Monday, November 26, 2012

a Bird in the Hand - I Believe in Miracles

Almost everyone is familiar with the adage "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush". Most people interpret it to mean a secured thing, one in your actual possession is better than a potentially better thing that isn't secured or not yet belonging to or held by you. Some people paraphrase it as "be happy with what you have, don't get greedy and try for more." Pretty much everyone agrees the implication of the bird-in-the-hand adage is trying to attain the better or more desirable thing (the 2 birds in the bush) may cause you to lose the thing you already do have (the bird in hand) and you'll wind up with nothing (because all the birds will fly away.) 

I've never really pondered the meaning of  "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" since I first heard the phrase years ago. I don't remember where or when exactly, maybe in school, but I do know I always agreed with the general consensus that it was about the folly of greed and how wanting more of something can lead to having less of what you already have... and I'm not writing this blog today to argue any differently or even to talk more about that old adage except to say the reality of having a bird in hand was to me, priceless.

I recently had a bird in my hand. A few different birds actually and the experience was... amazing.

It happened a couple days ago on an outdoor walk with my wife and dog, one described in some detail in the preceding blog entry Neither my wife or I can recall ever having wild birds perch on us (with the exception of some Stanley Park pigeons which hardly qualify as "wild", at least by my reckoning.) We do a lot of exploring in the wilderness areas around Hamilton and birdwatching is a huge part of the activities we enjoy. As a result we've seen a lot of birds but before that magical day at the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary none of those birds we were watching ever landed on us. Nearby maybe but never actually on us.

My wife was the first to have a hands-on (on-hand?) experience with a bird when a chickadee alit on her upraised palm. It stayed there only a second, barely long enough for us to grasp that a bird had actually landed on her! We were both elated but she was ecstatic at what just occurred. Seeing her look of wonder, amazement and joy nearly melted my heart and I was disappointed about not getting a picture of the magic moment which induced it. I had my 300mm lens on and was standing beside her, way too close to enable a shot even if I had been able to raise my camera to my eye before the chickadee took wing again.

Soon enough we figured out the chickadees (and a white-breasted nuthatch) were looking to us for a free meal. Accustomed we presumed to being fed by park visitors the birds were very comfortable being in the presence of humans (accompanied by a dog no less - a chihuahua, but still.) I was lucky to find an old granola bar deep in a jacket pocket which supplied crumbs for Tammy to offer our new park friends. This time I would have camera ready...

It was an indescribably awesome thing to watch and photograph my wife hand-feeding the nuthatch and chickadees. She was so happy, completely enthralled by the little feathered creatures jumping from bush to bush, branch to branch as they approached, flying around her, hovering over her, perching on her! I was also enthralled with wondrous joy watching her experience this first-in-a-lifetime event. Seeing my wife surrounded by and interacting with those birds was deeply moving on an emotional and spiritual level. My happiness at what she was experiencing during those bird-filled moments provoked an awareness of how deep and strong my love for her is. At the same time came a clear and true spiritual realization - miracles don't just happen, they exist.

That first spiritual surge was brief, just a quick sure knowledge - more feeling than thought - everything and every thing is connected. It wasn't until Tammy suggested I try feeding the birds and I too beheld the wonder that is a bird in the hand that the spiritual connection again became apparent. The knowledge that miracles do exist, that everything is intrinsically linked to everything else. The evidence was right there in my hand...

The actual physical sensation of a chickadee landing on my hand was very light. Aside from a slight tactile sense of its feet touching my skin there was no evidence I could actually feel. I had no sense of the bird's weight when it landed on me. Take-offs sometimes brushed air across my hand but there was no feeling of any weight being lifted. Chickadees aren't weightless of course (1/3oz or 9-12grams according to easily-Googled literature) but they're so light they might as well be. Even the relatively larger and heavier white-breasted nuthatch's weight (20 grams or so) barely registered... although their take-off launch did shove against my finger with enough force to indicate separation between us. The touch of the birds was so light I have to wonder if I were blindfolded, unable to witness by sight the wonder of a bird in the hand, would I know they were landing on me at all?

Actually seeing a chickadee perch on my fingertip was truly amazing. Awe inspiring (even if in the photos I look a little less than awe-struck. Bifocals, folks. In order to see the birds in clear focus I had to tip my head back.) I couldn't look at that bird perched on my finger without concluding I was witness to a miracle in the happening. When I realized the chickadee was looking back at me I knew for sure. In that moment I sensed the connection... the spiritual bond that binds everything together... the singular energy source within every atom and the space between. 

Some truths are too large in scale for anybody to grasp. I gained just a whisper of real knowledge framing the moment I and the chickadee in my hand assessed each other... the barest glimpse of truths beyond the understanding of mankind. I don't know if there was a message or lesson in that moment for the bird but for me it came down to this: I am you and you are me and we are all together. There's more to it than that of course but that's the feeling I got during that moment of bird-in-hand. I didn't think it. My thoughts at that moment were more akin to something like "Wow! This is AWESOME!"

And before any of my regular readers start thinking I'm off on some kind of God and faith sermon... relax. This isn't about that. I'm not preaching anything. I don't think the bird was some kind of messenger of God. This bird, and all the other birds I saw that day including the ones who didn't fly over and land on my hand were just birds. The bird wasn't looking right at me like the American Kestrel I spoke of in an earlier blog. The little chickadee was looking at me like he was just checking me out, comparing me visually perhaps to other humans encountered in its past. When he was done that he grabbed a crumb from my palm and split. 

It was like that with the other birds that came to my hand during those magical minutes I offered them crumbs. Not all of the birds paused longer than it took to grab a crumb of granola but some did. That they initiated contact at all was amazing. We saw other people handfeeding the birds that day and I did find out later that the chickadees and Nuthatch's of Hendrie Valley park are known to be "hand-tame" (which probably explains why those other people all had regular wildbird-safe seed with them. And, when you think about it... just who trained who here?) 

