1

How I Dealt with a Massive Pain the Neck

The information in this post is something I wish I’d read ten years ago…when my neck really started to bother me.  And I mean – REALLY BOTHER ME.

This is a post about how I dealt with the pain of a long term sports injury in my neck through exercise, stretching, strengthening and supplementation.

It all started in high school.  I was playing rugby on the high school rugby team.  Normally, I played wing because at six foot one in height, I was a much better runner than a scrum player.

However, during this one particular game, we’d lost two scrum team mates to injury (that should’ve been a sign of what was to come!) and the coach asked me to sub in for the prop position.  The prop is the name given to one of two players in the rugby scrum who support either side of another player in the middle called the ‘hooker’.

The prop is a very demanding position which puts an incredible amount of stress on your entire body and is best suited to body types that are low, wide and very strong.

If you’ve never seen how the scrum in rugby works – think of it this way, it’s a bunch men tightly gripping each other, bent over in a sort of battling ram position, which is intended to push against the same thing on the opposing team to take control of the rugby ball.

How is that for a visual?  In case that doesn’t work for you – here’s what a scrum looks like and where the props go:

The Rugby Scrum - Can you spot the neck injury?

The Rugby Scrum - Can you spot the neck injury?

The rugby scrum is no place for tall slim guys like me. I still have nightmares about scrums!

Anyway, the other team was way stronger and bigger than ours and my neck and head were pushed hard down onto my rib cage and held there for about 10 seconds – enough to permanently damage my spine.

I knew something bad happened immediately.  The pain was unbelievable. It was lucky that I didn’t break my neck.  I was the third player out of that game because of injury.  The pain took months to go away.  I went to chiropractors, who kept adjusting me, over and over.  Not realizing that I had actually crushed the ends of a few vertebrae.

Which vertebrae?  Specifically cervical vertebrae 5, 6 and 7. Often referred to as C5, C6 and C7.

About 5 years later, in university, (no longer playing any contact sports, except with girls) I noticed that my neck was always bothering me.  5 years after that (when I met my wife) …I began to notice tingling in my right hand…which eventually became numbness in parts of my hand.

Couple those symptoms with massive, chronic pain in my neck and you have the ingredients for a debilitating, distracting pain that I used to live with EVERY day.

Here’s what a recent x-ray of my neck looks like, taken from the right side of my head with my head tilted back:

Nice Filings!  Note the deformation of the vertebrae in the circle - they have developed bone spurs pointing forward and are collapsing. Also note the immobility of that area compared to the upper vertebrae during an anterior head tilt

Nice Filings! Note the deformation of the vertebrae in the circle - they have developed bone spurs pointing forward and are collapsing. Also note the immobility of that area compared to the upper vertebrae during an anterior head tilt.

There is NOTHING LIKE CHRONIC SPINE PAIN. Trust me. I know.   For years I ate 400 -1,200 mg of Ibuprofen (Advil) to deal with the pain.  Eventually that did little to help.

So I went to my doctor.  He recommended I see a neurosurgeon.  We took x-rays and did an MRI.  The results were very telling.

The medical terminology for my spine condition is called Cervical Spondylosis – better known as neck osteoarthritis.  This is where the bones in the neck try to fuse themselves together to prevent further injury.

This is another xRay, but with my head held during normal, forward looking posture.  Note the massive difference between the lower three vertebrae and the upper three vertebrae.  The uppers are normal in shape and space, the lowers are quite deformed with very little space in between

This is another xRay of my from the right, but with my head held straight during normal, forward looking posture. Note the massive difference between the lower three vertebrae and the upper three vertebrae. The uppers normal in shape and space, the lower are quite deformed with very little space in between. Those bone spurs push forward into the back of my esophagus and downward onto my brachial nerves.

The neurosurgeon said that surgery is an option if the pain and numbness increase.  This would mean a complete disectomy where the offending vertebrae are fused together.

No thanks.

However, in the meantime, he recommended a couple of very simple actions, which I take almost daily.

The result of these simple actions has been literally miraculous for me.  I no longer need to take any over the counter pain killers. I very rarely feel any pain in my neck – maybe once or twice a month.

And the numbness in my hand has been gone for years.

