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Sunday, 4 December 2011

My Life in the Boob Factory

 It's something that we all do, only I've done it to the point of nearly being arrested for indecent exposure. Ever since I can remember I've been unable to take a walk down the beach and come home empty handed. Maybe it goes back to ancestral times when we combed the shores for food, so we ended up hard wired to gather and hunt down the creatures of the shore.  Perhaps it is a more recently evolved material thing and we are secretly looking for bits of gold or buried treasures, or perhaps we think that someone will come along and give us money for our findings. In my daydream, some old school Cadillac will pull up and the driver will open the door for some vaguely familiar TV or movie star with a heavy American accent who says, "Hey there boy. I see you've collected some mighty fine shells. What say I give you a million dollars for them?"  More likely though, the shells glittering in water are attraction enough on their own and we just have to possess them. Moreover, they are free and decorative souvenirs of a relaxing day spent somewhere away from the cares of the working world. The trouble is, that I never come properly prepared for such ventures. A sensible person would know that a hand in hand walk on the beach will eventually deteriorate from some sort of glowingly warm Hallmark e moment into a full blown everyone for himself scavenger hunt. A sensible person would bring a bag.
  Men's swim wear is can be divided into two basic camps for the purposes of shell gathering. First you have the swimming-focused trunks like the Speedo. The Aussies call them budgie smugglers and other than the budgie there is no packing room for the likes of shells. If you wear one of these contraptions the only shells that you are going to bring home will be limited to how many you can pile up in you hands and balance against your chest.
Second, you have your board shorts. These trunks generally have good sized pockets in the front and maybe even some small ones in the back. Perfect for the surfer, perfect for the wandering scavenger. 
  The problem really isn't in the process. It's simple enough. Find something shiny in the water, pick it up and put it in your pocket. Done. The problem is that for the true shell connoisseur there is really no "off" switch. The pockets just get fuller and fuller and of course heavier and heavier. At some point you begin a war with gravity that your swimsuit just can't win. You get down to that-one-more shell that is the tipping point, or more precisely, the debriefing point. Now you know that you aren't likely to throw the shell back so you try things like tightening the string around the waist band. After that you try pushing out your belly. Eventually you end up with the string digging into your swollen belly as one hand now hitches up your trunks while the other tries to hold and gather more shells. This is usually when you see the best shell of the day and you have to let go of the waist band for just a second..........
   Collecting shells on the beaches of Hilton Head, South Carolina this autumn with Jan and my two sisters- and brothers-in-law presented us with some unique experiences. For some reason, the conch snails were there in full force. Usually you would just see the tip emerging from the sand. The best technique here is to straddle the protrusion and dig with both hands like a dog at the fence line. These specimens were quite fine but if you tried to jam two of these babies into your pockets, there would be a splash when your swimmers hit the surf. The first day we did the balance on your chest act but the next day the ladies in our crew broke out the plastic pails.
  The defining moment, that all important paradigm shift, came when my sister-in-law, Marg, held up a shell and said, "Hey look! A boob!" Sure enough, you didn't have to squint your eyes or be influenced by the power of suggestion, this type of shell looks like the real deal. Viewed from the top, these creatures have a classic breast shape with an areola and a nipple to boot. Depending on the size of the snail, the shell comes in its own versions from A (almost a boob), to B (barely a boob), C (can't complain), to D (Dang!) to DD (Double Dang!) which were the biggest that we found. I'm sure that Davie Jones is keeping the E to H (Help I can't get up!) ones for himself in his locker.
  Since Jan does a lot of work fund raising for The Weekend to End Women's Cancers, we figured that somehow we could work these shells into the cause. Unfortunately this now gave us a semi genuine reason for shell collecting. We now no longer even considered walking hand in hand in the setting sun, waves gently lapping at our feet. Oh no, from now on it was going to be a well planned full on assault on the shoreline. It was about to become an "all business now pal, don't be getting in my way, I saw it first" sort or thing.  In the spirit of fair play  we had to have the latest tide charts set out on the  kitchen table so that all of the couples could have an equal shot at setting their watches to the holy grail for gatherers -  the beginning of low tide. 
  Once we got our treasures home we had to figure out exactly what we were going to do with them. The first step was cleaning, as the entire haul smelled like taking a whiff in a garbage bag filled with old running shoes. They were put through various regimes of soap and water and vinegar and water and finally bleach and water and then water and water. This gives you a clean but a somewhat colourless and dull shell. The trick here was going to be to give these objects a more flesh like sheen.
  This had now become a science project. Complete with control specimens I had a ) car wax,  b) mineral oil, c) car wax with mineral oil over top, d) mineral oil with car wax over top The winner of the most life like was plain mineral oil.
The next problems were proper length of ribbon, making the length of ribbon into the properly  shaped Pink Ribbon logo, and attaching the ribbon to the shells in a manner so that they hung at the proper life-like angle. I had a week to figure all of this out before Jan was to take them to fund raise at a craft sale. At some point as I sat at the kitchen counter surrounded with spools of ribbon and scissors and tape and two different glue guns and glue sticks and waxed paper and aluminum foil and rubber gloves, an old dental pick and a pile of some kind of dead sea creatures that happen to look like human breasts,  I began to wonder what I had done in life to lead me to this point.
  It didn't take a lot of reflection before I had it whittled down to retirement. The way I see it, is that retirement puts you in the place of that charging bull who heads for the alluring bright colour but when he gets there the curtain is pulled away to reveal something unexpected, and unexpected can be many things - just not what you expected. I think that as I was plugging away at workaday life, I thought that retirement meant something like going back to my childhood where I  could just play with my friends all of the time, all day long. When I was a kid and wanted to play all I had to do was open the door and start to canvas the street. If there weren't any kids outside at the moment,I just started pounding on doors and asking, "Can ----come out to play?" It never took long to get a crew together and get at the serious business of playing. The reality of retirement life is that most of the boomer/zoomers, like myself, are really only semi retired and have schedules that are so over booked that an aircraft control expert is needed to schedule when you could possibly have coffee with them someday.  The result is that you can end up spend a lot of time knocking on your own door, so hopefully you don't have a lot of problems dealing with the person inside. 
   Thus, after years of education, work, maturation, and fate, I had become the sole proprietor of the boob factory that was set up on the kitchen counter. It took one day to do all of the set up and testing, and one day to do all of the actual assembly. Not bad at all.  Now the proof  would be in  the pudding.
   This weekend, Jan took the ornaments to a craft sale and they were well received. You actually don't buy the item, you just donate and take either a cookie or the ornament. Apparently double D's were the favourite. I won't speculate as to why.
 Well it seems that now I have an actual reason to go shell collecting. So if you see a guy stumbling down the beach with his hands full of shells cradled against his chest and his bathing suits pockets bulging and his gut pushed out....well just know that I'm on a mission here. 

