Beware of toxic creature!

Back when I was writing about homestyle and interior design for the Calgary Herald, I never dreamed I would one day turn into the kind of person who buys a throwaway “Beware of Toxic Creature” sign from Dollarama. Motherhood has led me down the road of chintzy holiday decorating; more specifically, pleas from my daughter swayed me to succumb.

Avery also bought a toxic creature to accompany the sign. It's on her head.

Avery also bought a toxic creature to accompany the sign. It’s on her head.

Avery: “Mommy, can we go to the dollar store this weekend to buy Halloween decorations? Please?”

Me: Protracted, awkward silence.

Avery: “I’ll spend my own money.”

Me: Sigh. “Oh, alright…”

It’s not that I’m a Halloweenie, I just don’t see the point of hanging up a bunch of cheap caution tape, fake spider webs and sock ghosts that are just going to blow away and get wrecked. Yes, it brings the children joy to admire these trinkets and those of the neighbours, but here’s an idea: What if we just carve pumpkins! Isn’t that enough? Do we really have to invest in a life-size coffin and skeleton to get into the spirit of the holiday?

Stumbled across this gem    on an evening walk.

Stumbled across this gem on an evening walk.

This over-the-top love affair with Halloween kitsch is new, and it’s but one way the holiday has changed since I was a kid. Now, everywhere you go you see faux skeletons bursting out of graves, animatronic witches stirring pots, and creepy zombie girls holding a brain to their mouth while they sing Ring  Around the Rosie. In my neighbourhood, it’s a thing, and it gains momentum every year. All of the above frights are stationed outside of homes within a one-block radius. It kind of puts our dollar store display to shame.

Behold: Zombie girl!

Behold: Zombie girl!

It’s also, I don’t know, terrifying if you’re a little kid just trying to get some candy. When Avery was two she ran home crying from the house at the end of our block after the motion-activated skeleton came to life when she got into range of the front door.

Bursting out of a grave near us.

Bursting out of a grave near us.

One of the nearby homes that goes all-out is owned by a bachelor who doesn’t even have kids! His yard has morphed into a cemetery, and it’s watched over by a table peopled with Halloween horror hall-of-famers including Freddy Krueger,  Jason and Ghostface from the Scream movies. It’s a miracle Avery and especially Bennett will even walk by on Halloween night. (Storing this crap for the other 51 weeks of the year would be the other miracle.)

Jason, Scream mask guy and Freddy Kreuger hold court at The Zang, a neighbourhood home that goes all-out for Halloween.

Jason, Scream mask guy and Freddy Kreuger hold court at The Zang, a neighbourhood home that goes all-out for Halloween.

When I was young, I’m pretty sure homes weren’t decked out with tombstones and tarantulas. There were carved pumpkins. So what’s changed? Mainly, Halloween has become a big commercial holiday — spending is expected to reach $7.4-billion this year, and I’m pretty sure it’s not all being dropped on candy and costumes (actually, $350-million will be spent on pet costumes, but I think I’ll save that topic for another post).

In the meantime, I’ll cringe inwardly at the tacky scene our front porch has become, but outwardly, I’ll smile every time Avery runs outside to adjust a spider web and ghost. I’m also content in the knowledge Avery only spent $7 at Dollarama (as opposed to $160 on the Rosemary Zombie Girl). True, she’ll have to buy some replacement props next year, but I’m okay with that.

Drink of the Week: French 68

Bar C in Calgary makes great cocktails and this week they’re shaking them for charity. Since Tuesday, the 17th Avenue eatery and cocktail lounge has been donating the proceeds from sales of a daily featured cocktail to a local charity chosen by the customer from six options: Making Changes, The Mustard Seed, Inn from the Cold, Calgary Humane Society, CUPS, and Big Brothers & Big Sisters Calgary.

Why the generous heart? It’s Bar C’s second anniversary and the restaurant wants to thank Calgarians for their patronage while at the same time giving back to the community. Cocktails for Charity is the result.

Today’s featured cocktail is a French 68, a bubbly sip rendered delicious by the mingling of sweet blood orange syrup with bitter Campari and savoury Hendricks Gin. Three dashes of lavender bitters finish the drink with a floral flourish. Enjoy, and remember to savour this one as you toast the weekend and — if you’re imbibing at Bar C — the charity of your choice.

