Friday, February 27, 2009

One thin line, through a land so wild and savage

Just a quick update... the weather in Newfoundland was not cooperative and out of five days in the province, I got to spend about six hours over two days with my family. I did get out to see them on Saturday, but by Saturday night forecasts showed another storm hitting on Monday. That meant I'd need to get back to St. John's on Sunday before it hit or risk a) being stranded and missing my flight; or b) having to drive back in bad weather. Really bad weather.

You see, as I mentioned, there is just one small two-lane road leading to my parents' town; "one warm line, through a land so wild and savage"; and along much of it the landscape in winter looks like this.

Such landscapes in Newfoundland are known as 'barrens', for reasons which need no explanation...

Add regular gale-force winds (it's a peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean after all) and even a little snow turns into a white-out nightmare for scores of kilometres on end.

In fact, once or twice during the winter, drifting will close the highway altogether for a day or more. The worst time I remember is from my teens (it may have been the winter the Ocean Ranger - the largest oil rig in the world at the time - capsized). The road was closed for a week or more, and I remember the little local grocery store was getting mighty low on provisions before the plows managed to get the road opened up again.

So back I went on Sunday.

It doesn't matter. I went to see my parents and my sister, and to hug them, and tell them I love them. And while doing that was a challenge, I did it.

The rest is details.


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Friday, February 20, 2009

Oh, and I forgot to mention...

...the plane from Fredericton to Halifax, on the way to St. John's? It was a Dash-8.
No fancy-dancy soundproofing, like the Dash-8400; but the Dash-8100 gave us a very nice flight.

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St. John's [Updated]

I flew into St. John's on Thursday, planning to drive out this morning for a visit with my parents and sister in my hometown, four hours outside of the capital. Newfoundland weather had other ideas and Thursday night an unexpected snowstorm hit St. John's, and the region my parents live in had a blowing snow warning. Blowing snow being a fact of life on the one thin road snaking to their home, the fact that anyone bothered to issue a warning was pretty dire. So I spent the day in St. John's. And of course, once driving was even possible, I visited my favourite spot here - which by then was enveloped in fog as the temperature rose - Signal Hill.

By the time I'd driven back down the hill, the fog had lifted and it was sunny. Such is the weather in Newfoundland.

One of the best things about coming back to Newfoundland is the chance to eat the world's absolutely best, freshest fish & chips, served up at little independent diners. I stopped in at Leo's Fish and Chips for a yummy lunch.

The menu is absolutely typical for a Newfoundland diner. Allow me to point out one of the local specialties: Chips, dressing & gravy. (So well-known is it that on some menus it's just listed as "C, D & G".) This is Newfoundland's version of poutine: french fries, topped with stuffing (as in, turkey stuffing), with gravy poured over the whole mess. It's delicious, fattening and takes 3 days to digest.

(By the way, "Drinks" is local slang for soft drinks - a menu might offer a special: "Small Fish & Chips & a Drink: $5.99" - and I love the fact that you can add peas & carrots to any dish for just 90 cents.)

After that I spent some time exploring old neighbourhoods. This is the house I was living in when I met Husband. I rented the top left flat of this place, and it was my favourite of the many apartments I lived in as a student and later a working girl. There was a window seat overlooking LeMarchant Road, and I spent many hours reading there in the sun.

And tonight, a special treat: some time with my brother - who I didn't think I'd have time to see. And best of all his son - my nephew - had a hockey game and I got to see him play for the first time. He's nine; an awesome kid and an earnest hockey player; he shows promise but as his Dad put it, he's not a naturally gifted player - he has to work for it. He's crazy about the game, and of course he's a Habs fan like his Dad and me. No goals but two assists tonight.

So the day was certainly not a waste in any way, as I got to see my Little Baby Brother (a 6'3", barrel-built, bearded motorcycle-rider who is sweet and impish and loves animals) and spend some time in my favourite place in the world, next to Cuba.

Tomorrow I finally hit the long, barren and fickle highway to my hometown. Wish me luck and good weather.


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Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Master of Imagery

Whether you love him, hate him or feel absolutely nothing towards him, there is no doubting that President Obama and the team that surround him are utter masters of imagery. They - and he - know exactly what to do to create a moment.

We saw it all through the campaign, and we've seen it in the days since, when he, for example, left the stage during a Town Hall meeting to comfort a distraught homeless woman.

