Monthly Archives: June 2012

Branding in the news, and other news

The Globe and Mail featured a column last Saturday, In defence of branding cattle.

You can take a read-through, but you should know Travis pointed out a significant factual error already: It’s not always a gloved hand that puts out the hair fire.

As a matter of fact, just this morning he was (still) complaining about a sore hand, a result of taking one too many kicks to the unprotected appendage.

Meanwhile, I cut three minutes off my 1000m swim time in five days, so I’m pretty pleased about that.

I’m less pleased with having to admit I locked Sylvia in the car last week. Thank goodness I had parked in the shade, and the tow truck arrived in less than ten minutes. She just sat in her car seat saying “Mommy, get in car!” and watching me gesticulate wildly trying to get her to wriggle out of her seat belt and reach for the lock. When Dan (the tow truck driver) finally unlocked the car, Sylvia was rewarded with a Freezie and later, ice cream. Next thing she’ll be locking her own self in the car just for the treats.



Meanwhile in England….here there be horses!

Today I am thrilled to offer you this guest post by my sister, Sarah. She’s living it up in England this year, doing a Masters’ degree and enjoying the good life. Read on…

There have been a number of points in my life where the differences between my choices and my sister’s have been thrown into stark relief. When I was pulling all nighters and struggling through my first year of Architecture school, she was living in France responsible for someone else’s two-year-old, and mailing me fancy lip glosses that I had no idea how to wear. When she rang to tell me that she was pregnant, I was standing on the back porch of my friend’s place having just cycled across town to a party with a case of beer in my panniers. And when she wrote last week about cattle branding in Alberta, Cale and I were preparing to dress up in our fancy clothes to attend Royal Ascot in the Royal Enclosure, thanks to a programme through the Canadian High Commission that allows commoners like us to enjoy a little taste of posh-i-tude. Normally one can only acquire tickets to the Royal Enclosure by either being a previous attendee, being sponsored in for someone who has attended at least four years or more and who will attend with you, or by, you know, being royal. These High Commission tickets aren’t free, but in this enlightened day and age, one can buy one’s way into fancy company.

Me and my dapper partner in crime.

The racecourse at Ascot is just over 300 years old, and the Royal Meeting is held each year in June with much pomp and ceremony. This is flat-track horse racing (no jumping) and around six races are run each day, with distances varying from around a kilometre to just over three kilometres. All officially measured somewhat quaintly in furlongs (1 furlong = 1/8 of a mile, or 220 yards. 201.16 metres, for those of you speaking Canadian). The Queen and members of the royal family arrive each morning in horse-drawn carriages to open the races.

How well-matched are YOUR horses?

This is a big year for England, what with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, so the country is in an unusually festive mood. The Jubilee weekend in early June featured lots of Union-Jack themed clothing, and Ascot did not disappoint (see the Hatscot montage below for an incredible Union Jack hat), with a number of ladies choosing to continue the celebration of Her Majesty into the Royal Enclosure. One memorable fifties-cut full-skirted number made me wonder idly how many flags had to die in order for the dress to live. Ladies’ Day at Ascot is traditionally the day for high fashion and outrageous hats, but under the new dress code that Laura blogged about last week, the hats were certainly out in full force. Rumour has it that the dress code stewards were handing out fascinators, hats, and pashminas to those who were deemed unsuitably dressed at the main entrances. At the Royal Enclosure gates, if you weren’t suitably dressed you could just go home. Apparently they are already talking about banning visible tattoos from the Royal Enclosure next year.

In which many hats are displayed.

In which the men have fewer hat choices than the women.

One of the racing highlights of the day was when Estimate, ridden by jockey Billy Buick won the Queen’s Vase. The owner of the horse is none other than the Queen herself, and Prince Phillip was pressed into duty to award the Queen’s Vase to the Queen. Very sweet. I have never seen Her Majesty look as excited as she did on the big screens when that horse crossed the line! I imagine that she has to give away a lot of cups and vases and such, so it must be nice for her to get to keep one in her collection for a change.

In which the Queen’s horse wins the Queen’s Vase. Estimate has just crossed the line on the left in this photograph.