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Spontaneous Generation

  There was really nothing I could do. I just got to lie there and watch them die. I had just returned from my fishing misadventure (see In the Arms of a Man from Tuk) and was still at the crawling stage due to a herniated disc, so my options for personal intervention were pretty limited.
  As I lay face down on the flagstones peering into the water I watched a bizarre and disturbing scene. Fish that I had raised for eight years were swimming perfectly happy one minute and floating dead the next. I have been keeping fish since I was about twelve and part of the dues in fish education is learning first hand why they die. Over time you can evaluate fish behavior in a pond or aquarium in a similar way that a mechanic listens to an engine.  If they are breathing for air at the surface or facing into a corner doing the shimmy or rubbing themselves repeatedly against the rocks, they aren't just swimming around, they are telling you something.
 During the time that I had been fishing in the Northwest Territories, Ontario had been sweltering with high heat and humidity. This may have been a factor. On the other hand Jan had run the pond, circulating the water down the waterfalls and along its river, adding oxygen while its volume alone would make temperature changes somewhat gradual.
 All of the algae that had been blooming mysteriously cleared rapidly. This can happen naturally when the surface of the pond gets covered by enough lily pads thus blocking out excess sunlight.  In some  bodies of water you can get algae blooms that cause problems when they grow and then again when they die off causing a rapid loss of oxygen. Further, enough of this goo festering at the bottom can cause a deadly round of hydrogen sulfide. Interesting stuff but I doubt that was the problem.
  New pond/aquarium set ups are prone to problems related to the nitrogen cycle and the production of ammonia. Not the case here.
 Overfeeding can be a problem but we rarely feed our fish commercial food. They have enough planted material and a healthy insect population to keep them plump enough thank you.  
  Probably more to the point, our neighbours had been doing some heavy herbicide applications during the dry hot weather.The herbicides probably hadn't settled into the soil when the torrential rains hit and washed everything down into the pond which is well below surrounding yard levels.
  I have several water test kits but they were downstairs in the basement jumbled up in a bunch of junk and I wasn't about to crawl through the house, up and down stairways dragging the equipment with me like some kind of demented aquaculture rescue dog.
 The best that I could come up with was trying to do a partial water change. Lacking any quick access to a submersible sump pump I tried to use an all too small system that is designed for aquarium use.  It took forever and gummed up repeatedly but eventually I changed enough of the toxic water and replaced it with rain barrel water such that at least the pace of the deaths slowed markedly. By the end of the summer we had gone from just under 30 fish to a total of 4 including three that I had purchased in the "feeder" tank section of the pet store just to see if conditions had changed enough to allow for some decent chance of survival.
 Spontaneous Generation- The short hand definition here is that there was a belief that you really didn't need seeds or eggs or parents to start life, all you needed was something called "the wet" like a damp forest floor or a puddle or a compost bin  plus the sun and bingo you would sprout frogs or badgers or whatever. This has been a somewhat less than popular view since something called "Science" came along but I think that this new "Science" notion is probably wrong.
  In Ontario the autumn is called Fall for a reason. At some point all of those yellow, orange, and red leaves that adorn the post cards of Algonquin Park and lure the legions of "leaf peepers" to our province, fall to the ground and head towards our pond. I'm not sure that this is a phenomenon that is limited strictly to Ontario. I am quite of the mind that if you are standing in Fitzroy Park in Melbourne Aus  where you can see Capt Cook's boyhood home and a leaf gently wafts past your face, it is just beginning its journey to our pond.
 Normally I can somewhat keep up with what nature dumps by scooping out the day's contributions with a large net. Unfortunately this year just as Nature was letting loose her colourful bounty we were headed out of the driveway for Hilton Head South Carolina.
 The pilgrimage to South Carolina has become a new ritual, the draw being things like: warmer temperatures, sun rise/sun set walks along the ocean, sea shell gathering, good fishing, world class golf courses, herons, turtles, alligators, eagles, fried shrimp,whole flounder dishes, bicycling at low tide, walking to sea side bars, beautifully preserved historic communities, renting waterside mansions for a song, and more cheap wine and beer than you can shake a stick at. But after a while you've got to come back.
