Saturday, May 28, 2016

Looking for something to do in Niagara this weekend?

The heat of the last few days has made it feel very much like summer here in Niagara, and that usually means we take some time and get out to have some fun around the area once work is done.
Thankfully, there is no shortage of things to see, hear and do in Niagara if you have no plans to work around the house.

When I was downtown in the early afternoon, I was drawn to the section of St. Paul Street recently closed off from James Street to Carlisle for any number of construction projects over the last several months.  Oh it's still closed, but this weekend that section of downtown is playing host to a pedestrian mall of sorts for the final wrap-up weekend for the Niagara Folk Arts Festival.

The Folk Arts in the Street event ran all day today and will continue tomorrow from 11 am to 6pm around the 250 St. Paul Street area.  If that address sounds familiar, well yes, it's the home of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, the new home for the Niagara Folk Arts Festival this weekend.

The Robertson Theatre is home to the One World Stage artist presentations throughout the weekend, and the outside stage on St. Paul Street is also hosting a variety of local and emerging artists.  There is also a marketplace area and hands-on cultural activities in the Pen Centre Family Area.

If you're hungry, cultural foods by a variety of food truck vendors will also be on hand throughout the day again tomorrow, with a little something for everyone.

Best of all, this event is family-friendly and absolutely free admission.

While downtown St. Catharines is hosting the Folk Arts Festival this weekend, downtown Niagara Falls is alive with the annual Springalicious event on Queen Street.  This event has been going on for several years now, and features a variety of musical acts, vendors and a variety of food items for sale.

The so-called Q-District has been struggling the last few years as they seek to find a new identity, but events such as Springalicious presents a perfect opportunity to meet people you either know or don't know in a fun, family-friendly atmosphere.

Springalicious wraps up tomorrow evening and promises to be a popular event for the finale this Sunday.

Back in St. Catharines, the Friends of the Port Dalhousie Carousel have been hard at work throughout the winter and spring months getting the iconic 5-cent carousel ready for another summer of memories and fun.  Their kickoff to the 2016 summer season was actually held last weekend in Port Dalhousie, but this weekend and every weekend until the end of the school year will be filled with the sounds of kids and assorted family members reliving their past or starting new traditions of riding the vintage carousel in Lakeside Park.  For the summer months the carousel will be open every day.

There is lots of rancorous debate in St. Catharines over the future of not only Lakeside Park but also the entire Port Dalhousie tourist area, ravaged by time and the on-again/off-again nature of the Port Place development.

On the weekend you are encouraged to throw those opinions aside for a while and join the many other like-minded individuals reliving their past or introducing the tradition to their children or grandchildren.  Port Dalhousie may still be a shadow of its former commercial self in recent years, but the area is showing signs of renewed life these days.  We can only hope for more enthusiasm for the jewel of Lakeside Park as projects slowly but surely move forward in Port.

Finally, Gallery Players of Niagara presents their final concert of the current season tomorrow afternoon at 2pm at Silver Spire United Church on St. Paul Street.  The concert, entitled The Beethoven Cycle Continues, will feature four performers continuing their cycle of the Beethoven Piano Trios, this weekend including the "Archduke" Trio Op. 97.

Performing at the Gallery Players concert tomorrow afternoon will be violinist Julie Baumgartel, Patrick Jordan on viola, Margaret Gau on cello and David Louie on piano.

For tickets, call Gallery Players at 905-468-1525.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Mike Saunders.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

We lost a much-loved neighbour this week

Earlier this week on Facebook I posted an article from dealing with the age-old dilemma of knowing when it is time to say goodbye to a family pet.  Essentially, the article disputes the typical vet's advice that "you'll know when it is time."

We oftentimes may know when it is time, but more often than not, at least for me, we stretch out that "time" as long as we possibly can.  This I think is a natural reaction, as we have great difficulty coming to grips with the loss of a family pet that is more than just a pet but quite often a true member of the family.

You have probably faced this dilemma yourself at least once over the years.  I know I have.  In fact, my far better half and myself have faced that decision with one dog and four cats in the fifteen years we have been together.  I can tell you from personal experience, it never gets any easier.  Never.