I have always had a soft spot for the Royals, as Prince William’s birthday is the day before mine. I was hoping that I might get to wish him a happy birthday in person, but I suppose he and Kate deserve to have a little time to themselves every now and again. One’s thirtieth birthday is not to be trifled with!

Eton Mess birthday cupcake with strawberries, meringue, and edible glitter. I loves me some edible glitter.

After the races are done for the day, the (architecturally futuristic) grandstand disgorges some 80,000 racegoers in various states of inebriation back into the real world. Many choose to mill about around the Bandstand beside the parade ring, where a brass band leads the crowd in rousing sing-along renditions of patriotic British classics, such as God Save the Queen, Rule Britannia, and Hey Jude. Wee Union Jacks are distributed to the crowd, and all join in the singing with gusto – the dress code in this part of the racecourse is somewhat more relaxed than in the Royal Enclosure, and with hats askew and heels removed, the formal part of the day draws to a close.

The Grandstand. Note how the unwashed masses must crowd into their prescribed zones far down the track, while those of us privileged enough to enjoy the Royal Enclosure have vast expanses of rolling green lawn and a view of the finish line.

As we walked back toward the car parks at the end of the day, we passed Royal Ascot’s answer to the good old-fashioned tailgate party. I didn’t get a good photo of this, because my phone battery had died by this point, but imagine an assortment of white marquees and camping-style eating tents decorated festively with bunting and scattered liberally across a muddy field full of expensive cars. Sitting in these tents, seemingly oblivious to the gale-force winds and threatening rain, happy racegoers sit sipping champagne and nibbling strawberries. Some of these encampments even had catering staff! Next year, we’re bringing a picnic.

Meanwhile, in my sister’s life….

My sister Sarah, who I’ve written about before, celebrates her 30th birthday today.

Happy birthday, Sarah!

To celebrate, her partner in crime life secured tickets to the Royal Ascotfor the Royal Enclosure, naturally.

Sarah once sported a homemade duct-tape dress to a fancy gala, but today she will have to be more restricted.  You see, the Royal Enclosure comes with its own strict dress code.

Dresses and skirts should be of modest length.

No bare midriffs.

Straps must be at least one inch wide.

Hats must have a base width of at least four inches (no fascinators).

(Frankly, if I can’t wear a fascinator, I’m not interested.)

You can see the entire Royal Style Guide here.

In the mean time, stand by for a full report of the Royal Ascot, courtesy of my wacky charming sister in the form of a guest post on Sunday.

Because this blog refuses to be pigeonholed!

All about branding

If you want to brand some cows you’re going to have to sear some flesh, and other things I learned about branding…

Ever since we decided to stay in Alberta for the summer, Travis has been talking about branding. It’s been a few years since he’s had the chance to roll around in the dirt with 200-lbs calves. You can see how he might have missed it.

He also missed the memo advising him he is eight years older than the last time he grabbed a calf by its hind leg and single-handedly wrestled it to the ground. I heard more whining from him over the next four days than I did from all 100 calves in the pen combined.

(Love you, Honey!)

Here’s what I know about branding:

1. Burning cow hide smells much like you would expect.

2. The beef you eat starts out in a pen much like this one.

3. The cows in the neighbouring pen are pissed right off that you are making their calves moo.

4. A good branding is a community event, with a veritable feed afterwards to nourish the hardworking wrasslers and ropers.

5. Grown men will whimper when a calf kicks them in the shin.

6. Wear your least-favourite clothes.

7. Cattle vaccinations are administered through effing huge needles.

8. That ropy thing that looks like an intestine hanging over the fence? That’s a steer’s testicles.

9. Ranch kids – two-year-old ranch kids – know way more about cattle gates and horses than I do.

Sylvia, however, held her own.

Initially, there were 25 calves in a small pen with about 10 wasslers (wranglers), branders and needle-wielding women. The wrasslers would grab a calf, wrestle it over on its left side and pin it down while it got branded, vaccinated, castrated (if need be) and marked as done. After the first two batches of animals, the wrasslers cried uncle and they brought in the horses.  The horses did the initial work of the wrasslers – that is, dragging the calf into position, so the boys didn’t get quite as many bruises as they would have.