  The November return meant a beat the clock scramble to get ready for winter: drain and cover the rain barrels, paint and caulk around windows, clean and cover the barbecue, have the winter tires put on, last wash and wax for the cars, replace the furnace filters and the humidifier pads, turn off the outside taps and drain the lines, empty all flower pots and store in the garage, drain the gas in the lawn mower, change the oil in the snow thrower, trim trees, bushes and ornamental grasses before the last day for yard waste pick up, reset the controls on the furnace and floor heaters and humidifier and air ventilator, rake the leaves to the curb, AND muck out the pond. By contrast, when we lived in Australia, winter was the day when we thought that maybe we shouldn't wear shorts and perhaps look for that sweater that we brought,, worries, be right mate.
  All that was really needed here was the movie creature to go with this black lagoon. Leaves had displaced most of the water and what water there was had been dyed black by leaf tannins. Nothing else was visible - no water lilies no fish - just a cold dark undrinkable tea.
  Louis lent me his rescued from the thrift store submersible pump. A real beauty - lots of power and a long cord so that you could just toss it  right into the bottom of the pond. The hose attached to this pump was of uncertain parentage and vintage. What was for sure was that it had been patched a number of times and it looked like some of the patches may have worked themselves loose over the years. The only way to know for sure was going to be to set it up and plug it in.
 Now I should have known better than to straddle the hose while the pump powered up and the black sludge from the bottom of the pond began to serge through the line but I was too engrossed in watching the hose go from flat to full round under pressure. Neither Louis nor some funniest home video show could have better planned to have the largest split in the hose appear right between my legs.  Several seasons worth of rotted leaves and liquefied fish poop shot up and covered me from crotch to glasses to hat in an instant. By the time I got over to pull out the plug, the lawn had become a black swamp and I look like I had just been tarred.
  Now every Canadian is supposed to have ample supplies of duct tape on hand, in fact I think that it may actually be a law but I was out of this and any other heavy duty, wide tape. All I had was some thin electrical tape and there was  no use trying to see if I was really making repairs if the pressure was off and the hose was flat. So it was another good bathing in goo as I wrapped around and around and around with my little spool of tape as the hose continued to spew under pressure. At some point you can only get so wet but I'm not sure if this applies to filth.
  As the water drained I had Gord spray all of the algae off of the rocks in the pond while I climbed down in it, scooping out clots of leaves and chunks of overgrown plants.The fish would show themselves in due time, after all they were steadily running out of room.
 The pond is sloped in terrace fashion and the bottom of the bottom is quite small, just about enough to place your booted feet in and not much more. I carefully began scooping out the remaining small puddle of water with a plastic cup and only then did a flash of colour emerge from the blackness. It was cornered in no time but there was only the one. I continued with my plastic cup until there was nothing left on the bottom but the dry pond liner. No more fish. No more water in the pond, just rocks and rubber liner. It was now mid day, the light was good, everything that there was to see could be seen. Fine, one lone fish occupied a bucket along with a handful or two of large snails.
  Filling the pond is a surprisingly slow process. The diameter of a garden hose is smaller than the sump pump's and there is no need for heavy pressure. This more leisurely pace makes you appreciate just how much water you are using so that when the water bill comes you will have had time to prepare for the shock.
  When the water reached the top I put on the fountain, chucked Mr Lonely and the snails back into the pond and headed up for a shower and a beer.
   The sun sets pretty early here in November so by the time I got cleaned up and back out on the deck, beer in hand to properly  survey  and contemplate my handiwork, it was already getting dark. The beam from the pond light set on a terrace near the bottom of the pond confirmed what the fading rays of the sun were eluding to. There were two fish in the pond! Impossible!
  The next morning as I had had coffee and was confirming the miracle of the second fish with Jan, we now counted three. The three count held for two days and then there were four. They even had the exact same colour patterns of the original fish.
  I made a point of not checking  today.  Who knows what creatures are being generated in that "wet"? With all of this Spontaneous Generation going on in the pond I'm a bit afraid to look.  Ken