The first loss we suffered was our dog, a Cavalier King Charles named Brittany back in 2004.  A couple of years later our senior cat, Minou, passed away at the age of 20.  We had a quiet period for a couple of years before my beloved best friend for 15 years, Pushkin, succumbed to cancer.  Just a few months later, our other senior cat, Mr. Kitten, also passed away from cancer at the age of 20.

Most recently, tiny Pia, all of five pounds of pride and attitude was diagnosed with diabetes just over two years ago and after trying everything possible to work around the situation, we had to say goodbye the day after Christmas in 2013.

Of all the pets we have lost over the years, Pushkin and Pia hit us the hardest.  Pushkin was diagnosed with a tumour just months after I lost my father in the spring of 2009, and he bravely hung on while I was in and out of hospital that summer three times with various operations of my own.  When I finally got back home after the third stay in late September, it was if Pushkin said "okay, you're strong enough now to go on without me.  I'm done."

Two weeks later we made the heart-wrenching decision every pet owner makes, and I must admit the loss very nearly crushed me after the year I was having.

Pia, on the other hand, was not that old.  All of seven years when we found she had diabetes, and the vet suspected it was with her from the very beginning and we just didn't know it.  Much care both in St. Catharines and the emergency clinic in Oakville bought us a few short months but ultimately, the difficult decision once again was made.

Whether we knew it was time or not is open to debate, I suppose.  With Pushkin I readily admit I prolonged his life longer than I should of, but given what I was going through at the time, I needed some time with him once I got home.  With Pia, as long as we felt she had fight in her, and she had lots of fight always, we would do everything we could to help her through it.

The end comes and you do what you have to do, and after a grieving process, you move on.  It is never easy, and those who don't own pets have no idea the grieving process is sometimes so overwhelming with pets.

For many, that pet is their only companion, and they spend the entire day together, every day.  Others, well, the pet is part of a busy family and sometimes might get lost in the shuffle of everyday life.  But in each and every case, that pet means something to someone and that someone feels a void that can take weeks, months or maybe even years to overcome.

This past week, our special neighbour, a tuxedo cat named Siggy passed away at the age of about 12 or 13.  Siggy, properly named Sigmund, wandered into our neighbourhood and made himself at home before being adopted by our neighbours, Mark and Sandy.

My earliest recollection of Sig was our last garage sale here at the house, when Siggy, still quite young and apparently homeless at the time, wandered up the driveway and promptly climbed up into my lap, curled up and had a nap while I sold former treasures to strangers.

That's how he was.  He basically made the neighbourhood his home until he was finally adopted officially, and even then, the entire street was his domain.  Sig would patrol, lounge, schmooze passers-by and generally ingratiate himself to everyone and anyone at a moment's notice.  He also knew what a camera was for, and probably posed for more photographs than anyone else on the street over the years.

Siggy also had no idea anything might not actually belong to him.  Many a time I would come out of the house and Sig was lying on the hood or roof of the car in the driveway, sunning himself with a look that suggested "What, you want me to move?  Where?"  He also parked himself on my wife's clients cars in similar fashion, all the while making sure he looked good should a camera enter the conversation.

On one memorable occasion, he climbed up on the roof of a client's car and discovering the sunroof was open, jumped in and made himself at home on the front seat of the car until the owner returned.

That's the way Siggy was.  The world was his playground and he revelled in it.  He was a formally-dressed bon vivant who was known throughout the neighbourhood.  But he knew where his home was, and a more loyal, loving cat you would not find anywhere.

In the past few weeks Siggy began losing weight and bringing up his food, and there was considerable concern from all sides.  Things worsened in the last few days and the difficult decision again was made to end his life with dignity and love.

So it was on Friday morning we visited next door and said our final goodbyes to Sig, and it was done.

The heartbreak of a loss cannot be measured, I think, other than by how much of a mark that pet left on your heart.  With Siggy, everyone he met welcomed him into their hearts.  He was just that kind of guy.  You could not help but love him.

