Cruising in your Twenties

When you’re in your twenties and feeling the tug of wanderlust, you’ll find so many travel options. Between backpacking, road-tripping, all-inclusives, cultural experiences, and much more, you face the tough choice of how to spend your vacation days and best see the world. Have you considered taking a cruise? I personally just returned from my second Royal Caribbean cruise in as many years, and had an awesome time. Cruising in your twenties isn’t usually the first vacation that comes to mind. But cruises aren’t just for families and older travelers. Depending on the experience you’re looking for, it might be a great choice for you! Continue reading

Christmas Traditions

Last year, Joe and I celebrated our first Christmas away from home. We knew it would be a very different experience from celebrating with our families, and it was! There were traditions to leave behind and compromises to make. But the best part was having the opportunity to make new Christmas traditions for us as a couple. Some things we’ve “stolen” from our families, while others we’ve begun all on our own.

Christmas Traditions — Clembrook Christmas FarmCutting Our Own Christmas Tree

We’re both fortunate to have always had a real tree in our house at Christmastime, but my family has always chosen a pre-cut tree. While the process of choosing the perfect tree hanging from a barn ceiling can be fun, it’s nowhere near as rewarding as trudging through the snow and cutting down a tree for our own. When it came time to choose

This year and last, Joe and I have gone to Clembrook Christmas Farm in Milton, just south of Rattlesnake Point Conservation Area, to pick out our Christmas tree. And both years, we’ve been very happy with the result — especially after spending time and energy to find it ourselves. It’s worth it!

Sending Personalized Christmas Cards

These days, when everyone is inundated with email and social media, it’s always nice to receive mail once in a while. Joe and I hopped on the Christmas card bandwagon to break up the monotony of online-only season’s greetings. We simply take a photo we want to send, use Staples’ online Print and Copy Centre to create a card, and have a set of them printed in store.

Last year, we took a “family photo” of the three of us to send to our relatives in a Christmas card. This year, only Lorelai is featured in our cards, looking adorable as always. (I won’t spoil it since we haven’t sent them out quite yet!)

Christmas Traditions — DAVIDsTEA Advent CalendarThe DAVIDsTEA Advent Calendar

Growing up, Joe and I both had your standard chocolate advent calendars every December leading up to Christmas day. Every kid’s dream, right? But eventually, the joy and surprise of a new chocolate shape every day wears off (and the guilt of eating chocolate in the morning sets in…). So this year, we wanted to find something exciting to get us pumped for the holidays. And what better way to get warm and cozy in December than drinking copious amounts of tea?

I’ve become a more adventurous tea drinker in recent months, and now I love trying teas and finding new favourites. This year, we bought the DAVIDsTEA “24 Days of Tea” advent calendar. It comes with 24 (duh) teas in tiny tins, stored away in little cardboard drawers. Each day, you get to surprise yourself with a new flavour of tea! So far, we’re really enjoying the experience, and all of the teas we’ve tried. Plus, it’s giving us a mandate to slow down and have some tea and quiet time every evening.

What Christmas traditions are most important to you this holiday season?

Thanksgiving 2016: Thankful Thoughts

Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian friends! It’s a sunny and beautiful, albeit chilly, day here in the GTA. Once this post is complete, I’ll be heading out with Joe to a local conservation area for a hike and some fall colour sightseeing. But I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of the things I’m thankful for this weekend. There’s so much to celebrate!

I’m thankful for the basics: the things we tend to take for granted.

It’s easy to jump right into the luxuries when considering the best parts of our lives. I know it’s important, though, to acknowledge and be grateful for those simple things that not everyone in this world may have. I’m explicitly thankful today that I have food, shelter, safety, the ability to use my body and my mind, and the freedom to express my opinions and strive for my goals. Obviously that doesn’t nearly cover it, but I want to ensure that I take time to ponder these today.

I’m thankful for my current living situation.

I’m very lucky at this time of my life to have an affordable, sufficient, and convenient living space; a supportive, intelligent, and loving partner; a playful and adorable fur baby; and a challenging and engaging start to my career. I don’t know what the next year will bring, but I’m hoping that all of these things will still be true next Thanksgiving!

