Dance Away, Dance Show!

Just a small interruption in our ongoing travelogue of Alberta to dish on dance show. We’re up to the top 10, which means I can now let fly with the super intense analysis, which is good because I really thought I might burst if I had to hold this in any longer:

PAULA ABDUL PLEASE MOVE TO OTTAWA AND BE MY BEST FRIEND. I can kick one of the kids out if you need a place to crash. Pie will be waiting.

Whew, glad that’s out.

Seriously – I love Paula. She’s so relentlessly positive, yet she tries to say meaningful things. Plus, there’s this from this week:

Nigel, regarding Adriana and Alexia’s fish dance: “You were nothing more than a dead fish on a slab.”

Paula: “Ooookay, now I’m going to attempt to say something that’s actually useful.”

BURN.

Also still liking Jason Derulo. It was big news when he announced his college degree is in musical theatre. Jason Derulo, the next Jean Valjean? Just putting it out there.

Other important things I have to say: Cat’s rainbow dress this week was THE BOMB, I am totally getting one just like it.

The group numbers every week continue to dazzle – the opening numbers have been solid, but it’s the stage/street numbers from the end of the show that I am LOVING. Still not sure about this stage/street thing but I have to say, the group numbers are almost enough to sell it. Lastly, there continues to be a wide range of choreographers this season and I’m super happy about that – last week (the top 16 show), every single number was so freakin’ amazing I didn’t see how they could possibly eliminate anyone. In fact, here’s an idea: just keep everyone!

But of course, they can’t do that, so let’s talk rankings for the top 10, shall we? The elimination of Alexia broke my heart – she was my favourite on team stage – so the whole ranking will have a bit of a bittersweet tang, but so be it. Also, I’m not sure if they will continue with this one-stage-one-street elimination right up to the end – does that mean the final two will be for sure one stage, and one street? Or once they are in the top 10 is it a free for all? I’m ranking based on free for all, but we’ll see how it goes.

1 – Jaja. I love her, you love her, we all love Jaja. She’s shown she can handle all styles well, and in her own style she KILLS IT. She’s so cute and charming. But she’s not a guaranteed win, because…

2 – Jim. The people love Jim. I have been impressed with his ability to sell hip hop and of course, when it comes to contemporary he’s the king. But so far I haven’t had a “wow” moment with him – I know it’s in there, but it needs to emerge soon.

3 – Megz. The more I see Megz, the more I love her. I love her shoe fetish, I love her hair, I love her facial expressions both on and off stage. But mostly I love how committed she is – in last week’s performance with Edson (the contemporary number with the shirts), she was just so into the piece, she totally sold me.

4 – Virgil. I think Virgil has the sparkliest personality on the show right now, and I just love love love seeing him dance in just about anything. Wasn’t he so fab in that Broadway number with Gaby from two weeks back? And that robot number with Hailee? And everything else he’s done? Hm, maybe he should be higher on this list – a problem this year because team street is just SO fantastic. Speaking of which…

5 – Neptune. I’m still waiting for that wow moment from Neptune, too (although this week’s performance with Gaby was lovely), but there’s no doubt he has the chops and the personality to really bring it. Now bring it, big guy.

6 – Hailee. I was unsure about Hailee during Vegas week but she really continues to win me over. Her interviews are adorable and her dancing has really impressed. So far I have liked her best, though, when she has a great partner, and her best performances have been team efforts, as opposed to her shining out boldly. So we’ll see.

7 – Edson. I actually love Edson as a dancer. His moves are so lovely – this is going to sound sacrilegious, but I’d actually rather watch him than Jim most days. But what Edson needs to work on is his maturity and ability to really sell a character. If he can make that click, he’ll be golden.

8 – JJ. I do think she’s the weakest on team street right now (that’s like saying she’s the shortest member of the American Basketball Dream Team) but her smile is just so charming, and her top knots so adorable, and like Megz, she has really committed to styles that are way outside her comfort zone (unlike the judges, I actually thought she did really well with the sailor girl pinup number this week). Although I personally love her I kind of think Yorelis deserved the top 10 more than JJ, so if JJ is the one to go home next week, I’ll be okay with that.

