You can do better, Gary

I should title this as an open letter to all manufacturers and retailers of paper yard-waste bags, but I’m going to pick on Gary, the Canadian Tire Guy, because he’s the face of their ‘Tested for life in Canada’ commercials.

Well, I live in Canada, Gary. In fact, I live in Calgary, Alberta where the city has finally done the right thing and implemented a full scale organic waste disposal program. The green bins decorating every alley and laneway are a generous size and more than adequate for the collection of normal household organic waste. However, the bins fall short in the spring and autumn when yard clean ups generate enough biomass to fill them 5 or 10 times over. The city has a plan for that – large paper yard waste bags. Excess yard waste goes in the paper bags and can be set out for collection in accordance with the scheduled weekly organic pick up. They even included a 5-pack of the bags in their ‘starter kit’ that came with the bins.

Five bags. I used up my allotment in the first week when I pruned my trees. After that I was on my own; scouring local stores for more bags. I garden a lot, so I’ve tried out a few different brands over the course of the summer. My least favourite came from Canadian Tire, but to be honest, none of them were all that great.

For the sake of those who do not know me personally, just some quick background. I work professionally for a landscaping and yard maintenance company and, trust me, I’ve filled more than a few paper bags with yard waste.

Responsible composting is better than using plastic bags and since most yards don’t generate more weeds than can fit in the green bins every week, I wasn’t too fussed about using the paper bags in the summer. Come autumn, I am part of a crew that shows up with blowers and leaf vacuums to clean up our client yards. We also have access to tarps, trucks and trailers to haul everything away to the City’s organic waste dump for disposal. That’s not the garden clean up I’m talking about.

When I work in my own garden I don’t have access to all that equipment. At home I still do fall clean up like everyone else – rake, bag, repeat. And just like most home gardeners in Calgary, I have limited time to get the job done on the few nice autumn weekends before the snow flies, so it’s not very practical to spread out the work over several garbage pick-up cycles. Therefore I’m beholden to using commercially produced paper yard-waste bags, including those sold by Canadian Tire. I’m not sure what kind of giddy-up grannies or frenetic fourth graders tested Canadian Tire branded paper bags and gave them a better than 4 out of 5 star rating,  but I am not convinced. I would shop elsewhere for better ones but I’ve discovered that all the different brands I tried this summer have the same fundamental flaws.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of using paper yard-waste bags, here’s the skinny.  The bags are difficult to use. I’m not the tallest person around, but frankly anyone with arms shorter than those of an Orangutan couldn’t reach down to the bottom of the bags to open them up properly. I pretty much have to slip the bag over my head and torso to get it unfolded to the point where it will stay open on its own. After I’ve fought my way out of the paper bag, I’m ready to go – sort of –  except the height and the rectangular bottom of the bag makes it unstable, so I have to prop it up against a fence, and even then the creases of the double ply kraft paper are pretty pernicious, so the stupid thing wants to collapse in on itself when I turn my back.

Why did I turn my back? Well, to pick up a big old armload of leaves or a pile of expired plants of course! Wasn’t that the point?  Which brings me to the next issue. So far all the bags I’ve used are awkward to fill. The opening of the bag (assuming it hasn’t folded in on itself like an accordion) is smaller than an armload of leaves. There’s no way that armload I want to dump into the bag will go in cleanly, especially if there’s a couple of twigs or plant stalks sticking out at random angles.

If I’m lucky, half the armload will go in before the bag folds up on itself or tips over. If I’m unlucky, the bag will tear down one side as the half armload goes in. I have to pick my poison. Full armloads means twice as much raking and if I resort to half armloads I will do twice as much bending down. Either way it is more work than normal and I’m suddenly nostalgic for the days of stuffing everything into plastic bags and feeling guilty about the negative impact on the environment.

Speaking of stuffing the bags. Don’t. If the paper bags don’t rip during load up, they will definitely rip or bust open if I try to tamp down the load of leaves too much. I say ‘tamp’ because the shape of the bags makes it impossible to stomp them down like in the good old days of over-stuffing a plastic bag securely stretched over the rim of a garbage can.

Finally, the system of ‘crimping down’ the top of each paper bag to close it is something I have yet to master. Even if I do manage it, I’m left with the task of figuring out the best way to carry the bag to the back alley for pick up without having it tear. And hopefully it doesn’t snow or rain before pick up day because the bags can’t handle much weather before they lose structural integrity. I suppose that is the point; they are biodegradable, but having them disintegrate and dump their contents prematurely is a bit discouraging and it pisses off the neighbours who live down wind.