The reason that I had numbness in my hand was because the facet joints in my neck were compressing the brachial nerves to the point where sensation and strength was diminishing in my entire right arm and hand.  This is commonly known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

He told me that my injury is very similar to what happens to people who are in car crashes and sustain a whiplash injury.

The neurosurgeon recommended some physiotherapy and to stay away from chiropractic treatments because stretching and strengthening the muscles in my neck is more important that having it adjusted.

I took my x-rays to physio, who had seen many of this type of neck injury.  My physio showed me one exercise, which I do almost daily, that has been very helpful.

Very simply, I lay on my back with a bath towel rolled up and placed under my neck.  Then I perform what I call my ‘chin tucks’.  I then perform ten to twenty repetitions of tucking my chin down firmly towards my chest.

The difference for me between the chin tuck that you might do say, at Pilates, or in posture classes, is the TOWEL UNDER my neck.

The KEY with this exercise is NOT to lift your head by engaging the sternocleidomastoid muscles;

sternocleidomastoideus -  - I call these the "model muscle" because you always see this muscle prominently in photos of models when their heads are turned to the side.  It is NOT what you want to use for the "chin tuck" execise.

sternocleidomastoideus

but rather to use the core muscles of your neck, such as the Longus Colli to do the pulling;

longus colli

longus colli

This one exercise helps to keep the natural curve in my neck, which Cervical Spondylosis will eventually eliminate.  If you look at my X-Ray, you will see that my neck does not have a natural curve to it.  In fact, it is actually quite straight up and down.

This is NOT how the neck is supposed to look.

Because of my injury, I have lost the natural ‘lordosis’, or curve.  This exercise, helps to both strengthen my neck muscles and fight the effects of neck osteoarthritis.

Here is what a normal spine should look like:

Normal Cervical Spine

Normal Cervical Spine - Note the Curve and the Square Vertebrae

I have also invested in a neck traction device, which I will admit is very Draconian in its application.  It looks like one of those Medieval torture devices that was used to stretch people until their head pops off.

You fill up a weight with water…I usually use the whole back, about twenty five pounds.  This goes over a pulley, which attaches to a rope on a door, which attaches to a brace that straps around your head and chin.

You then sit in a chair with this pulling your head up (and thus releasing pressure on your spinal column) for as long as you want.

Great horror movie stuff.

Click here to see what this bizarre thing looks like.

I use it when I feel my neck getting a little stiff, which is very rarely now.

In terms of supplements, I find that Fish Oil does a terrific job of taking my pain away. There is something in fish oil, so my doctor tells me, that does a very good job of managing inflammation in the body.  I use the Ascenta brand here in Canada.

I also wrote about this product in my post about managing depression.

Lastly, I find that cardio exercise does a great job of eliminating the pain.  Hiking, biking or stationary equipment all do the trick for me.  I need about 35 minutes or more with my heart rate at 120 beats per minutes for the duration.

The effects of cardio exercise alone I’ve found can eliminate my pain for up to 4 hours… .

Of all the injuries that one can sustain, I’d have to imagine that anything to do with the spine is one of the worst and I think that I’m managing mine very well.

So, what’s the moral of this story?

Keep yourself and your kids out of contact sports, especially where very strong men, bent over, are involved!

7

A Beautiful Wedding In Montreal

Last weekend we had the privilege of attending the wedding of some old friends. We combined the visit to Montreal with some vacation time.

Truth be known however, this trip was really about the wedding, despite our best efforts to sneak in some shopping and relaxing.

And what a wedding it was.

Having been to many weddings and receptions, I must admit that this was probably the most beautiful and romantic wedding I can recall having been to.

The night before the wedding we went to the apartment the bride and groom had rented near McGill University.  I love that old architecture with the high ceilings. At this pre-wedding event, we met some totally wonderful people.

Most of the guest list had flown in from western Europe – predominantly Holland, the UK and the Netherlands, since the bride and groom had relocated there many years ago, yet they met in Montreal.

Being Dutch, it was great to reconnect with some of my brethren.  Although I had never met any of these people before, we were quick to become friends and offer open invitations to visit each other in the future.

Montreal has some of the best night life that I have enjoyed.  Crescent street, off St. Catherines has some great pubs, bars and restaurants.

 

Old Montreal is even better.

The night before the wedding some of us went out to a great spot called Santos and enjoyed some killer tunes and great drinks, which is where the above photo was taken.