Sunday, 21 August 2011

A Simple Answer to the World's Financial Woes

All over Europe countries who have overspent and have no money to pay are standing around with their empty pockets hanging out going, "Psst ….Hey Germany, can you spare a euro?" In America, the perhaps formerly most powerful country in the world, has just been put on official notice that they are being lumped into the same financial group as drunken sailors. One could almost be smug except that as as group, Canada's baby boomers have saved no money for retirement and pay out to debt nearly $150. for every $100. that they bring in. Simply put, the world has lost the plot financially.
Most of us knew the answer to these problems way back when we were kids. The problem is that like the children who came back from Never Never Land we forgot about it as we got older. The answer – cue the pixie dust - was the weekly allowance.
I have been informally surveying my friends for about a month now and have come up with a few trends
which transcend age variation and amount of allowance paid. Here in my own business report are the results of this survey along with a bit of financial commentary. 
  Allowances generally were given on a weekend after the wage earner got paid. The fact that we had to wait until the designated day taught you that money didn't arrive in a constant stream. For most people it arrived as a fixed amount on a fixed day and there were no exceptions, Friday didn't mean Thursday and this week's allowance didn't include next week's There were no pay day loans. You began to internalize budgeting.
Most allowances came with strings attached, some with strings of gossamer and some with tow ropes. In my case there was nothing really spelled out but I wouldn't dare be putting my hand out before the lawn was cut. My allowance was also mine – a totally disposable income, no strings attached - full tilt mad money - all twenty–five cents of it.
Many of my peers were not so lucky. Some were expected to save a certain portion while others were expected to donate to the church. None the less you were left with a weekly something in hand and this is where the bulk of your early financial training began.
That twenty five cents had buying power. For me the heft and sway of my financial clout rarely lasted longer than that Saturday afternoon, and I was forced to coast for the rest of the week, but it was a heady experience while it lasted. We didn't have malls back then and there were no department stores within walking distance. We had the drug store on the corner and that was all the shopping mecca that we needed. It had comic books, candy, ice cream and pop. It had nothing we really needed but pretty much everything that we wanted.
We had the whole inventory memorized and parsed out into categories of equivalent value.  The bigger ticket items cost ten cents each. Pop, a comic book, a bag of chips, cheezies, flavoured pop corn, a drumstick ice cream, a large chocolate bar all were going to cost you a dime. Items within this list could be further subdivided into what would last longer. An Arrow bar was delicious but all of those holes made it seem less substantial a purchase than an O Henry bar. Crème Soda was wonderful but way too tempting to shake up and see it go in an instant. Chips had the crunch but you could still eat Cheezies when they got stale.
Comic books taught us about group purchasing and sharing. Everyone in the group would get a different comic and then trade them around as we sat reading and munching. Comics were pretty much the mandatory purchase. Everything else went with the book.
 Nickels presented a new set of problems. You could always go for the large size Peppermint Patties or the sponge taffy, or the smaller sized chocolate bars but then that would be it for your allowance if you had already gone the Cheezies and comic book route.
That last nickel was usually saved for the penny candy section. Two for a penny and three for a penny gave you a pretty good bag stuffed with the likes of licorice-sticks, pipes, and nibs,or black balls or black babies(no that's not a misprint), packets of licamaid, wax shapes filled with coloured sugar water, caramel squares in cellophane, a strip of candy buttons (sugar dots on wax paper) and of course a few candy cigarettes just to get in training for the future. The important thing here was to stretch that last bit of money into items that you could, if you had the will power, make last over a bit more of the week. This need to stretch your allowance was the corollary to the general rule of consumer economics 101- first you have to get money and then you have to make it last.
  No matter how hard you tried, the allowance was never enough to fulfill all of your wants. Then again I don't think it was ever meant to, and therein lay another lesson. If you wanted more, you were going to have to earn it. As a group we caught on quickly. At two cents a bottle our generation pretty much had the lock on the invention of recycling. A morning spent scouring ditches by the the side of the road instilled  values of hard work and entrepreneurship which could be reinforced immediately with a bike ride to the store for instant reward/gratification.

 Having a bicycle had given me the freedom to travel with my buddies as I pleased. That freedom eventually led us to the fairly distant Stoney Creek Dairy. The dairy gave me a craving for quality ice cream that my budget couldn't afford. The budget constraint led to my constant nagging for jobs. The nagging led to a job that Dad figured would keep me quiet for a bit, while on my part I could dream about dairy delights as I toiled. 
  The job was about as "make work" a project as you could imagine. Dad hauled an ancient wooden  extension ladder out of the garage and set the two pieces up on saw horses in the backyard. My job was to scrape and sand all of the paint right down to the bare wood and then stain and then seal and then put on two coats of spar varnish. I'm pretty sure that in the realm of Dad Jobs this one has to be considered top shelf in the "keep em busy category". Dad jobs, of course, were always menial, hard, boring work for low pay and came with a heavy handed subtext of "and this is what you'll be doing for the rest of your life if you don't do better in school."
 I immediately hired a helper and promised to share the reward,although it was never stated exactly what the reward was to be because nobody really expected that I would stick to any project of that length. As we worked along we of course speculated on the possibilities of how our payment could be spent. My buddy had heard that they had a new dish at the dairy that was going to be this summer's rage. So huge and wonderful was it that it would put any sort of double decker or banana split to shame. This was it. This was to be my new focus. 
"What do they call it?" 
"Well my dad saw it and he says that it's some kind of an idiot's delight."  Idiot's Delight - now my dairy fantasy had a name.
  Neither sun, sweat, nor sandpaper were a match for my frozen goal and as the days passed there was no flagging from the cause. At some point Dad gave his nod of approval and handed over some cash to my friend and me. He even went so far as to suggest a treat as a bonus for a job well done. I knew what I wanted.
  Dad even volunteered to go in and get our treats as we sat on the bench. Awhile later he emerged empty handed but with his face contorted and glowing crimson red . This was not the portrait of a happy man.  As he told it, he had walked up to the counter and ordered a banana split and an Idiot's Delight. The man behind the counter seemed confused by the order. The banana split was no problem but he said that he didn't think that the other item existed.  Dad went on the offensive and said that it did and was very popular and that he wanted his request for an Idiot's Delight filled. Apparently there was a bit of a pause followed by, "Well sir what exactly would make you happy?"
  I was pointed in the direction of the door and told to order my own delight. Turns out it was called a Super Duper. 
   After this I pretty much looked for jobs that didn't have to be invented and supervised by Dad. My first job was to picket around a car lot with a sign that said, "These low prices are unfair!" A sweet deal at fifty cents an hour. After that came a job as a drug store delivery boy which was a bit of a challenge because I didn't know the names of any of the streets and didn't carry a map because I thought that my lack of knowledge might be found out. I'd just take the package and hop on my bike and start asking the first people that I saw for directions. If I didn't see anybody for awhile I'd just start knocking on doors for help. 
  By the time I got to high school I was still getting an allowance but it had slipped far below the needs of my current   life.  Only a better job, in this case loading trucks and box cars for the Canadian National Railroad  could cover gas, girls,dances and movies.
  I can't help but wonder if world leaders and finance ministers didn't grow up with allowances and how that has effected their thinking. Did they not learn that you can only spend as much as you have and that there are no extensions and that you have to make your money last?  Did they forget that things like houses are only worth so much in proportion to everything else? Did we all forget that for most people most successful money management comes from hard work and harder budgeting, not from lightning strikes like the lottery tickets or this week's hot stock or race horse tip. 
  I recently read that most people become happier once they reach their senior citizen years. I wonder if it's because at a certain age you go back on allowance.  Ken
    ( a special thanks to Art Vernon for the photo of his allowance saved in a coin collection)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