Can we stop for a moment and admire the lasso?

The rope would catch a calf around its hind legs, then the horse would drag it across the pen, where Travis and the rest of the motely crew were standing by to finish the job.

It was all very exciting, and smelly, and noisy and hot and exhausting. It was almost worth missing the whales and icebergs and June in NL for. It was especially fun when I was tweeting about #branding to have all kinds of new twitter followers from PR firms and Social Media sites… you know, because branding doesn’t always mean cows and hot iron anymore. Travis’ bruises are fading slowly, but he has full function of his right hand again, so I figure we’ll be ready for Take Two in a week or so.

As for Sylvia, anytime she gets to skip a nap and drink juice and eat chips and climb fences is alright by her. (That’s another thing about branding – parental ideals go way out the window when you’re in a cattle pen under the hot sun, and you’re too scared of the bulls in the next pen to risk a dash to the car.)

She’s no worse for the wear. I think we’ll do this again some day.

A $40 rant.

I’m ticked right off, and here’s why:

The Sylviamobile needed some warranty work (leaky, noisy strut). The closest dealership is Southtown Hyundai in Edmonton, so I made the 1.5hr drive (one-way) two weeks ago to get it checked out. From my initial phone call, every dealing with them was complicated. Little things like the customer service agent who couldn’t find a pen (and complained to me bitterly about it) to the assistant manager who could not answer a simple, direct question. (“When will you have an ETA on that part, so I can make an informed decision about booking my second appointment?”) Then there was the gross discrepancy in the cost estimate for non-warranty work between my first diagnostic appointment to actually having the work done two weeks later, and their disabled wifi after they assured me up and down it was working, and I would have no trouble accessing my office remotely from their waiting area. (Lies.)

From the initial phone call, I should have trusted my instincts and chosen another dealership, but I pressed on because Southtown was the closest authorized service centre and my car is still under warranty.

At every turn I voiced my disappointment with their service – always politely, but firmly enough for them to know I saw through their vapid “oh where has my pen gone THIS time” drivel, and quite persistently asking how my quote could have been so wildly underestimated two weeks prior. (I never got a straight answer, so I refused to authorize certain work when my car finally was serviced).

By the end of it they were handling me with silk gloves, but the service never improved.

After giving up a second day to car repairs, an entire tank of gas on two round trips to Edmonton and forking over the $400, I was happy to be on my way, finally.

That is, until they handed me this letter addressed “Dear valued customer:”

It reads, “Currently we are participating in a national customer service survey throughout all the Hyundai dealerships where I am personally rated for my performance as your Service Advisor. I would very much like you to fill the survey out scoring me a 100% or 10/10 anything less means my score will drop and my rankings nationally will fall 😦

“I hope that I have met all your expectations today, and if for whatever reason I have not I would very much like you to inform me so I may remedy any concerns so I can receive a top score on my survey.

“The survey may be emailed or sent by mail and I really encourage you to will it out as soon as you can at 100% satisfaction :).”

Punctuation and emoticons are hers. If you can imagine the kind of person who uses in emoticons in professional correspondence… well you’ve just imagined exactly the type of people I had to deal with over the past two weeks.

But to add insult to injury, I was told on my way out the door that if I filled out the survey at 100 per cent, I’d get a $40 gas card for my trouble!

So you’re buying your customer’s affections to gain top rankings, I pointed out.

“Oh no,” I was assured. “The gas card is to show our appreciation to you for completing the survey at 100 per cent.”

…That’s when my brain exploded all over the waiting area, and I melted into a puddle of frothy disbelief and motor oil.

How about a $40 gas card for my trouble of putting up with you lot for the past two weeks?

How about a $40 gas card as compensation for your wacky wifi?

How about a $40 gas card as an acknowledgement of your sub-par service and erroneous quote?

How about a $40 gas card so I can drive back in time and choose a different dealership, one that actually treats customers with respect and earns their top service rating instead of buying votes and pouting to get their way.

Ugh, I’m ticked right off.

I’ve since e-mailed Hyundai Canada to let them know how this dealership is pulling in customer satisfaction.