9 – Gaby. There’s always one on dance show that the judges really, really sell hard, and this year it’s Gaby. They are always showering her with praise and I just do not see it. Sure, she can dance, but she doesn’t dazzle me with technique or personality. Since Vegas week she’s been a workhorse dancer for team stage – able to handle any style with competence but not standing out. I thought her best number so far was the Broadway she did with Virgil, but other than that she’s always the last person on stage that I actually look at – everyone else takes attention away from her when I’m watching, which is not good.

10 – Derek. What is with the Twitterverse and Derek? You saved him last week when he didn’t even dance, and then again this week over my beloved Alexia. Is he holding down the tweenage girl cute-guy vote? Does he have an enormous family with hundreds of tweeting cousins? I just don’t get it. Much like Gaby, Derek is competent but nearly invisible onstage. Remember when he was a military guy, dancing with Jaja and Alexia? I didn’t even SEE him on stage – he was like part of the set. Add to that a week of non-participation and I’m not sure what people are basing their votes on.

Ah, dance show, I can’t believe I thought I was once over you – not sure if it’s the new judges or the new format or Cat’s rainbow dress, but I am super pumped about this season. Can’t wait for next week!

Lake Louise and Moraine Lake

On our sixth day we drove from Banff (actually Canmore, a much less expensive town just outside Banff where we were staying) up to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. Both are very famous lakes, noted for their beauty and their famous turquoise water. The water gets its colour from “rock flour” – ground up bits of rock suspended in the water that comes from glaciers. Both lakes are glacier fed and as a result, are cold – but gorgeous.

Driving up gave us our first really good look at the mountains, and they were also lovely. We also passed under several of the bridges pictured below – these were built for wildlife to get over the highway and have reduced the number of highway animal deaths by 80%.

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Unfortunately, this was the only rainy day we had on the trip, and it was cold too, so it wasn’t the best day for sightseeing or photos – but it was still well worth it. Speaking of the weather, Calgary and the Rockies have the craziest weather ever. We learned over the week to stop paying attention to any kind of weather forecast. On any given day it was cold, warm, cloudy, sunny, rainy, drizzling with sun, pouring, clear, hot. Often inside of a one hour time period. Just pack a bag with a waterproof jacket, gloves, shorts, a hat, sunglasses, a fleece, and extra socks, no matter what the forecast. Chances are you’ll need all of it.

Both lakes have tiny parking lots and are crazy, CRAZY busy with people. If you can, get there as early as possible, because they actually close the road to the lakes down when it gets too jammed with traffic – by lunchtime you might not be able to get in until the crowds clear after dinner. Much later we found out there’s actually an overflow parking lot and a shuttle for Lake Louise, but for Moraine Lake you’d be out of luck.

We went to Moraine Lake first – it’s a very secluded lake surrounded by mountains, famous for having been on the back of the $20 bill in the 80s. We hiked an easy trail around the edge of the lake to the head where the glacier water actually flows in.

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Yeah. Not much more to be said about that.

We didn’t want to rush the kids at Moraine Lake so we took our time, but that meant that when we wanted to move on to Lake Louise, the road was already closed (and I should mention, this was on a Wednesday during the day – Banff is so tourist-intensive that “work days” don’t really have any meaning). So we bummed around in Lake Louise (the town) for a couple of hours, having lunch and checking out the souvenir shops. There’s also a gondola in Lake Louise we could have taken up but I was still a little shell shocked from the first one, so we skipped it. Insider tip: make sure you go to the visitor centre in Lake Louise, where you can get inside dish on all the secret ways to get to the lake, from hiking paths to shuttle buses.

We were lucky that it started pouring rain, which I think drove out a lot of other tourists, and by 3 the road had reopened so we headed up to the actual Lake Louise. We did an uphill hike here to the Fairview Lookout, which overlooks the whole lake and the Chateau Lake Louise, and I’m not going to lie here – 2 km straight up almost gave me a heart attack. Holy cow do I ever need to work out more.

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After that we wandered around the edge of the lake for a bit, but it was raining and we were tired so we eventually called it. Lake Louise is really extremely beautiful, though – totally worth it, despite the crowds. If you want a more secluded experience, you can rent a canoe and head out on the lake – there weren’t many doing this, so it was quite quiet on the water – or take one of the longer hikes that take you farther from the parking lot, which fewer people do (even on the Fairview Lookout, there were few other people).