The wedding took place at Birks Chapel at McGill University.  This was followed by a beautiful outdoor reception at an incredible hotel in old Montreal.

Inside the beautiful Birks Chapel

Inside the beautiful Birks Chapel

Bride and Groom on their way

Bride and Groom on their way

One of the great surprises of this wedding, besides the great people we met, was how the bride and groom celebrated their friendships with each of the guests:

Before arriving, we each had to send a photo of ourselves with significant other, or alone if single. These pictures from the entire guest list were then professionally framed and showcased in classy, clean white frames.

Below each picture, within the framing, were words describing the meaning of the friendship from the bride and groom to each of those people.

Guests were all surprised to see these mounted on two large easels at the reception.  Most couldn’t get away from reading those pictures and really got to know each other and how they fit into the bride and grooms lives.

As a gift to each guest, we were presented with this frame and photo to take home.  I thought it was a terrific, classy and warm touch to an already special day.

The food, the music, the people, the speeches and the setting were all superb.

perfect outdoor setting

perfect outdoor setting

beautiful table setting

beautiful table setting

S and G the Wedding

S and G the Wedding

Fantastic Italian Wines

Fantastic Italian Wines

It all went so fast and was such a positive experience. The next morning those who could make it had brunch at a local eatery in old Montreal, called Eggspectation to say goodbyes.

I hate goodbyes…………………………..

4

Keeping Depression Out of My Life

One in five people suffer from major depression at some point in their lives according to American Medical Association.I have been one of those people and have developed some great strategies to keep depression out of my life.

It is postulated that many of those people who suffer from depression, suffer their entire lives without any help.

And men are worse than women when it comes to dealing with it…

Clinical depression is actually a disease that can be treated with and without medication. I have done both and do much better without medication.

Years ago I was working for a big software company and was traveling globally on a regular basis for almost 2 years. Some months I was on the road for three weeks at a time in a different part of the world each week.

It was an exciting lifestyle…at first…but eventually became the nemesis of my mental well being. Rich foods, weird hours, different cultures…lots of stress from mis-managed expectations and professional performance commitments started to take their toll on me.

Sitting in an airplane for 10+ hours at time does nothing to help depression either.

My doctor did what most doctors would do. He wanted to take my pain away immediately knowing that I couldn’t quickly change my lifestyle and prescribed me 5 mg’s of Cipralex every other day.

And guess what dudes and dudettes? It worked. For a while.

Then, I started to feel a bit fogged in mentally, began gaining weight and lost my libido. While I felt “ok”…the side effects caused me anxiety of a new kind.

So I stopped. Tapered off.

And began a new approach to deal with anxiety. In the interest of brevity…I am going to skip the next part of my journey and just bust out the list of stuff that I have learned to be VERY effectively manage depression in my life.

These things totally work for me and may not work for you. Some of them are NOT the best alternatives eitherI understand that.

But hey…life is short and I want to get though it as best I can, while enjoying the ride a bit too.

So here’s what I do:

