Sunday, May 18, 2014

A new, usually tasty, hobby

I have a huge appreciation for all forms of art, but the culinary arts are the current subject of my fascination. I started watching shows like Top Chef and Chopped a few years ago on the Food Network and was amazed at how people are able to pull amazing recipes out of thin air and make their plates look like paintings. The majority of the TV I now watch is on the Food Network, and I have so much respect for people like Chef Adrian and Chef Massey who not only own successful restaurants, but also create original recipes for seasonal menus and source fresh ingredients from local growers and producers. Whenever we travel anywhere, where we eat is a very, very big deal, and I have drug Jeff to at least two-thirds of the restaurants in town.

The irony of it all though is that I have always hated cooking, especially baking. I learned some basics growing up, but I had absolutely no interest in or patience for cooking, especially chopping things. Jeff is the same way, so we spent our first few years of marriage going from frozen pizza, to spaghetti, to tacos, to hamburgers, and then back to frozen pizza again. Any time we differed from that routine, it usually ended up in disaster, and we would end up ordering take out, which we did about once a week anyway.

Last January I decided I needed a new hobby. I was spending too much time on the computer and had been for years. I could feel my brain rotting, and it was time to do something new. My job requires a lot of social interaction, and as an introvert, I can only take so much before my head explodes, so I wanted something I could do at home by myself, something that would help me relax from the stress of the day or week. Since I have become somewhat epicurian anyway, cooking was an obvious choice.

I didn't want to just jump into things, though, as I knew that if things got too stressful or disastrous right off the bat I would give up. I wanted to start from the very beginning, and I mean the very beginning. I discovered a book called "How to Cook Everything: The Basics" by Mark Bittman which has about 200 recipes of really basic dishes with very few ingredients but that teach the basic fundamentals of cooking. The book is 4,000 (e-book) pages and starts with things as simple as boiling water and teaches knife skills, something I felt I needed to improve the most if I was ever going to enjoy cooking. The lessons link to pictures that show how things should be chopped or how food should look when it's at a certain cooking stage. The book is brilliant, but this isn't meant to be a book review.

Pico de gallo de Gail
The first recipe I decided to tackle was pico de gallo, a.k.a. fresh tomato salsa, which is bizarre because I can't stand raw tomatoes. I figured it would be a great beginning to improving my knife skills, so after work one day, I bought some fresh ingredients and stood in the kitchen for at least three hours, reading Bittman's book and watching YouTube videos over and over to learn how to chop things properly. I must have watched Chef Ramsay chop an onion at least 15 times before I felt I had it down. The salsa turned out really well (or so says Jeff, who likes tomatoes and ate half the bowl himself). 

Since then, have made almost 100 recipes, some from Bittman's book, from Food and Wine, from Epicurious, and a few others. I stand in the kitchen for hours and cook recipe after recipe. It's a good thing I have a husband who likes to eat and isn't picky. I'm a long way from creating my own recipes, but I am so much more comfortable with deferring from the recipe I'm referencing, whereas before I would stick to the recipe exactly, even if something was burning or it was obvious that things were not going right.

Not all 100 recipes have turned out well, and I have had quite a few mishaps, mostly on the baking side of things, of which I still am not a fan but make myself do because I want to be well-rounded (and Jeff likes the baked stuff the best--when it goes well, anyway). I love the process--when I'm cooking, I feel stress drip away and am able to quiet my unquiet mind. I listen to music, watch Netflix, or stand in complete silence and chop and dice and mince and braise and sautee and roast and broil and mix all weekend until I can't stand to stand over the stove any longer. I feel good doing this, and eating healthier as a result, which helps as well.

Food is so versatile--you can do so much to it, and it makes you and others happy (usually). Me, too.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Price of Gas

I talked to both of my parents today, and both of them complained about the price of gas in Michigan -- roughly around $4.35 a gallon. Apparently people over there are going bonkers about it -- lining up for miles around the Walmart gas station to get it at $3 something, calling their relatives at work to warn them about the price of gas. They asked how much it is here, and I said I think it was around $1.35 a liter the last time I checked, which is roughly $5.40 a gallon.  That's actually pretty high, probably the highest I've seen it since I moved here, but I don't think I have ever seen it for any less than maybe $1.05 a liter (4.20 a gallon).