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Verdict: Did you see those pics? AWESOME.

Day Five: Banff

On Day Five we said farewell to Calgary and headed for the mountains. There was a lot of squealing and snapping on the way to Banff.

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We arrived in Banff mid-morning and it was already crazy with tourists. You definitely want to go to Banff. You just want to get there as early in the day as possible, because: NUTS WITH PEOPLE. Also, they are very, very serious about parking regulations in Banff. If you’re in a three hour lot, they mean three hours, BUDDY.

Here’s something we didn’t know about Banff: because it’s in a National Park, you have to have a Park Pass to be able to visit. Jasper is in a National Park, too. You can buy a daily pass but because we needed, between the two towns, seven days worth of park pass it was financially better to just buy an annual pass. An annual national park pass will also get us into any other national park, like Algonquin, and it also gave us free admission to a few local museums that turned out to be quite interesting.

We wandered around the main strip – Banff Avenue – and it’s very quaint. In fact, I thought it had a very “designed” feel to it – like, hey, we want to make a quaint mountain town, let’s design one! – but my sister tells me that no, the buildings actually grew up organically and just look like that. The roads all have names like “Beaver” and “Bear” and “Caribou” which is pretty freakin’ awesome.

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We popped our heads into the Parks Museum, which features a lot of taxidermied animals and birds, which is kind of cool and kind of creepy, although the kids liked picking out things they had seen at the zoo. The most interesting thing, really, is the building itself – it was built right at the turn of the 20th century and there was no power in Banff at the time, so it features tons of windows and skylights so that the museum displays could be clearly seen.

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Later that afternoon we took the gondola up Sulphur Mountain which a) gives you a great view of the town, b) has an interesting old weather-prediction station at the top (which is a bit of a hike up), and c) is the secret source of the science that powers the hot springs. Definitely worth seeing, despite the expense. It was a cool and cloudy day down below, and at the top it was pretty darn chilly – we were happy we had brought jackets and gloves.

The gondola, by the way, was the site of my second major freak out of the trip. Sir Monkeypants actually took a video of me having a total meltdown on the way up, then an even bigger one on the way down, and no, you cannot see it. I do not really consider myself afraid of heights but man, apparently I am very afraid of gondolas and glass floors.

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We finished up the day with a visit to the Cave and Basin historic site. This is a spot where there is a natural cave full of hot, sulphurous water – warmed by its passage down under Sulphur Mountain. There’s also a large basin where the hot water collects. There used to be a hotel/resort here, where people would come to soak in the hot springs for their health. But since it was discovered that the basin is the home to an endangered snail, the whole place became a protected area. At the site now you can see the cave and the basin, as well as a small museum about the old hotel and the history of the explorers who first found the site and set up the resort. It was fascinating, and beautiful, and, as Little Miss Sunshine will tell you, smelly.

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We probably wouldn’t have bothered with the Cave and Basin, but it was free with our annual park pass (as was the Parks Museum), and turned out to be totally worth it. In fact, verdict on all this Banff stuff: WORTH IT.

Olympic Park

Our last day in Calgary was spent at Olympic Park, which the kids wanted to go to after seeing it on The Amazing Race. Reality TV for the educational win!

I swear I checked the “open” days and times of everything very carefully before we left, but it turns out I missed something at Olympic Park – several of the attractions are closed during the week, and only open on weekends. We were heading there on a Monday so our activities were limited, so watch out for this if you’re going.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter too much because the bestest thing ever, our kids’ favourite thing from the whole trip, was definitely open – the luge run.

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What you do here is take a chairlift to the top (where you are treated to a lovely view of all Calgary) and then hop in a little sled and then race down the mountain on a curvy concrete course. It’s stupid expensive but at least the ride is long – probably at least five minutes to get to the bottom – and man, what a rush. Buy the big pack of tickets – you’re going to need it.

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My sister and her husband got back to Calgary early the day they were flying home and killed the extra hour by doing a bonus luge run. That’s how fun it is.

