Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I recently heard a Christian song called "Oh, What A Reason". When the song began, it sounded to me like many other Christian songs, and I kind of tuned out. Then the line "There's nothing in this world worth living for" caught my attention. This didn't sound like a lyric from a Christian song, more like some depressing emo band.

After a couple of google searches, I was unable to determine who wrote the song; the closest I found was a link to a youtube video of someone named Lauren Talley singing it. Here are the lyrics I found online, reproduced without permission, since I don't know who to ask:

I've been blessed with so many things, God's been good to me
I have family and friends who share in all I do
But if I lose it all and I am left with nothing
If I have the Lord I know I'll make it through
He's the only reason I live, but oh, what a reason
He's the only reason I live, but oh, what a reason
There's nothing in this world worth living for
It only leaves you empty and longing for more
Oh, He's the only reason I live, but oh, what a reason
Now you may have tried a lot of things to find real happiness
But if you've looked very long, then you know it can't be found
Until you find the Lord, in the power of His Spirit
Jesus will be your reason to live and He'll never let you down

Now, I'm an atheist, but I'm not one of those uppity atheists that think that Christians are all moronic brainwashed sheep. So be aware that when I question these lyrics, I'm not questioning them because they refer to God. I'm questioning them because they have implications about the Christian faith that I cannot imagine are true for the vast majority of Christians. Many Christians believe that their faith in God is the most important thing in their life, and that's fine, I get that. But that's not what this song says. It does not say that God is their favourite reason to live, or a very important reason, or even the most important reason. It says that God is the only reason to live. The only reason.

"There's nothing in this world worth living for / it only leaves you empty and longing for more" – is that really what devout Christians believe? That their family, their friends, their career, they're all meaningless? Real happiness "can't be found"? At all? Ever?

If this is really how the songwriter feels feels about his/her life, well, quite honestly I feel sorry for them. Personally, I believe that real happiness can be found, because I've found it. I have many reasons to live, and that's without faith in God. Maybe whoever wrote this song should try give atheism a try.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

UK 2009: The Scottish Highlands

This is the second of at least four articles I am going to do about our UK trip. The first is here. As I mentioned before, I'm putting in a lot of detail, but I'm mainly doing it for my own reference in the future. You can see a map of our entire trip here.


July 5

After arriving in Edinburgh, we picked up our luggage and made our way to the rental car pick-up area. When we got to the counter and confirmed our reservation, we pointed to our stack of suitcases and asked if the car was going to be big enough – this was our biggest worry about the car rental. The attendant said "Let's go find out", and she grabbed a set of keys, left the counter, and walked outside. The four of us followed her with the luggage until we found ourselves in front of a black four-door Toyota Avensis. She opened the trunk and we instantly knew we were fine. We grabbed the biggest suitcase and put it in the trunk and marvelled at how much space there still was. While Gail and the boys put the cases in the car and unpacked the car seats, I returned with the attendant to the desk to get the paperwork signed. A few minutes later, we were on our way. After a brief stop at a nearby Marks and Spencer's to pick up a couple more pairs of shorts for me, we fired up the GPS we borrowed from some friends and headed north for Pitlochry. Sitting on the wrong right-hand side of the car wasn't as big a change as I expected (though I was glad that we got an automatic, shifting gears with my wrong left hand would have added to the challenge), but driving on the wrong left-hand side of the road took a bit of getting used to. I asked Gail to tell me if I was too far left (i.e. partially on the shoulder), and I figured the drivers coming the other way would let me know if I was too far right. Thankfully, they never had to.

We crossed the Forth Road Bridge out of Edinburgh and about an hour and a half of relatively uneventful driving later, we arrived in Pitlochry. We stayed at a lovely little B&B called Dalshian House, just outside of town. This was the first time that Gail and I had ever stayed at a B&B. We had a family room, with a queen bed and two singles. We asked for a dinner recommendation and headed into town to a place called "The Auld Smiddy" where we had a wonderful meal. After dinner, we went to a little place across the street to get ice cream cones, and walked down to the Pitlochry dam and fish ladder. Everything was closed but we walked around anyway for a little while before heading back to the B&B and the boys watched some Harry Potter before bed.