Gas is always more expensive in Canada than in the States, but this conversation got me thinking -- in the three years that I've been here, I don't think I've ever heard anyone in Canada complain about the price of gas. Ever. I complain about it to Jeff and will drive out of my way to go to Costco (one of my least favorite places EVER -- no offence to anyone who works there) to get it for 4 cents cheaper a liter, but that might just be the American in me. It is so so so common for folks in the States to complain about the price of gas, but in Canada not so much, or so it seems. There have to be people here who think the same way and do the same thing, but it's not something I have actually witnessed myself that I can recall.

I could spend a lot of time guessing as to why this could be, but I really don't want to. Just thought I'd jot down my observation.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Canadian Health Care: At Least We're Covered

Many of you have probably at one point in time heard me raving about the greatness Canada's universal health care system and how excited I was to finally to be eligible to partake in it. I've been eligible for benefits for about a year and a half now, and although I'm extremely grateful to be covered at all, I have unsurprisingly discovered that the system has its own unique set of problems. But what exactly is covered under Canada's publicly-funded health care system, and what is the quality of care? I can only attest to my personal experience with the system in British Columbia (the system varies from province to province) as well as provide some info by doing some very basic research, but hopefully my experience will at least shed a bit of light on the subject and answer some questions I'm frequently asked by others.

Before I get into this, I'd just like to say that this topic is a BEAST, and it has taken me a really long time to get a decent understanding of it, so I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies or incomplete information.  

Is Canadian health care free?
Canada's public health care, formally named the Medical Services Plan or MSP, is mostly free. There are no deductibles on basic care, and co-pays are virtually non-existent (Jeff had never even heard of a co-pay until I came into his life); however, coverage is paid for by income taxes, and, depending on a household's level of income and family size, British Columbia charges a fixed monthly premium and apparently is the only province in Canada to do so (lucky us). As a family of two, Jeff and I pay a premium of $109 a month, which covers both of us. For lower income families, premium assistance is available, which can cover anywhere between 20 to 100% of the premium depending on net income. Households with a yearly income of less than $22,000 are eligible for 100% premium assistance. 

Does the MSP cover all health care costs for everyone?
No, but each legal resident of Canada receives the same level of basic essential care under the MSP. To my understanding, basic essential care means trips to the general practitioner (GP), the emergency room, certain specialists, having babies, many different types of surgery, etc. Jeff broke his collar bone a few years ago and, having no deductible or co-pay to worry about, paid all of 100 bucks to get 'er fixed (the 100 bucks was apparently for something non-essential--I can't recall what). It's pretty surreal for me to just go to my GP or a walk-in clinic (kind of like an urgent care center in the States) and not have to pay anything or fill out any or very little paperwork. Upon my first visit, they simply swipe or record the info from my CareCard, a card that all eligible benefit recipients receive in BC (and possibly elsewhere). 

Depending on province, the MSP may not cover dental, vision, pharmaceutical medications except for the elderly and certain lower income families. Because of our level of income and as BC residents, Jeff and I do not get dental, medical or prescription coverage; however, these things are covered under Jeff's employment-based private insurance. Many employers offer insurance benefits through private firms, and these benefits vary from employer to employer. Jeff's particular plan, called a "spending plan", grants our household a few grand a year to spend on virtually any sort of medical costs: vision, dental, prescriptions, physical therapy, acupuncture, counseling, elective surgeries (even boob jobs--no joke), and much more. We submit all of our receipts to the insurance company, the insurance company sends Jeff's employer a bill, and his employer sends Jeff a check for reimbursement. It's common for the employer to increase the amount of money they will pay per year as part of a raise, and if the employee happens to go over their fixed amount, the employer can elect to pay the extra amount. If I get a job with a similar "spending plan", the fixed amount my company offers will add to our household's overall amount of coverage for non-essential items, meaning Jeff and I will both be covered under both spending plans.

For those who do not have employer-based insurance, there are certain programs for which Canadian residents can apply for assistance in paying for non-essential health care costs. 

What is the quality of medical care in Canada?
I think it varies from doctor to doctor, practice to practice, and what type of treatment one is receiving. One fundamental flaw is the way doctor's offices get paid by the government for services rendered. I'm not sure about other provinces, but in BC, the government sets this blanket assumption that each patient will take a GP 15 minutes to treat and will therefore pay the doctor for 15 minutes of billing time for each patient. Appallingly, if the GP sees four different patients in a 15 minute span, the government will pay the doctor for an entire hour of billing time, and will end up paying amounts that exceed the amount of time possible for a doctor to treat patients in a given day. This obviously means that most doctors try to get people in and out the door as quickly as humanly possible, and I find this to be a problem of epic proportions. Since I've been here, I have seen GPs several times, both at my own family doctor and a walk-in clinic, and I would say about 90% of the time the doctor rushes through the visit at the speed of light and is very quick to simply whip out the prescription pad and shove me out the door. On one occasion I went to the urgent care center to get a second opinion on a diagnosis from my family doctor, and even though I was only there for a consult, the guy whipped out his prescription pad within literally 10 seconds of seeing me and started filling it out. I was like, dude, what the hell are you doing? I have found that you have to really prepare what you want to tell them in advance as they're really quick to cut you off or treat you with partial information, and I often leave there feeling like there was little to no point in me even going.