Other stuff you can do here:

  • Zipline – there are three ziplines, one teeny, one medium, and one huge and scary. We skipped this as the kids were not big enough to do anything other than the teeny one (seriously teeny, like from the top of my house to my yard, for $10 a pop). It’s pricey but popular and this is actually what was featured on The Amazing Race, if you care about that sort of thing.
  • Bobsleigh Run – you can take a “dry” run down the actual bobsleigh track used in the Olympics (well, a shortened version of it) but you have to be a minimum age and weight, so again, we skipped this as the kids did not qualify. Looked totally awesome, though. You get a professional driver, by the way, so don’t worry about wiping out, and like everything else at Olympic Park, be prepared to pay big bucks.
  • Kids’ Adventure Park – this is the thing that was closed during the week, so sadly we didn’t get to try it. They have a bungee trampoline apparatus where you can jump way up in the air, plus a rock climbing wall and a spider climb thing with ropes and such. Looked awesome, we were sorry to miss it, although we really had no problem filling hours and hours of time with the luge run, because: AWESOME.

Also at the complex is the Sports Hall of Fame, which interestingly enough, was originally scheduled to be in Ottawa, in the conference centre downtown, but there were political issues that moved it out to Calgary. I have to say, we really missed out because this museum is TOTES AWESOME. We loved it there, and could have spent a whole day easily.

The great thing about the Hall of Fame is the interactivity. There’s hundreds of featured athletes and you can spend hours reading their little blurbs (which rock, by the way, so inspiring), but the museum really tries hard to make sport come alive. There’s dozens of clips of live events running all the time; there’s actual sports equipment, so you can try rowing or boxing Lennox Lewis or stopping a hockey puck; there’s cool computer games where you get a little spot of training from the likes of Steve Bauer or Kurt Browning or Donovan Bailey, then try your hand at their sport. There’s lots of life-sized statues of famous athletes so you can stand next to them, there’s iconic uniforms and sports equipment, there’s a pull-at-your-heartstrings movie about highlights of Canadian Sport.

I mean, I don’t even LIKE sports, and I loved this museum.

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Verdict: Must do, for the whole shebang.

Drumheller

Part of the whole reason we went to Calgary in the first place was to go to Drumheller, the site where many dinosaur fossils have been found and home to the Royal Tyrell Museum, which features a stunning fossil collection. So Day Three of our trip meant hopping in the rental car and heading about an hour east to Drumheller.

Probably the most awesome thing about this whole day was the drive out, which starts with traditional prairie, where farms grow canola and each one seems to have its own little oil well churning away in the back field:

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And then you quite suddenly enter the badlands, which are hills that have been carved out by glaciers, showcasing thousands of years of rock strata everywhere you look:

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AMAZING. I actually had no idea the badlands looked like this. I probably took 100 pictures out the car window because the way they erupted out of nothing was just so incredibly cool.

We were pretty pumped up by the time we got to the museum, and here I must rant, because sadly, the Royal Tyrell Museum is THE WORST designed museum I have ever been to. EVER.

The problem is not the displays. The problem is that the museum wishes to take you on a journey through time, from the dawn of life to the ice age, and in order to impose upon you a chronological progression, you enter the museum at one end, then MUST follow this designated path through the ENTIRE museum before exiting. There is NO way out once you enter except to backtrack through the entire path, fighting crowds along the way. It takes two to three hours to get through this thing, there is exactly ONE “family” bathroom along the way, no food allowed.

Plus, it’s a lot of reading – a lot of skeleton after skeleton (which are, admittedly, very cool) and descriptions of that kind of dinosaur, with very little interactivity.

So let’s review: families with young children, trapped in an hours-long tube filled with do-not-touch displays, with no food and almost no bathrooms. GOOD IDEA, right?

WRONG.

Our kids are older so the whole event wasn’t quite as dire as I make out, but for me the biggest problem was that there were fun interactive events and lectures going on all day back at the main entrance, OUTSIDE the museum. But to get to them, you had to – you guessed it – fight your way through crowds back through the ENTIRE PATHWAY to get there. So we ended up just skipping them all, because it wasn’t worth it for us to battle our way back to the entrance for a workshop, then battle our way back into the museum again.