Anyway, the point is seeing the bird in my hand was evidence of a miracle. That a chickadee even exists is a miracle. And if it's a miracle then I'm a miracle... and if I'm a miracle then you are a miracle also.

What, you don't believe in miracles? Too bad. Not believing in miracles is like seeing the world from the inside of a windowless bus. I know. There was a time when I didn't believe in miracles. Now I do believe. I believe they are everywhere all of the time. Miracles are within us, all around us. We just don't see them for what they are because we as a species have blinded ourselves to their existence. 

Believing in miracles is the only way of having a chance at recognizing one when it occurs. Given how much we've used our freedom of choice (the gift of self-awareness) to distance ourselves from life's real truths it's a miracle our species is still here. It's a miracle you are here. And if you still have doubts consider this...

You are but one of over 7 billion humans alive today. And all of them (you & me included)... the entire human race equals an almost immeasurable fraction of the collective biomass of organic species clinging precariously to life on the thin crust of a planet 12,600 km wide, a planet traveling 107,000 km/hr around a star 100 times bigger. And that star is traveling around a galaxy with 200-400 billion other stars and it is spinning through the universe among an estimated 100 billion other galaxies.

In all that vastness of creation it took a miracle for you to even exist and yet...
here you are. Is that not a miracle?

I can't explain the miracle presented during my interaction with the chickadee. I barely understand it myself. Suffice it to say it was a very humbling experience, one I will have to devote much thought. I'm not suggesting literally having a bird in the hand will provoke a similar experience for anyone else but it can't hurt... hand-feeding the birds... slowing down for a moment... turning toward the natural world around us...

And maybe... just maybe... believing in miracles.

The expressed opinions are mine but some numbers and facts for this blog entry came from Wikipedia

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Hendrie Valley Sanctuary - First Impressions

Yesterday, Friday Nov 23rd, the weather was awesome but weather forecasts called for an abrupt change to colder temps and stormy skies, even possibly snow to the Southern Ontario region we call home. My wife Tammy, our chihuahua Isabeau and I had been enjoying the warm weather and sunny skies all week with daily adventures at a range of our regular haunts and favorite places. We'd explored Bayfront Park, the Princess Point / Cootes Marsh trails, even a couple walking excursions around our home neighborhood and Hamilton's downtown core. With colder temperatures and snow in the forecast for the Saturday I wanted to take full advantage of Friday's awesome weather by adventuring in an area new to us and decided we'd go to the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary.

The  Hendrie Valley Sanctuary is owned and maintained by the Royal Botanical Gardens. It's located near their main visitor center and garden displays area just outside of Hamilton's borders in the adjacent city of Burlington. We accessed the park from a lot on Plains Road West near Botanical Drive (Map) but there are other points of entrance available. As usual at RBG owned areas parking costs $1 an hour so we were expecting that but it was a pleasant surprise to discover the ticket machines accept the new 2013 loonie coins and somewhat surprising to discover there was no daily limit (usually $5) and the Valley was open to visitors 24hrs.

The  Hendrie Valley Sanctuary is a 100 hectare wilderness park that is considered by the province of Ontario as an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI). It contains a 50 hectare Marsh fed by Grindstone Creek and lots of forested slopes and ridges. The Valley and wetlands within (which apparently drain a 90 square kilometer area) is also considered an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) because it contains many rare and endangered native plants, fish and other species. Some areas and trails are closed to better protect the environment but there is still lots to see and experience. 

Trails through the park are sometimes hilly but almost always wide and smoothly surfaced. It can get wet and muddy in some spots so appropriate footwear is advised. On the valley floor there are elevated wooden walkways which give park visitors a great vantage point to enjoy the wetlands and creek without impinging on the natural flora and fauna. Trails are well marked and many contain Family Activity Panels at various points of interest. The colorful panels usually have 4 nature-based questions and exercises which encourage young park visitors to learn more about the area and its natural denizens by engaging in hands-on challenges and activities like 'touch 4 different kinds of trees to see the difference in bark' or 'find a caterpillar'. There were a few family groups at the park on Friday and they all, kids and adults, seemed to be enjoying the Family Activity Panels.

It was apparent as soon as we entered the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary trail system via the Cherry Hill Gate that one activity regular park users enjoy is feeding the resident squirrels. The park is home to Eastern Gray Squirrels and their Black cousins. Both species seemed totally unconcerned about Isabeau or us posing some kind of threat. To the contrary, the squirrels approached us willingly and only got wigged out after realizing we had no food to offer them. Not that they needed any! I don't think I've ever seen so many squirrels so fat before. These guys are definitely not hurting for a meal.

There were more Gray Squirrels than we normally see and they had some interesting physical traits not common to the Gray Squirrels we see elsewhere... These Hendrie Valley Gray Squirrels had white-tufts of fur behind their ears. It's a feature found on many Gray Squirrels but not as pronounced and common-to-all as it was on the ones here. Another interesting easily observable difference the park Gray Squirrels had from squirrels in other areas was the length of their tails. The Hendrie Valley squirrels have shorter than usual tails. Even the park's Black Squirrels had shorter tails than usually seen on these species. I assume it's some genetic trait within this community of squirrels that accounts for the physical differences between them and squirrels elsewhere. Whatever the reason, it doesn't impact their ability to gain weight and certainly doesn't negatively affect their cuteness factor.

We had a great time at Hendrie Valley Sanctuary. I love exploring areas for the first time. Every step, everywhere you look there are never before seen wonders and this park is full of amazing natural beauty. At this time of year with most leaves carpeting the forest floor instead of on the trees it was possible to see vistas and forest views unavailable in the spring. There are multiple ponds along Grindstone Creek as it winds and curves across the valley floor on its way to Lake Ontario. Views from the trails were awesome (thanks in no small part to the absence of leaves) but there were also spots where platforms were provided allowing park viewers an unobscured view.