I’m all for being environmentally responsible. This is not a rant against Calgary’s Organic Waste Disposal system, but the program is only as good as its weakest link and even the smallest irritation can discourage people from participating in it properly. I’ve seen some gadgets out there that supposedly help with wrangling paper yard-waste bags, but that’s not my point either.

What I’m saying, Gary, is that nothing good can come of inferior paper yard-waste bags. If you’ve stuck with me so far, thanks. Here is the pay off in the form of a couple of quick off-the-cuff suggestions for improving their functionality and restoring credibility to the ‘Tested for Life in Canada’ advertising Schtick.

First of all, a thicker paper is better. During the summer I used some bags purchased at Rona that were thicker and sturdier. It made a difference. However, even the Rona bags would be improved if they had better proportions, by which I mean shorter and wider. It wouldn’t have to be a drastic change either; maybe have your guys make the bags 15% shorter for easier unfolding and trade that off by making the base 15% wider for stability and easy loading. I’m not sure about the math, but I think the volume of the bags would stay the same and the amount of paper for manufacturing would too. I have no insights into the business of designing paper products but it seems to me that it is worth running the experiment, or a least giving consumers a choice. Disposable coffee cups and plastic bags come in every shape and size, so why not paper yard-waste bags?

So here’s the challenge, Gary (and Walmart and Rona and all the rest of you). Build me a better paper yard-waste bag! Make it a shorter, wider, sturdier bag – I’m thinking more Grande than Venti – something that will accommodate an arm load of leaves without collapsing or tipping or ripping. Test the heck out of it with some real gardeners like me and see what happens. Keep the old bags for those who like the status quo and offer a choice for those who don’t. It could be the start of something big – or something shorter and wider and more functional.


I know it’s been ages since I last posted on my blog, so if I have any followers left out there; thanks for listening, thanks for reading, and thanks for forwarding this post to Canadian Tire if you dare.

New Year Resolutions

I started my resolutions a day early, hoping to catch the new year unaware.  January 1, 2015 was waiting for me of course, not fooled by such transparent tricks.

It is like setting the alarm clock 15 minutes ahead and expecting myself to fall for that ruse instead of hitting the snooze button twice and ending up 5 minutes behind.  Like trying to tickle myself, it can’t be done.

So, New Year’s Day 2015 slammed me hard, probably as revenge for treating it like it was stupid.  Of all “tomorrows” January 1 has a reputation to uphold, an attitude. The mission of January 1st is to see if it can break that New Year’s resolution right off the bat.

It didn’t matter that I cut up a boat load of vegetables on December 31 and placed it strategically at the front of the fridge beside a vat of low-fat yogurt dip.  New Year’s Day had me shoving aside broccoli florets and celery sticks in favour of the left over cheese platter and crackers. Who knows what evil mind voodoo convinced me that “wasting” party leftovers like high fructose punch, ripple chips and full fat onion dip was a far greater crime than putting off a resolution to eat healthier in 2015.

Wouldn’t it be better to start the year with a purge and rid the house of chocolate and wine in the best way possible, by consuming the whole lot on New Year’s Day in a glorious binge? Tomorrow I will do better.

Except, there is no such thing as ‘tomorrow’ for resolutions, only guilty ‘todays’.  January 1 is a bitch because it drives home the futility of hoping for success without action. A New Year’s resolution is a pipe dream without a plan, a destination without the journey to make it worthwhile. And that goes for any change I want to make; promises to myself to exercise, to write daily, submit more and spend time working on the blog.

The truth is, I really don’t believe in New Years Resolutions and I don’t make them any more.

I haven’t given up on starting things a day early though, that’s because today is ALWAYS the day to start. Tomorrow never comes.

Saved by the Ark

The houseboat we lived in when I was very young.

The houseboat we lived in when I was very young.

My mother recorded the events of my early childhood in a journal titled To My Daughter. It includes our brush with death in January 1963, when I was only one and a half years old.

Our family lived on a houseboat on a canal in Utrecht, in The Netherlands. My mother described our home as an ‘Ark’, not because we had three pets – a dog, a hamster and a lizard – but to distinguish our houseboat from the barge-style houseboats that also lined the canal. Our ‘ark’ had a keel and could navigate on the waterways.

During the winter of 1962-63, the temperatures in Holland dipped to -20 C. The waterways froze and comparisons were made to the deadly winters of 1929 and 1890. It was widely believed our canal was frozen solid to the bottom, but that was not the case. When the Waterways Authority opened a sluice downstream, the water drained away, leaving a gap.