I’d like to recommend to the Royal Tyrell Museum that they consider the layout at the War Museum here in town. It’s also chronological but there’s a central hub, with loops going off of it, so you can do say, WWI, then return to the hub for a bathroom/snack break, then do WWII, then back to the hub again; you can also choose to skip ahead to WWII directly if that’s what interests you and you have minimal time. There’s no need to be so heavy handed with the crowd management, Tyrell Museum!

Also, one more thing I wanted to mention: almost all the “interactive” components that were going on at the museum – mock digs and fossil recovery, that sort of thing – cost extra. Not cool, museum, not cool.

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Verdict: Worth it for sure, for the drive alone. Worth it to go to the museum and see the dinosaurs – we learned a lot – but be prepared to fight the man in order to set your own pace and schedule; make sure everyone eats and pees before entering The Path Of Doom, and check the activities schedule first and if there’s a must do, try to schedule around it so you can do the whole path before or after the activity.

After the museum it was off to the World’s Biggest Dinosaur, a T-Rex statue in town that you can climb up (SO MANY STAIRS) and see a view. It was cheesy as all heck but it was only $10 for a family and when you’re in the vicinity of the World’s Biggest Dinosaur, you HAVE to do it, right?

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Verdict: Well, it’s a must do for the cheese factor, but really skippable if you can bring yourself to actually skip it.

We ended our day with a stop at the hoodoos – really cool rock formations formed by erosion, with a protective cap that stops them from disappearing completely. There’s a designated stop along the highway where you can get out and see them up close, and climb all over the hill, which we did. The hoodoos were amazing, and the whole experience was beautiful and unique. It was everyone’s favourite part of the day – and a highlight of the whole trip – and you should definitely go if you are ever in the area.

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Verdict: Must do.

Touring Alberta

And now, a complete travelogue of our journey through Alberta this summer. Someone get the slide projector! Someone else bring the alcohol!

First up, our itinerary. We spent:

  • Four days in Calgary and the area;
  • Three days in Banff and Lake Louise;
  • One day driving north on the Icefields Parkway, and exploring the east side of the road;
  • Two days in Jasper;
  • One day driving back down the Icefields Parkway, exploring the west side of the road on our way back to Calgary, before flying home.

I really fretted over how much time to spend in each place, but in the end it worked out okay. Four days in Calgary is fine – you could possibly even do it in three if you were pressed for time. Three days in Banff allowed us to see all the touristy highlights and was fine. You definitely want a full day each way on the Icefields Parkway, which is RIDICULOUS with beauty. Two days in Jasper was fine, but there are like 100 hiking trails and day-use lakes around there so if you are into hiking or camping or canoeing, an extra day would be great for exploring the area.

So! Calgary!

Day One: The first day, we went to the zoo. It was a gorgeous day and a good start to the trip. The Calgary Zoo has a good mix of Canadian animals and more exotic animals, and lots of interactive and learning opportunities all day long. One thing I really like about this zoo is that it’s not too big – unlike the Toronto Zoo, where you can huff around all day and still only see a quarter of it, we were able to see just about everything in one day.

Our favourites: the penguins, who you can watch swim underwater in giant glass tanks; the otters, who were delightfully playful; and the hippos, who do very little except get in and out of the water all day long, occasionally stopping to spray poop everywhere, and yet are fascinating. Plus: they have a grizzly bear that had to be removed from the wild after it got too tame from many people interactions in Banff, and so it’s the only place in the rockies where you’ll have a 100% guaranteed bear sighting.

Verdict: Definitely go.

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Day Two: I had set aside the second day to explore downtown Calgary – I thought it would be nice to get a feel for the city. So we started at the Calgary Tower, which is in the middle of the downtown core and overlooks the city all around. There’s a glass floor there that the kids really liked, and I would highly recommend the free audio tour, which gives you an excellent introduction to the history of the city, and has all kinds of cool videos and anecdotes and even little games on it.

This was the start of the “Lynn freaks out” theme as I just could NOT bring myself to step out onto the glass floor, while the kids were busy jumping around on it like it was nothing. EEK.

Verdict: Worth it.