As always we were hoping to see birds and the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary gave us a birdwatching experience like we've never had before. We spotted our first bird just moments after entering the park, a large Red-tailed Hawk cruising through the treetops in a glen to our right which put it almost eye-level with us. Less than a hundred steps later when we paused to shoot photos of a particularly fat Gray Squirrel we were suddenly surrounded by a mixed flock of Dark-eyed Juncos and Black-capped Chickadees. With them came a White-breasted Nuthatch which was the first of my many "Wow!" moments that day. That initial group of birds was very casual in their approach, a behavior which repeated numerous times with other birds we encountered in the park on our visit. The feathered denizens of Hendrie Valley are obviously comfortable and conditioned to the presence of humans and dogs.

That the smaller birds in the park had no fear of humans was made even more apparent as we traveled deeper into the trail system. The Chickadees and Nuthatch's were especially bold, often following us as we walked along the creekside trail, sometimes even cruising past us only inches away or perching in branches directly overhead. On a whim, Tammy offered an outstretched open hand and to our delight and astonishment a Chickadee flew down and perched on her fingers. It was an amazing. Until that moment a wild bird had never landed on Tammy before and we were both excited although I was disappointed not to have gotten a picture.. 

When another group of Chickadees greeted us further down the trail I began searching my pockets and found the crumbs of a granola bar in an old wrapper deep in my pocket. With this offering Tammy was able to have multiple Chickadees land on her hand and this time I was ready with my camera to capture the magic moments. To our mutual surprise and delight a White-breasted Nuthatch also alit on Tammy's out-stretched fingers, instantly becoming our new favorite bird!

I was also able to offer a few crumbs to our new feathered friends and the birds blessed me with finger-perching magic moments as well. Both the Chickadees and the Nuthatch made visits to my hand. We later saw other park visitors hand-feeding the birds and it's apparently well documented behavior for the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary Chickadees and Nuthatch's so be sure to take some wild-bird seed or bird-friendly sunflower seeds with you if you visit the park. And be sure to have your camera ready to record the magic miracle moment when a wild bird chooses to land on you. I personally found it to be a very humbling moment, one I'm very grateful for.

In addition to Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch and Red-tailed Hawk we also saw a number of other bird species... Great Blue Heron, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Cardinal, American Black Duck, Mallard Duck, Downy Woodpecker and thankfully just one House Sparrow. (I say thankfully because House Sparrows are one of the most damaging introduced invasive species to ever blight our shores. More about that in a future blog.) We also saw a couple of species which were kind of surprising considering what time of year it is... Redwing Blackbirds and American Robins.

It's not uncommon to see the occasional Robin around at this time of year, especially when the weather has remained relatively mild through the fall as it has this year but seeing a flock of robins is definitely out of the ordinary. They've usually all split to warmer climes in the south by now so encountering a flock of them at Hendrie Valley was a bit of a shock. It's interesting to note they all appeared to be young birds so maybe they just don't get that being Robins, they're supposed to fly south for the winter. It's not inconceivable that successive seasons of warming temperatures could temper a migratory bird's inherent genetic urge to move south. It has been unseasonably warm, who wouldn't want to skip school (or work) to enjoy a day off in the park? Perhaps the flock of young Robins we saw skipped the class on migrating at bird-school back in August. 

We also saw a couple of young Redwing Blackbirds which was even more surprising than seeing Robins. We haven't seen Redwing Blackbirds around for almost a month. The two we saw at Hendrie Valley were both still sporting the spots identifying them as young birds. They were huddled deep inside some trail-side shrubbery, puffed up against the cold despite it being one of the warmest days we've had of late. They didn't look happy at all to be there. I don't have much hope for a happy ending for them. With the temperature drop overnight, the snow and high winds... conditions are far worse than they were yesterday. If those Blackbirds were having a hard time then it must be seriously discomforting, maybe even life-threatening to them today.

Putting aside any concerns about the young Blackbirds we saw in Hendrie Valley Sanctuary yesterday's adventure was definitely among the year's favorite outdoor excursions. In the almost 3 hours we spent at the park we didn't see all of it but what we did see was enough to ensure we will be visiting again and again. I recommend the park to anyone looking for an interesting easy-to-access nature experience. We look forward to seeing the park through its upcoming seasonal changes and I'll probably shoot thousands of photos there over the next year. (I shot almost 400 on Friday.) It's a beautiful spot, another natural wonder practically in our backyard. At a cost of $1 and hour, it's hard to find a more economical spot for anyone (especially families) to enjoy a day in the great outdoors.

In closing I again recommend the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary to anyone in the GTA - Golden Horseshoe area looking for a fun, easy-access wilderness adventure. Just a few more notes for those thinking of going...

I saw no designated picnic areas in the park but there are plenty of areas where a group could sit and eat lunch. There are no garbage cans in the park though so be prepared to carry out whatever you carry in. And speaking of garbage... we saw very little trash at Hendrie Valley which was a pleasant surprise since littering is so prevalent these days. Perhaps its close proximity to RBG headquarters ensures the Sanctuary gets a little more attention than some of the other wilderness areas where littering and trash dumping is an issue. 

Like in all other RBG wilderness areas bicycles are NOT permitted on any of the trails in Hendrie Valley Sanctuary and we saw no evidence people were riding bikes within the park boundaries (unlike other areas like Princess Point where cyclists regularly ignore such rules much to the detriment of the natural terrain and enjoyment of pedestrian park users. No doubt the subject of another future blog) Again, maybe it's the closeness to Royal Botanical Gardens which helps keep bicycles out of Hendrie Valley. It may be that regular park users police it themselves or maybe bike riders shun it because the trails offer no route that is easier or shorter than pedaling around it on city streets. Whatever the reason, this RBG wilderness area is refreshingly free of bicycle traffic and for that alone is warrants a high-enjoyability ranking.

