a peek inside the fishbowl

24 Mar, 2024

Not about grout, this time

By andrea tomkins in The business of blogging

I’m keeping a new list of potential topics to blog about now that I’m back in the saddle and trying to do this on the regular. One of them is: “GROUT: Psychological test?” It promises to be a thrilling exploration but I think I’ll keep that one until next time.

This morning I went to the gym, did groceries, watered the plants, ate lunch, and did two loads of procrastilaundry before finally sitting myself down here. Normally I wouldn’t be so difficult about it but here’s the thing, I’m mentally preparing for an interview with CBC Cross Country Checkup this afternoon. The topic is a good one: How much do you share about your kids online? Where do you draw the line between your kids’ public and private life?

Bloggers have been talking about this since the DAWN OF BLOGS. Fortunately, I was there, at the dawn, talking about it too. ;)

In my pre-interview with one of their producers, I got to talking about all the steps that were involved in actually getting a photo online in 1999. (Sidebar: I have heard people refer to this time as “the late 1900s” and boy does that make me feel old.)

Step 1: Take a photo with a film camera. Remember, you only have 12, 24, or 36 exposures, so make ’em count.

Step 2: Physically bring the film somewhere to be developed.

Step 3: Weeks later, pick the negatives and photos.

Step 4: Scan photo of choice.

Step 5: Upload JPEG via FTP to your website.

Step 6: Use your fancy pants HTML skills to edit your web page so people can actually see it.

Compare that to today. You can take a photo, or a video, and upload it somewhere in under five seconds for the world to view. Honestly, I never saw this coming. (I also did not predict you could order a pizza from your phone so there’s that too.)

Anyhoo, I feel my excitement overflowing** already and it’s not even happening until 4:45 p.m. The host is David Common and I’m sure it will be a great exploration of an important topic. I hope you tune in!

**To channel that excitement I might have to do some jumping jacks or something beforehand to channel it into a good place.

** This has me debating whether or not to have that afternoon coffee. Hmm.



16 Mar, 2024

new habit?

By andrea tomkins in Misc. life

It’s Saturday morning and I’m writing this with no specific topic or goal or purpose in mind, only that I want to start a Saturday morning writing habit and to sit down and do it is the only way to start. If I’m really honest with myself, this is the time I am just wasting time reading random stuff on the Internet anyway, so why not use this for something that is better for me and my brain? Anyway, I am trying to make a change, that’s the point. :)

A surprising number of people talked to me about the blog after the publication of this article, like, even months after it came out. The conversation almost always turned to whether I’m still writing, and what I’m writing about. I never had a good answer because it’s changed so much over the years, and to be honest, I don’t know what it is now. When the kids were at home I wrote a lot about our life together, but we’ve been empty nesters for a while now, so that’s not a go-to topic anymore. I had various creative projects and themes come and go. Where I’m going with this now, I really don’t know, but I do know that I’m writing it for myself, and I have to start again by just doing it. I don’t know who’s reading, my comment function only works some of the time… sigh, it’s time to upgrade the guts of this thing but I find it overwhelming and don’t know how where to start with that. But that is for later.

When I first started this blog, ideas just poured out of me. I kept a spiral-bound notebook with me at all times (Dollar store grade, with a special leather slipcover) and I used it. A lot. Parenting is a gold mine for a writer. I wrote posts longhand while the kids played in the park and during 100 stolen moments during the day.

Now, I am writing and editing five days a week, and it is harder to summon those extra words during my leisure time. Most days when I get home I feel like my brain is like a wrung-out sponge.

That being said, I actually do not believe we have a finite amount of creativity allotted to us. I still stand by my “empty vessel” theory. You can read more about that in this past post, but essentially, I think that when we’re feeling drained we need to find a way to fill ourselves up again. And HOW we fill ourselves up is a personal thing. I should get on that.

I may not have been writing here in longer form, but I’ve been writing Piper’s Instagram account on a near-daily basis. That is creative work, so I can’t really beat myself up for not doing any creative work, right? All that to say, I don’t want to say I’M BACK because I don’t know if I really am and I don’t know what I’m doing here yet, other than trying to build the habit again.

29 Feb, 2024

The legacy of Piper Tomkins

By andrea tomkins in dog stuff

Some of you reading this might already know that our dog Piper passed away on February 22. It’s taken me this to gather my thoughts about it, although now that I’m writing this I don’t even know if I’ve fully processed everything, and if I ever will.