Today's featured drink during Cocktails for Charity week at Bar C is the bubbly French 68.

Today’s Cocktails for Charity featured drink at Bar C is the bubbly French 68.

French 68

  • 100 mL prosecco
  • 1 oz blood orange syrup*
  • 1/2 oz Campari
  • 1 oz Hendricks Gin
  • 3 dashes Scrappy’s lavender bitters

Method: Chill martini glass. Pour syrup, Campari, and Hendricks gin into shaker over ice. Shake and strain into glass. Top with prosecco. Finish with Scrappy’s bitters. Garnish with a lemon twist.

*Blood Orange Syrup

  • 1/3 L of blood orange purée
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 1-1/4 cups water
  • 8 sprigs rosemary

Method: Remove rosemary leaves from stalk and chop finely. Bring sugar and water to a boil. Add rosemary. Simmer until sugar well dissolved. Remove from heat and add blood orange purée.

– Recipes courtesy Bar C

Top activities in Red Deer with kids

It used to be a joke amongst my co-workers at the Calgary Herald: Whenever I was heading to Red Deer for the weekend with Blake and the kids (my in-laws live there) they’d ask what we had planned. “Oh you know,” I’d reply all Cowtown-snobby, “Dinner at Olive Garden!” I am not even sure whether Red Deer has an Olive Garden, but my point was there wasn’t a whole lot to do there besides eat at chain restaurants. Of course, that was back when the kids were wee and we didn’t get out much — even in Calgary.

Now that they’re bigger and spend at least a week in Red Deer every summer with their grandparents, I realize there’s quite a lot to do in Red Deer with kids. It’s a smaller, more contained version of Calgary, where activities cost less, venues are less crowded, and destinations are less than a 15-minute drive away. (It can even be more fun for adults… there’s exactly one big cinema, but we watched Gone Girl in a half-empty theatre a week after its release. Try doing that in Calgary!)

I’m not suggesting you spend your next family holiday in Red Deer, but should you happen to find yourself passing through or visiting with the littles, you may want to check out some of Avery’s and Bennett’s favourite spots:

Rotary Park

Bennett loves climbing the hill at Rotary Park to see the "mushroom" (a green water tower) across the valley.

Bennett loves climbing the hill at Rotary Park to see the “mushroom” (a green water tower) across the valley.

It seems every small town and city has a Rotary Park, including Red Deer. They are usually great community gathering spots and Red Deer’s park goes one step farther by offering hiking paths up a hill to a viewpoint, and then down through a forested wood and over bridges that span a meandering stream. It was especially lovely on a Thanksgiving weekend day with the fall colours.

Nature trails at Rotary Park. (Bennett is so over playground equipment and prefers  hiking where possible.)

Nature trails at Rotary Park. (Bennett is so over playground equipment and prefers hiking where possible.)

The Collicut Centre

The kids can do laps on the water slide while one parent (pick me!) relaxes in the hot tub.

The kids do laps on the water slide while one parent (pick me!) relaxes in the hot tub.

This is Red Deer’s version of Southland Leisure Centre. The Collicut Centre has a wave pool, kiddie water park, lazy river and a water slide, plus hot tubs, with the added bonus I don’t worry my kids will drown as it’s also crawling with lifeguards.  There’s also a gym, so some Sunday mornings Blake and I will go work out, then return for “Twonie Sunday” when it costs just $2 each to visit the water park between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Sunnybrook Farm

Avery and Bennett pet a furry donkey at Sunnybrook Farm.

Avery and Bennett pet an ewok-like donkey at Sunnybrook Farm.

I have never been to this much-ballyhooed farm/museum, but Grandma takes the kids to Sunnybrook Farm regularly between May and September to see the baby animals including lambs, calves and kids. There are also chickens (Bennett’s faves), kittens and a cow-milking station where Avery can play Little House on the Prairie. The kids spend hours here and admission is by donation.

Avery milks a pretend cow at Sunnybrook Farm in Red Deer.

Avery pretend milks a pretend cow at Sunnybrook Farm in Red Deer.

Three Mile Bend

Scenery at Three Mile Bend.

Scenery at Three Mile Bend.

Three Mile Bend is a 55-hectare natural area of forest, muskeg and ponds adjacent to the Red Deer River. It’s also a fantastic off-leash dog park. Piper loved running ahead on the trails while Blake, Bennett and I followed behind.