You can rest now, Sigmund, Siggy, Sig, Sigaroonius.  Your job is done.  But you will be greatly missed by those whose lives you touched in so many ways for so many years.

This is why we love our pets so much.  They are family members who love us unconditionally and we we love them right back.  Even though the pain never gets any easier to handle, I will willingly do it again and again and again.  They are worth the trouble, the time, the effort and yes, the love.

If you are lucky enough to share your life with a pet, be it a cat, dog or whatever, take a moment this weekend and spend some extra snuggle time with them.  You never know when you won't have that opportunity again, so bank as much love as you can now.

They will love you right back.  And that is something special.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

May 22nd, 2016.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Thoughts from a traveller

It has been a couple of weeks now since I posted in this space, and my apologies for that.  On the spur of the moment, I decided to join my far better half this year on her annual pilgrimage to Cancun, Mexico, as I decided it was time for a rest.

A busy winter delivering the mail, writing news for the Brock radio station and posts in this space had simply burned me out, so off we went for a week of rest and relaxation in the sunny south.

Having arrived home on the weekend, I come back with some thoughts accumulated from my travels I thought I would share with you this week.  I know it has nothing to do with the arts, but hey, bear with me on this.  I allow myself to run off on a tangent every now and again...

First off, my straw Panama hat is off to the exemplary staff both on the ground and in the air with Westjet, my favourite airline.  These people know how to make you comfortable, happy and relaxed, all at a reasonable price.  Even the captain on both our flights gave us a few good laughs along the way.

My second tip of the Panama is to the staff who take care of us at the other end of the trip, at the Royal Resorts location we stayed at along the so-called Hotel Zone in Cancun.  Pretty much everything is taken care of, and you are certainly treated, well, royally.  Thanks everyone for making us feel welcome at our home away from home.

Now, it's not all hearts and flowers this week, so here is the other side of the coin, if you will...

Even with luggage restrictions clearly spelled out everywhere you look these days, I still managed to get caught with something in my carry-on bag heading down that should not of been there.  I know about carrying liquids in your carry on, that is a given.  But peanut butter?  Well yes, they say gels are  included too, but I never for the life of me thought peanut butter fell into that category.  Oh well...I had to dispose of a brand-new jar of peanut butter in the trash at the airport as my checked luggage had already gone through, and buy a new jar at the resort when I got there.  You know where it was on the way home, though...

Airport crowds are not my thing.  Sorry, I just don't enjoy the hustle and bustle and looking for your gate and all that.  But it's what we do, so early in the morning we are walking the airport departure area like zombies in need of caffeine trying to find our way through the maze of passengers also doing the same thing.

Incidentally, when did dressing for the beach begin before the flight even started?  There was a time you actually dressed nicely while on a flight, and I still do that myself today.  But in most cases, flip flops, bathing suits and questionable t-shirts are the norm on flights today.  Maybe I'm old fashioned, but this has always irked me.

I know I have written before about the unavoidable digital world we now live in, but after two flights in the past week, I have some things to say on the matter - again.  Especially since when I last flew down there in 2008 the ubiquitous iPhone was only about a year old and still something of a novelty.

No more.  Now, they are everywhere, along with the larger iPads and all the Android brethren as well.  Choose your poison...

There was a time you had in-flight movies.  Now, people just connect through an app and watch their favourite movies and videos on their own devices, often from the moment you take your seat on the plane.  All very well and good, I suppose, but wait a minute.

Again, call me old-fashioned, but I still marvel at the fact this huge tube with wings filled with people can lift off the ground, fly through the air and land safely, almost always.  Not so the present generation, for whom the idea of actually watching yourself get airborne is yesterday's news.  While I marvelled at the scene outside my window on both flights, everyone around me barely noticed as they watched the latest shoot-em up or Disney flick on their personal device.