In the Arms of a Man from Tuk

 He said that he was originally from Tuk or Tuktoyaktuk if you like, a small Inuvialuit community way up there on the shores of the Arctic Ocean on Mackenzie Bay. He described going on a whale hunt when he was about five. The hunt was not just about the searching for food, it was about the gathering of a community and the sharing of food even to other communities far flung across the Arctic. Roger had grown up in a boat and as our guide we would put his skills to the test.
 Louis and I had waited about three years to return to Frontier Fishing Lodge on Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories. The trip isn't cheap (you could go on a cruise) but you get what you pay for in terms of good service, good food, fresh air, clean water and abundant large fish. Planning involves a number of trips to the tackle store and stocking up on things that you already have three of and things that you will never use but seemed to fit into the maybe, just in case, I've heard this colour is really hot this year, scenario that the salesman has woven for you.
  After the tackle store comes at least two weeks of packing and repacking the main bag plus the knapsack  carry on, plus the rod case. You have a 50lb max flight limit on the bush type planes so every piece of clothing gets double thought. You also, of course, have the dilemma of the fact that a bottle of scotch weighs more than a couple of long sleeve shirts so you are constantly checking the Internet weather channel to see if you can predict your needs.
  On Thursday morning I lugged my gear down to the foot of the stairs, set it on the floor, and as I stood up, my L4 disc herniated and I went into a spasm that twisted me into the letter C. I had no illusions of what this meant. Mr L4 has been the ruin of many a holiday over the years, but I knew I couldn't cancel out on my good buddy. And, if we didn't go this week we wouldn't be going this season. What if I cancelled and then felt better the next day? What if the chiropractor could put me back together? Maybe this wasn't going to be as bad as usual. I had two appointments with the chiropractor that day and at 3 am Friday morning we were headed to the airport. I was visibly in trouble way before we saw the sign that said Terminal 3. 
 An airport worker quickly sized me up and I found myself being pushed around in a wheelchair. Louis, meanwhile, had to do all of the check in stuff and somehow juggle the two main bags, the carry-ons and the over sized awkward to handle rod cases.
  Plastic bags leak. At least they do when you fill them with ice and then shove them down your back.  By the time we got from Toronto to Edmonton to Yellowknife my jeans were light blue on the front and a very suspicious dark blue on the back.
  In Yellowknife, we quickly arranged for whatever chiropractor would see me that day. He was less than enthusiastic about my prognosis. "I know that plane that you are going on. You won't be able to get in it. And if you do, how do you think you are going to be able to handle being in a boat?"
 The small plane was a bit of a stretch, but many patient people helped me on and off. The boat proved a bit more challenging. If you are sitting in a boat, every wave delivers a bolt of pain. One day the wind came up and we pounded through the waves to get back to the lodge for over and hour and a half. I nicknamed that trip "The Spine in a Blender Tour."
  Louis had spent some time as a grade one teacher and the he skills learned there came into play on a daily basis. He can tie your shoes in a jiff and they won't be coming off until he unties them, I tell you. He is equally good at socks and if it had been colder, I'll bet that he is a master at snowsuit management. As it was, due to just over freezing water conditions and highs of 15C, each day started with jeans, wind pants, short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, sweater, jacket, a baseball cap covered with a toque and a pair of gloves. I would lie on the floor as Louis found what I needed and threw it at me.
 As I couldn't sit for long, we kept trying to come up with different solutions that would allow me to take part in some fishing. One of the best I dubbed, "The Captain Ahab". From our cabin, we took a wooden chair which had a high straight back and high arm rests and placed it in front of the regular boat seat. I also had a wooden staff. Thus, with my left hand on the staff, I could push myself up to a more comfortable standing position and fish with my right hand holding the rod. I couldn't help but feel that I cut a rather commanding figure. I was clearly looking like the master of what the Australians call "the tinnie."
 We were in the river mouth right in front of the lodge because there was no wind/waves there. Everyone else had departed for larger adventures. I was doing the Captain Ahab and decided that I could handle a cup of coffee as well. Cue Louis. Before getting the coffee, I managed to get a few useless pain pills into my mouth. Now with coffee cup and staff in the same hand, I was intent on a bit of maneuvering in order to swallow the pills. Just as the cup reached my mouth the fish hit. The rod in my right hand snapped down violently causing me to lose balance and go into a painful spasm which sent me backwards, setting the hook as the next spasm came along, causing me to spit out the pills and throw the coffee at Louis. Fish on! I was oddly supported by the resistance of the fish, but by the time it was done, I was done. It was too big for me to stand up and hold so they just put it on my lap where it bounced and squirmed around like an over sized Labrador puppy while it got its picture taken. Next came the official measurements handled deftly by Roger, followed by a proper release that ensured that the fish had all of its energy back. Barbless hooks, handling by the guides, minimal time out of the water,catch and release policies all ensure a thriving industry. It was a bit humbling to think that if these lake trout only grow one half pound per year, that that 32 and a quarter pound fish was probably as old as I am. It was also the biggest fish caught that week.