I could go on, but why list every single family-friendly attraction in one blog post, when I could milk this over many entries? Since we have family in Red Deer, we’ll be back, so I’ll write more later.

 

Drink of the Week: Cranberry Jalapeño Margarita

Since it’s Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada I figured it would be fun to incorporate a holiday ingredient such as cranberries into a cocktail. I googled “cranberry sauce in cocktails” and stumbled upon this gem from Mint/820, a bar in cocktail-crazed Portland, Ore.: the Cranberry Jalapeño Margarita. It promised to be a tarter, prettier, more festive version of one of my favourite cocktails.

Hold the gravy and save room for the cranberry margarita "sauce."

Hold the gravy and save room for the cranberry margarita “sauce.”

Since I didn’t have a fresh jalapeño on hand I improvised with some jalapeño pepper jelly. And without lemons — like the recipe called for — I used fresh mandarin orange juice, as I thought it would pair nicely with the cranberry sauce. The ratios were also a bit wonky, calling for 2-1/2 oz of tequila but only 1/4 oz of Cointreau, for example, so I adjusted them according to my palate. I also added an egg white as I am currently loving how they smooth out and bind sour cocktails.

The result is a delicious twist on a margarita that’s tart, just spicy enough, and sweet from orange juice and cranberry sauce rather than simple syrup (true, there’s a touch of agave syrup as well). I also love the colour — it’s perfect for a fall day, turkey or no.

That's a fresh-cranberry-atop-an-orange-slice garnish. Very festive!

That’s a fresh-cranberry-atop-an-orange-slice garnish. Very festive!

Cranberry Jalapeño Margarita

  • 2 oz Patron Reposado
  • 3/4 oz Cointreau
  • 3/4 oz fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 oz fresh mandarin orange juice
  • 1 barspoon agave syrup
  • 1/2 oz cranberry sauce
  • 1/2 oz jalapeño pepper jelly
  • 1/2 oz egg white

Method: Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously to dissolve the cranberry sauce and jelly, then strain into a margarita glass filled with crushed ice (there will be bits of cranberry and pepper seeds from the jelly that get through, but it adds a nice texture). Garnish with a single cranberry atop an orange slice.

Drink of the Week: Passion Agavera

I spent part of last week in the highlands near Guadalajara, Mexico, watching jimadors harvest the hearts of blue agave plants that are used to make tequila. Then I visited the Hacienda del Patron, where that same agave is transported to be turned into various styles of Patron tequila at the distillery in Atotonilco.

Agave field near Arandas, Jalisco state, Mexico

A jimador harvests agave near Arandas in Jalisco state, Mexico.

The jimadors of yore used to dress like this! I loved this mural painted on a veranda wall at the Patron Hacienda.

The jimadors of yore used to dress like this! I loved this mural painted on a veranda wall at the Patron Hacienda.

I’ll be writing about it all in more detail for some upcoming stories, but in the meantime I wanted to share a taste of tequila and the tropical state of Jalisco, which grows so much more than agave. Patron mixologist Jose Luis Gutierrez shook up some Passion Agavera cocktails that include the new Roca Patron Silver, as well as locally grown passion fruit. Yummy.

Whoops, I accidentally took a sip of this before I took the photo. I blame it on the tequila tasting that took place prior.

Whoops, I accidentally took a sip of this before I took the photo. I blame it on the tequila tasting that took place prior.

Passion Agavera

  • 1-1/2 oz Roca Patron Silver tequila
  • 1 oz passion fruit puree
  • 1 oz peach puree
  • splash lime juice
  • 1/2 oz agave syrup
  • Top mineral water
  • Skewered peach garnish

– Recipe courtesy Jose Luis Gutierrez, Hacienda del Patron

The reason Bennett jumps

When you have a child with autism you are constantly trying to figure out why he does the things he does. What makes him tick? Of course I can ask Bennett, “Why do you like jumping on the trampoline so much?” or “Why do you like spinning?” or “What TV show are you reenacting?” (when he grins and moves  robotically to a soundtrack inside his head), but my questions are often ignored. I can only guess that Bennett jumps and spins and performs silent live theatre for no audience because these actions give him some kind of sensory input that he craves. (A couple of years ago he went through a phase where he shook his head back and forth whenever he watched TV; it was a kind of screen-induced vestibular stimulation that eventually ran its course.)

Another perk of trampolining? Silly hair.

Another perk of trampolining? Silly hair.

So when Blake brought home the book The Reason I Jump, a New York Times bestseller written by a 13-year-old boy with autism, I immediately dove in. The author, Naoki Higashida, is primarily non-verbal, but he learned to use an alphabet grid to construct words and put into paragraphs the answers to questions people have about autism, such as, “Why do you ignore us when we’re talking to you?” The answers are Higashida’s, but so many of them resonated with me as possible explanations for some of Bennett’s behaviours.

The Reason I Jump

When Higashida is asked the question, “What’s the reason you jump?” he writes:

“…when I’m jumping it’s as if my feelings are going upward to the sky. Really, my urge to be swallowed up by the sky is enough to make my heart quiver. When I’m jumping I can feel my body parts really well, too — my bounding legs and my clapping hands — and that makes me feel good, so good … I’m shaking loose the ropes that are tying up my body.”

But of course! When Bennett jumps on the trampoline he is graceful and free instead of clumsy and awkward. He has boundless energy and a smile and, what’s more, he can jump as well as any typical kid, maybe even higher.

I often feel that Bennett is trapped inside his body, unable to express himself and communicate freely, and this book really drives that point home: “We can never make ourselves understood,” Higashida writes. But The Reason I Jump helps, and that is a gift.

One of the questions the book answers is, “Why are you obsessive about certain things?” The author explains that lining up toys, or watching the garage door close, or turning the fan on and off, is like a physical compulsion — scratching a horrible itch, if you will — and that he’d go crazy if he didn’t do it. That giving in to the obsession makes him feel soothed and calm. But also that one day, the need to obsess over that particular thing just stops: “Somehow our brain flashes up a GAME OVER signal,” he writes.

I’ve noticed this has happened for Bennett. For the longest time — years — every night at bedtime Bennett made sure his door was open and the bathroom light was on (part of his fear-of-the-dark narrative). And then last night at bedtime, out of the blue, he asked me to close the door and then proceeded to Sleep Through The Night… in the DARK. All I can guess is that his brain flashed the GAME OVER signal. Because there is still so much I don’t understand, Bennett will continue to surprise me. That’s a good thing. Perhaps one day he’ll no longer need to jump.

Drink of the Week: Classic Daiquiri

Back in the late 1980s I used to throw a “Dacqueri” party at my house every summer when my parents were out of town. I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that I misspelled the word daiquiri on party invitations, or that my daiquiris — being too-sweet and neon-coloured and slushy — were, in fact, poor shadows of Cuba’s classic cocktail.

And don't get me started on the misplaced apostrophe!

And don’t get me started on the misplaced apostrophe! (But I love this invite and the fact that I drew my dad serving beer from a keg.)

Of course, my high school pals drank my “dacqueri’s” anyway and didn’t seem to care that they were abominations. I blame it on the 80s. And my poncho from Mexico. And also those frozen Bacardi mixer canisters you could buy at Safeway (just add rum!).

Contents of the yellow cup? Neon-pink Strawberry "Dacqueri" of course.

Contents of the yellow cup? Neon-pink strawberry “dacqueri”. (Please excuse the photo resolution — it’s what happens when you take a photo of an old Kodak print with your iPhone.)

The good news is I finally have a chance to redeem myself a quarter century later through the written word. I’m writing about real daiquiris for an upcoming issue of up! magazine, and it’s given me a grand excuse to learn about the tropical tipple and try my hand at making this simple sip.

And simple, it is. Lime juice, granulated sugar (or simple syrup) and aged white rum. Since I love sours I took the liberty of adding egg white to help bind the ingredients and smooth out the flavours. Not only is the resulting daiquiri sour perfectly balanced between strong, sweet and sour, it looks much better served in a martini glass.

In my opinion, adding egg white to the classic daiquiri smooths out its edges and helps the flavours co-mingle.

In my opinion, adding egg white to the classic daiquiri smooths out its edges and helps the flavours co-mingle.

Classic Daiquiri Sour

  • 2 oz Havana Club 3-Year-old white rum
  • 3/4 oz fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • 1/2 oz egg white

Method: Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with two ice cubes and shake until ice has dissolved and shaker feels heavy. Pout contents into a coupe glass or martini glass.