July 6

Breakfast at Dalshian House was more like a restaurant than any other B&B we stayed at, in that there were menus given to us at breakfast time. In the other B&Bs, we got a menu the day before and filled it out for the next morning before going to bed. After breakfast, we checked out and drove up to Killiecrankie, where we planned on doing the entire 16km walk. But it was just starting to rain when we got to the visitor's centre, and within a few minutes the skies just opened. After waiting and hoping for ten or fifteen minutes, we heard thunder and decided that the rain was not going to let up anytime soon. Even if it did, we were going to be on this walk for several hours, so if the skies opened again when we were halfway through the walk, it would be a very wet and uncomfortable morning indeed. This turned out to be a good decision, since it rained on and off most of the day. We decided to skip the walk and drove to nearby Blair Castle. The boys were kept far more entertained at this castle than at most of the chateaux we visited in France - when we walked in the door, the people working there asked the boys if they wanted to do a treasure hunt. The staff had gone through the castle and put together a bunch of questions based on the information in each room, and hidden a little white ribbon cross in each room. You had to find the cross and answer the questions and turn the sheet in at the end, and then there was a monthly prize draw. There were questions like "In the dining room, who painted the portrait on the wall?" and "In the tapestry room, when was the oldest tapestry made?" We had never seen that kind of activity before, but the kids enjoyed it, and we certainly appreciated it. We subsequently saw similar things at a couple of other castles.

After Blair Castle, we drove another hour and a half further north to our next B&B, Dunlichity House near Inverness. This one was quite remote; at least fifteen minutes along a small B-road off of the main highway. This was my first experience driving on a single-lane road. If it was a busy road it might have been nerve-wracking – there were lots of "passing places" where you had to pull in to allow cars going the other way to pass by (or they would pull in to allow you to go by) – but there was essentially no traffic, so it was no big deal. The B&B was a beautiful little place; only three guest rooms, and on our first night there, we were the only guests. The room had a queen bed and bunk beds for the boys, as well as a TV with DVD player. There was a small library of DVDs available, so the boys watched "Because of Winn-Dixie" before bed. Gail read in the room, and I read in the little lounge across the hall from our room. The lounge had a CD player in it with a collection of CDs – the one in the player was David Gilmour's excellent album "On An Island". I played that followed by Pink Floyd's Echoes while reading and had a very relaxing evening.


July 7

This day was one of my favourite days on this vacation, a driving tour around Loch Ness. We started out by having a full Scottish breakfast including cereal, eggs, bacon, beans, and sausage, and I also had haggis. I've had it a few times before – it's like a spicy sausage made with various types of meat (mainly organs). In the old days, it was made and cooked inside a sheep's stomach, but they just use sausage casings these days. I really enjoyed it, though nobody else was willing to try it. With full tummies, we drove south-west to the Falls of Foyers, where we walked around a short trail (maybe 1 km). On the way there, we saw both a male and female pheasant, a few roe deer, and of course many sheep. We continued south-west to Fort Augustus, at the far end of Loch Ness. We stopped there for lunch, watched a woman create little Nessies out of glass (and bought a couple), watched some boats navigating the locks there, and the boys took their shoes and socks off and played a little in the frigid loch.

We continued our drive on the other side of the Loch, driving north-east to Drumnadrochit, home of Urquhart Castle and a couple of Nessie exhibits. We went to see one such exhibit, which was a movie about the legend of the Loch Ness monster, as well as a "conveniently-located gift shop". This is one of our little jokes about touristy places – many of these types of exhibits (or even rides at places like Disney World)  empty out directly into a gift shop, so you cannot exit the attraction without having been given the opportunity to buy overpriced trinkets. Very convenient.

The drive continued north-east to Inverness, where we had dinner at a pub called Maverick's before heading back to Dalshian House.