Not all doctors here are like this, however, and I have received some really excellent treatment from some. Also, there are other services provided by the system that seem superior to similar services in the US. For example, in BC, if you need blood tests, ECGs or a plethora of other tests, they send you to a lab that is separate from any doctor's office or hospital and full of expert phlebotomists and lab techs that are super efficient and effective. I have been to such labs on a number of occasions, and even though they're typically packed full of people each time I go, the wait time has been minimal as they have a huge staff that seems to really know what they're doing. When having blood drawn at doctors offices in the US, I can recall a number of times when the medical assistant has taken FOREVER to find a vein, sometimes fishing for it with the needle, resulting in a lot of pain and bruising, whereas I have never had to undergo this torture in Canada. My dentist and almost all the specialists I have seen have also been exceptionally good, and much to my mother's delight, I still have no cavities at age 29. :-P

How long do you wait to see a doctor in Canada?
There is a popular conception that Canadians wait eons for medical treatment, but I have found this to be only sometimes true. In fact, there have been many occasions in which I have received treatment quicker at certain times and for certain ailments than I have in the US. Also, at least in BC I have found that there are more urgent care type facilities than there are in the US and their hours are longer on average. Sometimes you do have to wait a while to see a doctor, but I can recall several occasions when I've sat in a US doctors office staring at posters of the circulatory system for hours and hours. The emergency room is no different--sometimes you get in quickly, sometimes you don't, and this is true of both countries. 

Nonetheless, I can't say that I haven't had to wait 2-3 months to see a specialist out-of-town for certain conditions, and I can't deny the fact that I've had to schedule appointments for prescription refills with my family doctor 2-3 weeks in advance as she won't phone them in (which is typical) and has more patients than she can efficiently handle. During my uninsured days in the US, I've also had to wait 2-3 months to see publicly-funded specialists or pay hundreds of dollars to see privately-funded ones that I sometimes also had to wait for. Life-threatening conditions are treated immediately, but if you can wait, you're probably gonna. One day I was sitting in my family doctor's office and overheard the receptionist phoning a patient regarding a referral to a cardiologist. The receptionist said the next available appointment for a new patient was three months out. I almost fell off my f-ing chair. THREE MONTHS TO SEE SOMEONE FOR A HEART CONDITION! It must not have been life-threatening, but it's your heart! You need that, man! 

It also took me FOREVER to find a family doctor in the area that was taking new patients, and I found that those who are are typically new to the profession and therefore less experienced. This is not to say that new doctors can't be good doctors or that all experienced doctors are good doctors, but I think you understand what I mean. 

One thing that I think is a big problem here though is the shortage of costly diagnostic equipment. For example, MRI scanning machines are pretty scarce here. According to an article in BC Living, Canada has one of the lowest rates of MRI scanning machines per capita in the entire developed world, with only 6 machines per million people, compared to 40 machines per million in Japan and 27 per million in the US. The typical waiting time to get a MSP-covered MRI in Canada is 12-18 months. One can get a near-immediate appointment at a private MRI clinic, but you're going to pay around $700 to $900 bucks for one scan if you can afford it (wait a minute, that sounds familiar...). MRI scanners have become essential diagnostic tools, but here they're treated like some sort of luxury item as they're so hard to come by.

If I marry a Canadian, do I automatically get health coverage?
This common perception is entirely untrue. I wasn't eligible for benefits until I went through the immigration process and achieved permanent residency, which was eight months after Jeff and I got married. You must be a legal resident and be physically present in Canada for a minimum of 6 months out of the year in order to be eligible for MSP coverage.

As the cost of care is typically lower in Canada than the US, there are many Americans who come to Canada and pay out-of-pocket for treatment and perscriptions. For example, before I was eligible for MSP benefits, we had to pay my medical costs out-of-pocket, and it cost only $50 for me to get treatment at an urgent care center in Canada, whereas under my previous US insurance I would have to pay a $50 co-pay at an urgent care center in the US. Without insurance, one visit to an urgent care center in the US would have easily cost a couple hundred bucks. 