At 10:30 in the morning my mother heard a sound like thunder, followed by an earsplitting crack. As the sound rose to a crescendo, my mother wondered if we were being bombed and her first instinct was to hide under the bed. She grabbed me, but it was too late, the ark tipped sideways, we fell to the floor and I slipped out of Mom’s grasp, leaving her holding nothing but my pants as I slid away across the bedroom. The sound of breaking glass and chaos in the kitchen drowned out the noise coming from outside, and then – just as quickly as it tipped – our houseboat returned to horizontal.

Mom knew I was okay because I screamed my head off, and crawled back to her under my own power. She picked me up and we climbed over the mess in the bedroom to check on our dog, Pito, who howled in the kitchen, where he was trapped in a tangle of chairs.

Most of the furniture on the ark was either built in, or secured to the floor. The hamster cage and lizard terrarium were askew, but upright, saved by ledges built onto the shelves. After checking on the pets, my mother looked outside. Huge chunks of ice, the size of cars, tilted against the banks of the canal. Our ark had shifted away from shore but thanks to its design, it floated upright in the small amount of muddy water that remained in the canal.

Others were not so lucky. Four people died that day. The barge-style houseboats with their flat bottoms did not fare well when the ice collapsed – many of them capsized – the death toll would have been higher, except that it was a weekday, and most homeowners were at work.

I do not remember the day the ice collapsed, but I am grateful my mother kept alive the story of how we survived the winter of 1963, all thanks to our ark.

Cruel Mistress Spring

I greet the warmth of spring with mixed blessings. Lengthening days speak of promise as winter melts away and temperatures rise to give me hope of birds and blooms. Can summer be far behind? But spring warmth is an illusion. Too quickly this fickle season rears its ugly head with a new kind of chill – one far crueler than winter’s cold – because it feels like betrayal.

At sunset the temperature dips. The melt water flowing in gutters and ditches and across sidewalks by day becomes an ice rink. An old woman slips, a broken hip, and we are visiting Grandma in the hospital.

The cruel mistress of spring holds as much promise of death as it does re-birth because new life cannot rise unless something has died to give it space. I take the inventory of winter kill, not in winter, but in spring. Despite the hope of spring’s renewal, I cannot help but mourn the things that did not – that could not – survive.

It is a function of age no doubt, that I mark each spring as one season closer to my own demise. I tread carefully across icy spring, like the old woman I never imagined I would become and assure myself that the cruel mistress will not take me this year.

Apple Horseradish Jelly

I went to my Friday morning Free Fall Writing session wondering how to incorporate Apple Horseradish Jelly in my writing today, and the first writing prompt (Eating Out/Dining in) was like a gift – as was the Apple Horseradish Jelly. 

A word to the wise; if someone brags about having made Apple Horseradish Jelly, don’t say, “cool, that sounds interesting,” or “delicious,” or anything that sounds like you are vaguely interested in having some to take home. 

One of my gardening clients handed me 2 (two!) jars of the stuff. One for me, and one to give away.  I decided I actually had two jars to give away because, honestly, this gift was like the summertime equivalent of getting Grandma’s Christmas Fruitcake. You know the one, it gets passed along through various holidaygatherings and makes the rounds of the whole family before finding its final resting place as a doorstop. There is some kind of unspoken edict against just throwing away homemade goodies.

Apple Horseradish Jelly

Apple Horseradish Jelly

I pawned off one of the jars of jelly to my boss, (who did not thank me for it) because she was the one who sent me to the job site and I thought she deserved to share the burden. So, what to do with the other jar?  It is not in a pretty or petite little decorative jar, ready for re-gifting, it’s in a big old mason jar with a ragged white sticky label. “Apple Horseradish Jelly.” I think it’s big enough to use as a doorstop, but I already have the fruitcake. 

I don’t dare open the jar either, because doing so will limit my options. You will notice that I am not considering ‘eating it’ as an option. I have flashbacks to the dozens of jars of Crab Apple Jelly sitting on shelves in the cold room of my childhood home; of glistening, translucent, reddish pink blobs on toast and pancakes and cereal – just to get rid of last year’s supply before a new batch was in the works. It wasn’t even our crab apple tree!!

As for horseradish, I never acquired a taste for that either, and somehow, the combination of apple and horseradish does not add to the culinary appeal or the appearance of either. The jar looks like it is filled with a dark red (almost burgundy), cloudy goo.  It might be the most delicious thing in the world, but I’m not going to be the guinea pig.