July 8

After more haggis for breakfast (yum!) we left Dunlichity House and drove to Inverness, where we spent a couple of hours doing laundry. Once the clothes were clean, dry, and folded, we headed west to the Isle of Skye. The GPS pointed us down the highway on the north side of Loch Ness through Drumnadrochit again, but rather than retracing our steps from the previous day, we drove further north and took a slightly different route, through the middle of the highlands. There were tall green mountains on either side of the car, lots of heather, and of course lots of sheep. The scenery was incredible. One thing we noticed in this part of Scotland was that place names on the highway signs had the Gaelic equivalents underneath the English names. After a couple of hours, we arrived at Eilean Donan Castle, one of the oldest castles in Scotland. After a tour of the castle, we continued over the Skye Bridge onto the Isle of Skye. One of the first things I noticed was that the street signs had changed – now the place names were in Gaelic with English underneath. Apart from that, Skye didn't look much different from where we had just been driving, but as it turned out, that's because we were at the south end of the island. We headed for Port Righ (Portree in English), which was a half-hour from the bridge. The further north we went, the less Skye looked like mainland Scotland – the mountains weren't any bigger, but some of them were craggier and less smooth than the ones in the highlands. Portree is a cute little town, and we had a bit of a time finding our hotel. The front door is right on the main street, but to get to the parking lot you had to basically turn left onto a street that was one way the other way and then immediately turn left again onto another street, though the calling that second one a "street" was generous. It was more of an alley with a stone wall on one side and garbage dumpsters and storage bins on the other, leaving enough room for the width of our car plus a few inches. The hotel itself, the Urquhart Caledonian Hotel, was very nice though – once again we had a queen bed plus bunk beds. We went down to the bar/restaurant (I usually avoid restaurants in hotels since they're generally overpriced, but this one was very reasonably priced – for the UK, anyway) for dinner, where I was very excited to have my first-ever Guinness. I generally like dark beer, but I had a bad experience with Guinness once (I took a big swig thinking it was root beer) so I'd been avoiding it. The impression I've always had about Guinness is that like Alexander Keith's, those who like it like it a lot, so I gave it a try, but I guess I'm not in that camp. It was very smooth, but I wasn't too fond of the taste. The John Smith's ale I had the next week was much better.


July 9

We had a very nice breakfast at the hotel, and then strolled down to the pier in Portree and then back up to a visitor's centre and gift shop (of course) to buy some souvenirs. During breakfast, we happened to ask our server for some advice on things to see on Skye, expecting a 30-second conversation. She proceeded to give us detailed directions and advice on what to see and what not to see on the island. We planned on driving north from Portree to the tip of the island, then heading west to Uig (pronounced "OO-ig") and back south again, but she recommended going the other way – heading towards Uig first, then driving east back across the island (not all the way up to the tip) and then back down towards Portree. This turned out to be excellent advice, because the little single-lane road we took across the island from Uig contained some of the most amazing scenery of the entire trip. There was a little parking lot near the east end of the road that we stopped at and climbed some of the nearby hills for a while, which was a lot of fun. We drove back down towards Portree, and then back west towards Dunvegan. Our tour guide breakfast server had recommended we not pay to see Dunvegan Castle - she said it's a nice castle, but very overpriced and since we'd already seen Eilean Donan, it wasn't worth it for us to pay to see Dunvegan. From Dunvegan, we took a beautiful drive down the west side of the island to Armadale, where we took a half-hour ferry ride back to the Scottish mainland, arriving at Mallaig. From Mallaig, we drove towards our next B&B near Fort William. On the way, we stopped at Glenfinnan to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a huge railway bridge seen in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Our B&B, the Kilmalyn Guest House, was actually in a town called Corpach, just outside of Fort William, and despite being in a two-hundred-year-old house, the room was very bright and modern, with an amazing view of Ben Nevis and the surrounding mountains. (We were in bedroom 1 – the purple one.) The huge bathroom had just been redone and looked very modern, complete with halogen lights in the floor. Though beautiful, the design of this new bathroom was a little odd – who puts a clear (not frosted) glass door on a bathroom, especially right in front of the toilet? Also the bathroom door didn't latch closed properly and even if it had, there was no lock. Obviously bathroom privacy wasn't a big deal for this guy. Other than that, the room was very comfortable and the owner and his family were very friendly. We asked for a restaurant recommendation in Fort William, and he suggested we try a pizza place called The Stables. The next morning when we thanked him for the recommendation, he admitted that it was his brother's place. At first I was a little annoyed by this obviously biased recommendation, but we did specifically ask for a pizza place and the pizza was excellent.