There was one man, however, who took my fascination to the extreme on the way down last week, as he trained his small video camera on a tripod at the window he was seated next to, and proceeded to film the entire takeoff and landing.  I had to wonder - who is going to watch this video anyways?  Who has not experienced at least one flight in their lives in this day and age?  Sorry, bud, but why not put the video camera down and just live the moment and leave it at that?  Mind you, he could send copies to the others around him who hadn't noticed we had actually taken off in a jetliner...

On the return trip, I was struck by the number of people around me who had iPads and used them the entire time during the flight to watch something.  I counted at least 10 in my immediate vicinity.  The young lady across the aisle from even had hers set up for a film while she held her iPhone in her hand, texting the entire time.  Do we really need to be that connected at all times, even while on vacation?

This was the same young lady who managed to lose her phone at the end of the flight and everyone had to wait while she found it on the floor underneath the seat, then commenting "Can't do without my phone!"  Well, maybe you should learn to...

Incidentally, what is it with people and selfies?  The young people in the seats across the aisle from me were busy taking selfies of themselves throughout the flight, and I can't understand why.  But then, the whole selfie thing is lost on me, frankly.

At the resort, the number of people having paid good money to get away from it all still managed to stay connected to it all while walking around like zombies with their devices was frightening.  For me, I used the wifi at the resort to check my emails at the start and end of the day only, and used the phone in airplane mode for pictures the rest of the day.  That's it.  I didn't feel I missed out on anything, really.

There is a tendency in this digital age to stop living your life because you are too busy filming and/or posting about it in social media.  It is a sickness, really.  I fear the day will come when social-media anonymous meetings will be held to help people cope with their addiction, and everyone there will be posting about being there.  Is this what we've become as a society?

Okay, other than that, I had a great time.  Walked a lot, read some books (remember them?) and ate far too much.  But that, from what I remember, is what makes a vacation a vacation.

Facebook can wait.  It will still be there when you get home.  Trust me.

Have a good week!

May 17th, 2016.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Things are looking up in downtown St. Catharines!

As I was preparing to write my weekend blog post, a caught a tweet from Mayor Walter Sendzik that says the City of St. Catharines is celebrating 140 years today.  Oh the town was around long before that, of course, but the city was incorporated today in 1876.

Well, Mr. Mayor, I share your optimism our great city has a bright future ahead of it, and here's why.

Just this week, for instance, the Niagara Ice Dogs advanced to the OHL Finals against the dreaded London Knights at the Meridian Centre Tuesday night, as they swept the Barrie Colts in four games straight.

A capacity crowd at the Meridian Centre saluted their red & white-shirted heroes as they advanced to the Big Round, confident and raring to go.  The exuberant fans certainly celebrated in downtown St. Catharines throughout the playoffs, bringing some welcome business to the many eateries catering to the downtown crowd these days.

That certainly will continue into the next round, with the first home game still a week away. Incidentally, all the tickets available to the public that went on sale Friday were snapped up in 17 minutes flat.  How's that for supporting our local team?  Everyone loves a winner...Go Dogs, Go!

Then we had the 8th Annual In The Soil Festival wrapping up tonight in downtown St. Catharines, primarily on James Street and over at the new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at 15 Artists' Common.

The three-day music and arts fest has grown considerably over the years, attracting larger crowds each and every year with an ever-expanding artist roster.  This year hundreds of participants presented music from a wide variety of musical genres to large and appreciative audiences under the big tent erected on James Street.

In addition, art exhibits and interactive displays popped up throughout downtown St. Catharines, catering to a wide audience including families.  My neighbour Sandy Middleton, for example, hosted guests throughout the weekend in her upstairs studio overlooking James Street with a wide variety of her creative art on sale.

I toured the James Street area twice this weekend, and the variety of displays was intriguing to say the least.  There was literally something for everyone this weekend, and for the price of a weekend pass you could take it all in from Friday to Sunday.

In The Soil continues to provide outstanding value for money every year, giving Niagara residents yet another reason to come downtown and see what's happening in our city core.

While all that was going on, the Niagara Symphony wrapped up their Pops! concerts for the current season at the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre with a Gershwin-themed programme featuring Artist-in-Residence Stewart Goodyear and the NSO conducted by Music Director Bradley Thachuk.