Those requiring wheelchairs or scooters to get around, and those whose mobility issues are such that walkers are required might find Hendrie Valley Sanctuary inaccessible. The wooden walkway on the valley floor and many of the trails are certainly wide enough and smooth enough for wheelchairs but getting down to those trail is the issue. You're going steeply downhill entering the park and climbing up to get out of it. Many of the bridges and elevated walkways lack ramps, it's all stairs so I don't recommend this park to the mobility challenged. (And parents of young kids - you'd probably be better off with a backpack or similar body-worn device rather than stroller to carry your little ones.)

Enjoy your outdoor adventures at Hendrie Valley Sanctuary and elsewhere but remember...

Take nothing but photographs and memories.
Leave nothing but footprints.


Monday, November 19, 2012

I'm Older Than the Internet - Thank God.

A running gag among friends and acquaintances, a joke I often play into, is reference to my extremely advanced years. The premise is I'm a very old man, ancient, aged far beyond the known limits of a human lifespan. The jokes, ribbing and needle-sharp sarcasm arising from that can be a lot of fun but the real punchline is I'm not really that old at all... at least a decade away from what used to be considered the age of mandatory retirement.

I'm not so old that I was born, as my friend Jessy Jones once remarked, "by candlelight because electricity wasn't invented yet." I'm in my mid-fifties so yes, electricity was already invented when I was born... but the internet wasn't.

It may seem strange or incomprehensible, perhaps even unbelievable to the young twenty-somethings of today's plugged-in modern world but it wasn't too long ago there was no internet... or cell phones. When I was a young man in my late teens and early twenties things like computers were still far from being a household item. Nobody had cell phones. If you wanted to call someone you had to be at home or find a phone booth. The internet? The TV only had a couple channels and you had to get up, cross the room and turn a dial to do that. High-end TVs weren't monstrous seventy inch 3-D plasma screens with nine hundred pre-programmed channels with built in PVRs which record ten different shows at once. In those days a high-end TV was a color set with a remote control.

I'm glad there was no internet during those strange wild years of my adolescence and early manhood. There are uncountable incidents and situations from that time in my life which might have carved a few interior scars but left no permanent tangible evidence of them ever happening. And for that I am grateful. Sure, there might be a few old friends, acquaintances, family members and others whose memory holds a faded image of some coming-of-age embarrassment I might have endured but it's unlikely their recollections will ever see the public light of day.

The more I think about it the more grateful I am there was no internet around during my final grades of high school and the years immediately after. I was lucky there was no internet back then... or cellphones with their high-def camera and video capabilities. I had a lot of embarrassing moments... epic displays of dangerously stupid and/or ridiculous behavior... and of course borderline-disturbed gang hazing from my peers which might have scarred my psyche permanently had real-life nightmares not already done so. Lots of embarrassing life moments.

Had there been an internet with a YouTube and a Flickr, imgur or other photo sharing site, I would have been a prime candidate for those funny (albeit slightly pathetic) photos of drunken idiots jumping off houses or passed out with one eyebrow shaved off... both things I have personally experienced. Thanks to there being no internet or instant wireless connection to others via cellphone, no video cameras in every hand (or on every corner), no means of passing gossipy news to the whole world with the push of a button, my wild and crazy years went mostly unnoticed by the world at large. 

My friends, family, schoolmates and area acquaintances might have witnessed or heard tell of instances where I acted a complete fool or possibly harassment-victim-as-butt-of-"harmless"-joke but complete strangers would never see evidence of such (unless they happened to actually be there at the time)  because there was no internet, no global interactive data transfer and storage medium available to anyone with a cellphone. Back in those days things got forgotten and embarrassing moments vanished in the mist of past history. And that's a good thing because some of them were not what you'd like to see photo or video evidence of thirty years later! For example...

Back in the days when I and my regular group of friends would get together on weekends and party ourselves exhausted it wasn't uncommon that someone would drink or imbibe other substances so much they required a period of unconsciousness and ended up passing out in the wrong place, or in front of the wrong people, or both. It was something I usually tried to avoid. Passing out in front of my crowd was dangerous. Friends could be deviously sinister and twisted when it came to tormenting any member of the group too incapacitated to defend against them. I was often among the tormentors but sometimes I was the victim.

The weekend of this particular embarrassing experience my friends and I were party-hopping, moving from one party to the next and all the while I was eating magic mushrooms and drinking whatever alcoholic beverage I could get my hands on. I got ridiculously intoxicated and at some point during that Saturday I blacked out. A couple hours and a couple parties later I passed out. My friends had their fun with me then left me sleeping in a basement room of the house we were at, abandoning me there when they all left to chase another party.

I woke up suddenly on Sunday morning with the immediate realization I had no idea where I was or whose basement rec-room I spent the night in. I could hear voices and movement upstairs and panicked. I didn't remember coming to this house or why. For all I knew I might have broke in to rob the place. Still slightly wasted and fearing discovery I quickly found my shoes and fled the house through the basement door, pausing only to ensure the coast was clear before hot-footing it through the yard, out the driveway and down the street.

I was relieving myself in a vacant lot and congratulating myself on a successful escape from my mystery roof-for-a-night lodging without being discovered when it finally dawned on me where I was... about eight miles down the highway from the village I lived in. I'd have no choice but to start walking and try my luck at hitchhiking. Cursing my friends for deserting me I started on my journey. I wasn't happy about being left passed out and helpless in a strange house with no back-up should any of our sworn enemies happen by.

Soon enough a car came by and the driver stopped to my thumb's-up hitch a ride gesture. I climbed into the front passenger seat and thanked the driver, a guy maybe in his mid-thirties, for picking me up. All I got in return was a puzzled stare. It seemed to take a few moments longer than it should have but he eventually put the car into gear and we made the short trip into town in relative silence. Other than a grunted "yes" to my request to "bum a smoke" from the pack on the dash he never said a word to me. He did however, keep shooting puzzled glances my way, almost like he wanted to ask me something. He didn't ask anything though and all I got for my "thanks for the lift" remark when he dropped me off was another lingering strange look.I quickly stopped thinking about the driver and began thinking again about my lousy friends. I had a few choice words for them and I had a pretty good idea where to find them at this time on a Sunday...

I marched the two blocks which encompassed the downtown area of my hometown, passing probably half a dozen people along the way. They all reacted in some way to seeing me... a quick double-take... a look of confusion... a head turning almost fast enough to conceal a widening grin. I registered these various visible notations exhibited by the random townfolk that saw me but I was so focused on getting to the village mall, finding and confronting my so-called friends, that I didn't pause to wonder why everyone was looking at me strangely. Too bad. I might have saved myself further embarrassment...

I strode as confidently as physically possible into the mall, a task that took some effort given I hadn't slept off all the effects of my earlier mushroom and booze-fest. The place was quite busy, there wasn't a lot else to do on a Sunday in those parts and many people treated a trip to the mall like a picnic with friends in the park. I was looking for my friends and sensed I was close so I have no idea what reaction I may have sparked among the other mall visitors I passed. I was only interested in getting to one group of people and I knew just where they'd be... at the last window table in the mall cafeteria.

Sure enough, the turncoat friends who had deserted me the night before were at our regular cafeteria hangout. Sitting with them were a couple others of our gang who'd skipped or missed the fun and games of the previous twenty-four hours. I started down the length of the cafeteria toward them, righteous indignation bringing heat to my face as I anticipated the tongue-lashing I was about to unleash. As I drew closer to them my friends began to nudge each other and grin. Then they broke out into gales of laughter, a rising wall of sound that brought me to a complete stop.

It was only a second that I stood there bathed in the laughter and ridicule of my friends, supplemented and augmented by the collective derisive mirth from other cafeteria goers, before all thoughts of revenge were vanished in the realization I was the butt of a joke far more insidious than abandonment in a stranger's house... and that joke was ongoing. Things were just starting to get interesting.

It didn't take a mirror to figure out somebody had messed with my face while I was passed out. I know my friends did it but in the light of subsequent events nobody ever copped themselves to it (but a couple did rat out others.) Not that I was particularly anxious to see what they'd done to my face but I had to assess the damage and see if clean-up or repair was possible so I headed straight for the cafeteria washroom. There were mirrors, sinks and soaps I could use in there... but most importantly, it was imperative to my self-esteem that I get away from the taunting laughter and the restroom provided a sanctuary of sorts..

What I saw in the mirror explained everything I'd seen and encountered that day. The strange silence from the guy who gave me a ride, the various odd reactions from people I saw on the street and in the mall, the mocking, cruel hilarity of my peers triumphant game which left one of their own a publicly mocked village idiot. I stood trembling in rage and humiliation at the mirror. The door behind me opened and shut as whoever was going to enter decided (wisely) against it. I was on the verge of completely losing it. I had been humbled, scorned as weak, defenseless against their laughingly applied emotional graffiti which was far uglier than the fool's mask they painted on me when I was a tranquilized human mannequin the night before...

They hadn't used make-up or lipstick. The girls who hung with us learned pretty quick that personal items used for the group's make-over on a passed out victim were usually returned in an undesirable or unusable condition, if they were returned at all. I would have preferred make-up because it's relatively easy to remove but I wasn't so lucky. My tormentors weapon of choice was a permanent black marker, one of those big white cylinders with the two inch black cap covering the nib, a giant piece of hard, turpentine-smelling leather or something. Schools and stores used them all the time. They wrote on anything and resisted water and anything else that tried to remove the ink once it dried.

My tormenters deserve marks for creativity. Instead of the black-eyes, black-noses, mustaches, beards, scars, pimples, bugs and other simple things usually scribbled on the face and other exposed flesh of passed out targets, there was some actual artistic effort applied to the unwanted mask of shame they drew on me. Special attention to detail made the stuff on my cheeks really stand out - never mind that it was crudely drawn male genitalia - each erect penis was in almost perfect symmetry with its counterpart on the opposite cheek... Pointed from jawline to the corner of each eye (testicles on my chin) each cartoon phallus was oozing drops which dripped back down my cheeks like the real tears I was shedding. That wasn't all the art displayed on my face... one of the more calligraphic-inclined attackers had printed the word "FAG" across my forehead. Staring at myself in the mirror I could think only one thing... thank God they didn't take an eyebrow.

After a lot of vigorous scrubbing I had successfully smeared the drawings on my face to make them unrecognizable as anything but smudges but there was still more work to do once I got home and into the industrial strength cleansers in dad's garage. By the time I exited the restroom my friends had left the cafeteria and nobody remaining stared openly at me as I walked out but naturally I was hypersensitive to the furtive glances and tittering whispers in my wake. I walked home with my head down, shoulders hunched, not so much worried people might see the remaining blackened smears as I was shamed that the red heat of my embarrassment would show through.

I could relate the eventual confrontations and ramifications stemming from that successful attempt by my friends to make me look like a "dickhead"... or talk about the gamut of emotional turns their "FAG" label created, in my own head and in others of my small coastal fishing and logging community once the story started making the rounds... or ruminate on the coulda-woulda-shoulda things memory brings but it's not necessary to the point of this story....

Eventually people stopped talking about my penis-face, stopped using that incident as emotional ammo during insult wars, forgot about it entirely in the face of new hilarity, new follies, new victims being publicly raped of their dignity. In other words... it happened and then it was forgotten. Had there been an internet and cell phones back in those days it's likely a picture of me in all my passed-out phallic glory would have been posted for the world to see before I even woke up. The artistic attack itself might have been filmed. My victimization, my shame, my humiliation and embarrassment could have been uploaded to the web... to remain there forever in some ethereal electronic shadow... waiting for discovery at a moment when past embarrassment coming to light would be most inopportune.

That kind of thing happens every day. Compromising photos and videos are uploaded by the millions, the internet is loaded with people's embarrassing moments and forever on... with a few simple clicks... they can come back to haunt you. There are moments in everyone's past that should remain there but the internet has created a means for the follies of history to remain with us... It can mean anyone may in their future be called to answer for, or be judged on, youthful mistakes, transgressions and behaviors which are no longer part of who they are, what they believe or how they live. Victims can be victimized again... and again... and again...

I am older than the internet.
Thank God for that.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Best Advice My Father Ever Gave Me

My father wasn't much for giving advice... or maybe I wasn't good at recognizing it when I heard it. I don't know. I do know there weren't a lot of formal father to son advice sessions while I was growing up. There was probably a few incidents that provoked him into delivering advice (just as probably ignored) but I can't recall any specific instances. My dad and I didn't really hang out much. We had some shared interests which made for some great father-son interaction but didn't include any helpful direction for the future which loomed before me, no advice about life, the universe, or anything.

That is, with one notable exception.

Back in the 1970s I was anything but a normal teenager but just like the regular kids I wanted a drivers license. To realize that dream I needed to prepare for and then pass the Driver Examination test. It wasn't something I could do by myself, especially since I didn't even own a car. I had no choice, I had to ask my father if he'd teach me to drive. Dad was the only option, mom didn't drive back then. My older brother did but there was no way he was going to let me use his car to learn how to drive. Perfectly legit - he was a recent grad, one of the cool guys (a group me and my friends called "The Car Boys") he drove a 1968 Mustang Convertible. I was 2 years his junior, a pseudo-hippie glamor-punk with my eye on a '69 Austin Mini. Let me drive his car? He was understandably loathe to even have me as a passenger. Nope, dad was my only option and I remember being terrified - not that he'd say "No", just in a general sense - but I did somehow approach him with my plea.

To my surprise dad agreed to teach me how to drive. That experience could certainly make for an interesting blog or two but dad teaching me how to drive isn't what this blog entry is about. It's the advice he gave me during that teaching that this is about. The best advice he ever gave me. Advice that has not only stayed with me throughout my life but also saved my life on more than one occasion.

Actually, in a sense, this blog entry is about dad teaching me how to drive because the best advice my dad ever gave me did in fact teach me how to drive. It shaped the way I drive, influenced my driving behavior, kept me alive and unscathed more times than I can remember. It's great advice, applicable to anyone and while it might on the surface be specific to driving is actually true to most interactive human behaviors. That advice is...

"Never underestimate the stupidity of the other driver."

It is brilliant in its simplicity... Never underestimate the stupidity of the other driver. My dad repeated that phrase to me a number of times during my driving lessons, always using any or all of the other vehicle traffic as examples. These examples would invariably ask the question inherent to his original advice to never underestimate the stupidity of the other driver. The question is always the same, it's your answer that can change everything. Like the advice which leads to it the question is brilliant in its simplicity. In its shortest form the question is: "What if?"

I'd be on a driving lesson with dad and he'd point to a car poised at a cross street and say "What if that guy pulls out in front of you?" or nod toward the car in the adjacent lane and ask "What if that guy swerves into this lane?" If I questioned the likelihood of that happening or otherwise avoided answering the question dad would go back to his original advice never underestimate the stupidity of the other driver. Like, he was saying What IF that guy IS stupid enough to pull out or whatever.

Dad wouldn't leave me hanging. He'd make suggestions on how to prepare for that potential moment of stupidity from the other driver. More than anything else "What if" was the theme of my dad's driving instruction. Accomplishing the actions of driving like parallel parking, shifting gears, reversing, knowing the rules of the road wasn't enough... the act of asking "What if" would have to be mastered before my father was satisfied I was ready to take the driver exam.

It took me awhile but eventually I understood dad's underlying message was about driving defensively. It was about recognizing potential hazards and choosing the best course of action to avoid or minimize damaging consequences should they occur...

AND, most importantly, never... not for a second... absolutely NEVER underestimate your fellow human's capacity for doing the unbelievably stupid... because they will. People will change lanes on top of you, pull out in front of you, step off the curb against the light, ignore stop signs... the list of stupid things people do never ends which is why never underestimate the stupidity of the other driver is the BEST advice my dad ever gave me. (even if it did take about a decade to really sink in.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Dear Derek & Stuart, Your Grandpa is a Jerk

I don't know you boys and I don't know your Grandpa but I do know he's a jerk. You probably don't think so since he thinks so highly of you but take my word for it, your Grandpa is a jerk. He's also a vandal. That's right, Grandpa is a criminal who defaces and ruins the property of others.

I know you boys and your Grandpa like Hamilton's Bayfront Park. I don't blame you, it's a wonderful place. It would be a better place if your Grandpa stopped writing graffiti all over it. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about... all the little messages and love-notes to you boys which he puts all over the park.

Crap like this:

You've seen this, right Derek & Stuart? This and a hundred more just like it are scattered all around Bayfront Park. Your Grandpa uses his permanent marker to scribble messages to you on the rocks along the lakeshore walk. He even writes stuff on trees! You may think it's cool that your Grandpa thinks enough of you to leave you messages in the park but it's NOT cool. It's something a jerk and a vandal would do.

What makes your Grandpa think it's okay to deface public property, to scrawl his notes to you all over a park that belongs to everyone? Nobody else wants to see that. People come to the park to enjoy the nature and beauty it offers. Why should we all have to see the garbage graffiti your Grandpa leaves for you? We shouldn't have to walk by endless messages to you boys. It's not right and your Grandpa is an arrogant, thoughtless JERK (and a vandal) for doing this over an over again.

His cute little messages to you boys are seen as ugly little scribbles by the rest of us park visitors. There is no escaping them, they're everywhere! And, unlike regular garbage that can be picked up and removed your Grandpa's garbage graffiti doesn't go away. Messages he left you in past years are still visible and still as ugly today... like his 2011 Christmas message...

I hope you learn better things from your Grandpa than what he's teaching you with these notes and messages. I hope you realize it's NOT okay to vandalize and deface public property. I hope you boys won't grow up to be jerks and vandals just like your Grandpa but what I really hope is that somehow MY message gets to you... and your Grandpa. It's a simple message...


I hope you boys realize what your Grandpa is doing is wrong. I hope you tell him to stop ruining the natural beauty of Bayfront Park (or anywhere else). I'd like to tell him that myself. I've tried to spot your Grandpa in the park because I'd like to catch him in the act, writing another message to you boys. I'd have a word or two for him about his vandalizing ways. To be honest, I'd love to shove that permanent marker of his right down his throat.

And so, Derek and Stuart, there you have it. Your Grandpa is a jerk and a vandal. It might be unbelievable news to you but thousands of other park users know it to be true. You boys are old enough to know what's right and what's wrong. (I've seen your ages in his Birthday messages to you) You must know in your heart that what your Grandpa is doing with his marker in the park is wrong. Isn't it time you told him so, time to tell him to stop it? 

You boys may not know me but trust me when I say it would be better for your Grandpa to hear it from you than hear it from me up close and in person. Seriously. I can be a real jerk too, especially when I'm defending something I love... And I love Bayfront Park. I hope your Grandpa stops his evil ways soon because if he doesn't the odds are, sooner or later, the two of us will cross paths. The result for your Grandpa will be far uglier than any of his garbage graffiti. Trust me.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Ronald Reagan, 100 Huntley Street & Canada - U.S. Relations

Ronald Reagan was President of the United States from 1981 to 1989. 

100 Huntley Street is a TV show has been around since the 1970's. It's still on the air creating shows for hundreds of stations across Canada and the U.S.. 100 Huntley Street is part of a larger Christian Faith non-profit charitable corporation called Crossroads Christian Communications which also does aid and relief work in addition to Christian missions. Here's their website: 100 Huntley Street

In 1983 100 Huntley Street broadcast a weeks worth of shows live from Washington DC as part of series called "The Maple Leaf Salutes the Stars and Stripes". The series was their way of saying 'thank you' to the U.S. for being a good neighbor. (James 2:8 "Love thy neighbor as thyself") As it happened, that week saw First Lady Nancy Reagan celebrate a birthday so the cast and crew of 100 Huntley Street sang "Happy Birthday" to her on the show broadcast on that date, (a Wednesday). On Friday of that same week the show received a letter from President Reagan wherein he wrote about the shared ideals of Canada and the U.S. and their relationship.

While touring 100 Huntley Street's Crossroads Centre in late September I came across that letter framed and hanging on the wall amid other messages and testimonials to that organization. I was struck by Reagan's words, the impact of his description about the relationship between Canada and the U.S.. I doubt very much any recent or current Canadian or U.S. government leader could claim our countries share the same relationship today.

And that's too bad.

Take a moment to think about where Canada and the U.S. are today, our economies, our commitment to the ideals upon which our nations were founded, the relationship between us now, the uncertainty of our shared futures...

Then read President Ronald Reagan's letter to 100 Huntley Street printed below (in bold & italics) and see what all of us have abandoned... in my opinion, to the detriment of us all.

Nancy and I are most proud to send our warmest greetings to the people of Canada on the occasion of this very special program, "100 Huntley Street," which honors the long friendship between our two countries.

Through the year our countries have grown and prospered. Working together we have developed our economies, and the living standards of our people are the envy of the world.

Our success stems from the greatness of the people and their dedication to time-honored moral traditions upon which our nations were founded. They may achieve all that they will in a system that is free from government oppression. In America and Canada the opportunities for success abound and are available for the asking.

God has blessed us in so many ways. Because of our good fortune we have never hesitated to share with others in time of need -- at home and abroad. When famines, natural disasters, or wars occur, our people are battling to help and sharing whatever we have with our neighbors. The apostle Paul wrote in 11 Corinthians: "But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in affliction, in necessities, in distresses."

We've never been perfect, but no one can say we haven't tried our utmost to make the world a better place.

The United States and Canada are as two close brothers, always working together for the good of the entire family. If it were possible for all nations to maintain the warm friendship or achieve the level of trust our two countries enjoy, the world would be the peaceful place the prophet Isaiah foretold: "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

 The people of the United States are grateful for the long friendship our countries have enjoyed. On behalf of all Americans, we send thanks to our brothers and sisters to the north and wish them the best always.

- Ronald Reagan 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Bayfront Park Beavers

Beavers are Canada's national animal, an honor shared since 2003 with the Canadian Horse and one currently under attack by proponents for Polar Bears who feel beavers are too representative of Canada's "shameful" colonial past. Anyone who uses cash money knows the beaver is on our  nickel. They are generally regarded as "hard-working" because of their dam-building prowess but aside from that, it's a safe bet most Canadians don't know a lot about them.

Most people probably don't know beavers are Rodents, the world's 2nd largest in fact. Only South America's Capybara is bigger than our beaver. The "Capy" can weigh in at 150lbs while the beaver generally maxes out these days at 55-70lbs. Back in the days before white people showed up and the beaver was trapped extensively for its rich pelt there were an estimated 90 million living in North America. Back in those days the largest beavers weighed over 100lbs. Now there are an estimated 6-12 million beavers in North America.

Although beavers are still considered common in many areas of Canada including southern Ontario many people have never seen one. A drive through almost any rural or wilderness area within 50kms of any Southern Ontario city will likely provide many beaver dam and lodge sightings but actually seeing a live beaver is something the majority of people in Ontario cannot truthfully claim, especially those who live in cities. 

Beavers have certain needs like water and a good supply of the trees from which to get food. They build dams. Habits like those make the beaver an undesirable pest to many municipalities and it's not unheard of for Canadian cities, towns and villages to wage a war of extermination against them. Some urban centers tolerate beavers and while they may take steps to limit their destructive potential, like wrapping trees in wire, they generally don't actively hunt and destroy the aquatic rodents unless their dams impinge on water drains or cause flooding.

Hamilton is one of those "beaver tolerant' communities. Being situated on the westernmost shore of Lake Ontario and abutting the Royal Botanical Gardens Conservation Area and other wilderness preserves makes "The Hammer" a prime candidate for beaver habitation. There are beavers living in Hamilton, some within 5 blocks of downtown, but it's unlikely many Hamiltonians have ever seen one. Beavers are nocturnal for one thing - they do the bulk of their activities at night, and when they are up and about they spend most of their time in the water. 

I know from experience that it's rare to see a beaver in Hamilton. My wife Tammy and I have spent hundreds of hours over the last 10 years exploring the city's waterfront parks, most of that in Princess Point and Bayfront Park (the two are joined by the 3.5 km "Waterfront Trail") but up until Oct 27th of this year we never saw a live beaver. We've seen lots of evidence of beavers, teeth-grooved stumps and gnawed branches and logs can be found all around Bayfront Park. Many of the planted trees have chicken-wire barricades encircling their trunks. Some of the beaver sign is very old but there are fresh cuttings all the time and there was a beaver lodge built last fall on the edge of the Cootes Marsh outfall, under the York St Bridge.

What there isn't is the most obvious of beaver trademarks... a dam. Apparently beavers can live without making a dam... or even a lodge because we've never seen a beaver dam anywhere in Bayfront Park. There was a single lodge built up against the bank where the canal from Cootes Marsh (under the York St Bridge) meets the western edge of Hamilton Harbour. Despite there being no dams and even without the lodge it was obvious from the other evidence (chewed trunks, fallen trees etc) that beavers did indeed inhabit the area in and around Bayfront Park. 

Beaver have proven to be the most elusive of the mammals inhabiting our two favorite parks. We've seen deer, squirrel, chipmunk, raccoon, muskrat and mink but not until late last month did we see our first live beaver. I say "live" because we did see a deceased beaver in the summer, a small one, just up the canal from the lodge. That lodge wasn't huge and well built like most beaver lodges I've seen. It fell into disrepair through neglect and human abuse in the weeks after seeing the dead beaver. After the initial sadness induced by seeing the dead beaver we reached a kind of acceptance we'd never actually see a live beaver on our waterfront adventures (but we do get excited and reach for the cameras whenever we saw new evidence of their existence... like this newly fallen tree we saw today, Nov 4th, in Princess Point...)

It was Saturday, Oct 27th of this year when Tammy & I saw our first live beavers in Hamilton. It had been raining for most of the day. We'd taken our Chihuahua Isabeau on a wet, rainy walk earlier in the day with mixed results. As dusk approached the rain stopped and we jumped in the car for a 5 minute drive to Bayfront Park in the hope an evening "adventure" would make the dog comfortable enough to poop in wet grass. (Go ahead, laugh. You're legs aren't 4 inches long.) We also took our cameras because, well, that's what we do. Not that I was expecting to see much opportunity for anything except shots of the water in the rapidly fading light. 

On our walk up the path Tammy and I did get some photos of the water and shoreline and Isabeau had a poop (dutifully scooped & properly discarded) so when we reached the point where the path curves around the beach area we elected to turn around and retrace our steps. It was going on to full dark by then, most of the available illumination was from the lampposts lining the path. On a whim we decided to walk down a gravel path, one of 4 that arc to raised waterside areas before rejoining the main paved path. The smaller path went down a slight incline before widening into the area where the lake waters lap against the rows of armor stone which elevate viewers 3-4 ft above the water level. Just as I neared the bottom of that slight incline I heard a noise behind me then Tammy said "Omigod, there's a raccoon right there! No, it's a beaver!"

It was a beaver! And it was huge! It had climbed up a tunnel exploiting the gap between a couple of the big armor stones that ring Bayfront Park acting as erosion guards. Tammy scooped Isabeau up in one hand and had her camera in the other but the beaver didn't seem concerned about the dog or us. I was unencumbered by a canine but was having no luck with my camera as my flash doesn't work. Tammy was able to get off a couple of shots which accompany this entry. (I managed a couple smudges that sorta, maybe, might look like a beaver.) While it would have been nice to get a picture perfect record of what we saw the fact is, we were witness to something very special, something not everyone gets to see...

The beaver passed by us and scrambled up the embankment to the main paved path, we quickly moved back up the path to follow. As we got to the main path the beaver was just entering the bushes on the other side. We could see shrubs and small trees moving then heard a loud SNAP! A 12-15 ft tall tree fell over and seconds later the beaver reappeared on the path with the trunk of the tree clamped in his jaws. In no time it dragged the tree across the path, down the bank and over the armor stone into the lake where another smaller beaver had been swimming back & forth the whole time.

It was an experience that lasted maybe 2 minutes but what a fantastic couple of minutes it was! A real live beaver! Falling a tree and dragging it to the water... right in front of us! That this happened within a mile of where we live, just a few blocks from the downtown core of a city with half a million inhabitants makes it even more wondrous! I still can't get over how lucky we were to have seen such a thing!

Hamilton is awesome! Peregrine Falcons, Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Great Blue Herons and other birds nest within the city limits, some right downtown. Coyote, raccoon, deer, muskrat, mink and beaver all live in Hamilton, a city with a reputation for being dirty, stinking and sterile. In my 10 years here I have seen all those myths dispelled and I'm continually surprised and amazed at the things I see. I love this town!