  1. B-Vitamins. I take a high potency B Vitamin once or twice a day. They are water soluble and will make your pee look like a melted bright orange Mr. Freeze. But – The B Vitamins are proven to help with mood. In fact many people are clinically low in B1 (Thiamine) and B3 (Niacin) I have learned – both of which have massive benefits for people dealing with depression. I trust the Natural Factors brand.
  2. High Potency fish oil. Most of us need more omegas in our diet anyway. There have been some great clinical studies about the ability for fish oil to improve mood. My naturopath uses fish oils to help people get of SSRI’s (depression meds) all the time with great success she tells me. I use the Ascenta brand.
  3. Nicotine. I like cigars. They give me a lift, they taste good and help me to relax and feel good. I don’t smoke them every day and I know they contribute to mouth cancer. I don’t inhale. But I dig ’em nonetheless. Nicotine is shown to help with depression and I’ve read some interesting studies online about big Pharma working on straight nicotine pills as an anti-depressant option for consumers.
  4. Exercise. I’ve always loved pumping iron and getting my heart rate up. Cardio would be my first choice if I couldn’t lift weights for some reason.I usually hit the gym daily and get my heart rate up to about 130 beats per minute for at least 30 minutes on the elliptical after doing some resistance exercises.I sweat a lot. There is a TON of research to validate the positive effects on mood from exercise. And I find that the effects last for up to 6 hours some days. I could do a whole post on exercise.
  5. Sleep. I love to sleep. Any time I can get more sleep, I am a happier guy. Sleep does wonders for the body and endocrine system. Usually I aim for about 8 or 9 hours a night…but I don’t always get it. Sometimes a nap helps me to feel better too.
  6. Cooking. I love food…eating it and cooking it. I love Mexican, Sushi, Thai and Jamaican. I love trying new combinations of fresh, local ingredients in the kitchen. One of my favorite “happy dishes” to prepare and make is with Heirloom tomatoes (or Heritage tomates as we call here in Canada – same thing), balsamic vinegar, feta cheese, fresh ground pepper, fresh basil, GOOD olive oil and some sea salt. Mmmm. Just thinking about that dish makes me feel good. Somehow, the process of cooking is a means for me to feel good.I recently started growing many of my own herbs and some vegetables during the warmer months and it’s been incredibly fun.
  7. Alcohol. Yep – I know what you’re thinking…alcohol for someone with depressive tendencies is not a good thing. But I find that there are two drinks which do not make me more depressed and actually happier…even if I drink too much and am hung to the gills the next day (because alcohol IS a depressant). The first is really good red wine. I love red wines…sirahs/ shiraz/ cabs/ and malbecs/ zinfandels…I like all the big, beefy reds. If it’s SO huge, that I have to chew it before swallowing it and it’s really a bold, big red, then I am even happier. Gary Vaynerchuk has a great way of presenting and thinking about wines. He makes me laugh too – you should really check out his blog some time. The second drink that I love is 100% agave tequila with a whole fresh squeezed lime. Good tequila is actually a barbituate according to those in the know. Strangely, I can drink a lot of tequila, keep my game on AND function with near normalcy the next day.  I have learned that tequila (the good stuff) is the easiest hard liqour for the renal system to break down. I realize that it may sound like I’m talking about how booze works for me as a coping strategy…but 80% of society drinks alcohol, and 40% of them drink too much according to my doc. I usually don’t have more than a few drinks a night, a couple nights a week and ALWAYS with friends or family – NEVER alone. And then the same on weekends. My doc thinks that I’m within safe limits and doing fine.
  8. Socializing. I never used to spend enough time on this very important element of my life and if I did – it was at work…or with work people. But now, I make it a priority. It just makes me feel good to spend time with good friends and family and shoot the breeze. I don’t care if I’ve heard the same stories or jokes before. We live in such a fast paced world with not enough connections that matter. A good friend of mine just returned from Italy with his girlfriend and remarked how much people socialize at night…every night. It’s just a way a life there. And he also said how happy people seemed there…and how he is lucky to see ONLY one or two good friends a week while back home in Vancouver. Maybe he should move out of Vancouver!
  9. Intimacy. Spending close, quiet time with my wife is calming and uplifting for me. It doesn’t matter if we are just sitting on the deck chatting, watching TV or eating dinner together. Doing more of that is always a good thing for my mental well being and helps me to feel grounded. She is very smart, calming and kind. Being around her just makes me happy.
  10. Blogging. Who knew? I like blogging. Because I like to write and don’t care if anyone ever reads my stuff…I do it without prejudice and expectation. There is something stimulating for me to wrestle with my thoughts and try to shape them into content that is coherent enough to read. I wish that I had more time to write.I also love the endeavor of the technologies related to blogging because it keeps me into what’s happening online.
  11. Music. I love music…all kinds of music.Music makes me feel good. My home is wired with speakers in just about every room through one of my favorite toys – the Sonos Wireless music system. This is another proven, powerful way that I keep my moods up and depression out of my life. I work out to music and drive with music. My iPod has to be one of the most important technology gadgets that I own.
  12. Being outdoors. I’m not exactly Grizzly Adams and I’m not talking about always doing crazy hikes here, but I do like to just be outdoors, a lot. Even in the winter, when it’s cold and dark…being outside works well for me. If we can have a camp fire with the neighbours…go for a walk alone…or just sit outside and enjoy the fresh air, it all lifts my spirits. I used to live in Vancouver, BC where it seemed to rain ALL the time, something I couldn’t stand any more. This was not a good climate for anyone who might have any depression. Where I live now, in Kelowna, it is very dry and rarely rains.  Making the move to a place with a drier weather pattern has helped me a lot.
  13. Laughter. This is of course an obvious one. Laughter just makes me feel good. Loads of research here on the power of laughter. But it’s worth mentioning here because I am proactive with it. I actively seek out funny people, shows, books and movies. Two of my favorites lately are Eddie Izzard’s and Dane Cook’s stuff. They are both very smart and totally crazy funny.
  14. Pets. We have three cats and they bring me great joy. When I traveled a lot, I missed them. But now that I work from home predominantly, I find they are a powerful ally in treating depression as they come to visit me throughout the day. I love animals and I especially like cats because of their complicated inner lives, agility, natural affection, calmness and incredible cleanliness. There’s something peaceful about looking at a cat sleeping.
  15. Dark Chocolate. For me, there is no treat like dark chocolate to lift my spirits.  Just to be clear – dark chocolate is anything north of 72% …it needs to say 72% cacao or better. If it isn’t 72% or better, then it’s just junk food. Having said that, dark chocolate looks good…exotic to me. It smells good. And I love the taste of it and how it feels in my mouth. In addition, it always gives me a bit of a buzz and the high magnesium content relaxes me (magnesium deficiency happens to the be most common mineral deficiency even for those following a balanced diet). Cacao is a very good antioxidant too. I’m not talking about munching down on chocolate bars left and right here. But I DO usually eat a few squares every day. Some of my favorite bars are by Zazubean, Vosges and Green & Blacks. None of these manufacturers have bitter tasting dark chocolate and are always a safe bet, although a bit more expensive. and lastly….
  16. Talking about depression. Especially with people who also have struggled with it. I used to be embarrassed that I was or could be depressed…like something was wrong with me. But when I realized how prevalent it is and that there a lot of people who struggle with depression. It is actually very common and sadly, most people do nothing to manage it. That is sad, because it’s actually quite easy to deal with whether it’s acute (like from a major life event) or chronic (like a chemical imbalance). Either way, there is nothing wrong with depression in an of itself.