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From the tower I had planned a walking tour of the downtown area, but that turned into a bit of a bust. We did see some interesting things, but overall it was a LOT of walking for minimal reward. Here’s what we did manage to see:

  • Olympic Square, where the medals were handed out at the end of each day in 1988, which definitely meant more to those of us old enough to remember the games than the kids. NEWS FLASH: did you know there is a replica of the “Famous Five” statue from Parliament Hill in this square? We felt violated.
  • Stephen Avenue, much like our Sparks Street, which features cafes and a few souvenir shops and several old sandstone buildings, and like, no people at all, for some reason.
  • The CORE, their version of the Rideau Centre, which was also completely deserted – this was at lunchtime on a Saturday. Seriously, it was like aliens had abducted all of Calgary. The mall was cool though – it has a whole park inside, featuring the Devonian Gardens, giving Calgarians a green space to visit all year long. BRILLIANT.
  • The Plus 15 Skywalks – these are glass bridges that connect almost all of downtown so you can avoid going outside in the winter. Sir Monkeypants and I really wanted to explore these as we have seen the movie waydowntown about 10 times. But unfortunately they were mostly locked up on the weekend, or possibly they’d been sealed by our new alien overlords.
  • Eau Claire Market, which is like a year-round flea market. We bought a bunch of candy. There was an event going on – some sort of dog show – so there were dogs EVERYWHERE, which was kind of interesting.
  • The Bow River and Prince’s Island Park, which are in the centre of the city. Unfortunately the island was closed off for a music festival. Bust.

Sounds like a good list, but really, in general downtown Calgary is like a financial district with little to interest the kids, and even Prince’s Island Park was sort of just another park (from what we could tell). We were travelling with my sister FameThrowa and her husband Mr. Chatty and they had a chance to explore several more downtownish neighbourhoods in the evenings and reported back that they were nice, but nothing special.

So I definitely wish we had skipped this whole downtown walking tour and instead done something else, like visit Fort Calgary, or the Telus SPARK, which is their science centre. If you’re going and you’ve got minimal time, you could combine a morning at the tower with an afternoon at Olympic Park (more on that next time), and shave off a whole Calgary day.

Verdict: Skip the walking tour and pick something else.

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Next time: Day three in Drumheller!

And We’re Back

Through the wonder of WordPress scheduled posting, you probably didn’t even miss me while I spent the last (almost) two weeks out in Calgary, Banff, and Jasper. We had a fantastic time, and I’m sure you’ll hear all about it once I dig myself out of 50 loads of laundry and get to the store for milk before the children eat each other.

Until then:

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Getting Naked

This year I wanted to try to write some fiction. I used to feel like I’d never be a “real” writer if I didn’t write fiction, because that’s what “real” writers write. But fiction felt so unnatural to me – I practically think in blog post format, and I can write a column or a memory essay with ease, but dreaming up brand new people? And having them do things? Just felt so awkward and weird.

Eventually I got a few paying gigs for my non-fiction type writing and I was so, so happy about that. I definitely felt okay referring to myself as a writer, even without the fiction banner over my head.

But something still nagged. So this year I finally felt I’d moved beyond all expectations and pressure, and was ready to just dabble away, write a whole bunch of crap, learn a thing or two, and see if it led anywhere.

I started a few projects but then I got caught up in contests. I heard of a few and thought it was a good idea for me to have a deadline (DEFINITELY a good idea) so I wrote a few pieces as contest entries and sent them off. And of course, most of them did nothing, but I was happy with them, happy enough to be encouraged to continue.

So my point here is, one of them actually won something – I placed second in the Adult Fiction category of the Winnipeg Free Press Writers’ Collective spring contest. And let me tell you, it is VERY gratifying to have someone else actually like one of your stories.

More than enough encouragement, in fact, to keep me continuing for a good long while at least.

I feel really exposed just talking about this – like it’s some deep dark secret I should keep hidden. As if it’s embarrassing, somehow, to want something and work towards it. The fear of being mocked is huge, and it’s so strange how showing people my fiction writing feels so much more naked than sharing actual real-life events from my own life. I’m fragile and easily hurt and raw when I make up stories. I guess all writers are, although you always feel so much more exquisitely less than in your own life, don’t you?