At Least We're Covered
Having spent a good portion of my adult life in the US without any heath coverage or paying large deductibles, I have come to really appreciate the coverage that comes with simply being a legal resident of Canada. True, the Canadian system has a plethora of problems and we pay a whack of taxes to fund it, but I would take this over being uninsured  or under-insured (made that word up, heh) any day of the week. Can you fathom how long it took me to pay off a $4,000 bill that was incurred in the US while I was uninsured? Do you know how hard it is for someone fresh out of college to pay a $1,500 insurance deductible for one frickin' trip to the emergency room? It's frickin' hard. I'm just glad that I eventually had the money to pay them off--many aren't so lucky.

The quality and accessibility of care is definitely a huge concern, and Canadians should continue to pressure their government for improvement in these areas. Overall though, polls show that the majority of Canadian residents are generally happy with their health care system, and the average life expectancy is higher here than in the US. Additionally, Canadian taxes, although high, go towards more things than just medical costs that improve the quality of life here and ultimately improve the quality of public health and safety: amazing recreational facilities, parks, clean streets, etc. These places and services are so great and I feel like we can actually clearly see how our tax dollars are being spent and how we're benefiting from them, whereas in the US that wasn't quite as clear to me. 

No matter how frustrated I get with the rushed treatment I often receive or the amount of time I have to wait for an appointment, I try to keep in mind how awful it was to live without insurance at all and remind myself that there are millions of people out there who would love to be in my shoes. There is so incredibly much that should be improved in this system, but at the end of the day, at least we're covered.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Beginning of a New Blogging Era (I hope...)

"I should write in my blog." That statement has been echoing in my head for the last 6 months; however, it's been almost 10 months since I wrote a respectable post for this blog. It's not that I have nothing to write about--I just haven't felt like writing. When I experience something that inspires me, my brain automatically starts composing a post in my head and will not stop until I spew what's in my brain onto paper (or, in this case, into a blog template). This is what leads me to write, but it hasn't happened for months. Canada has an abundance of blog-worthy topics, but apparently nothing has moved my mind enough to want to write about it. Even now I'm having a hard time thinking about what to write in this post, but I figured that if I don't write something now, I never will. So, here it is: a blog post that I hope will motivate me to write more blog posts.


Well, as I now have more Canadian friends and acquaintances than I did the last time I wrote anything and therefore will probably have a few more readers of Canadian origin, it might be good for me to clarify a few items before I go on a writing rampage (if only that would happen). In one of my first and favorite posts, The Point of Canada, I wrote a disclaimer at the end that warned that I'll probably make a fair amount of ignorant or false statements and claims about Canada innocuously, and since then, I have not failed to to do just that. There are things I have written in this blog that I've later found to be wrong or incomplete--nothing too serious, but things people found significant enough to bring to my attention, which is much appreciated. I'll use this opportunity to repeat that I am no expert on Canada, its people, its government, economy, health care system, media, history, etc.; however, just because I'm not an expert doesn't mean I don't think I have anything of value to say, and I think it's really important for people to try to understand their surroundings and communicate that understanding to the rest of the world. As Kathryn Stockett says at the end of her fabulous novel, The Help: "Understanding is vital to our humanity." People like her who start important conversations like she did with her book are heroes. I want to be heroic too.

Now, this is not to say that I consider my writing ability or the subjects about which I write to be of the same caliber as those of Kathryn Stockett, but I can totally see something that I write to be of enough significance to be worthy of its own movie someday. For those new to my sense of humor, statements like that one are a reflection thereof and not of an underlying grandiose identity. A lot of what I write is simply for comedic purposes and not to be taken too seriously.

As mentioned above, I like to raise awareness about certain things with my writing, but I write largely for my own personal benefit. I often spend a lot of time researching the topics about which I write. Not that its anything extraordinary and probably has its own set of errors, but my piece comparing the rights of LGBT persons in Canada with the rights of those in the US took a great deal of time in particular, and even though I feel it's crucial for others to see the vast differences in legislation between the two countries, the composition of that post was mainly to educate myself on an issue I find incredibly important as well as to vent my frustration. Reading about such topics tends to make some people feel uncomfortable, but not every post can be about Girl Scout Cookies, and ensuring everyone feels comfortable is not my goal, my problem or my job. Even though it pleases me when my writing pleases others, I don't write with the intent to please anyone else but myself.

