I may scale down a bit… or not. I might not post four days a week every week, but I plan to stick to my designated topics and designated days.




Farmer’s Market!

farmers' market cherriesI didn’t expect to feel the urge to post over the summer, now that I’ve taken a self-imposed hiatus from blogging. But I changed my mind when I checked out a new farmer’s market after hearing about it two weeks ago.

Time to blog about it now, before the summer’s over!

The Farm & Artisan Market at Avenue Road & Roe Avenue in Toronto supports the Alzheimer Society. It runs until the end of October, every Thursday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

I liked it right away. It’s small, non-intimidating, and easy to navigate. The vendors I spoke to were friendly, and I felt no pressure to buy when asking questions about the produce (organic and low-spray), and sampling soup, biscotti, and squares of sourdough bread studded with black olive pieces.

Among my purchases were a container of cremini mushrooms, an onion to saute with them, and fragrant artisanal soaps made with honey and other natural ingredients.

Some of the vendors are on site weekly; some every other week.

I felt as if I was on a treasure hunt, searching out whatever appealed to me. Lots of fun!

Summer Hours

Lately, life has gotten in the way of blogging. Sigh. Plus, I have a couple of other projects on the go. So I’ve decided to take a hiatus for the summer, unless I get an irresistible urge to blog.

But even if I don’t write, I’ll need to do some research about effective blogging, because I’ve agreed to do a presentation about it in the fall.

Hopefully I’ll have lots of new material after my self-imposed hiatus. Maybe I’ll even upgrade to a website, although likely not right away.

One benefit for me is that not blogging will give me more impetus to work on the book I’ve been writing about the year I lost my dad. When I joined the LinkedIn writers’ group where I have to record my weekly word count, I posted only the number of words I’d written for my book, and didn’t even mention the number of words in my blog posts. But lately, I’ve been counting my blogging and freelance articles exclusively, and the book has fallen by the wayside.

It’s time to refocus. Have a good summer!