Partridge Hall has established itself as one of the premiere concert halls in Ontario already, and it provides a great home for the Niagara Symphony along with a myriad of performing artists catering to almost every musical taste.

The Cairns Recital Hall hosts all sorts of events as well, and I was pleasantly surprised by the large turnout for the Royal Bank Tuesday Music@Noon recitals hosted by faculty and music students with the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University.  I finally had a chance to catch a recital there in February, and these free events are a perfect opportunity to check out the new space and hear some of the great young talent we have right here in Niagara.

The newly-opened Film House at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is filling a need many of us in the city have known to exist for years now - a top-notch venue for screening films both old and new right in the heart of the city.  Gone are the days of the movie palaces downtown, of course, which numbered I believe five at their height of popularity about half a century ago.  But the Film House is right for the times, and just right for downtown St. Catharines.

Meantime Robertson Hall has been the new home for much of the live theatre presented at the PAC this season, including the inaugural season for Essential Collective Theatre at their new home.  Both times I attended ECT shows the crowds were large and appreciative and the shows were exceptional.

Although the days of traditional department stores in downtown St. Catharines are long gone, many smaller, trendy and quirky locations have sprung up to replace them, offering unique gifts and one-of-a-kind items in almost every price range.

You just have to visit places like the Craft Market on James Street, for example, to see what the new face of downtown St. Catharines retail looks like.

Another retail shopping experience is in the planning stages, of course, with the current capital campaign for the future Garden City Food Co-Op well underway.  Another Investment Sunday event today at the offices of Cowork Niagara on St. Paul Street raised the fundraising total to over $60,000 at this moment, and that will certainly continue to grow as the campaign rolls along.  The need for a downtown grocery store is acute, and a food co-op looks to be the way to go.  You can find out more about how you can help to make it happen in downtown St. Catharines by going to the Garden City Food Co-Op website or Facebook page.

The variety of restaurants and eateries both large and small is second to none right now, with everything from Beechwood Doughnuts and Rise Above offering vegan fare to exceptional fine dining at Wellington Court, and everything in between.  You will never go hungry in downtown St. Catharines!

We even have a new micro-brewery opening on St. Paul Street in one of the old Dani's Bistro locations.  Plan B should be open shortly, and that will be a perfect fit for the downtown core with the new influx of people for events on a weekly basis.

Speaking of an influx of people, the opening late last year of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts downtown has helped to create a need for considerably more student housing in the downtown core, so two new developments from Pen Terra Developments on Raymond at James Street and also just below Welland Avenue at Lake Street are moving along at a good pace these days.  I can see both from the sunroom of our downtown home, and they are encouraging signs more people will be living and spending in our downtown core in the not-too-distant future.

A further student residence is nearing completion on Queenstown Street on the site of the former CHSC studios, while plans are moving forward on a residential development of some sort at the site of the former St. Catharines General Hospital on Queenston.  On the other side of town, the former Hotel Dieu hospital site is to be home for a seniors residence in the coming years if all goes well.

So what does all this mean?  It means the major cash infusions from all levels of government as well as private investors and developers have literally changed the face of our downtown in a relatively short period of time.

While it took several decades for the decline to reach critical levels, it has really taken less than a decade to reverse much of the stagnation and decay of the downtown as a result of that prolonged decline.

It has also infused residents of St. Catharines with a lot more pride in their city, I believe, and many more reasons to celebrate what we have right here in the Garden City.  You can see that with the many people attending events downtown on a regular basis.

Sure, nothing is perfect.  We have lots of work still ahead of us, from completing the transition of two-way traffic in the core to the completion of the Burgoyne Bridge on St. Paul Street West.  But the face of the city has fundamentally changed in the last decade, and now we can start to reap the benefits of all that infrastructure spending.

If you still have not found time to come downtown and see what we have to offer, now is as good a time as any to find out.

A whole new world of interesting tastes, experiences and shopping await you downtown.  It's time to discover, explore, celebrate and yes, tell others about what's been happening right in our own backyard.

Have a great week!

May 1st, 2016.