Apple Horseradish Jelly. Do you want it? Take it, because I’m eating out!

~Minkee Robinson

When Everything Stops

There are those moments in life when everything stops. Occasions when a community, a city, even a country, come to a halt and we all turn to look at that one thing that stops us in our tracks. We are spectators to disaster and we hold our collective breath as catastrophic events drag our attention away from the scattered activities of our busy lives and focus it on one thing for some period of time. Minutes, hours, a day. 

June 21, 2013 was just such a day in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. On the calendar it marked the first day of summer, but it did not feel like summer. It was cool and wet, and record rains falls combined with spring run-off from the mountains to the west to push every river in the region up to, and above the limits of their banks. Not just Calgary was affected, many areas to the north, west and south also declared local states of emergency. 

Emergency alerts, non-stop news coverage, evacuations and dramatic rescues would contradict my premise that life came to a standstill. Obviously not everyone and everything stopped. Countless people worked harder than ever. First responders, civic employees and aid agency volunteers began putting in long shifts with no end in sight until the rain let up and the water receded.  

But above the flood plain, many of us were stopped in our tracks. No school, no work, stay home, keep safe, don’t put any extra strain on the city’s infrastructure, just hunker down and watch. And for a day we did just that. 

This morning when the sun came up and we finally exhaled the breath we did not realize we were holding. The rains have stopped and the waters are receding. Now we can inhale and count our blessings even as the long haul job of getting things back to normal begins.

Few Calgary residents are completely unaffected by the disaster. Most of us know someone directly impacted by this flood, someone who will need our help as the water clears away. The job of cleaning up the mess will call many people to action soon enough, but for that one day it really did feel like everything stopped.

What is it about ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ ?

A good interviewer or host knows the secret to an engaging conversation with a guest is to ask questions that cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  However, many things in life can be distilled down to exactly that:  Yes or No.

Despite the obvious interpretation that ‘yes’ is positive and ‘no’ is negative, we learn from an early age that life is not that simple. For a child, many manifestations of ‘yes’, including the non-verbal ones (a hug, a smile, a helping hand), are indeed positive.

But, just as surely, we discover that ‘no’ can also be positive if it is used correctly. 

We may have resented our parents for saying, No! You cannot stick that key in a light socket or No, you are not allowed to spend all your money on candy, but eventually we recognized that in those instances, their ‘No’ was simply a different way of saying Yes, I love you enough to keep you safe from harm.

Similarly, ‘Yes’ became a negative thing if a sombre nod confirmed that a beloved relative or pet was seriously ill and likely to die.

As we grew older, the answers in life got more complicated. And I don’t mean ‘maybe’.

I’m no stranger to ‘NO’. I’ve worked in direct marketing, and my stint as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesperson in the early 80s has helped me deal with the rejection inherent in submitting my writing to journals and publishers. Fortunately, ‘Yes’ is a strong part of my life too. I know that I am valued and loved.

Our life experiences and self-esteem influence how we react to ‘yes’ and ‘no’. So, why do we still get it wrong after all these years?  Now there’s a question without a simple ‘yes or no’ answer! And my point is not to bore with my attempts to answer it, because the personal journey I make to that place will be different from yours.

What I will do is share a couple of things that have helped me explore that question for myself. Both of these links (one to an article, the other to a video) brought home the fact that, as much as I am affected by the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses I get from other people, it is the YES or NO answers that I give to myself that really makes the difference.

The first link is for an article by Kevin Ashton (Thoughts on Creativity) about the power of ‘No’ when it comes to protecting the creative mind from unnecessary distractions.

The second link is to a TED talk video featuring Amanda Palmer, (The Art of Asking) that has inspired me to say ‘Yes’ to taking more risks; to making myself vulnerable by asking for what I need, even if it means that the answer I get could very well be ‘No’.

Artist’s Choice

This landscape was done by one of the artists who only began painting two years ago.

This landscape was done by an artist who only began painting two years ago.

Recently I wrote about the challenges faced by people with reduced mobility in my post. “A Simple Outing.”  In that blog I also mentioned that I facilitated an art group at the same care center. I thought I would expand upon that theme because the artists I work with every week are a true inspiration.

Artist’s Choice has been running for over two years, and there are dozens of paintings that have come out of the program. The painting you see is just one example of the work produced by an artist I have the privilege to help.

A regular group of participants shows up every Thursday afternoon. They look forward to Artist’s Choice and miss it when it is not included on the activity calendar. There is a wide range of experience in the art group, and no shortage of passion.