What IS wrong is not doing anything about it….

Anyway – a bit of a long winded post – I realize that, but these are the things that have me happy as can be and keep depression at bay. Most of them are simple, low (or no) cost and easy to do on a daily basis.

If would love to hear about any feedback you have or how you manage depression.

Background SWAT Officer in i-Robot

At the time, i-Robot was the largest made for film production ever filmed in Canada.   185 million USD was the total budget.  Will Smith got $20 million. I got $1,500 for a few scenes with the back of my head and a side profile over 7 days work.  But it was a blast.

My agent told me that I am well suited to military and cop-type role roles.  (I’m sure the Buzz Lightyear jaw line has something to do with that!).

Actually, there were so many special effects in this film that they were rumored to eat up most of the remaining budget.  The police station, where all of my scenes took place was so real looking.

I remember how impressed I was the first time I walked on set.

Anyway, when my agent told me that I was selected for this production, I was really excited.  The first thing that I did was head out to Vancouver Film Studios for measurement and fitting of a uniform that would be custom made for me.

The folks making my uniform advised me that the cost for my SWAT suit alone was in excess of $10,000.   It fit me like a glove when I came back 2 weeks later to try it on.   Damn was it cool.  Too bad it (and millions of dollars of other cool outfits) are sitting in a Fox Studio warehouse somewhere…

It would make the most fantastic Halloween costume – EVER.

i Robot SWAT Team

I learned so many things being a part of such a big production.  Most notably  – patience. You spend a lot of time waiting around on big productions like this.  All in, I was probably on set for a total of 5 hours out of the 7 days I was there.

I also learned how much goes into shooting sci-fi productions.  The planning and organization in insane. Most of the scenes for i-Robot were shot in sequence.i-Robot Sargeants

I also learned that Will Smith is a very funny, very hard working actor.  The man is totally on his game in every way. He and Jada have mastered Hollywood…possibly even the universe!

Recently I watched the Pursuit of Happyness and loved it.

During set up for one scene well into the production a bunch of us were killing time waiting to hear “camera up” (which means we’re rolling), just before a subsequent scene. This is common when producers want to maintain continuity where people are standing.  It also wasn’t long enough for Will to back to his trailer.