  Catching Le Grand Guy did me in for the rest of the day. I took the next day off to lie on the cabin floor as well. My staff met its end that day for as I lay there enjoying some reading I noticed a bit of movement in the corner near the Coleman stove. The mouse was on tour and with some difficulty I was somewhat right behind it. It seemed to enjoy investigating the tops of the beds and when I thought I had myself secured at the proper angle I swung.  Unfortunately the staff was too long and broke against the cabin wall. This left me with seriously diminished weaponry and not much to balance with. The mouse was unfazed, he hopped onto Louis' pillow and tried to stare me down or win me over with its big brown eyes. Apparently half a staff works quite well when aimed properly at the top of the rodent's skull. Sorry about the pillow, Louis.
 Roger works so calmly that you might miss some of what he is handling. First is basic navigation. This is a huge convoluted lake. You can't afford to get lost and you can't afford to have an accident. There will be no one around to hear you, communication devices tend not to work, and the water is deadly cold. He is constantly checking for depth and changes in water temperature as well as wind and cloud conditions. He is also helping with lure selection, untangling a bird's nest in a reel, lighting his smoke, lighting your smoke, maneuvering to keep lines from being tangled on turns, netting and unhooking fish. He is also busy watching and pointing out the eagles.
 We were in a section that seemed to have no shoal or point or anything that would attract fish but we were catching them one after another, so I asked him what made him think that there were going to be fish here. "The eagle told me." My skeptical metre jumped to high.
"So just how does that work?" I asked.
"Well you see that eagle in the tree?" We did."It's there because the seagulls are here. The seagulls are here because the cisco are jumping at the surface of the water. The cisco are jumping because they are being chased by lake trout. That's how the eagle tells me."

  Roger also gathers the wood, makes the fire, fillets a freshly caught small lake trout and cooks up a fine shore lunch complete with mushrooms, onions, beans, and hash browns.
 Unfortunately I gave Roger one other task to take on that wasn't part of his usual agenda. At the end of each day of fishing I had to be gotten out of the boat. The dock is higher than the floor of the boat but there is a steel ladder to guide you up. All well and good if you can stand and put a minor degree of weight on your legs without having a screaming spasm. So the end of the day ritual became one of Louis pushing while Roger tried to block out what he was hearing as he lifted. Roger is a man whose size and strength are of a certain importance but as a dead weight to be lifted at an awkward angle, I am of no small measure. Perhaps the Kenny Lift will become an Olympic Event one day and Roger will get the Gold.
  The last day of fishing found me in a boat that had a deck at the front where I could lie down and fish on my back. This worked well except that Roger had to keep holding the fish up over the gunnels so that I could see what I had caught. By this time I could no longer sit and took my meals either lying on the floor or the deck of the boat or on the ground.
  The trip back was another study in wheelchairs and Louis balancing luggage. As the small plane landed in Yellowknife, the woman acting as an assistant announced, "Wow was that ever a bad landing!" I could have told her that. While at the Edmonton airport Louis found a helium balloon with a happy face on it and attached it to me as I slept on the floor. He said that he didn't want me to get lost. 
  I have been back for about a week and have regained some mobility and am looking into an MRI, but I still have a lot of floor time where I can think about my next trip back to the Northwest Territories where maybe next time the man from Tuk can just drive the boat and not worry about holding me.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Making the Cut

 In 1974 Richard Nixon was having a bad time while Hank Aaron was having a good one. In 74, Ali hit George and George hit the floor. People magazine had its first edition while Kate Moss and Leonardo DiCaprio were being newly minted themselves. More importantly a model 5269c, 19 Inch Cut with Grass Catcher, Lawn -Boy by the Outboard Marine Corporation of Canada Ltd. rolled off of the assembly line and was purchased August 10 by my dad at the local Simpson's store. Thirty-seven  years later I'm still pushing it.
  The new machine, bright green and sporting a stylish plastic engine cover was a none too hasty replacement for the one that had reigned during the entire lawn mower chore days of my childhood. Ever since I had been old enough to push and was reliably able to swear that I wouldn't run over my own foot, I had toiled with a beast sold as the Iron Horse by Lawn Boy. I suppose that calling something a horse was designed to get you thinking about Northern Dancer type thoroughbreds slicing their way easily and nobly through verdant fields. The reality was more like a  heavy Clydesdale named Pizza Face. Not much in the looks department but it was a force.  The front end sported some sort of metal comb/rake/non moving saw blade, the purpose of which may have been to lacerate anything that was about to be cut up and thrown out or to just give it more testosterone macho guy appeal.  Directly behind that, the spark plug stuck out like a nose so that even the most mechanically incompetent could find it. Then came the heavy duty engine (which if you check YouTube you can still hear run), started by winding a separate cord around it in a manner that when you pulled, hopefully both started the engine and gave you your cord back.
  At some point fairly early on in its service, it hit something hard enough to split the metal deck so that it became a 1/3, 2/3 two piece puzzle. My father solved this problem with a couple of steel bars and some heavy nuts and bolts. It was sort of a metal bandage that kept it together most of the time but wasn't anything that would ever be confused with cosmetic surgery.
  Although there was never an actual dollar value placed on the weekly cutting, there was an expectation that it got done before the allowance was handed over. Cutting for the grandparents however was a different deal. Although never asked for, you knew it was as good as cash in hand once you asked if you could do the job. Grandma Pirie's mower must have been the pride of the Industrial Revolution in some bygone era. It combined the best of farm machinery weight and effectiveness as well as near indestructible iron and steel components ,complimented by the sturdiest of hardwoods. It was also so heavy that you rolled your lawn as well as you cut it. It had been painted bright yellow as were all my grandfather's hand tools. The logic here was that when neighbours borrowed your stuff then held onto it long enough that they thought that you wanted to borrow it when you asked for it back - well then that bright yellow came in handy now didn't it.
  I don't remember them having any other lawnmower and when she left her house at 90 it was still there in the garage.
  I pushed our Iron Horse right through grade school when twenty five cents was a decent weekly stipend then right through high school (the extended grade 14 version) when for a while before I discovered girls, the sum of $2.50 per week seemed quite fine.  After all McDonald's could still give you a meal and change for a dollar. By grade 11 though, my needs had changed so I started working on the weekends and summers loading box cars for the railroad. My regime of lawn cutting became quite irregular.
   By the time that my dad had succumbed to the siren song of the tarty new 74, I had long moved out and the job had been returned to him on a full time basis. In the years between my moving out and me finally inheriting the mower, I had managed to go through more than a few machines of my own. You see, where dad had come from a culture of buy the best that you can afford once and look after it, I was one of the hoola hoop generation whose working motto was buy the newest, abuse it, break it, buy the newest because it will be better anyways. I broke my own  Lawn Boys and whatever brand that was on sale, and I even managed to break some fancy German made push mower.
  At this point Dad's 74 is in less than pristine condition. On my workbench is a small collection of parts that came from it and are probably never going back on, like half of a starter cord handle, and primer button and its spring. The fuel shut off valve doesn't work nor does the float valve so that whatever you put in the gas tank either gets used very quickly or just leaks all over the garage floor until it is gone. On the first day of grass cutting season this year it started on the first pull and performed wonderfully. From then on getting it to work has involved serious amounts of cursing and cord pulling to the point that after last week's session I could not raise my arm up to shoulder level for a full two days.
   In the 1951 version of  "A Christmas Carol", the housekeeper's line sums up the current running condition of the 74- "'E's breathing very queerly when 'e  does breathe at all."  The blade goes around just fast enough to cut a blade of grass providing it isn't very long otherwise it just pushes it over or it stops the blade and the engine shuts off. A by product of its current condition is a profusion of oil smoke. If you were to watch our house from the sidewalk you would find that in ten minutes I can recreate the moody mist of an Appalachian morning but in twenty minutes I can make you think that you have stumbled upon a mist enshrouded Brigadoon.
  Oh well, I have a few more days until I have to battle with the 74 again and in the meantime I plan to spend some time watching the grass grow, smelling its fragrance, appreciating its lushness, and walking through it barefoot. After all, isn't there supposed to be splendor in the grass?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Another Seasonal Reminder of the Importance of Reading and Remembering

. The  Casual Dining Season - in the Just Outside
   I'd heard about them before and even seen them a few times. The
basic idea is this. For a somewhat modest chunk of money you can get
your hands on a honkin big monster of a full grown tenderloin of beef
and cut the thing up yourself for a considerable savings. Well from my
experience it isn't quite as smooth as you may hope. First of all any
piece of meat that either requires you to keep your spine straight
while bending at the knees and or get a friend to help lift it into
the shopping cart is going to be a bit of a challenge. To deal with
it, all you need is a sharp knife, most of a full day, and a skill set
and knowledge that I didn't possess. I thought that all you had to do
was take the thing out of the package, slice it into steaks and then
spark up the grill. Not so. Apparently this thing has parts that you
can name like head, tail, butt, centre cut and even something called a
chain. I was just looking for twenty pounds of fillet mignon thanks.
The Internet is a wonderful learning tool and after only watching
about twenty Youtube videos on how to handle this thing I was ready to
begin carving. By the way, be careful when googling about a what you
can do with a tender loin. Try to make sure that your search has the
word beef in it.
 A not so quick six hours later I not only had my steaks but a
profound knowledge of why they cost so much at the meat counter. I was
also left with what to do with the less than exciting bits that I had
paid for. Since beef tenderloin is a fairly dry meat I elected to mix
it with some organic pork. Usually you don't find the words organic
and pig in the same sentence but around here if you have the wallet
they can find you the organic oinker.  So the ruminants of the two
beasts were put through the grinder, spiced, mixed, and formed into
patties, then tossed in the freezer.(That last sentence sounds like
something out of a crime novel doesn't it?)
 According to my friend who owns a golf course this has been the
wettest March in 70 years and the wettest April since they have been
keeping records. Yesterday the sun came out and the lid on the barbie
flew open.
  You've got to cook  beef tenderloin just right or it goes from
being mouth watering succulent to a study in subtly spiced shoe
leather. Hence I ripped open my new digital meat thermometer that had
been put in my Christmas stocking and began to speed read the
instructions. Apparently it can give you the time in either 12 or 24
clocks as well as count down and up,and give you the current
temperature of the meat or start beeping when the meat hits a certain
temperature.  Very nice but I  didn't have time for all of this.  I
just wanted to stick the probe in the meat and have done with it.
Scan, scan, put the battery in, scan, scan, okay I got it.
 I slid that metal probe into a selected patty with the skill and
grace of the deftest of colonoscopy practitioners. The little
electronic beauty began to read out the climbing Fahrenheit degrees in
easy to read black block digits. The thermometer hit the magic number
and in only a few milliseconds after my bare hand wrapped around the
metal probe I remembered reading, "Always wear heat resistant gloves
to touch the stainless steep probe sensor." The burgers were done to a
perfect medium while I would have to say my hand ended up more medium
 So you see it's not just the reading that's important but the
remembering too. Something to ponder in this newly minted grilling


A Seasonal Reminder of the Importance of Reading and Remembering


 The Casual Dining Season - in the Great Outdoors

 I don't know when they were first available but I do remember my
first experience with them. To not put too fine a point on it I think
it was in the 70's. A good friend at the time and I decided that we
needed a wilderness experience that didn't involve meeting other
people looking for the same thing. In Ontario, Algonquin Park has been
the international  postcard for all things Canadian Wilderness since
as long as I can remember. The trouble is that in mid season it is as
crowded as the 400 highway that takes you there from Toronto. People
book numbered wilderness campsites as if  they were checking into some
sprawling hotel. The fix to having to share the wild with legions of
others is to be found in the calendar. Any time after Sept 4 when the
kids have gone back to school works like a charm and usually the
longer you wait the better.
 This was the theory in play when Bruce and I loaded my canoe on the
car and headed north in late autumn.  The specific timing may have
involved some sort of long weekend but it more likely was the result
of calling in sick with some sort of important but vague illness that
would certainly take care of itself after four days.
 We had planned well. We had paid a goodly amount for special
topographic maps and special canoe route maps and had studied and
marked them up in detail. We had layers of clothing for every extreme
of temperature. We even took "some" food. The theory here was that the
park was full of lakes teeming with fish that would about jump into
the boat given the slightest excuse. Why bring food to nature's
grocery store?
  What we hadn't planned on was arriving in a storm that had made
Gordon Lightfoot's  remarks about  "When the witch of November comes
early"  all too relevant. The force of the wind drove waves high and
heavy, right over the dock. There was no way that we were even going
to be able to launch let alone survive a trip across a wind whipped
near freezing-cold lake. "Let's go where the wind is blowing!" one of
us shouted in the other's ear. Seemed sensible enough no matter which
one of us had said it. The problem was, of course, that we had no maps
that led in that direction.
 The journey down the deep and starless first lake wasn't all that
bad except for getting soaked by the spray coming off of the top of
the rollers. With the wind pushing us it was just a matter of keeping
an angle that kept the following waves from swamping us as we neared
surfing speeds. The portage was a long one, narrow, and boulder
strewn. No lights, lots of root tangles beneath, and tree branch snags
from above. When we finally came upon the next black water lake we
hastily pitched the tent, tossed our food bags beside a tree, got into
our sleeping bags and opened up a bottle of rum.
 As we were busy drinking and telling each other our life stories in
varying degrees of truth and then telling them again in wildly varying
degrees I couldn't help but notice a oddly inconsistent but intriguing
noise that perhaps didn't fit into anything weather related. The
trouble was that no matter how much these sounds may have been softly
ringing alarm bells in my mind, I was both just too drunk and too full
of my own story telling to bother  getting out of a warm sleeping bag
to face whatever strange creature may be on the other side of the tent
 Sun, cold, and persistent wind greeted our hangovers the next
morning. The strange noises had been a small army of the forest's
lesser creatures who had torn our canvas bags to rags and eaten
everything that was not in a tin. Somewhere I have a picture of this,
torn knapsacks, a bottle of rum with two swigs left in it, a few cans,
and thankfully a roll of dry toilet paper. That was it for supplies.
 Since we didn't have any relevant maps and there was no one around
to ask we paddled across the lake and skirted the shoreline.  We
looked in the water for red marks on shallowly submerged rocks. The
scrape marks from the rented canoes painted red and usually overloaded
pointed the way to the narrow paths through the unending blockade of
trees. We used this method throughout the day and to navigate from
lake to lake, all the while fishing while we paddled and paddling
while we fished.  Not a single bite.
 The next day on one of the lakes we discovered another lone set of
travellers. These ones didn't seem the least bit sleep deprived or
cold or tired or lost. They even had a map. According to them all we
pretty much had to do was follow the setting sun and in a few more
lakes we would be fine.  Well this did put us into a celebratory frame
of mind I can tell you. That night we feasted on our bounty of canned
food. In the flames of a campfire on a chilly clear night we fried up
some sort of almost meat concoction along with some beans. I remember
how wonderful it seemed at the time and later tried to duplicate the
meal at home.  (right into the garbage) The real treat of course was
the dessert. A thick yellowish pudding that could be all mine with the
mere insertion of finger into a metal ring, a pull, and a flick of the
wrist. The anticipation was just too much and I gave over to greed and
haste.. "Ooouch!" "Feck ! " Through the stands of blood and pudding I
could make out," N  as e lech le co ver  e". I wiped it with the
sleeve of my jacket. The shining metal was much clearer in the
firelight now.  I pressed my index finger over my hemorrhaging tongue
and in a very flat tone read out " Ne pas se lecher le couvercle"
Although the translation took a bit to materialize in my brain I have
never forgotten what it meant.
 With camping season coming on it may be worth it for you to remember it too.