And with that, I'm going to end this post and eat a cookie.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Making of a Snow Angel: The Movie

Starring: Gail Gromaski
Directed by: Jeff Creamer
Filmed by: Jeff Creamer
Special Effects Provided by: Jeff Creamer
Location: Jeff's Mom's Backyard,
Vanderhoof, British Columbia
Film Date: December 28, 2010

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Canadian Holidays: Thanksgiving & Halloween

I often get asked if Canadians celebrate certain holidays the same way Americans do, so I decided to start blogging about holidays in Canada as they come about (instead of writing a big blog post about all of them at once, which would probably be massive). There are a lot of commonalities between many US and Canadian holidays in general; however, there are also differences in how and when these holidays are celebrated, some differences being minor and some major. Additionally, Canada also has its own unique holidays that are recognized at a federal and/or provincial level (such as BC Day, which I believe I wrote about before).

Some are probably wondering why I listed Thanksgiving before Halloween in the title of this post. Unlike Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving in late November, modern day Canadians have officially had Thanksgiving (called Jour de l'Action de grĂ¢ce in Canadian French) on the second Monday in October since the Canadian Parliament proclaimed it a federal holiday in 1957. Therefore, in case you're having what I like to call "a bad brain day," this means that Thanksgiving occurs before Halloween in Canada.

Even though Thanksgiving is officially on a Monday, Canadians have their Thanksgiving feast (turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, etc.) on any day of the 3 day weekend, with Sunday and Monday being the most popular. Popular modern American Thanksgiving traditions, such as parades and football games, have been incorporated into Canadian traditions over the years. The only parade that is broadcast nationwide on Thanksgiving Day in Canada is a parade called the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest parade, which is part of the annual Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest festival, celebrated in the twin cities of Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario. I fail to see the connection between this festival and Thanksgiving except for the fact that it is nationally televised on the nationally-recognized holiday and supposedly a lot of people watch it on that holiday (even though Jeff has never even heard of it). This is definitely a "Canadian Oddity."

The Canadian Football League (in case you didn't know, Canadians have their own football league that plays under slightly different rules than the American NFL) holds a nationally-televised doubleheader known as the "Thanksgiving Day Classic". The teams that play on Thanksgiving Day vary from year to year.

The concept of Thanksgiving in Canada and United States is basically the same, but the history behind the holiday differs. I won't go into much depth as it would make for a long, boring post, but in short--let it be first noted that the First Nations peoples of Canada (referring to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada) had regular feasts in thanksgiving and celebration of successful harvests centuries before the Europeans set foot in North America (so there). The first celebration of Thanksgiving by a European in Canada was held in 1578 (the first in the US was held in 1621) by an English explorer, Martin Frobisher, who had been trying to find a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, a feat that explorers before him had failed miserably (meaning they died trying). Since he returned safely from his search (although he didn't find what's now officially known as the Northwest Passage--in fact, it wasn't successfully navigated until 1906), he held a celebration to give thanks for his successful homecoming, although I cannot find anything that says any First Nations peoples attended or were even invited to this event. Interestingly though, Thanksgiving-like feasts were also held by French Settlers in Canada, who apparently happily shared their food with their First Nations neighbors.

Anywho, that's probably more than anyone wanted to know about Thanksgiving in Canada, so onto Halloween. Luckily (as I'm kind of sick of writing for today), Halloween is "celebrated" in the same way in Canada as it is in the US and has the same historical roots. However, to provide a significant historical event pertaining to Halloween: this is the first time Jeff and I will be handing out candy together to trick-or-treaters since we've been married. Last year, none came to our door since the porch light wasn't on (I was not aware of this rule, although I believe Jeff was...shady), so we ate all the candy ourselves. I just took the picture above of our neighbor's Halloween decor. It looks like it probably lights up when plugged in, but I didn't have the guts to run to the neighbor's door and plug it in (maybe I'll take another picture tonight when it's lit up). ;)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Canada's "Think Pink" Quarter

How cool is this? Jeff and I just came across a Canadian quarter with the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon printed on it, and I, of course, had to investigate. I had to steal this picture from the CBC (sorry, please don't sue me) because my camera wouldn't pick up such small details, but I just had to share it, especially because October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, both in the US and Canada.

These "Think Pink" quarters have actually been in circulation for a few years already (since 2006), so it's pretty ironic that we came across one for the first time this particular month.

You can read more about these cool coins on the CBC's website here: