a peek inside the fishbowl

14 Nov, 2021

hello holidays

By andrea tomkins in Misc. life

I’m trying something new. Here’s an audio version of this blog post.

I am a big fan of treating myself to something delicious when I’m feeling rough around the edges and it was one of those days.

So picture this: I was standing in line at Starbucks. Mark was waiting in the car. I was second or third in line, not tuned into my surroundings at all. I was almost zombie-like, my mind blank, waiting for my turn. I’d been standing there for two or three minutes before I realized that Christmas music was playing overhead. Christmas music? Already? That’s when I looked up, and noticed the red and green cups, the gingerbread on the menu, and all of the holiday merch. Christmas had arrived at Starbucks. I had walked into a franchised Christmas setting and had not even noticed. 

The old, pre-pandemic me would not have been too thrilled about this. After all, it was barely November, too early to get on the Christmas train, right? But something inside me hitched, and shifted, and that Christmas song settled over me like a gentle snowfall.

It was my turn at the counter and the barista asked me for my order. I snapped out of my caffeine-starved reverie and conveyed Mark’s coffee wishes. Then, searching for inspiration, I glanced up at the menu board even though I had gone in there already knowing what unsweetened coffee beverage I wanted. 

Suddenly, tears sprang up in my eyes. They came from nowhere, or maybe they came from somewhere deep down after many months of fear and doubt and feeling out of control.  


The barista, standing patiently behind her plexiglass pandemic partition, waited for my order. I’m not even sure if she even noticed my brief wave of emotion.

“I didn’t know how much I needed Christmas until this very minute,” I said. She laughed quietly, kindly. I felt like she understood where I was coming from. I pulled myself together and placed the other half of my order, my half.  Uncharacteristically, I found myself ordering a caramel brulee latte from their ‘festive flavours’ menu, as well as a big gingerbread cookie to share (although I gave myself the bigger half later). As I walked back to the car I thought, WHO IS THIS teary-eyed, sweet coffee swilling person?

I still don’t know what happened, only that I had a moment. At Starbucks. Sigh. 

In a typical year I am not interested in celebrating the holidays this early, but this is not a typical year. I’m all in, so bring on the glitter, the lights, the gingerbread, and the Christmas music. I’ll try not to tear up when I hear it next time.





26 Oct, 2021


By andrea tomkins in Misc. life

So, yikes. It’s been awhile since I’ve updated here. My explanation for this is rather fuzzy and lame. I’m writing more than ever in my day job which leaves me without too many extra words to share. Plus, there are Life Things and sometimes Life Things also take up a lot of mental energy, if you know what I mean.

I was actually going to write about our Thanksgiving, but now it seems so far away. The stores are already decked out for Christmas! I will say this, the girls were here and it was very nice to be together.

Thanksgiving gets a total makeover when little kids grow up and become young adults. Honestly, my head is still spinning. Wasn’t it just yesterday that the youngest regaled us with a Thanksgiving poem she learned at school?

Turkey turkey,
Gobble gobble,
Eat too much and
Wobble wobble.

Although the youngest did NOT recite a poem this year, she did assemble a charcuterie platter that looked like something out of a magazine.

When adult children are on the scene it means there is grownup snacking and cocktail mixing, and 1000% less supervision. It is a delight.

On the Monday, the eldest and I went on a nature walk in the Hampton Park woods. She hooked me up with this really good app called Seek. Basically, you hover your camera over any living thing for a few seconds and the app comes back with identifying information: it’s name, taxonomy, range, and if it’s a mushroom, whether it’s edible or not. Suddenly this ordinary walk in the woods became a scavenger hunt, one with pretty cool results (that is, if you’re into mushrooms and other flora and fauna):

Violet-toothed Polypore

Funeral Bells

Bleeding Fairy Helmet mushrooms

One of my favourite things about this is the names of the actual specimens. Above is the Violet-Toothed Polpore, Funeral Bell, and Bleeding Fairy Helmet.

The app has fun challenges too. The “Arachnid Challenge” is one of them, but I’m not sure if I’ll be signing up for that one. (!)

We brought Piper on our mushroom hunt. Being the funny and smart dog that she is, Piper has learned that she’s likely to get a treat if she hops up on a log and turns up the cute factor so she does that all the time now. It’s quite comical.

Piper knows how to turn up the cute

I guess I did end up writing about Thanksgiving weekend, didn’t I? Next up: CHRISTMAS. I can hardly believe it.



27 Aug, 2021

Holding summer in my mind

By andrea tomkins in travel talk

The cottage, view from the dock looking back

Seven days of nothing. This is what we signed up for at the beginning of the year when we arranged to stay at a friend’s cottage in Quebec in August. Seven days of no work, no stress (hopefully), nowhere to go, no to-do lists. When we booked it, we had many OMG moments in the interim, wondering if this little getaway was even going to happen. There was Covid, of course, border crossing issues and lockdowns, plus some family stuff … all of these things hovered around the periphery of our awareness for months but somehow the stars aligned and before we knew it, the time had come to pack up and GO.

The cottage is in the Val-de-Monts area; situated on a narrow river that leads to a small lake.

From the dock there’s a view of trees and clear water that flows by oh so slowly. It is the most accurate definition of ‘lazy river’ that I’ve ever seen.

View of the tiny river, from the cottage



The kayaking life

(The photo above is of the lake.)

We kayaked up and down that little river many times during our stay. In some parts it’s the width of a residential street, in others you find yourself squeezing through an opening with a dock on one side, and a field of water lilies on the other. The river is shallow. In some parts you can practically lean out and touch the sand with your hand. It’s clear, too. You move among darting fish, with lake weed occasionally stroking the bottom of your kayak as you paddle over underwater forests.

Kayaking down the river

One morning as I sat on the dock a great blue heron glided down the river, floating on the air as silently and effortlessly as the fish swim underneath. I blinked and it was gone.

Hummingbirds regularly zipped around the bee balm in the wild gardens around the cottage. I parked myself with a book and a beach towel right in front of the flowerbeds one afternoon so I could watch them. I could actually hear them coming. They hum and squeak! The calls of blue jays, chickadees, and nuthatches filled the skies while the sun was up, and crickets and cicadas filled up the other ends of the day.

Isn’t it interesting that it is only when we slow way down that we are able to observe the quiet and ordinary spectacle of nature around us? I saw hummingbird fights (they are territorial!), a family of blue jays chattering in a tall tree, a school of fish cutting through the water in a world of their very own. Those things happen whether we are there to witness them or not but I’m glad I was there to see it all.

Speaking of surprises in nature, Mark and I were kayaking down the river one day when we saw something we didn’t expect. He was ahead of me when I heard him shout: “It’s a pig!”
I seriously doubted my hearing: “A what?”
“A. PIG.”
“Whaaat? Did you say pig??
“Yes! PEE – EYE – GEE… PIG!” (He honestly had to spell it out for me because my brain was not able to connect the dots.)

And he was entirely correct. By the time I caught up to Mark I saw the wide back side of a large pink pig lumbering away from a wee muddy and hoof-trodden spot along the shore. Clearly it was its watering hole!

This was pretty much the last thing I thought I’d see while kayaking in Quebec cottage country but as it turned out one of the cottages along the river was a hobby farm. (This was confirmed by subsequent sightings of chickens, geese, and one sheep.)

Ah, it was nice to get away and relax, but also nice to come home again. It’s the mark of a good holiday, don’t you think?


Piper investigates

The tiny island

Terrier on Tiny Island



10 Aug, 2021

Wedding anniversaries and pandemics

By andrea tomkins in Ottawa

A few weeks ago I was on the Canadian Museum of History website, trying to book a ticket for the Queens of Egypt* exhibition. Every day I selected had exactly zero tickets available, that is, until I hit Saturday August 7 at 3:00 p.m. I nabbed two and let Mark know that I’d been successful.

His response: “So I guess that’s what we’re doing for our anniversary huh?”


Inside Queens of Egypt, Canadian Museum of History

Nefertiti, at Queens of Egypt

From Queens of Egypt exhibition, Canadian Museum of History

From Queens of Egypt, Canadian Museum of History

So that’s what we did.

The exhibition was very well done. Artifacts arranged between thoughtful and informative digital displays gave an excellent overview of how people lived during this fascinating time in history.

Related to this: did you know the museum closes at 5 p.m. on most nights? Heads up next time you go! We wanted to explore the most excellent Canada History Hall and because our tickets were time for 3 p.m., it didn’t leave us much time to wander. It turned out ok though. All this wandering made us verrrrry hungry so we hustled over to El Camino in the Byward Market, where we thoroughly enjoyed tacos and margaritas. I ordered the cauliflower taco with peanut macha (?) salsa, and the crispy fish taco. They were both excellent.

There are no photos of the tacos. I was too hungry! There’s only this photo of salsa, chips, and drinks.

Dinner at El Camino in Ottawa's Byward Market

Look at us! Married for 23 years already!

Mark at El Camino

your truly at El Camino

Our outing felt almost… normal. Of course, there were a lot of things that weren’t normal at all: Timed tickets, hand sanitizer stations, masking and distancing (some of which was non-existent at the museum), things that will be with us for some time yet. What is normal anyway? I suppose it’s worth reflecting on that. I will say that despite the recent uptick of Covid cases in Ottawa, I feel hopeful.

PS. This is what we did for our anniversary last year, by the way.

** This exhibition is now sold out! I’m sorry if you missed your chance. It was pretty cool.

04 Aug, 2021

Camping 2021: Two good things we did

By andrea tomkins in travel talk

Floating on the lake

One year when the girls were young teens we brought two inflatable. mattress-shaped pool floats on our camping trip and the girls used them to bob out into the middle of the lake together. They are both strong swimmers so I wasn’t *too* worried about them. It turned out to be a lovely thing, which was talked about a lot in  subsequent years, so this year I bought two new ones for our trip. I purchased them way back in the spring because I didn’t want to fall victim to the supply and demand issues brought about by Covid.

It’s always a risk, trying to recreate special moments, isn’t it? They become special moments in the first place because they occur at a cross section of space and time that, by definition, is impossible to repeat. What’s more, you run the risk of diminishing the original memory in some way. You can never step in the same river twice, after all.

It’s hard to tell by the photo but I chose cloud & rainbow-themed floats because they made me smile. There are large pieces of loose glitter inside too, which reflected the sunlight in a pretty way.

I would also like to add that they took forever to inflate because someone neglected to bring the special attachment for the batter-powered pump, but that is neither here nor there. ;)

Rainbow inflatable mattress

The girls enjoyed their outing on to the lake. We could hear them chatting and laughing all the way to our camp site. I took a turn one afternoon as well. How could I not? My floaty afternoon has now become the family joke because I nodded off AND DRIFTED AWAY. It’s just too funny. I woke up to shouts of “MUM? MUM?! MUM!!” I wasn’t THAT far, still in sight of our site, which is on the water, but a little bit further and I would have washed ashore on a private beach or ended up in the reeds.

I will say, it felt wonderful to be warmed by the sun and cradled by the lake. It’s no surprise I fell asleep, really.

Speaking of floating, Mark rented two kayaks from a local outfitter and had them delivered to the campground. (I don’t know why there are only canoes available for rent at Achray, and not kayaks, but we prefer kayaking.) Mark managed to snag the last two from this particular business. The kayaks arrived dirty and in rough shape (and we had trouble finding them!), but they served their purpose. The girls took them out a couple of times. Mark and I paddled to “gull island” across the lake from our site, where we spotted gulls and cormorants. (We proved two things: that the island was farther than we’d thought, and a lot smaller.)

One night I took it out alone, just to drift and watch the sunset. (No risk of falling asleep here though!) It was quiet, so quiet. I could only hear the splash of water and occasional thunk as my paddle hit the side of the kayak. I took a million picture and tried to store them up in my mind.

Twilight kayak


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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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