July 10

After breakfast (even more haggis!), we went to Nevis Ridge, and took the gondola up the mountain (called Aonach Mor), where there are a couple of walking trails at the top. The boys loved the gondola ride, and the views were stunning. We grabbed lunch at the base of the mountain, and continued on our way south towards a town called Ballachulish, where we had read somewhere about a chocolate factory. Once there, we found that the factory was closed, but the person at the visitor's centre told us about a little road leading towards the town of Dalness. She suggested that we take a little drive down that road for some of the most beautiful views of the highlands, and she just might have been right. It weaved through the bottom of the mountains right alongside a little river. We saw some people camping alongside the road, and a number of empty cars parked off to the side whose owners were presumably hiking nearby. We didn't get all the way to Dalness, but we really enjoyed this little detour.

We continued south, along the west short of Loch Lomond, and this is where the driving got a little scary. The road was two lanes all the way, but each lane was just wider than the car. In addition, there was a stone wall on each side and no shoulder. To top it all off, there were lots of curves and it was one of the busiest highways we'd seen thus far. I'd really enjoyed driving in Scotland up to that point, but that hour of the drive wasn't as much fun. Eventually we got to the south end of the loch, and drove through Glasgow towards Hamilton. The highways we took didn't go near downtown, so this was really all we saw of Glasgow. But I've been to Glasgow before, and if I had to choose between seeing Glasgow and seeing Edinburgh, I'd choose Edinburgh in a heartbeat.

Our hotel in Hamilton was the Premier Inn right off of the northbound motorway, so we had to pass it going southbound, turn around, get back on the motorway going northbound, and then pull off at the next exit. The majority of my family lives in or near Larkhall (further south), so over the next four days, we became very familiar with the roundabout at the next motorway exit, since we had to do the same thing every day - go north to that exit, turn around at the roundabout and go south on the motorway, and then continue to Larkhall. After the lovely little B&Bs we'd stayed at in the highlands, the room at the Premier Inn could best be described as functional. It had walls and a ceiling, beds and a bathroom, and a TV for checking the weather on the BBC. The room we were given had a queen bed and a day bed with a trundle, which meant that one of the boys would basically be sleeping on a single mattress on the floor. For one night this would have been fine, but we were there for four nights, so we asked if there was a bigger family room. There was, but it wasn't available until the next night, so we spent one night in the first room and then they moved us to the other one.

When we arrived, we called my Aunt Sandra to let her know that we had arrived, and she invited us for dinner tea. We went there and visited for a little while before heading back to bed.

Thus ended phase two of the trip, and the next day began phase three, visiting with my family. After four days with family, we did more sightseeing in Edinburgh, so that will be included in the phase three posting, which will be posted soon is here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

UK 2009: London

This is the first of at least four articles I am going to do about our UK trip. As I mentioned before, I'm putting in a fair amount of detail, but I'm mainly doing it for my own reference in the future.

June 30 / July 1

Our Air Canada flight left Toronto around 6:30pm on the 30th and landed at Heathrow around 6:30am (local time) on the 1st. Each of us had our own TV in the back of the seat in front of us, so the boys were kept entertained by that until they started falling asleep while watching. They slept about 3 hours each, and Gail and I might have gotten two each.