Today it was Canada's turn to be wooed by the small gestures designed to leave us flushed with pleasure.

In spite of a very tight schedule, President Obama made an "unscheduled" stop at Ottawa's Byward Market, a nationally-known farmer's market and Ottawa's chief informal gathering space. He bought a beavertail pastry - a beavertail - the President bought a beavertail - the quintesentially Canadian treat (coincidentally the first beavertail I ever ate was at Byward Market) - and then stopped to buy some maple leaf cookies with "Canada" written on them in red and white icing which he mentioned were for his daughters (because everybody loves his daughters). It gets better - he tried to pay for the cookies with a Canadian $20 bill (the cameras actually zoomed in on it - The President's carrying the local currency!).

His team must be extremely pleased with the results. Crowds at the market posed for pictures with him, screamed as if he was a rock star, and media outlets across the country are bubbling about his perfect nod to Canadian culture. (Not to mention the media back home -even if the AP reporter got the Market's name a bit wrong.) It's the note-perfect inclusion of the little touches - the site, the choice of a beavertail, the shape of the cookies, the pulling of the Canadian money from his pocket - that resonate with people.

He has some Canadians on his staff, which no doubt was a great asset when planning this excursion. Me, it's no secret that I'm hopeful and optimistic about his administration, although I am also holding him to account, and I think he's made some serious missteps.

But as a dedicated political junkie, watching the performance unfold at the market makes me nervous. Was it so good because he's genuinely tuned-in and because he listens to his staff?

Or was it so good because his people are awfully good at theatre?



Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Navel-gazing" is Too Strong a Word for this Post

I got home from work on Thursday night to the news that Continental Connection Flight 3407, heading from Newark to Buffalo, crashed just before landing into a house in Clarence Center, about six miles from Buffalo’s airport. Husband had CNN on the television and it was covering the crash.

CNN was describing the plane that had crashed as "a commuter plane". I said to Husband - who is my go-to guy on all things aviation - "A commuter plane. That'd be like a Dash-8, right?"

"It was a Dash-8," he said.

I did a double-take. "What?" I said.

"It was a Dash-8," he said.

Everybody in the Maritimes flies on Dash-8s all the time. They essentially are the interprovincial fleet. They're the connector planes from here to flights out of Halifax or Montreal or Toronto. Everybody complains about them. They're small, cramped, and noisy. And everybody takes comfort in the fact that they're one of the safest airplanes in the sky.

When I started flying for work, I hated the Dash-8. It was so loud, and so bumpy, and so little. And propellers? Please! It was terrifying. Give me a nice, big, wide jet.

Then during a conversation about 20 years ago with a friend who was a pilot, my mind was changed. We were talking about planes and flying, and I was saying how much I hated flying on Dash-8s; and he told me that if he was ever to find himself in a situation where he lost all power, the plane he'd most like to be flying was a Dash-8. I don't remember his exact words, but it went something like, "A jumbo jet can drop out of the sky like a rock. A Dash-8 you could coast, and coast, and look for a place to try to land it."

Ok, I know, I know. That's a huge generalization that ignores the thousands of permutations of any given air emergency. But I got his drift, and the drift - that the Dash-8 is a very safe plane - has been reinforced by the opinions of many other people and sources familiar with aviation that I've encountered since.

Patrick Smith, who writes's "Ask the Pilot" column, wrote in an article about the crash:

Before we get to if and how icing can bring down a plane, I'd like to begin by dismissing the idea, now making the rounds in some media circles, that the airplane itself, a Bombardier DHC-8-400, was somehow old-fashioned or unsafe because it happened to be powered by propellers. The Canadian-built DHC-8 is known to pilots as the Dash-8, and the -400 is the newest and most advanced variant, nicknamed the Q400. The Q stands for "quiet"; the plane's state-of-the-art turboprop engines and high-tech soundproofing are engineered to produce jetlike comfort in the passenger cabin. Something about propellers implies quaint, but remember that a turboprop engine is really no different from a jet engine. For all intents and purposes, it is a jet engine, except that the compressors and turbines are geared to a propeller instead of a cowled turbofan.

Turboprops are highly fuel efficient at low altitudes, and are therefore preferable to pure jets on a lot of short-haul routes. But there is nothing quaint or unsafe about them. Upfront, the cockpit of a Q400 has all the bells and whistles you'd find on an Airbus or Boeing. (For what it's worth, I have a few hundred hours as captain in an older model Dash-8, and the type is among my all-time favorite planes to fly.)