Anyway, it seems sad that no one will ever see it but the judging committee of the contest and my reader friends Lee Ann and Jen. So, story here, if you’d like to read it.

Summer of Awesome – July 2015

Go Karts at Karters Korner - Gal Smiley swore she was tall enough now, and she made it by a hair's breadth.

Go Karts at Karters Korner – Gal Smiley swore she was tall enough now, and she made it by a hair’s breadth.

Jumping at xTreme Indoor Trampoline Park.

Jumping at xTreme Indoor Trampoline Park.

Lazy days at a friend's cottage.

Lazy days at a friend’s cottage.

Cool art installation at Strathcona Park. Bonus - naming the flags at all the embassies nearby!

Cool art installation at Strathcona Park. Bonus – naming the flags at all the embassies nearby!

Graffiti wall at Brewer Park.

Graffiti wall at Brewer Park.

My twins at Brewer Park.

My “twins” at Brewer Park.

Hog's Back Falls.

We ate ice cream at Hog’s Back Falls.

Marriage proposal written on the rocks at Hog's Back Falls.

Marriage proposal written on the rocks at Hog’s Back Falls.

Little Miss Sunshine turned 8 and had a sleepover mermaid party. She decorated the cake herself.

Little Miss Sunshine turned 8 and had a sleepover mermaid party. She decorated the cake herself.

Beach day at Petrie Island - gorgeous weather, clear water, and next to no one else there.

Beach day at Petrie Island – gorgeous weather, clear water, and next to no one else there.

Sandy feet at Petrie Island.

Sandy feet at Petrie Island.

Rainy day bowling at Merivale Bowling.

Rainy day bowling at Merivale Bowling.

Dominion

I feel like I’m way behind on my Family Games posts – so many to cover! so little time! – but I figure I’ll just keep plugging away at it and maybe in two or three years I’ll have covered my bases. Right?

Today’s game is Dominion, a card game that has really stood us well over the past three or four years. We go through phases where we are obsessed with it, then we move on to other things for a while, but we always come back to it. It’s a solid addition to any family set if you’re interested in becoming gamers.

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In fact, I was thinking the other day about the evolution of gaming in a family – everyone has things like Candyland and Snakes and Ladders, then comes Sorry! and simple card games, and then you move up to Monopoly and The Game of Life, then maybe Scrabble, Clue, or Trivial Pursuit. Some stop there, others branch off to fun party games like Apples to Apples or Cranium, others move on to strategy games like Risk and Ticket to Ride. If you’re on the Ticket to Ride path (a great gateway game I’ll talk about…someday), then Dominion is definitely the next logical step up.

Who It’s For

I think the box suggests ages 13 and up, but our two oldest can handle it easily – they are 12 and nearly 11 – and they’ve even been playing it for a couple of years now. Our youngest just turned 8 last week and she still needs a “teammate” to help her if she plays, so I’d say, 10 and up for sure, maybe younger if they are precocious.

It’s for two to four people; we have played with five and it works okay, although the game goes quicker so it can seem that just when you’ve finally got your strategy coming together, the game is over. It’s best with three or four players.

The first time you play it might take you an hour as you read through all the cards on the table and ponder your strategy. But once you’re more familiar with the game you can play a round in 30 minutes.

How to Play

Dominion is a card game in which each player will be building their own deck of cards. You start with a base deck – three “victory cards” that do nothing, but give you points towards winning the game, and seven money cards. That’s your starter deck.

On your turn, you deal yourself a “hand” of five cards from your own personal deck. Then, you use the money you got to buy a card from the table that will be added to your deck. You’ll see that new card again next time you hit the bottom of your deck and have to shuffle your discard pile. The new card as well as your entire hand goes into your discard pile, and then you deal yourself a new hand from your deck for your next turn.

Things get more interesting after the first two rounds because by then, players have had a chance to buy some more interesting cards to add to their decks. Most players will buy action cards – cards that let them do something that helps them get something else. For example, actions might give you the chance to draw bonus cards into your hand; or give you extra money for shopping; or let you force other players to whittle their hands down to three cards. On your turn, you’re allowed to do one action, and then use whatever money you have in your hand to buy one thing, but some actions allow you to do extra actions or buy more than one card, both of which can be very powerful.