Our luggage came off the plane pretty quickly, and then we had to search around for the phone number of the guy managing the apartment we were renting. I had a nasty panic moment when I thought I hadn't brought the phone number, but then found it and arranged to meet him at the apartment. We managed to manoeuvre to the Tube and figure out how to get to Gloucester Road on the Picadilly Line – luckily Heathrow is itself on that line, so no transfer was needed, though it was quite a long trip. We found the apartment, but we were pretty early, so the previous tenants were still there. The apartment manager offered to keep our luggage in his car and meet us back there in an hour while we went to get some breakfast. After eating and becoming somewhat familiar with the local area (by walking in the wrong direction while trying to find Hyde Park), we went back to the apartment, which was now vacant. We put our luggage inside and got the key, then got back on the Tube to head to Covent Garden. My sister had told us about the Maple Leaf Pub, which had Canadian decor and served Canadian beer and food (poutine, and... what else? Moose burgers? Beaver bacon? Kraft Dinner?) so we figured that going there for lunch on Canada Day was appropriate. Unfortunately, when we found the place, there was a sign on the door saying "Over 18's only", so we couldn't bring the kids in. Disappointed, we found lunch elsewhere but while looking around for somewhere to eat, we decided to take a quick look at the Lyceum Theatre, where The Lion King was playing (the musical stage play, not the movie). Gail and I had seen it in Toronto years before, and we thought the boys might like it so we checked on ticket availability. We got tickets for the next night (third row in the balcony – great seats) and then walked over to Trafalgar Square to see the Canada Day celebrations there. There was an outdoor hockey rink (no ice), a concert stage with some guy playing Barenaked Ladies and Tragically Hip songs, a booth selling Sleeman beer, a Visit Alberta tourism booth, and lots of people waving little Canadian flags. After hanging out there for a while, we continued walking to Piccadilly Circus, which I thought was kind of disappointing. There was the big neon display (similar to Times Square) and lots of souvenir shops, but nothing else of interest. We grabbed the Tube back to the apartment and were all in bed by 8:00.

The apartment itself was a little bigger than the place we had in Paris. It had two bedrooms (one with a king bed and the other with a double), 1½ bathrooms, a kitchen, and a living room with a TV.


July 2

I was the first one up the next morning, around 9:00. Nothing like a little 13-hour sleep to get over the jetlag. Gail wanted to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, which starts at 11:30, but it took us a while to get going, so we decided to do that another day (we never actually did see it). We took the Tube to the Tower of London and spent the day there. The boys really enjoyed the stories of murder, torture, and executions, and Gail and I got caught up in all the history as we always do on these vacations. Two weeks from now we'll have forgotten most of it. The history in Europe is just mind-boggling to us North Americans. Before the 1600's, there basically is no recorded history in North America. When you go back that far, you find things in history books like "<whatever event> occurred in the general area of <city> sometime between 1630 and 1645, we think. Or maybe it happened three hundred miles away in 1684.". Then you go to Europe and find things like "On Wednesday, May 12, 1134 at 8:30 in the morning, <whatever event> happened in this particular building (which is often still there) to these particular people and here are lots of details on how it happened".

London was in the middle of its worst heatwave in years – temperatures in the low 30's and quite humid. This is not unlike a hot summer day at home, but the difference is that Londoners aren't prepared for this kind of heat. None of the stores were air-conditioned, nor was our apartment. Even the theatre where we saw The Lion King wasn't – I can't imagine how hot it must have been for the actors in the big costumes under the spotlights. Luckily this was the last day of the heatwave – it rained hard overnight, and the rest of our time in London was quite comfortable.


July 3

Near our apartment was a stop for The Original Tour, which is a double-decker bus tour of London, where you can get on and off the bus as often as you want. We toured around the city, including going by Buckingham Palace, which we had since discovered is not open to the public until August. That was as close as we got to the Palace. We got off the bus near the Houses of Parliament, where Ryan delighted in informing us that Big Ben is not the famous clock tower, but the biggest bell inside the tower. We then crossed the Thames to the London Eye (called by some the "London Eyesore"). There are 32 pods and a maximum of 25 people can "fly" (you don't "ride" the London Eye, you fly) in each one, though there were a few pods that were not used. I'm not afraid of heights but Gail's not a big fan, and I wasn't sure how the boys would deal with it either, but everyone was fine. The ride flight was very smooth, and the views are amazing. The boys still talk about the London Eye as a highlight of the whole trip.

Our bus tour ticket also included a boat cruise down the Thames to Greenwich, so we headed down there next. We walked around the Observatory in Greenwich, and the boys enjoyed standing next to each other in different hemispheres. We then took the boat back to the Tower Pier and had dinner at a spaghetti house near Covent Garden before taking the Tube back to the apartment.