Even though the Dash-8 had some problems and some bad PR in 2007, my faith in the plane wasn't shaken, and when I took one on the leg of a recent trip to Regina, I still reminded myself that this plane had never had a fatal crash.

Right now, I'm planning a trip back to Newfoundland to see my parents. They've had some health problems recently. And there's little to no doubt that I'll be flying on one, if not two, Dash-8s on that trip.

And, frankly, I'm worried about snow, and icing. But I still trust the plane.

To quote Patrick Smith once more:

We'll eventually learn what happened, once the black boxes have revealed their sad secrets. The official findings are liable to point to not a single cause but rather a combination of causes -- a chain of unlikely events, survivable by themselves but deadly in combination.

Of course, the important thing here is that fifty - fifty - families have been ripped apart by this particular tragedy.

Everything else, really, is navel-gazing.


(PS Thanks to Brian Fies, whose inaccurately-titled post was the inspiration for the title of this post.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

1 in 3 Lolcats...

I believe we could all use a little levity about now.


Sunday, February 08, 2009

Sad News

The noble cat Raul - better known as Oolie, even better known as The Black Freighter - has unexpectedly left us.

There is little helpful to say about the loss of one of our cherished companion animals. I think that those of us who got to know Oolie online are grateful that such a remarkable animal was part of such a remarkable family of people and animals.

He had a good life and a dignified and compassionate death.

I think that's all any of us would wish for.

Our condolences to Fort Harrington.



Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Little Man

A sign of hope in the mail today - the Lee Valley Gardening catalogue.

It seemed particularly hopeful - or ironic, if you prefer - since I received it after digging a path through 1/2 metre of snow for the gas meter reader.

Lee Valley is the purveyor of many wondrous things (one of their specialties is bringing traditional Asian design to North American customers).

It's a good thing that Lee Valley is reminding us that spring is coming (when the reports from the various celebrity groundhogs came in yesterday, my thought was "only six more weeks of winter? sweet!") because Little Man's news has not been good lately.

This is Little Man. I gave him to Husband for his birthday last year. (He came from Lee Valley, too.) Little Man is actually a wireless weather station. He wirelessly communicates with a sensor in our backyard to give us instant information about the weather in our neighbourhood. I gave him to Husband because in the winter, the first words out of his mouth in the morning was inevitably, "What's the temperature?", as it tends to set the tone and, sometimes, schedule, for the rest of the day.

Photographing Little Man wasn't easy and lends an effect a bit like those new airport security scanners that see under your clothes. To the naked eye, Little Man's underwear lines are much less noticeable, but as you see, they do allow for a variety of outfits depending on the weather outside. Tonight it's -4.5°c outside and a cosy 18.9°c inside. There's also relative humidity (36 percent - is that high? We have a humidifier in here for the guitars) and a whole bunch of other stuff on there that Husband understands and I don't.

Because Little Man lives on his bedside table now, and the first thing I say in the morning is, "What does Little Man say?"



Monday, February 02, 2009

The World's Cutest Drug-Sniffing Dog

This picture of Emma, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, posted recently to Sherwood Harrington's PicShers blog, reminded me of something we saw in Cuba on our last visit that I didn't blog about because I didn't have a photo to post.

We landed at Frank Pais Airport in Holguin, and while the passengers were collecting their baggage from the carousel, out came two handlers with The World's Cutest Drug-Sniffing Dog.

I'm not sure of the breed, or even if it was a purebred, but The World's Cutest Drug-Sniffing Dog looked almost exactly like Fort Harrington's Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. He - or she - was running around like a mad thing, having the best time ever sniffing everyone's luggage.

Those German Shepherd drug-sniffing dogs, they look all business. They're uniform-wearing, badge-toting LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS, you all. They make you worry that your cosmetic bag is carrying the faint trace of the joint your cousin smoked in the bathtub seven years ago.

This dog was adorable, and made you just want to scoop him up and hug him, and worry that your cosmetic bag is carrying the faint trace of the joint your cousin smoked in the bathtub seven years ago.

I wanted to take a picture. I decided that taking a picture of the drug-sniffing dog in a developing country that happens to be Cuba wasn't the very smartest thing that I could do. So I didn't.

But I am happy that I have been able to share - with photographic assistance - the story of The World's Cutest Drug-Sniffing Dog.


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