It’s February 29. It’s a leap year, so we have this ONE extra day in our lives, and if we are lucky, we can choose to do something special, different, or amazing, something that sets the tone for the rest of the year, perhaps. What would you do if you had one extra day in your life?

I took the day off work and will be doing something nice for myself later. Right now I’m here, with a hot cup of tea. It’s cold and bright outside today and I’m sitting in a sun puddle with the laptop. Piper would approve.

If you’ve ever lost a cherished pet you are familiar with the feeling. It’s like a piece of yourself has been violently torn away without your permission. You are left there, cold, bereft, with an essential part of you just… missing. Forever.

It’s strange but this has got me thinking of the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramic pottery and glass. I had to look up what it’s called: Kintsugi. Gold lacquer is used to glue the broken pieces together again, an act of repair which results in something that is more beautiful and, maybe even stronger than it was before.

I cried at the dentist’s office yesterday. I walked in, and our dentist – who, I should say, has known our family for about 20 years – was sitting in the receptionist’s chair. How are you, she asked. My face fell. Oh no, what happened?

We bought Piper at a pet store. It was during March Break. Here’s a post I wrote at that time. What I didn’t mention is that although it was love at first sight I really wrestled with bringing a pet into our lives. I knew she was going to die someday and I was going to be shattered.

I can say Piper was the best dog but everyone says they have the best dog. Piper was the best for our family, the best for me. She was such a funny little thing, always a twinkle of mischief in her eye. Terriers are known to be stubborn and single-minded, and she fit the mould. Sometimes this was frustrating, but it was also a level of independence that we admired. She was her own dog. She was a quick learner with a repertoire of impressive tricks. She was incredibly smart but only when it suited her. I once taught her how to ring a bell so she could let us know that she needed to out without scratching the door. She quickly figured out that she only needed to ring the bell if she wanted a treat, regardless of whether she actually needed out or not. We gave up on the bell soon after that.

Once someone in a wheelchair gave her a treat. For MANY years afterwards she’d approach people in wheelchairs with hopeful attention.

Other times, she was incredibly un-terrier-like. She ignored squirrels and wanted to play with cats and wild rabbits in our yard and neighbourhood. She was an incredibly kind and gentle dog. Always curious, always alert.

She liked the outdoors. We’d take her for walks in the woods, or down by the river. She was in her element here, enjoying the experience to the fullest. It made us enjoy our walks more too, for what is life about if not simple pleasures? The sun on your back, the wind in your face, the smell of the forest around you. We learn so much from our dogs. These are lessons worth learning, and remembering.

How many times will I turn around expecting to see her cheery face, only to realize she’s not here anymore? I look for her, curled up in any of her favourite spots. Never again will I be greeted with such enthusiasm when I come home. When I’m walking down the sidewalk my eyes still fall downward, expecting to see her trotting along beside me, with the occasional glance over her shoulder to make sure I’m still there. My memory of her is so strong I still see her everywhere.

I have often referred to Piper as a furry family member, but as I write this I wonder, what was she exactly. Sure, we adopted her. We owned her, but who owns who in this relationship exactly? Can you really own a living being, or just promise to take responsibility for it? We cared for her, but didn’t she care for us in her own way? The word companion does not seem good enough.

On Wednesday night I took her for a walk after dinner. She is usually a slow walker, she had always set a slow and deliberate pace – sometimes frustratingly so – because she was a big sniffer and had to investigate every detail along our route. But that night, she wasn’t tip-toe prancing with ears bobbing as she normally did. She was plodding, one paw at a time. I picked her up, but instead of turning around and heading home, we finished our walk but with her in my arms. I felt it was the least I could do.

Piper had been on a steady decline – with an unsteady gait and increasingly poor appetite but she was back on her anti-cancer meds as well as a liver support medication so we thought she might stay the course for a while but things took a turn. Wednesday night into early Thursday morning was bad. Mark and I had been taking turns sleeping on the pullout sofa downstairs to be closer to her in case of emergency. (Piper never really wanted to sleep upstairs for some reason!) She was incredibly restless and barely able to walk without her legs giving out. At one point I brought her into the sofa bed with me. Her heart was racing and she was panting but she eventually settled down, curled up right next to my face. She licked my face. Was it an apology? A note of thanks? A reminder? Was it love?