Perhaps it’s a common thing? Please tell me it’s not. Please tell me companies have more conviction than that.

More cycling memories

My very first road bike ride was with my mother. I was riding an old Norco with the shifting leavers on the downtube – remember those? It was either Canada Day or Regatta Day in St. John’s, and there wasn’t much traffic. I remember wobbling down the street at first – unsure of the narrow tires, the curvy handlebars – and feeling much like a baby giraffe trying to take its first steps. I was 15.

(My mother, as you may remember, is a super duper athlete.)

I loved cycling for the simple fact that I could go 10, 40, or  80 kilometers without ever having to touch the ground. Sure my two tires were rolling, but no part of my body would have to touch the solid earth. What other sport lets you travel such distances under your own power?

I won my very first mountain bike race on Signal Hill. There were only a handful of girls racing, but one happened to be from a rival high school, so I was damn well going to do everything in my power to keep her from first place. Lesson learned: a little friendly competition goes a long way.

I don’t think I ever won a road bike race, but I did take a 50-km time trial when the top woman crossed the center line and tacoed a wheel on an unmarked pothole. It wasn’t a closed course (we were riding with cars) so because she had crossed the center line she had technically gone off course. The pothole was her own damn fault, and not negligence on the part of race organizers. (Lesson learned: always keep an eye out for potholes and other obstacles).

Bike. Helmet. Shoes. Everything else is a luxury. (Lesson learned from team coach Terri and team manager Dave when Terri forgot her cycling shoes en route to an event. Most racers wear special shoes that clip in to your pedals, so you can both push and pull on each revolution. There’s a knack to it, but once you get it it is very very difficult to unlearn. Which is why you’ll often see my feet flailing off the pedals when I’m going hard, because – hey! Wait a minute! My feet are supposed to be attached! These days it’s more like bike, helmet, Chariot, Sylvia’s helmet, sunscreen, snacks, everything else is a luxury.)

On that note, wear your goddamn helmet. Lesson learned when I got hit by a car, and every time since that a car has come too close for comfort.

While I lived in France, I met Marion Clignet, a Franco-American cyclist who rode for France after Team USA rejected her. She has an impressive record of accomplishments (Olympic medals, anyone?) but she was retired when I met her, and I had no idea about her epilepsy until I just googled her while writing this paragraph. I don’t remember the details on how we were introduced, but I remember I had her cell phone number scribbled on a post-it note for a few weeks before I had the nerve to call her. She told me about a big group ride on the weekend and invited me along. Laurent Jalabert was among the 60 or so riders who took part. We struck out from a cycling shop on the outskirts of Toulouse. Marion stuck with me, guiding me through the peloton. During a slow downhill grade, she told me to stick with her as she picked up the pace. We popped out ahead of the group, and soon I was one of four cyclists in a paceline ahead of the pack. As she dropped back beside me, Marion sang out, “Now you’re ahead of Jalabert!”

I glanced back to see the professional rider only a few bike lengths back.

It was amazing.

It lasted all of ten seconds.

Neither one of them would have a clue who I am, or even remember that particular ride at all, but it was a defining moment for me. Lesson learned: Cycling is a great equalizing sport.

My racing bikes are in storage and I will get them out again someday when we have a permanent home.

Until then, the bike I am riding in Drayton Valley is worth a mention. Travis and I bought two bikes for $25 each from the thrift store. The tires needed a bit of air and the gears needed a bit of grease. I adjusted the brakes and I plan to spend some time on the derailleurs but for now they do their job well – get us from Point A to Point B without ever having to put a foot on the ground.

Cycling tips from a former athlete

(Also known as Fake it ’til you make it!)

Once upon a time I was the darling of the Newfoundland cycling community. Ok maybe I wasn’t the darling, but I was one of a handful of teenagers who took up road cycling at a time when cross-country and downhill were all the rage. The five girls on the provincial cycling team were favoured in the pack and afforded extra training, special advice and encouragement from the older generation of cyclists in NL. It was the same for the six guys. I don’t think I am making that up, or looking back at that time through a nostalgic lens: For the first time in a long time the province had a full roster of young cyclists to send to national events, and even a couple shots at making the top 10 nationally. Naturally the close community in the province was going to embrace the next crop of cyclists.

It’s been a long, long while since I’ve raced any kind of bike. That’s ok. I kind of gave up on that dream when I moved to France and imbibed bottles and bottles of wine. I was soaking up the cycling culture, sure, I just wasn’t doing a whole lot of cycling while I was at it.

But I’ve always liked riding. And even though I haven’t pedalled more than a few kilometers in the past few years, there are a number of reasons why I can still kick your butt (maybe) on a bike.

Muscle memory is one of them. But then there are these tricks:

1. Don’t stop pedalling. Even when you could be coasting, letting gravity and the wind roll you along, don’t stop pedalling. Even if you’re going 74 km/h and you’re legs aren’t actually applying pressure to the pedals, even when your feet are just along for the ride, don’t stop pedalling. There’s something about interrupting the rhythm in your legs that make your muscles less effective, so don’t stop pedalling. Lesson learned from Joe, the owner of Canary Cycles, who was in fact married to my Kindergarten teacher, because NL is a small, small world. When I was hit by a van while on my bike, I sat out the next race in the summer race circuit. Joe saw me at the startline in my street clothes and asked me why I wasn’t riding that day. I showed him my epic road-rash, and threw in a limp or two for good measure, but he only asked again, “why aren’t you riding?” So the lesson should also go, don’t stop pedalling even when you get hit by a van and are sporting road rash of epic proportions to your boyfriend’s graduation.

2. When climbing a hill, go up a gear whenever the hill flattens out a bit. Keep your legs moving at the same pace and the extra few chain links will edge you to the front, and ahead of the group. This works even when you’re not racing – gearing up for the gentler pitches will get you to the top faster. This is the one I use most often, even towing 60lb of Chariot, toddler and groceries. It makes me feel like a super-human every time: instead of backpedalling in my granny gear, I am GOING PLACES. Lesson learned from Keith, the team coach, on a particularly gruelling ride around Petty HarbourMaddox Cove. Those are some steep, steep hills.

3. When cycling on the highway, transport trucks and tankers offer some pretty sweet draughts. But don’t take them as a free ride – gear up and hammer until you pop out of the slipstream – it’s the closest feeling you’ll get to flying on a bicycle. Lesson learned from Dave, team manager, on any number of training rides on the TCH out of St. John’s.

4. Just ride in a straight line! All that wibble-wobble back and forth wastes energy, and makes whoever is riding behind you very, very nervous. Lesson learned all by myself when I swerved in competition and caused a crash behind me. Oops.

5. Hit all obstacles straight-on. I don’t mean walls or cars, obviously, but ground-level obstacles like potholes and railway tracks. Lesson learned from my father, who never failed to point out to me where Mom Crashed That One Time She Hit A Railway Track On An Angle. Please note that the railway has been gone from NL for 20 years – that will tell you how big of a Teaching Moment that particular crash was.

6. Just ride. Don’t worry about your speed or distance, just put in time – lots of time – in the saddle. Lesson also learned from Joe.

7. Don’t attempt motor-pacing, unless you’ve got a real pro behind the wheel. Joe, again.

8. Stopping to pick blueberries is a perfectly acceptable reason for placing last in a race. I learned this one all on my own. There is never a bad time to stop to pick blueberries. Apply it to your own bike rides and you’ll never be sorry.

We’ve been doing a lot of riding these past two weeks in Drayton Valley. The sun has been shining (sorry, NL) and we live directly on the network of cycling trails the cross the whole town. I’ve been taking Sylvia to daycare in the Chariot at least once a day. The route there is a bit of a slog, usually with a headwind, so I get into time-trial position with my two hands in the center of the handlebar and my elbows tucked into my sides. I don’t stop peddalling – not on the slow grade up or on the long downhill to the daycare. And when I get there? I’m treated as the hero by the other kids because I’m riding a bike! And that feeling is probably worth every bit of road rash and vicious uphill climb and fourth-place finish and flat tire and sunburn and tan line and even all the wine in France combined.