I’m thankful that the Blue Jays defeated Texas and are moving on to the ALCS!

Yes, I’ve hopped on the Blue Jay Bandwagon. I’m not a sports person, and I’m especially not a baseball person. It’s slow and boring and kind of confusing! But I love how the current success of the Toronto Blue Jays is bringing people together. There is a distinct positive energy in the air at work when my office livestreams the post-season games. And last night, at Thanksgiving dinner, freaking out with my parents and my aunts and uncles at every good play (in their matching team jerseys, no less) was an awesome bonding experience. Here’s hoping they dominate the next round!

I’m thankful for this blog.

Being able to express my opinions and share my experiences by taking advantage of the technology available to us these days is a pretty extraordinary gift. Thanks for joining me on the journey!

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?

When you’re looking to add a new board game to your home collection, one of the most important things to ensure is that the game won’t get stale. What’s the point in buying a game that gets boring after the first few play-throughs? Joe and I were on the hunt for something fresh and fun this weekend. We landed on Pandemic, a popular cooperative strategy game released in 2007. So far, we’ve played in three different groups: with my family, with his family, and just the two of us. And we had lots of fun each time!

The goal of Pandemic is to save the world from four deadly diseases. You play as a team of specialists with various randomly-assigned skills. As your turns progress, you and your team travel the world to treat these diseases and research their cures. At the same time, new cities are infected and outbreaks spread. It’s a race against the clock and the forces of nature to save the world.

Pandemic is the first cooperative game I’ve ever played. It took some adjustment, but I really enjoyed being able to work with the other players. Instead of competing via psychology and betrayal, your shared enemy is a series of random card draws. That way, the suspense and excitement were equally high for all players. Plus, you can share everything: the cards in your hands, your plans for next turn, and suggestions for your teammates’ moves.

The cooperative gameplay worked best when all players were engaged in the game. That wasn’t always the case, though. But even when a player was distracted or disinterested, they wouldn’t fall behind like they might in other games. The team still could still direction and use that player’s in-game special skills as things progressed.

My favourite part of Pandemic is the role of randomness in providing a unique game experience every time you play. Your strategy will change based on which cities are infected, when your cities have an epidemic, and what your special role will be for the duration of the game. I’ve noticed that some board games get very repetitive the more you play. That’s not the case with Pandemic, especially because you can also adjust the game’s difficulty at the start of each round.

 Pandemic — A Board Game Review

I do have a couple of warnings for new players. First, the game gets harder and the strategies get more intricate as you add additional players. It’s intended for 2-4 players, but we tried playing with 5, which made it much harder (but not impossible). Extra players essentially lengthen the time it takes to execute your strategies, and there are more opportunities for random events to ruin your plans.

Also, be aware of your team composition. Team strategies in cooperative games like Pandemic tend to gravitate toward the suggestions of players with stronger personalities. Do your best to ensure that every player gets a chance to voice their opinions and make decisions with the group.

In short, Pandemic is a great game for groups to have fun and be competitive – but with common goal. It looks a bit daunting at first glance, but the mechanics are really straightforward once you get the hang of the three-stage turn system. I would recommend Pandemic for groups of all kinds!

What are your favourite cooperative board games?

Starfest: The Ultimate Astronomy Camping Experience

Happy Tuesday — it’s a very exciting day! Starting today, my family and I are taking our annual camping vacation to River Place Campground for a much-anticipated event: Starfest!

What’s Starfest?

Starfest is Canada’s largest “Star Party”. That’s an amateur astronomy conference event. By day, Starfest is a camping trip with the added bonus of speakers, workshops, access to astronomy equipment vendors, kids activities, and campground amenities (yes, that includes showers, thank goodness. And there’s a pool!). Some of us also take the opportunity to embark on day trips to nearby small towns for sightseeing and shopping. By night, everyone breaks out their telescopes to observe or take astrophotos.

If you don’t have a telescope, fear not! The night-time entertainment also includes a guided Sky Tour as an intro to astronomy for newcomers. Plus, many campers with large telescopes would be happy to show you what their telescope is viewing — as long as they don’t have a camera plugged into the eyepiece instead! During the day, there is also a chance to do some observing of the Sun using specially-crafted filters to protect your vision.