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There are 10 action cards in the game, and they’re all laid out on the table for your shopping pleasure. There’s also Big Money cards – putting these into your deck mean you will have more money for buying the good cards next time around. There’s also the green cards – victory cards – and you need these to actually win the game. At the end of the game, you’ll go through your own deck and pick out all the green cards, total up their points, and the one with the most points wins. But because these cards don’t help you during the game – they don’t help you buy more actions or money – you don’t want them clogging up your deck at the beginning. There’s usually several rounds of “deck building” where people are buying more actions and money, and then the game suddenly shifts to people snapping up the victory cards (the game ends when the highest value victory card pile is all sold).

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Reading this over, it sounds pretty complicated but once you play it out once, you easily see how it’s going to go. On your turn you do any actions you have, shop for new cards to add to your deck, discard everything, then deal a new hand. Next player!

Why We Love It

There’s two really great things about Dominion.

The first is that everyone builds their own deck – and the players rarely make exactly the same decisions along the way – so everyone ends up playing with a different set of cards. It means that several different strategies can be at work in one game, and it’s fascinating to see what works and what doesn’t. You can do what you think is best and someone else can do things a totally different way, which is cool.

The other great thing is that there are many, many, many action cards from which to choose the set of 10 that make up this particular game. The original game comes with 25 different action cards, and you choose 10 at random (or, because they are your favourites, or because you’re curious, or whatever). That makes the game literally different every time. Not only is every player working their own strategy, but you have to adapt your strategy to the actions on the table – you have to work with what’s in front of you. So you absolutely can’t do the same thing every time – it’s always something new. There are like, 10 expansion sets for Dominion as well, so if you go crazy you could find yourself with a pool of almost 300 different action cards to choose from. We have three expansion sets ourselves and with just those, I think it’s safe to say we could play Dominion for a long, long time before ever seeing exactly the same game twice.

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Other benefits – it’s actually not too bad to learn, and if you can manage to play for the first time with someone else who has played before, you won’t even need to look at the rulebook, just jump in and you’ll pick it up quickly. Also, it’s a set of cards so although the box itself is big (about Trivial Pursuit sized), you could extract the cards and put them into something much smaller for travel purposes.

Some Bad Stuff

Here I must admit that I sometimes get childishly cranky while playing Dominion, for two reasons.

One, most combinations of actions allow for a variety of approaches, and you can try different things and see what sticks. But you do occasionally hit a set where there is exactly one approach that will blow everyone out of the water (i.e. just buy up ALL of one particular action, and you’re golden!). Not to sound bitter, but when sets like this come around it is ALWAYS Sir Monkeypants who finds the Big Winner and while he racks up the victory cards, some of us sit there fuming. If you are more mature than me perhaps this will not happen to you. Some suggestions to avoid this scenario: start with the “recommended” action combinations that come with the set; when you hit upon a combination that really works well (meaning, many different strategies led to a close finish), then write that one down for future use.

Two, some of the action cards are attack cards, and that can make one feel bitter. Just when you get a good hand with lots of money, someone will force you to discard it. Or someone will give you a curse card, which is -1 victory point. Or someone will steal away the totally awesome Gold card you just bought. GAH. Usually these attacks are not personal – when someone plays an attack, they usually apply to all other players – but sometimes SOME PEOPLE get miffed about it. Again, if you are more mature than me this may not happen to you, but if you fear it, you can just choose not to use any attack cards, or else make the rule that the “protect me from attacks” card – the Moat – must be in every set with attack cards in it.

Recommended For

As I said above, if you are into strategy games – well, you probably already own Dominion, but if not, run out and get one (you can buy one locally at all the comic book shops, Toys On Fire, or even Mrs. Tiggy Winkles has it in some locations). There are many other games out there that are card/deck building type games and Dominion is the best. It’s a game you’ll play over and over, and when you get tired, get yourself an expansion set (makes a GREAT Father’s Day or Mother’s Day gift!) and keep on playing. Recommended: Prosperity and Seaside, the two most popular expansion packs – we own them both and they’re fantastic.