Myself and another background performer were sitting on a bench inside the police station you see in the movie.  She had fallen asleep as it was getting later at night.  Will Smith was standing right in front of us and decided to give my colleague a little laugh – big Willy style.

He got about two inches from her face while she was asleep.  Then I nudged her to wake her up and she saw Will RIGHT THERE in her face.

She let out a big scream and everyone nearby had a big laugh, including Smith’s bodyguard who rarely even cracked a smile.

It made me appreciate Will’s sense of moment and sense of humor.

Anyway, as a background performer on big budget productions, you need to bring books, music…whatever, to pass the time because it can get boring sitting around.

i-robot background performers waiting

We were asked not to sit in the direct sunlight because of the possibility of skin tones changing color, which would of course mess up continuity in the final production.  You have to think of these things!

Call times were early – 6 am.  Days ended around 8-11pm.  Long days.

The set for my scenes was an abandoned BC Hydro building out in the Fraser Valley, just outside of Vancouver.

i-robot SWAT Captain

My commitment to Fox was for 9 days.  However, I only made it 7 days as I sustained an injury on set at the end of the 7th day during the filming of a very chaotic scene when the robots are attacking the police station and I was dodging other background performers running around frantically.

I was paid for 9 days, however, as the contract you sign with Fox provides for this if you’re injured on set.

It wasn’t a major injury – I sprained my right ankle – but did have to be carried off set.  Alex Proyas (the director) personally checked on me right after my injury.  Proyas is an on-set safety nut who puts this as his highest priority.

You may recall that Bruce Lee’s son Brandon Lee died on set during a freak accident while filming another one of Proyas’ films – The Crow.  So when we got to set on day one – we had a very serious talk about security and safety from the first assistant director.

There were about 75 other background performers on set for the same scenes that were being shot.  The costumes were incredible.  Some of them cost more than $25,000 to make.  The details in these costumes defy logic.

i robot police badge

For example – every one of us who had law enforcement had a unique badge number.

Mine was 2124D.

You will NEVER see that on camera, but it was part of the screen play anyway. There are so many other details that would take up days to explain.

Another very unique element of the production was that custom guns were made especially for the production.  These were real guns that shot blanks and they were extremely loud and very high tech looking.

The guns were amazing.

Some of us with weapons skills on the resume had the potential to be upgraded on set to firing the guns at the robots during the attack scene.  Which was good, because we got more money.

When this happened, all the intended targets were holding up clear riot police Plexiglas to block any debris flying out of the guns.  Those Plexiglas guards were green-screened out in post production.

My uniform had a holster for the gun, which was a plastic replica for all scenes except for those when there is actual shooting. I also had a billy club and real Mag Flashlight. All of which had to be handed into the armourer before leaving set from each scene.

Being a background performer is not a career. You will not make much money.

i-robot SWAT Officer

However, it’s a good way to learn the business and see how things get done.

But I wouldn’t focus on it as a means to an end in acting if that’s what you want to do.

Participating in this production brought far more value that the very small amount of money I was paid. I now look at all movies differently and know how much goes into them.

There is always the chance that director likes your “look” or decides to change the script and have you speak, but those happenings are the exception, not the rule.

Will Smith carried most of i-Robot and I think it is a great movie, with a great story and some state of the art special effects.

The original storyline would allow for a sequel, which would be a bankable money-maker for Fox.

In the meantime, if I can just get my hands on that costume….

Hong Kong

Hong Kong in July. Hot, humid and fun. Hong Kong is a digital photographers paradise with all the light, textures and rich detail you could ask for. Plus – it’s a great place to buy electronics because they are so inexpensive.

This is a photo and text summary of a recent trip with the top 5 things you’ve got to do if you’re limited for time and want to get the most out of your visit.

I flew on Cathay Pacific out of Vancouver for the compulsory 13 hour flight.  I think I was the only person doing a few push ups and sit ups in the aisle to keep my self limber.

However, the service was awesome with two hot meals, tons of snacks, great movies and decent service.

The only other airline that I’ve found to be better – is Singapore Airlines – which i’ll have to write about in another post.