Every session starts with a lot of ‘setting up’ for people with reduced mobility or special needs. The artists work with Acrylic paint on canvas boards and there are enough materials to supply anyone who wants to attend. My role is to help with project layout, mix paint colours, and give pointers on technique if necessary. Everyone is welcome, and last March the program moved to a larger space with better natural light to accommodate more participants.

Discovering new talent often begins with someone coming into the weekly art session just ‘to look around’ along with claims that they are ‘no good at art’ or ‘don’t know how to paint’. That is fine, people are free to come and chat, or admire the art work of fellow residents.

But I love a good challenge, so if someone—anyone—is willing to try their hand at putting paint on canvas I jump on the opportunity to get them started. It does not matter if they want to paint a landscape, a still life, or something abstract.  I am a big believer in empowerment and want to make sure that everyone gets a chance to express their creativity and unleash their inner artist. And then the magic happens.

I am so proud of the artists I get to work with; they overcome huge obstacles to create beauty and the results are amazing.

I’ll Never Have That Recipe Again


Our Cookbook Collection

Our Cookbook Collection

Okay, here’s the deal, I’ve been cooking my own meals for over 30 years. I am in charge of the daily ‘care and feeding’ of my family 99.9% of the time. And the truth is that usually I ‘wing it’ when it comes to preparing food. I’ll chop up some vegetables, throw them into a pan/pot/wok, add other stuff like meat/pasta and voila! Dinner is served. I either default to the familiar favourites that no longer require a recipe, or I go by instinct and hope that I come up with something both interesting and edible.

From where I sit at my dining room table/writing desk I have an unobstructed view of dozens of cookbooks. The entire collection of “Cook’s Illustrated” publications, 14 years worth of “America’s Test Kitchen”, “Cook’s Country” and many other fine cookbooks hold a prominent place in my kitchen library. These books and magazines boast that their staff make the same dish over and over with slight variations to discover the ‘perfect’ recipe for everything. I applaud their dedication but I seldom have time for the finesse these recipes require.

I occasionally use two of the cookbooks we own (The Joy of Cooking and The Better H&G New Cook Book), but I only use those for baking which is close enough to chemistry that the recipe actually matters. And I don’t bake a lot. All the rest of the cookbooks we own belong to my husband.  He is a fabulous cook, he follows recipes to the letter and the results are amazing. This happens a couple of times a month— maybe more during barbecue/grilling season—otherwise I do the majority of the meal preparation in our house.

The day-to-day meals I prepare generally fall into the categories encompassed by “edible” and “pretty good” with occasional forays into “super yummy” and “Uhm…let’s order pizza”.

It is these two ‘outlier’ categories that bother me, because in both cases, the factors that make a meal over-the-top-delicious or not-fit-for-man-nor-beast are unknown quantities to me.

No, I’m sorry, I can’t give you the recipe for that awesome stew/soup/meatloaf because I can’t remember the particulars of what made that soup/stew/meatloaf so much better than the one I made last week or last month. Did I use different herbs, different vegetables, or add some new secret ingredient that struck my fancy? Maybe. Probably.

Were the onions caramelized or just sauteed? Is that a trick question? I threw the onions into a pan with oil (or butter or margarine or non-stick spray) and cooked them on medium heat (or high or low) until I finished dicing/mincing/grating the carrots (or peppers or celery) and tossed those in with chicken/beef broth and for the sauce I think I used something Asian; oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, soy sauce (dark, light, low salt, aged and/or sweetened?) Aargh.

Even if I remember the exact ingredients I used for a dish, how much of each is a mystery. One pinch? Two pinches? A dash? Apparently measurements make a difference, as anyone one who has accidentally tossed a tablespoon of salt into a pot instead of a teaspoon will know.

The reckless disregard I have for reading recipes or measuring ingredients might drive some people crazy, but my family has learned that if I serve up the most amazing meal ever prepared, they better eat up and enjoy, it’s unlikely I’ll ever be able to offer it up again. And if our next meal turns out to be tasteless swill that even the dog won’t eat…don’t worry I probably won’t be able to replicate that again either. Now where is that pizza flyer?

Worm Compost Bin Bonus

Red Wigglers,
Eat my garbage,
During the long winter.

Apple cores,
Wilted brown lettuce,
Goes into the Vermiposter

Amended by
Rich worm castings,
Will rejuvenate house plants.

Strange thing
Is this growing,
Beside my sturdy Bougainvillea?

From tomatoes,
Are not composted,
But nourished to grow.

that grows
supported and tall,
My worm bin bonus.