Our pets love us unconditionally, perhaps that’s part of the reason why this kind of loss is so deep and so terrible. It’s like a bright energy source you’ve learned to depend upon is suddenly torn away, leaving you feeling hollow and empty, alone in the dark.

Thursday was probably one of the longest days of my life. To preserve some of her dignity I will spare you the details of her sharp decline.

She stopped eating almost entirely. She had four seizures in the span of a few hours – this had never happened before and was terrible to witness.

Piper at the back door

At 2:30 the situation got worse. I told myself I’d wait until 3:30 to call someone. Maybe she’d get better? But it became clear I couldn’t wait. At 3 p.m. I called a mobile vet service our vet recommended. Dialling that number was one of the hardest things I have had to do. The first one I called was Dr. Carmen Purtscher of Lindenlea Mobile Veterinary Services. She said she couldn’t come today and gave me the names of two other mobile vets but then as we were ending the call she asked me to call her back if no one could come. I called the two, and then some others, breaking down on the phone each time. No one could come, so I called Carmen back. She said she couldn’t come until late, and was apologetic about it.

Piper and I watched the sun go down.

Watching the sun go down

We sat on the front porch together because it was one of her favourite things to do.

Porch time with Piper

She had ice cream for dinner. She poked around in the snow a bit:

Poking around the snow

I rocked her in my arms while walking around the house, like you would if you were holding a baby. It was the only thing that soothed her. I’d stop in front of the mirror so I could memorize her face. Look at us, I’d say.

Me and Piper

I can’t tell you about Piper’s last moments with us because it hurts so much. I can’t tell you how many tears I cried. But I can tell you that at the end all her pain went away and she died peacefully, knowing that she was loved. It was exactly 10 p.m. when I looked at the time.

Carmen was so gentle and kind. She was the perfect person. When it was done, she wrapped Piper in a blanket and took her away, holding her closely as if she were her own.

We will choose a warm spring day to scatter her ashes.

I will share something here with you, a detail I was going to actually going keep to myself. Carmen had gone to her car to put some things away, leaving us alone. I took out my phone with the intent of taking one last photo of Piper. Internally, I debated with myself. Would I regret taking it? Not taking it? The room was darkish, lit mostly by candlelight and whatever light was coming in from the kitchen. I took the photo but as I did so I noticed it was not responding properly – it was glitching somehow. I took another, and another, and then satisfied (if that’s the word) I put my phone away. The next day I looked at my photos and it wasn’t there. The photo never took. I’m a science-minded person, and maybe it’s silly but I can’t help but think that it wasn’t meant to be, that something that we don’t understand, intervened.

The universe speaks to us in mysterious ways. I can’t tell you how many people reached out to let me know that the New York Times Wordle on Friday was PIPER. I do the Wordle every day, but I didn’t do it Friday.

As some of you know, Piper is on Instagram. I could write a whole other post about what it’s been like to be part of the #dogsofinstagram community.

Piper had surgery in Montreal last year to remove two cancerous masses from her liver. Her Instagram friends supported us, not just emotionally, but financially, donating over $16,000 to a GoFundMe set up in her name. This alleviated so much stress at a terrible time and it allowed us to make some decisions that would have been very difficult given the associated costs, such as a CT scan (which is how we found out she had three tumours, not just one as they had thought: two in her liver and one in her esophagus) as well as two blood transfusions.

I will never forget the immense kindness of these virtual strangers – people from around the world who fell in love with our dog on Instagram. I am forever changed because of her, because of them.

I don’t think I’ve managed to read all of the comments on her last post.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Piper (@pipertomkins)

Grief is love wrapped in a heavy coat. Sarah said this to me after Piper died and it has stayed with me. As much as I grieve Piper’s loss I am grateful for the gifts she gave us… the ability to strip a moment down to its bare bones, to the sun, the wind, the love in our lives, the food on our plates. Gratitude for a warm blanket, fresh snowfall, a belly rub. I will treasure her memory and her gifts, always and forever.


09 Oct, 2023

A Thanksgiving surprise

By andrea tomkins in Publishing/writing/career stuff

Some of you are here because you saw the article on the Ottawa Citizen’s website, or maybe you saw the giant photo of me and the youngest on the cover of the Saturday paper. (!!)

Front page of the Saturday Citizen (!)

So, welcome! Can I also say, this is weird. If you were in my house we’d be standing awkwardly in the front hall, studiously trying to avoid direct eye contact while mumbling something like thanks for having me and it’s nice to be here.

If you’re reading this have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the link to the article. (There is a video interview as well but I have not been able to bring myself to watch it yet because I may die inside.)

The article is primarily about kids growing up in the age of social media. It’s a great topic, and it’s one I think about too.

The Fishbowl just happened to be at the very cusp of that social media age. It was pre-Facebook, pre- social media, pre- web publishing platforms like Blogger and WordPress. I don’t think anyone predicted YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and what those apps would bring with it.

It is strange talking to a reporter (hello Blair) and seeing the results of that conversation enter the public sphere. We had a wonderful, wide-ranging conversation about a hundred different things but in the end I really didn’t have a good sense of what was going to actually emerge. Blair spoke to the youngest separately, and while I was confident I knew her POV about all this (and we’ve talked about it a lot), ya never know what will come out in the wash if you know what I mean. Sidebar: The eldest wants people to know that while she declined to be interviewed, she supports the blog wholeheartedly and is glad for this archive of family memories.

Over the course of this long-lasting, er, project (if you can call it that) I’ve spoken to many people about blogging. I’ve been on stage at conferences, spoken to media, given workshops, and talked to “regular” folks in every imaginable situation. It was a bigger deal at the beginning, when it was kind of strange.

What do you mean, you write about your life on the internet?

In today’s social-media drenched world it’s hard to believe but there really was a time when ordinary people didn’t share their lives online.

The big question then was: What is your blog about?

As much as I advised new bloggers to have an elevator pitch at the ready I never really had a good one myself. I never called it a mommy blog, or even a parenting blog, even though there were times I wrote a lot about my adventures as a parent. I shared recipes and told stories about our travel adventures. I wrote about things I bought that I liked. I wrote about our home renovation, birthdays, first days of school. I wrote about fun places to go in and around Ottawa. I wrote about things that brought me joy and sadness and outrage. So when someone asked me what the blog was about my answer was usually that the blog reflected what I was thinking and doing. It was a brain dump of sorts, one that inadvertently turned into an archive of our family’s life.

So yes, I started in 1999. There are readers out there who have been with me since the beginning.

One of those people is my husband Mark. There was no mention of him in the Citizen article but I wanted to state for the record that he has been incredibly supportive and patient since day one and caught many typos. He gave me the space to write when I needed it and (mostly) didn’t question my oddball projects and whims. Regular readers may remember the Trust Experiment, the Shopping Embargo (which I actually wrote a book about and it never saw the light of day!), the sugar fast, 25 days of Christmas family advent, how I took a photo of my lunch every day for just over four years or a selfie every day for a year, or a one-second video of myself every day for a year.

But in case you came here looking for a recipe for black bean hummus, here it is. It was part of a series I called: Will They Eat It. :)

I don’t write here as often as I used to. I suppose it’s because it’s what I do all day at work, so it’s hard for me to come home, drop my bag at the door and hop on here. The article didn’t mention this but I am on Instagram, both on a personal account and one representing our dog Piper. (It is a different kind of storytelling there for sure. It is a happy place to be.)

But back in the glory days I was here, in this space, almost every day. I had a lot on my mind and it was the perfect vehicle for my thoughts and ideas. More importantly, it was a wonderful community when there was no such gathering place online.

There are a lot of other great Ottawa bloggers who emerged around that time and we had a very fun thing going on together.

I will reiterate that I am not a fan of the term “mommy blogger,” I never was, as I feel it’s not so much a descriptive term as it is a disparaging term. I’ve been a writer since I was a kid and found a way to turn it into a career, one that has had many interesting and unexpected twists and turns.

I am secretly glad no one has asked me about my favourite blog posts. There are so many that it’s impossible to inventory and rank. I know the girls have their favourites and I will ask them to share a few so I can add them in here at some point. I do like the moments of bliss category of posts. I decided that I wanted to start keeping track of those tiny moments in which you are very glad you are alive, so I did.

This blog has brought me many things. It brought together a community of Ottawa parents. It was a vehicle through which I made good friends, and it opened up job opportunities, and ultimately, the job at The Royal where I work today. It made me a better, more creative writer. I was on the receiving end of gifts and trips and opportunities that would not have come by otherwise. It opened doors I never knew existed. As it grew in popularity and I began selling my own advertising, it started to generate some revenue. In hindsight, this was one of the best decisions I ever made because it made a real difference in our family.

I was poking around for some thoughtful posts I could share to summarize my feelings a bit better and found this one that I wrote on my 15th anniversary of blogging. Feel free to read it, or not, but if you don’t you’ll miss snappy lines like: When you hit 40 you realize that life is too short to put up with anyone’s baloney. ;)

So what’s in store for the future?

That’s a good question, my friend, and I can’t really answer that. I will keep this up as long as I have the inclination. I’m no longer beholden to advertisers, which is liberating in and of itself because there’s nothing forcing me to pump out content or find ways to keep traffic up. I’m not part of the attention economy. There are no pop-ups ads or videos on autoplay or slideshows. When I show up here, it’s because I have something to share with you.

My biggest fear right now, honestly, is losing the 24+ years of writing that I’ve done here. It feels very tenuous, existing in a cloud of data in the form of a self-hosted WordPress setup. I need a proper archive and I don’t know how to go about it and it’s very overwhelming. So if you are someone or know someone who knows someone, connect us please! I’m at quietfish@gmail.com.

You can also find and follow me on X (formerly known as Twitter) and Threads in a smaller capacity.

Thank you for visiting. Thank you for reading.

As much as I have enjoyed writing and sharing with you, the community around it all is what makes it so special.


09 Sep, 2023

Back to school for the youngest

By andrea tomkins in parenting

Sarah in the playground

I might be exaggerating but when we dropped the youngest off at kindergarten she cried every morning for months, possibly years. While the photos above may show otherwise, I don’t think we had a truly smooth drop-off until second grade. It broke my heart every day to leave behind a crying kid. Teachers assured me that she stopped as soon as I left but I always had a sneaking suspicion they were just saying that to make me feel better.

Well this kindergarten kid is all grown up now and she’s back to school this week, but this time as a masters student in the art history department at Queen’s. I suspect there were fewer tears than there were back in kindergarten. ;)

My friends’ Facebook feeds have been chock full of back-to-school photos and it’s all left me thinking about how far we’ve come here at Casa Fishbowl, and how strange it is to know someone from conception until adulthood and spot the patterns in their lives that add up to The Person They Have Become.

A small part of me is tempted to take some credit for her reaching this amazing post-secondary milestone. Is this weird of me to say out loud? We were the family who encouraged home art projects, bought memberships to the National Gallery and planned kid-friendly visits, and dropped by open houses of local artist studios and collectives. But we can’t truly take much credit at all – her success is truly her own. She studied for her exams and got good grades. She got the internships, jobs, scholarships and grants. She winged interviews because she’s smart that way. She put herself out there more times than I can count, and the universe rewarded her hard work and her courage. As parents, we may have given her a pair of oars, pointed the boat and given it a shove, but she’s the one who has been doing all the rowing.

Mark and I are so proud of how hard our kid has worked and how far she’s come. We are excited to see what’s in store for her.


Me and my pet projects

Ottawa Bucket list

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  • Jennifer Jilks: I don't have a bucket list. I sorta live day to day!
  • Aj: Each peach, Everybody puts two feet in, king counter will say the following rhyme as they count around the circle: "Each peach pear plum out goes
  • Jenn Jilks: That is really exciting! Break a leg!
  • fun88: I was excited to discover this page. I want to to thank you for your time for this fantastic read!! I definitely liked every part of it and i also
  • Gretchen Humphrey: I had a beautiful bee& birdbath filled with a solar fountain and dozens of antique marbles that were suddenly disappearing. At first I thought my
  • Jinjer: I am sobbing reading this post. And you're right, companion is not enough. Little furry treasured gifts that they are. Thanks for sharing cutie-pi
  • Karen: Dear Andrea, Mark and your daughters I am so very sad for your family xxx Piper was/is my favourite Instagram post. You shared with us so intimately

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 offspring: Emma (24) and Sarah (22). 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, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

If you'd like to contact me, please use this form. If you're so inclined, you can read more about me here. Thank you for visiting!


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