Anyway, I was there for 5 days on business and loved every minute of it.  Temperatures were usually high 30’s and very humid. 10 minutes outside and this white boy (and everyone else) is soaking wet. The experience was a total culture shock for me.

If you’re used to living in North America, Hong Kong is an assault on the senses (until you get used to it…and then it’s an incredible place).  Here’s my assessment of the city;

  • Drivers are crazy and only seem to use the horn and gas
  • Cars always have the right of way – pedestrians don’t matter
  • Ambulances and Fire Trucks seemed non-existent
  • There wasn’t one car crash I can recall
  • Everybody smokes. Everything smells like smoke. Even non smoking rooms smell like smoke
  • Every baby is a boy.  Even the girls look like boys
  • Everyone is on their cell phone while eating, walking and driving
  • Everyone eats out, all the time
  • Most things are quite reasonable, outside of Hong Kong things are very inexpensive
  • Six foot one, two hundred plus pound white guys like me REALLY stand out
  • People’s homes are the size of my bathroom
  • It’s common practice to wipe your dishes and cutlery before eating
  • It’s WAY more chaotic than New York
  • Yet, the place is surprisingly clean (the subway was the cleanest I’ve ever seen in ANY big city)
  • Bamboo is the scaffolding of choice
  • HK’ers don’t like mainland China money and vice versa
  • The architecture is fantastic

We stayed in Causeway Bay at the Regal Hong Kong Hotel, which was clean and comfortable.  It has a killer restaurant up top with an amazing view and an even better roof top pool (see below).

Here are the top 5 things you’ve got to do if you get to Hong Kong:

  1. Go shopping at night.  The atmosphere is festive and the place comes alive.  Hong Kong is the place to buy anything electronic, watches and jewelery.
  2. Take the Star Ferry accross the bay to Tsim Sha Tsui and go shopping (Rolex store on every corner). When you’re there, take the double decker bus.
  3. Take a quick ride up to Victoria Peak any time of the day and take in the incredible view.
  4. Eat.  Hong Kong had some of the best food I can remember in any city I’ve visited. In Causeway Bay, where we stayed, there is a mall called Times Square which had some amazing restaurants.  Even the best restaurants in HK are resonable.  The street food is also clean and tasty.  Just be sure to go with a local so that you know what to stay away from and what you’re eating.
  5. Use the subway to get around.  It’s incredibly clean, safe and efficient.

Here are some more pics of the visit:

Hong Kong Pedestrian Overpass

Pedestrian Overpass

Hong Kong in a Taxi

Hong Kong in a Taxi

Two hours for what?

Two Hours for What?

Hong Kong Night Shopping

Inside Sasa – Hong Kong’s answer to Sephora.  One on every corner.

Regal Hotel Roof Top Pool

Roof Top Pool at the Regal Hotel.  Awesome views.

Constuction Hong Kong Style

Construction Hong Kong Style. No safety equipment of any kind.

Bamboo Scaffolding

Bamboo Scaffolding.  Cheap, strong, light, quick to put up and take down.

The Star Ferry Company

Boarding the Star Ferry Company

Crossing the bay

Crossing the water. Great sights.  A must do if you go.

Dinner at Wasabsabi

Dinner at Wasabisabi inside the Times Square mall.

Hong Kong Street Scape

Hong Kong at 7:30 in the morning. Things are quiet. Hong Kong is a night life city.

2

A Visit to Hillside Winery in Naramata

Last weekend we took a drive down to the south Okanagan valley here in western British Columbia, where some great wine is made on the Naramata Bench.  We love to get down there at least 3 times a year and taste wine.

The scenery here in the Okanagan valley is as beautiful as anything you’ll see anywhere in the world, the wines are usually excellent and the people are friendly.

The Naramata bench is a very small, boutique wine region within our larger Okanagan Wine Growing Region – where I live.

If you like wine, beautiful scenery and hot weather – you’ve got to visit. One of the wineries we visited was Hillside Winery, which is right on Naramata Road.

We tried all their wines and picked up a bottle of their Mosaic, which is a blend of Merlot, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

Hillside Winery

I love the big, beefy reds and this 2005 they were selling was awesome.

Okanagan reds have historically been a little on the green side (meaning not ready to drink yet), but some of the wine makers in the valley are now producing reds that are ready to drink today or lay down for a few years and get even better.