Believe it or not, I didn’t first hear of this event while studying physics in school. In fact, I’ve been a die-hard attendee since I was three years old. My dad has been an astronomy hobbyist for years, and he began bringing the whole family along in 1996. Here we are, twenty years later!

Who should attend?

  • Anyone with any level of interest in astronomy, telescopes, or space science — and their families and friends!
  • Anyone who has been meaning to book a camping trip all summer, and just hasn’t gotten around to it yet..

The campground is located about two hours north-west of downtown Toronto. That’s fairly close to the GTA compared to a lot of other camping destinations. And you get all of the extra perks of an astronomy conference as well!

What’s special about Starfest this year?

2016 is the 35th anniversary of Starfest, and the conference theme is “Big Astronomy”. That means galaxies, black holes, solar storms, and massive telescopes. If you’ve ever been amazed by the sheer scale of our universe, this year is for you!

Does it start today? How do I register in time!?

Don’t worry! I’m just a keener and going up to Starfest early. The official event starts on Thursday evening and runs until Sunday morning. Feel free to arrive and register at the door anytime before noon on Saturday. You can also set your departure date as any day as well. Keep in mind, though, that the keynote speaker will present on Saturday evening — followed by the highly-anticipated door prize draw for all registrants. Come one, come all: you have to be present to win a prize! I was extremely fortunate to win this beauty as the grand prize back in 2005:

 Starfest 2016 — My Telescope

What if the skies aren’t going to be clear?

Ah, the age-old Starfest question. Everyone devoted to the hobby of astronomy hopes for clear skies every single night. The campsite was chosen specifically because of its dark night skies, compared to the Toronto area. However, if there are some clouds, or even if it rains (or if there’s a tornado or two…), you still get every other perk of attending the event! Why waste an opportunity for a mini-vacation? So in my opinion, if the skies aren’t going to be clear, come anyway! It’s going to be great!

Well, folks, I’m heading off to Starfest — hope to see you there! Clear skies!

The Secret Life of Pets — A Disappointed Review

Three weeks ago, Joe and I went to see Finding Dory. We were those typical 90’s babies that saw Finding Nemo as kids back in 2003, so the nostalgia factor was the main reason we decided to go. Nostalgia aside, though, we really enjoyed the movie. There was humour and emotion for all ages. For Joe, the sequel was even better than the original; I’m not sure if I’ll go that far, but they were at least on par. With this positive Summer-2016-kids-movie experience mind, my sister and I went to see The Secret Life of Pets last night.

It was not good.

(If you care, there are spoilers ahead for The Secret Life of Pets — but not for Finding Dory.)

I’ll start with the positives. It has cute animals. These animals become friends and work together after starting out as enemies or disinterested acquaintances. The kids in the theatre really enjoyed the humour.

Now for the bad.

Before I launch into this, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not judging a kids’ movie by adult movie standards. In fact, I am comparing it almost exclusively to Finding Dory. These are two directly competing movies released within a month of each other. So they should have been equal in terms of quality…right?

 The Secret Life of Pets — can it live up to Finding Dory standards?

Short Film

Both movies have a preceding short film. One of them is a zany, contrived, slapstick scene with no development — plot, character, or otherwise. The other is a full-fledged, wordless story with beautiful art and a full character arc. I’ll let you figure out which is which.

The Secret Life of Pets: A Frustrated Review

Pixar’s Piper

The Secret Life of Pets: A Frustrated Review

Universal’s Mower Minions

Heavy Reliance on Stereotypes

Both movies use stereotypical characters so that the audience can more quickly connect with them, but there were two major differences I noticed.

First, Finding Dory had a solid number of uniquely developed characters, whether they were the antithesis of a stereotype or just something completely different. The Secret Life of Pets has perhaps two characters that are not clearly-identified stereotypes.

Second, Finding Dory‘s stereotypes seem to be based on the expectations of the character’s animal species. The Secret Life of Pets, instead, stereotypes based on personification — either the personality, the lifestyle, or even the perceived race of the character, if they were human. There’s a lot more to this that you can read about in this article from The Root, but suffice it to say that it was very frustrating to watch.

Slapstick & Crude Comedy

When we watched Finding Dory, we were laughing right along with the kids. And sometimes, we laughed more, because of a second layer of humour intended only for the adults accompanying their children to the movie. This multi-leveled comedy is common in this genre. In fact, when I rewatch my favourite childhood films, I catch so many more jokes now than I did then!

The Secret Life of Pets has very little of this. The comedy is very physical, and the major driver for laughter is the characters getting hurt in an entertaining way. Not to mention the toilet humour. Finding Dory took advantage of this as well, but to nowhere near the same extent.

Character Development (Or Not)

The main character in this movie, a dog named Max, seems to learn the following lessons in the movie:

  • Bullying another (larger) dog will backfire
  • The white Pomeranian is in love with you
  • It’s best to work together with your rivals if you have a common enemy (i.e. Animal Control)

To me, it seemed that the main lessons were very situational, and essentially solidified a self-serving morality. I didn’t get that from Finding Dory. But maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Central Conflict

The general premise of this movie is that two dogs in New York City have to find their way home. Sounds a lot like Finding Nemo, right? So the difficulty could be the journey — navigating the streets of NYC, with help from the zany characters they meet along the way.

That is not this movie.

In The Secret Life of Pets, the two dogs would have had absolutely no trouble getting home if it wasn’t for:

  • The fact that they are trying to bully each other into submission at home.
  • The criminal gang of anti-human murder-glorifying ex-pets living in the sewers.

Universal felt that this movie would be incomplete without introducing a central villain — Snowball, the cute white bunny that leads this psychotic gang called the Flushed Pets — that is motivated by a desire for revenge and villainy. Snowball even has a line proudly describing what he is doing as evil.

A movie with the title The Secret Life of Pets has so much plot potential, no villain necessary.

Normative Violence in The Secret Life of Pets

This one was the nail in the coffin (pardon the inappropriate pun) for me. As I mentioned, the kids in the theatre laughed the most at the physical humour, especially characters getting hurt. This was mostly due to the aforementioned criminal gang of anti-human murder-glorifying ex-pets living in the sewers.

Even more bizarre was the fact that there were full-fledged battles in this movie.

But, of course, if an animal says “Hi-yah!” when knocking out another animal, it’s not really violence, right? It’s just funny.

Except I couldn’t help imagining all the kids that will go to summer camp on Monday, identify which other kids are the “bad guys”, and instigate a similar battle to get the same laughs in real life.

Full disclosure: I am not a parent. But maybe I will be some day. And I am not looking forward to having the conversation that goes something like this: “Even though it’s funny when the characters in the movie do it, you shouldn’t do it, because it’s hurtful/mean/inappropriate/…”

There was nothing like that in Finding Dory. Plain and simple.

In short, The Secret Life of Pets is not, in fact, a movie about what pets do when you’re not home. Instead, it’s a promising premise wasted on crude physical comedy and unimaginative characters.

Go see Finding Dory for a second time instead.

(I can’t believe I got so riled up about a kids’ movie…)

Did you see either (or both) of these movies? What did you think?

Mother's Day Thoughts

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the mothers out there! (I’m just a cat mother, I’m not sure if that counts.)

This is one of the first years in which I’m actually excited about the day. In the past, Mother’s Day has never really been a big deal in my family. Sure, there are gifts, but they’ve been purchased by my dad on my and my sister’s behalf. But we’re not ones for breakfast in bed or fancy dinners out. In fact, the events would usually revolve around the children: my sister always has a dance recital (or two) on Mother’s Day, and in many of the past several years, I’ve had to go to work.

This year is a little different. My sister still has her dance recital, but my mom now performs as well, as part of her own dance class. In the interest of making it a family affair, a number of my relatives will be attending the recital with me. Afterwards, we’re heading out for lunch. Technically, this is the same thing we did last year, but there’s a different tone this year: it’s my sister’s final year of dance before heading off to university. Next year, who knows what the plans will be?

Another big difference is that I’m not living at home this year. That means it’s time to step up my game and actually find a gift she’ll enjoy. I started listening for hints of gift ideas a couple weeks ago, and I happened to pick up on something that I’m fairly confident she wouldn’t buy for herself. Since she will have received the gift by the time she reads this post, I’ll let you in on the secret: it’s a 4-in-1 apple tree sapling (which she mentioned wanting, and which my dad committed to planting), to represent the four of us in the Flinn family. Cheesy, I know. But still, I think it might be a hit.

How are you celebrating Mother’s Day?

So I think my parents took offence to my comment in my “25 Things About Me” post that I wished my family did more fun things. To clarify, each of us has a number of hobbies and fun activities that we do on a regular basis. The thing is, we don’t do any of these things together. This is especially apparent now that I’ve moved away from home. In general, when we meet up, it’s for a holiday or your standard “family dinner”, but we very rarely get together for a mutually enjoyable activity. In response to this, my mother has come up with a super cool fun thing for us all to do together: puzzles!

 P is for Puzzles — Fun for the Whole Family

Okay, maybe it’s not super cool. And no, I don’t take a 35-minute drive to my parents’ house just to work on puzzles. But I have to say, now that there is always a puzzle on the living room coffee table, I find myself constantly gravitating toward it anytime I find myself at their place for any other reason.

Puzzles combine the calming, orderly feelings of popular hobbies like colouring, the mental benefits from improving spatial reasoning, the competitive aspect (Who can finish the border? Who will find that piece first? Whose section is biggest?) of your typical card games, and the long-term goals of games like Monopoly, which could stretch over days.

Then, of course, there are the weird Flinn-family-only, inside-joke-y aspects that naturally emerge when four people spend way too much time sitting around a jumbled image on a coffee table. Like when my sister speaks in a Scottish accent for an hour solid while working on the puzzle for no apparent reason. Or when I’m trying to put together a section of the puzzle containing a woman in a red dress, which naturally morphs into, “Where are the lady bits? We can’t find the lady bits!” (We still haven’t found them.)

And when you finish one, just take a picture, put the puzzle back in the box, and take it to a puzzle swap at a retirement home — that’s what my mom does! Never-ending fun for everyone!

So if you’re searching for a fun, family-friendly activity, look no further than puzzles. They will be exactly as family-friendly as your family is. (Take that as you will.)

What are your family’s favourite hobbies?

Hello there! My schedule has been a little different over the past twenty-four hours, and as such, I totally didn’t have a post ready for this morning at 7am to continue the Blogging from A to Z Challenge according to my usual timeline. So why am I lonely, and what does this have to do with being late with my post?

Joe’s in Chicago on business this week, but rather than staying home and watching Netflix by myself (as I would typically do), I’m shaking things up by hanging out at my parents’ house for a couple of reasons:

  • My sister wanted me to tutor her for her Grade 12 vectors midterm that was this morning (more on that tomorrow, in “M” is for Math).
  • I have an appointment with the orthodontist in half an hour. It’s been five years since I got my braces removed, but lingual wire broke. Yay.
  • I’m going out for lunch with my mom and my grandmother after our respective appointments today.

So right now, everyone is out of the house doing their own thing, and I’m lonely again! (Just kidding.)

I’ve actually noticed, both over the last couple of days and anytime Joe is away on business, that I seem to change a few things about my life when I’m essentially “living alone”.

I do more chores.

As bad as this sounds, I think I get more done around the house because I know that if I don’t do anything, it just won’t get done. If there’s someone else in the house, then maybe he’ll do it…? That just ends up being another form of procrastination.  But when it’s just me, I might as well get it done, right?

I head in to work earlier, or stay later.

This is a combination of taking the opportunity to get more done at work, and knowing I’ll be lonely at home if I head out right at 5 o’clock. Also, work has free coffee.

I spend more time with my family: less lonely, (maybe) more fun.

I took the day off today for my ill-timed appointment. I still prefer being around people for the majority of my time, even if the fam isn’t doing anything particularly interesting or we’re not even really paying attention to each other. When I’m on my own, I find that I’m pretty clearly in ambivert territory.

So that’s my life right now! Thanks for stopping by.

What do you do differently when you’re home alone?

royal caribbean cruise highlights

I’m back from vacation! Just got in this afternoon from a lovely week (and a bit) away on a Royal Caribbean cruise on Freedom of the Seas in the Western Caribbean. That’s seven nights away, stopping in at Labadee, Haiti; Falmouth, Jamaica; George Town, Grand Cayman; and Cozumel, Mexico. We were fortunate enough to have perfect weather throughout. This was my very first cruise ever, so there was a lot to take in! And while I said I was going to blog throughout the trip… yeah, I didn’t. That’s okay! I took some pictures and had some fun — and I think that’s the important thing anyway. 😉

Royal Caribbean Western Caribbean Cruise Itinerary

For reference, here’s a map!

I could go on forever describing, reviewing, and rating everything we did on this trip. But rather than bore you with the details, especially since this is my first cruising experience and I don’t have very much experience with which to compare, I figure it might be more useful for me to share some of my favourite activities. If a Caribbean cruise is on the horizon for you (har har), be sure to check out these options!

Labadee, Haiti — A Royal Caribbean Cruise Exclusive

Labadee was our first stop on the cruise, and our first (and only) beach day. It was beautiful. We enjoyed the weather and the view both in and out of the water. Labadee also hosts a number of active excursions, like parasailing, ziplining, and a variety of water sports. Joe and I opted for the little Alpine roller coaster after he won a pair of tickets, as I will explain shortly. It was one of those little coasters where you control your own speed, so we got a nice view of the beach as we cruised down the track.

royal caribbean cruise highlights - labadee

I was travelling with Joe’s family, and the six of us booked a villa like those in the picture. While it was super nice, I will say that it definitely wasn’t necessary to have a great time on the beach. Royal Caribbean owns this destination, so the only way you’ll be able to visit is on one of their cruises, which includes the Celebrity line as well. I would definitely visit Labadee again, or somewhere very much like it.

Jamaica — Green Grotto Caves

We spent almost our entire day on excursions in Jamaica, which included climbing up Dunn’s River Falls and touring the Green Grotto Caves. To be fair to Dunn’s River, it was quite the experience, but you definitely need to be dressed for the occasion — that is, getting soaked. Bring your own water shoes and a bathing suit you’re comfortable hiking in.

royal caribbean cruise highlights - green grotto caves

Anyway, back to my Jamaica fave. The Green Grotto Caves were really cool, and not something you see every day. The tour was a nice blend of history, nature, and just a little bit of campy comedy. Also bats. (Hey Mom, this one is not for you.)

 royal caribbean cruise highlights - bats

Grand Cayman — Pedro St. James & Cayman Turtle Farm

This multi-part excursion was awesome for its variety. To start, we visited Pedro St. James, a historic house for Grand Cayman. The tour of the house was accompanied by an introductory video — Canadians, think “Heritage Minutes”. If I were a kid, I probably would have hated this hour-long stop, but we ended up finding it quite endearing (and also pretty funny in the end).

royal caribbean cruise highlights - pedro st. james

The turtle farm was the real highlight. We got to learn about turtles, hold baby turtles, watch people feeding turtles, and then actually snorkel with turtles. I know, that’s a lot of turtles, but it was a really neat and immersive experience.

royal caribbean cruise highlights - cayman turtle farm

Onboard Game Shows!

Heading into my first Royal Caribbean cruise, I had been told that there would be musicals, comedy shows, classes, sports, shopping, and the like. But I wasn’t expecting all the free stuff, especially from the contests and game shows that seem to be running all the time! Admittedly, a lot of the “free” stuff isn’t really free. You’ll win things like discounts, small items you can trade up for larger items for an additional fee, etc. Sometimes you get lucky, though — like when you have a boyfriend who’s willing to star in a game show and win it all!

royal caribbean cruise highlights - onboard game shows

That’s right, Joe went up in front of the audience and took on some trivia, and went home feeling like a millionaire! He won a water bottle, a backpack,  a Del Sol colour-changing beach accessory prize pack, a charm bracelet (for me, haha), an excursion for Labadee (that roller coaster!), an art auction coupon and print pack, and a free scalp massage. The massage certificate expired before he used it, but everything else was great! Now, Joe didn’t win every game, of course. But it was still fun to watch and play along with others.

My understanding is that a Royal Caribbean cruise is meant to have something for everyone. I don’t know if that’s true, but there was definitely lots for us to love.

What are your cruise must-dos?