July 4

Our bus tour ticket expired around 11:00 am, so we did more of the city tour in the morning before disembarking back at the London Eye. We walked across to Westminster Abbey and took some pictures there before taking the Tube over to St. Paul's Cathedral. I remember St. Paul's being a highlight of our last trip to London in 2000, so I was looking forward to seeing it again, and I was not disappointed. We climbed the 250+ stairs to the Whispering Gallery, where Gail and Nicky went to one side while Ryan and I sat opposite them and attempted to "make it work". We leaned against the wall and whispered things and then looked across the gallery for the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. After a number of thumbs-down signals, a tour guide sat next to Gail and leaned against the wall. A second later I head a whisper: "You have to whisper loudly". We tried that and the boys were excited that we did get it to work. I assume it has to do with the shape of the dome, so that sound waves get reflected to the opposite side of the gallery, but that doesn't explain why whispering works but talking does not. The Stone Gallery was another hundred steps up, and the Golden Gallery another 150 beyond that, so Gail decided not to continue climbing, but the boys and I did. I was most of the way to the Stone Gallery when I realized that I hadn't grabbed the camera from Gail. The boys had their little cameras and I had the video camera, so I figured that would be good enough. The views from the Golden Gallery are amazing, but it's very cramped up there. Thankfully, many people seem more willing to move out of the way for young kids than they are for adults.

After St. Paul's, we took the Tube to High Street Kensington and had dinner at a fun place called "Giraffe", described as a "herd" of restaurants rather than a chain. We had what was probably the best meal we had in London, and then walked over to Hyde Park to visit the Diana, Princess of Wales' Memorial Playground, but it was closing just as we arrived. The Memorial Fountain was also closed, and we tried to find the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens but couldn't. We walked back to the apartment and the boys watched a little of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire while Gail and I packed for our trip to Edinburgh the next day.

July 5

The Tube between Gloucester Road and Heathrow was closed for maintenance, so we took it up to Paddington Station where we took the Heathrow Express train. Because of the Tube maintenance, our Tube tickets (£11.50 for all four of us) got us on the train (normally £16.50 per adult and £8.20 per kid), and it was much more comfortable than the Tube, so that worked out OK. No problems at the airport, and the British Midlands flight to Edinburgh was less than an hour long.

Thus ended phase one of our trip. The second entry containing phase two is here.

Prime parking spot

The boys are going to a camp at Hillfield-Strathallan College in Hamilton this week (and next), and I dropped them off the other morning. They went to this camp last year as well, but I couldn't remember exactly where to drop them off. Gail had done it the previous couple of days, so I asked Ryan to direct me to where we needed to go. Here's how the conversation went:

Me: Where do I need to park?
Ryan: Right here is good.
Me: Like right here? <I point to nearest parking spot>
Ryan: Yup.
Me: OK. <I park car in closest spot>

We got out of the car and start walking towards the building.

Me: What door do we go in?
Ryan: See that door way down there?
Me: Yeah...
Ryan: Right after that, around the corner, is the door we go in.
Me: You mean right next to all those empty parking spots?
Ryan: Yup.
Me: <sigh>

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


When browsing a blog site today, I clicked on an article and read the comments. At the bottom was a comment form with a captcha, which looked like:


This seemed odd, since I happen to have a son named Nicholas. Of course it would have been a little more appropriate for my wife, but still...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

UK 2009: Overview

...and we're back. After 18 days touring around Scotland, we're back in the land of Tim Horton's. It was almost three vacations in one – the first was four days of touring around London, with lots of walking and travelling on the tube and a tour bus. We rented an apartment near the Gloucester Road tube station and didn't drive anywhere. The second was a driving tour of the Scottish highlands, which are unbelievably beautiful. We stayed in three B&B's and one hotel in five nights and drove at least a couple of hours each day. The third was several days visiting family (no sightseeing at all), even including a funeral. We had a fabulous vacation and before you ask, yes, I did have haggis. That's good eatin'.

I'm planning on writing a fair bit about this trip over the next couple of weeks, mainly to capture it for posterity. I'll include where we went and what we saw, though I'm not planning on including details like where or what we ate unless it's particularly interesting. I'm telling you this, precious reader, so you don't think "Why is he writing all of these details? Does he think I care about all of this?" No, in fact I'm quite sure you don't. But I do, and this is my way of preserving this information for my own future reference. So feel free to skim or even skip these entries, which will all begin with "UK 2009". Don't worry, there will not be a quiz at the end.