Hillside’s 2005 Mosaic is one of those wines that’s ready to drink today and with it’s novel blend of the above varietals (which I love each on their own) it’s got incredible complexity and must be tasted to be understood and appreciated.

Here’s some video of the winery and their excellent, professional staff.   There was no tasting fee at Hillside.

Things to do in Chicago

Frank Sinatra made a good point about Chicago.

It is a very fun town and it’s my kind of town. I’ve been there many times in just about every season and June is the best time to go. It’s like a mini New York, but with a slower pace and friendlier people.

The temperatures are just right in June… humidity isn’t (yet) too much, the cool cars are all usually on the road and if you can visit before school gets out, you can really enjoy this great city without an overload vacationing families.

This last trip, we stayed downtown, in the financial district at the City Center W Hotel. Good choice. This was a great location and was easy for me to get around during the day.

The downtown core is actually very easy to navigate, especially by cab! If you’re a walker, you can actually cover most of it on foot, which is great because there’s lots to see.

It is true what they say about this city, it IS windy. But in the summer months, this is a welcome characteristic.

Here are the top five things I think anyone should consider doing while in Chicago:

  1. Visit Navy Pier at night and ride the ferris wheel, then watch the fireworks. Romantic and fun!
  2. Go up to observation deck of either the Sears Tower or the Hancock Building. The Hancock Building is more central. Both views are impressive, especially during that moment when dusk falls and twilight starts.
  3. If you’re into architecture (which I am), Chicago has the best collection of modern influence mixed with the classics of ANY major American city – so take a narrated, guided boat tour on the Chicago River through the city. It takes a few hours and is worth it just to hear about some of Chicago’s amazing history while enjoy an urban view that is second to none.
  4. Eat! Chicago is a great town for chowin’ down. If you like Mexican, Rick Bayless, runs amazing Mexican restaurants called Topolobambo and the Frontera Grill (the latter is an al fresco power lunch spot with some incredible menu options), both within walking distance of downtown. And of course, there’s places like Gino’s East, for authentic deep dish Chicago pizza (if you’re into an inch of cheese onto of your pie!). My wife tells me it was great pizza, since I can’t eat it.
  5. Walk the Magnificent Mile. This is a stretch along North Michigan Avenue to Oak Street Beach with all the great shops and restaurants you can think of. One of my favorites is RL – Ralph Lauren’s restaurant at North Michigan and East Chicago Avenue – about halfway down the Magnificent Mile walk. They have the absolute BEST margaritas there and the people watching is a gas. We met some fantastic, friendly folks at that restaurant. Walking the Magnificent Mile is something that you should plan to do for most of the day.

All of of these things would make for the basis of a great weekend in Chicago. Other notable, but not “top five” things to do would be seeing a show, visiting the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and catching some outdoor music in the beautiful Grant Park.

Getting to Chicago is easy from any North American city – Chicago O’Hare is a hub airport for much of the United States and is one of the busiest airports in the world.

Take a cab into town from the airport if you’re not going to leaving downtown Chicago – you can get by with out a rental car if you’re there on a conference or don’t want the hassle and don’t need to stray too far. Cabs are a little on the expensive side, but well worth the convenience.

chicago-sears-tower

3

Squamish Chief Hike

Here are some shots from a hike that we did up the Chief in Squamish. The Chief is part of the Shannon Lake Provincial Park here in British Columbia, where Shannon Falls are. The Falls are worth seeing even if you don’t do the hike. It’s a fairly easy hike with a few spots that are quite steep.

It’s a great way to spend the day if you’re in Vancouver and looking for something active to do.

The view from the top is breath taking. You can see all the up the Sea to Sky Highway North towards Whistler, the Town of Squamish in the valley below, the ocean to the south. Bring lots of snacks and water. Most of the hike is covered with trees, but you’ll want to wear a hat anyway to keep the bugs off your lid.

We did the hike in May and the temperature was cool, so make sure you layer. You don’t need hiking boots – we saw many people in runners, but a good boot would certainly make the experience better.

The trail is well marked and should take the average weekend warrior about 4 – 5 hours round trip, including a good hour up top to rest, eat and enjoy the view. The drive from downtown Vancouver is about 40 minutes to the base of the hike.

Traci and I climbed up to the second peak: