Thursday, January 31, 2013

Zoo Presentation Part 3: The Spectacled Owl

If you're still with me, thanks for hanging in there! On Tuesday I posted my presentation on the black-tailed prairie dog. Yesterday we looked at the giant Pacific octopus. In today's concluding segment, the animal at hand is the spectacled owl.

Juvenile spectacled owl in flight
Have you ever tried to sneak up on someone without them hearing you? Did it work? Have you ever tried to do it going as fast as you can? Not so easy, right? It would be much easier if you were an owl!

These are spectacled owls, mainly found in Central and South America, most often in rainforests. They have very broad wings and soft plumage which enables them to fly virtually soundlessly through the air. Their flight feathers have comb-like “fingers” which help to deaden the sound of their flight. This is very important to the owl in two ways: the first way is so that their prey will not hear them coming. Can anyone think of a second reason? It’s so the owl can hear their prey moving about even while they are flying so they can pinpoint its exact location.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Zoo Presentation Part 2: The Giant Pacific Octopus

Yesterday I posted about the black-tailed prairie dog, the first of three animals I have been assigned for a "mock tour" this coming Friday. The second animal, the giant Pacific octopus, is the subject of today's piece. Hope you like it!

Giant Pacific octopus

Has anyone ever heard of Harry Houdini? Why was he famous? Harry Houdini was a man who lived about 100 years ago and he was an “Escape Artist”. People used to pay to see him get out of very tight spots seemingly like magic. But if Harry Houdini had been an octopus, it might not have seemed so magical!

This is a giant Pacific octopus. It is an invertebrate; does everyone know what that means? Because it has no bony skeleton or backbone it can squeeze its body through unbelievably small holes; here is something to look at we call an “Octopus Escape Route”—please pass it around. The octopus in this tank can fit through that hole in the plastic if it really needed to! Underneath the octopus where all 8 arms meet you will find its mouth. Inside that mouth is the octopus’ beak, shaped a bit like a parrot’s beak, which is made of keratin—the same substance your fingernails are made out of. That is the hardest part of the octopus’ whole body, so it can squeeze through any opening larger than its beak. Now, I mentioned the octopus’ arms: that’s what they are called, not legs or tentacles. Each arm has about 280 suckers in two rows and these contain chemical receptors which the octopus uses for touch and taste.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Zoo Presentation Part 1: The Black-Tailed Prairie Dog

Black-tailed prairie dog family
On Friday of this week each of the trainees has to make a second and final presentation to the rest of the class. This time we are treating it as one long guided tour of the Zoo, with a Grade Four class in tow, having already theoretically participated in a "Habitats and Human Influence" workshop. Each of us has been assigned three consecutive animals on this tour so we can show some sense of fluidity for when we have to do these tours solo. The theme we are working with is "Humans have both a positive and negative influence on animal habitats"; from there it is up to us to figure out what to say, how to tie it to the theme and how to move on to the next animal. I will be picking up our tour from immediately following the black-footed ferrets; my three creatures are the black-tailed prairie dog, the giant Pacific octopus and the spectacled owl; I will then hand it off to another trainee who will begin with the boa constrictor. Again, as in the first presentation, we are supposed to keep each animal's presentation to three minutes or under (ha!), use plenty of interaction such as questions and props, and stick as closely as possible to the broad subject of "Habitats and Adaptations (and Human Interaction)". Today I'm going to post my prairie dog presentation; tomorrow I will talk about the octopus and Thursday I'll finish with the owl. I'll copy these posts directly from my presentation notes, complete with formatting; bolded words and phrases are things I absolutely want to include; underlined and italicized means I want to ask the group a question; everything else is fair game and might be changed on the fly depending on timing. Sections in square brackets might be removed before I actually give this presentation. So, without further ado, I give you....the black-tailed Prairie dog! (Note: there are implied "pauses" after each of the questions I ask; it may look like I am just running it all together in the "script".)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Georgia's Baptism: A Plog Post

The proud papa and the gorgeous child
Yesterday we attended the baptism of our niece, Georgia Alexandria, at the Franciscan Church of St. Bonaventure, near Edwards Gardens in Toronto. There is very little point in my trying to explain or even tell the story of the actual ceremony; as an atheist I don't really follow the machinations of any church and, in this particular case, I was concentrating so much on capturing the event on film that I really wasn't paying attention to the words and specific events unfolding in front of me. If you are unfamiliar with the procedure as well, there are myriad places to look on the internet to shed some light for you. I say this with neither rancour nor judgment; rather, I offer it as an apology for the incompleteness of this blog post today, which will consist mainly of pictures. The ceremony was certainly lively—we also attended the baptisms of Georgia's brothers Max and Charlie at the same church—and very important to our extended family; we are always honoured when we are asked to attend these sacraments. Yesterday Georgia was the only infant being baptised, which is very unusual in my rather limited experience. As a result, we had the church to ourselves after the Sunday service was completed which gave me ample opportunity to take photos during the proceedings (flashless, after receiving the permission of the friar performing the ceremony).

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Goodbye Hudson!

CEO John Tracogna on Undercover Boss
One especially nice thing that our Volunteer Coordinator, Karen Conway, has arranged for us this month is a tour of the Nutrition Centre at the Zoo. This is a very rare privilege and I hope that our whole class takes advantage of it while they can. We had several days to choose from but each day's tour group was limited to fifteen people maximum—many existing Volunteers signed up as well—so it was difficult to find an opening. I decided to book it for yesterday, a Saturday, in the hopes that it would be a bit calmer and it was. As it was also the final weekend at the Zoo for our beloved polar bear cub, Hudson, who is leaving Monday for the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Sarah came with me and did her own thing while I was on the tour. I took copious and quite detailed notes on the experience but I get the impression that the Zoo would be most happy if I didn't share too much of the specifics of the centre's operations. If you have a chance to watch the very first episode of Undercover Boss: Canada you will see the CEO, John Tracogna, working at the centre for part of the show. I can report that the mural that was commissioned for the centre at the end of that segment is really quite nice. I wish I could show it to you, but I can't find a single picture of it on the web. (The Zoo has some pretty severe privacy issues with their behind-the-scenes tours.) In general terms, the work that goes on every day with respect to food preparation is astonishing. The budget for animal sustenance is approximately $900,000 per year, which is almost perfectly offset by the yearly revenues from the parking charges. We were quite lucky yesterday: owing to quite a few people being off for various health or family reasons, the two "big cheeses" at the centre, Jaap Wensvoort and Karen Alexander, were the only two people working so we got our information straight from the top. There was a very good article in Maclean's a couple of years back concerning Jaap's "browse diet" for the gorillas; there are many other innovations and concoctions that the Toronto Zoo's nutritionists have come up with over the years, some of which they receive royalties on when they sell them to other zoos. It was a fascinating tour and I'm really glad I participated!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Civil Debate: Gone Forever?

There is a growing propensity in our culture—which is certainly not new but far more prevalent than ever—to mock or belittle the person with whose opinion you disagree and to do so in increasingly public ways. Are you familiar with the old Saturday Night Live parody of the 60 Minutes' Point-Counterpoint segment? "Jane, you ignorant slut," was how Dan Aykroyd's James J. Kilpatrick lampoon would begin every single one of his "debate" segments and it never failed to draw a laugh because it was so over-the-top. Well, that satire of a mere generation ago wouldn't find a nerve these days because it seems to have become de rigueur to ridicule the other party in any discussion or debate, even if you are good friends with them. Because I hold very strong opinions and I'm not shy about expressing them all over social media, I find that I'm on the receiving end of this sort of behaviour quite frequently. When it comes out of left field, from someone I don't know, I can very easily block or "unlike" them; however, when it comes from a good friend or a family member of whom I am rather fond it's a much more difficult situation.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

You've Come Only Part of the Way, Baby

In the months leading up to the 2012 London Olympics, Procter & Gamble ran this ad:

"The hardest job in the world," it proclaimed of being a Mom. Not a parent, but just a Mom. I hated this ad (for one thing, even in the '60s and '70s it was my own Dad's job to get me up and off to hockey for the early morning weekend practices) and I posted my feelings about it at that time on Facebook. I cannot for the life of me find that post right now, despite my fairly exhaustive checking of my Timeline, but I don't recall receiving too much condemnation for my stance. After all, I wasn't complaining about Moms getting "their due"; rather, I was complaining about Dads not getting theirs. It's particularly disappointing to me because, as I wrote on this blog last June and again earlier this month, when I was a "stay-at-home Dad" in the early years of my kids' lives I appeared to be a trailblazer, but it seemed real progress was being made in the recognition and encouragement of Dads everywhere to take a more active role in the raising of their own children. I don't know what happened to those heady days, but the advancement stalled and backslid and these days I find we are really no further ahead than the early '90s when I was home with my kids.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Zoo Tour with the "Plant Guy"

Ray Metcalf, "Plant Guy"
When I was ten years old I participated in the Ontario Forestry Association's annual "TreeBee" (which I swear was held that year in the auditorium of my future high school, UTS, but I cannot confirm that anywhere). I remember studying hard to learn how to recognize many different species of trees and plants on sight in preparation for the visual portion of the contest, a fast-paced slide show on the main screen. I could tell an elm from an ash from a maple from an oak just by seeing a picture of a leaf for a few seconds. Our school didn't win any prizes but we held our own and I spent the next several trips to wooded areas naming every tree I passed out loud for everyone to hear. Somewhere along the way, though, the enthusiasm waned, the information was locked away and I was no longer able to replicate those great feats of my preteen years. Yesterday I participated in a walking tour as part of my Volunteer training that jerked me right back to early 1972 (my TreeBee era)—a guided tour of the Zoo's plant life (such as would be offered to a Grade Three class) hosted by Ray Metcalfe.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Evan Penny: Re Figured at the AGO

Stretch #1 - Evan Penny
(owned by the AGO)
Our last stop at the AGO on Thursday was at the Evan Penny: Re Figured exhibition in the Contemporary Art section on the fourth floor. I've been trying to decide how to accurately describe what this show was like; I've concluded that the best thing to do is to show several photos that I took, comment on how they made me feel at the time of viewing, and let you, the reader, check out the AGO's description of the exhibition and Evan Penny's own website for more detailed information with respect to his intent. What I can tell you is that Penny has taken the realistic sculpture techniques of Duane Hanson to a whole new level. The pieces challenge the idea of what is "real" to the viewer; some of them—such as Stretch #1, seen here—are done in kind of a "Photoshop in real time" method, where the dimensions are skewed and manipulated while maintaining the original aspect ratio, such as one would do with a photograph. In other cases, Penny creates a completely fictional person (using no model) in hyper-realistic form and then photographs the sculpture, posting these photos next to the pieces themselves. In most of these instances, it is almost impossible to tell—after the conversion to 2D—that the "person" in the photos has never existed. (I found that the effect was the greatest in black and white photos.) In still other cases, Penny has used real-life models and recreated them in incredible detail, right down to blemishes, age spots and stray wisps of hair.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Catrinas and Floor Burger: Our AGO Visit, Part II

Sarah and the ofrenda
On the way out of the Frida & Diego show—after passing through the obligatory gift shop, of course—we came upon a vividly-coloured room that was an homage to the Mexican celebration, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The two long walls were painted in a blue tint that was very close to that of La Casa Azul, the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City, while the end walls were a brilliant yellow. On the right-hand side as we entered there was an ofrenda for Frida and Diego, an altar to honour the departed pair where visitors to the exhibition could leave their own personal offerings. Note the propensity of yellow marigolds; the Aztecs called them zempoaxochitl, or "flowers of death". The AGO supplied paper flowers for visitors to write their own messages on and then leave on the altar if they wished. The ofrenda itself was created and constructed by Carlomagno Pedro Martínez, Mexican artist and artisan.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Frida and Diego at the AGO

The entrance wall, appropriately painted in azul
Sarah took the day off from work today so we could finally get to the Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (it closes on Sunday). Sarah is a huge fan of Kahlo's creative and life accomplishments and had already attended a talk by Hayden Herrera back in early December but had not yet walked the show itself. We were trying to time it—as we did with the Picasso exhibition—to minimize the crowds around us; for the most part, we accomplished this except for two large school groups that came in just after us and which we managed to avoid (more or less) by hanging back a bit in the first two rooms. There was a third tour, however, that we managed to keep in our sights for most of our time there: an AGO staffer had about six young schoolkids in her charge and was taking them from room to room, sitting them down and giving activity-based talks to them which were absolutely captivating.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"Truther": Just Another Made-Up Word for "Crazy"

The three guns used by the Newtown shooter
Last month, while trying to come up for air during my fight with depression, I had the occasional "uptick" in my mood. One of the brightest days was when I went on a "Behind the Scenes" tour at the Zoo and had the opportunity to feed, touch and actually stroke a lovely Indian rhino named Ashakiran. I came home that day full of wonder and incredibly moved by the experience; my spirits were buoyed to the point that I thought I might possibly break my "blog jam" and write about the encounter that evening. But the feeling did not last the afternoon, unfortunately. In the elevator on my way up from the car to my apartment I shared the ride with an older couple who asked me if I had heard about the shooting (they phrased it as a singular) that day. I replied that I had not; they were unable to fill in many details so I turned on CNN the moment I got home. And there I sat for much of the rest of that day, Friday, December 14, 2012, unable to do anything other than stare in agony as report after report came in regarding the horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut. I've remarked, elsewhere, about how odd it was that the reporters got almost every fact about the tragedy wrong at first blush—including the shooter's real name—except for the actual body count which never wavered from the moment I turned my television on that awful, awful afternoon.

But now there is a growing movement that insists that even the number of dead that day is not accurate. They are called the "Sandy Hook Truthers." And they absolutely disgust and sicken me, a born skeptic.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The OpenStreetMap Project

OpenStreetMap logo
A good friend of mine, Richard Weait, is quite heavily involved in a very interesting enterprise: OpenStreetMap. On Monday morning of this week he spoke to Matt Galloway on Metro Morning about the project and about the "Mappy Hour" meeting that took place later that night. (That link for "Mappy Hour" will actually take you to a page for the next meeting, Monday, February 4 at C'est What in Toronto.) If you've ever been frustrated by a lack of detail when using a GPS or a proprietary mapping tool (such as Google Maps), then you might be very interested in this project. OpenStreetMap encourages everyone from all walks of life to get out in the real world and "map out" the points of interest in your area (or anywhere, really) that have flown under the radar up to this point. I've been looking into this myself, but only recently; consequently, I am probably going to describe this idea in very simplistic terms—and may well not be 100% accurate at that—but I hope to convince Richard to create a "Guest Blog" piece on this subject in the future or, at the very least, to send me some more specific things he wishes to elaborate on.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Going to the Dogs

Even Chandler eventually is shamed into liking this dog
If you ever watched the television show Friends, you may remember the episode where it was discovered that Chandler really didn't care for dogs that much. When his "secret is out" everyone—other than Joey, who already knew of this "failing"—treats the hapless Chandler as some kind of social leper, apparently because he has angered the enormous "dog lobby" in North America. Well, I can empathize with this fictional character's situation to some degree and I hope that, by the end of this blog post, I am not shunned in much the same way. However, this is an issue that has been very much on my mind for several years now and, in light of a recent addition to Stan Wadlow Park, I think it's time to come out with this.

A rare sight: leashed dogs leaving off-leash area
I love animals—pretty much all animals—and if this is news to you then I urge you to stop now and read a different blog posting before you continue. Seriously, just about any of my other posts would likely do the trick. Ok, are we good now? Let's continue. As I was saying, I love animals to a fault but over the years my feelings towards dogs in the city of Toronto have undergone a drastic change. It's now at the point where, when friends tell me they have recently acquired a dog, my first instinct isn't to say, "Congratulations!" but rather, "Why on earth would you do that?" I don't like this about myself, but it was a long, slow evolution and it comes quite naturally after many years of living in this dog-crazy city. It's important here, however, to point out one thing: this is by no means the fault of the dogs themselves. Rather, it's because of the myriad self-centred, irresponsible and careless dog owners living in Toronto. Oh, I know there are a great many good pet owners—they may well outnumber the bad—but, as the saying goes, "one bad apple spoils the bunch" (unless you're an Osmond) and there are myriad "bad apples" in Toronto.

Taylor Creek park in an all-too-typical scene
When Sarah and I moved in 2000 to be near my kids, our first apartment building backed onto the Taylor Creek ravine (which I can see from our second building, the one we live in now). That first summer, we used to take my kids down into the valley virtually every weekend to go rollerblading, cycling or just throw a frisbee or baseball around. By the next summer the descent into doggie anarchy was well under way. The few times we were courageous enough to venture down the hill we were menaced regularly by unleashed canines who snapped at us on our blades or bikes, or chased down the frisbee and ran away with it. Sometimes they would just charge at my young kids for no particular reason whatsoever while their idiotic "owners" just watched. The summer after that, 2002, we stopped going down there altogether. The inmates had taken over the asylum. The park was most definitely not an "off-leash zone"—there were plenty of signs alerting dog owners to that fact although many of them had been vandalized or broken—but at no point did I ever see a single individual capable of handing out a ticket for the offense patrolling that pathway in all the time we spent down there. For a couple of years afterward I took my bike down to the valley to cycle through the park system and down to the Beaches; not once did I ever see anyone be reprimanded for having a dog off-leash.

Toronto's Financial District
But even though it's become an epidemic to the point of keeping humans from enjoying the parks that they pay for, if you try to have a discussion about it in an average group of people in Toronto it becomes more of a heated debate than if you wanted to discuss abortion. The "Dog Rights" lobby has become very powerful here and they are starting to push for things that make absolutely no sense. The way I look at it, owning a pet in this city—or anywhere else, for that matter—is a privilege, not a right. If you abuse your pet it can—and must—be taken away from you. But there are far too many people around these parts who insist that their "right" to own a dog is sacrosanct and, in fact, supersedes any "rights" you or your family might have. People are constantly moving into the high-rise condos of downtown Toronto, adopting a dog too large for their apartment (or bringing one with them) and complaining that there aren't enough places for the dog to "run free". Well, duh. How on earth did that come as a surprise? If you moved to a remote community to get away from it all would you then complain that there were not enough art galleries there? Or if you moved to a place beside the airport, would you then complain that the, hang on. People do that all the time, so that's not a good example.

Denzil Minnan-Wong, rocket scientist
Toronto City Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong could be a poster child for the spoiled, selfish, whiny, entitled dog owner. Apparently he even brings his dog up to the press gallery at City Hall to pee on the carpet from time to time. Last Hallowe'en—in a shining example of "trick" versus "treat"—this shameless city official declared that he had asked the parks and environment committee to "study introducing off-leash hours at all parks" in Toronto. He stated that, "if dog owners don’t live close to an off-leash park, they must struggle with the hassle of transporting their pets." Or they could, you know, research where they are going to live before actually moving there. As people sometimes do. I am so sick of people who, out of their own ignorance or laziness, get themselves and their helpless pets into a situation that could have been completely avoided and then cry that somehow it's up to the rest of us to fix it for them. Look, when you are searching for a place to live you make conscious decisions and compromises. You should have a list of "musts" and be willing to bend in other areas because no place is perfect, not in a city of this size. If you want to live close to the action, you have to give up the freedom to have your dog run around wherever it wants to. If you want to enjoy access to large parks with the room to contain an off-leash area for your dog, then move someplace where that is possible. In the city, other people have to come first and it's time to stop treating dogs like they are "citizens". The day after the Minnan-Wong idiocy, The Star ran another article in which they interviewed someone on each side of the issue. The dog-owner's comments would be absolutely laughable if they didn't so tragically represent the feelings of so many others with similar ideas of entitlement. She says that, "dogs are part of the community"; asks,"who else is using the green space right now other than the dogs?" (which, you know, is exactly the point I was making a few paragraphs back); and complains that, "if you live downtown, you don't have a backyard...this is their [the dogs'] space". After a lot of other blather—all of which I have heard many times as "arguments" in discussion about dog laws—she offers this positively Socratic bit of logic: "Parents have the option to have their children play in the park, so we should have the option to let our dogs off-leash." Because dogs should have the same "rights" as real human children when it comes to our parks. Of course.

The new (and ugly) dog run at Stan Wadlow
There are, thankfully, other potential solutions with good intentions to this "problem" and that brings me to the catalyst for this blog piece today. Over the past few weeks we have watched as first some orange safety netting and then actual fence posts and rails has been erected in the playground below our balcony. At first we thought the netting was setting out the boundaries for an outdoor rink and we were quite happy; over time, though, it became apparent that the city had something very different in mind. As the project neared completion we realized, with sinking hearts, that this was to become a new dog run. Now, I agree with—and wholeheartedly support—the theory of off-leash dog runs and I think it ought to represent an excellent compromise with the unleashed dog fanatics. The problem in this park—as it has been in so many other places where they have created these runs—is that they have now taken this space away from children at a time where childhood obesity is at near-crisis levels. Have a good look at the picture here. The building at the very front of the picture is an elementary school. The nearer ball diamond is one that benefited from the largesse of the Jays Care people last spring, ostensibly to keep the youth of this community active and outdoors. But the soccer field is what really strikes me. The near side of the new dog run comes within a couple of feet of the far soccer posts, meaning that any ball kicked in the general area of that goal stands an excellent chance of ending up in the paddock with the dogs running free. This is a horrible planning mistake, in my opinion. I imagine the fencing takes the shape it does because of the undulation of the land, but why does the run have to be that big? Again, let me say: I agree in principle with having off-leash dog runs in areas that would support such an effort; however, it has seemed to me that, in most cases, the creation of these runs has come at the expense of the activity of our children.

Karen Stintz at another failed dog run venture
There's one more point about this that I would like to make, but I feel it's very important. Regarding just the specific new dog run in Stan Wadlow Park, it seems to me that we are rewarding bad behaviour with a gift, much like giving a little kid having a tantrum at Wal-Mart the candy he is demanding just to shut him up. The area where the dog run has been created has, for quite some time now, been overrun with off-leash dogs even without this fencing. It's been an issue for me for years now and I have never—not even once—seen nor heard of a single person in Stan Wadlow Park being charged with violating the city's hilariously ineffective off-leash laws, despite the fact that they are within a few yards of the back door of a school full of small children. Putting this new run there is not only a tacit approval of the previous actions of these inconsiderate boors, but it now will also attract a whole new crop of inconsiderate boors to the area. Yes, there will be some responsible owners who show up as well, but these are not the issue for me. Do not for a second think that this new off-leash area will make people understand that their dogs need to be leashed everywhere else. In the time I have written this blog post I have seen four different humans and their canine companions (numbering far more than four) come and go from the dog run—and I have only popped up from my chair to observe the proceedings a couple of times. Only one of these humans left the park with his dog on a leash. Every other pooch was still running free once they left the area and headed towards the school. So these people have learned nothing, for there has been no lesson to be learned other than if you whine loudly enough and have enough people in your complaint group you will eventually have things given to you. If the creation of these leash-free zones was accompanied in each case by an increase in the frequency and amount of non-compliance fines everywhere else—at the very least in the areas immediately adjacent to the dog runs—then I would likely be on board with this compromise. But as it is, it is not a compromise at all.

It's merely one more sign that the city of Toronto has gone to the dogs.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Our First Walk of the "Spring"!

Heading down to Taylor Creek
Last year I didn't blog about a walk through Taylor Creek Park until May 27, when Sarah took a solo toodle and brought back some pictures, and a week later, when we both went together. Here it is all of twelve days into the New Year and Sarah and I have already taken our first stroll through the valley in the Spring-like weather of today (twelve degrees Celsius when we left the apartment just after noon). There were a few other people out but surprisingly few and quite well-mannered, especially those with dogs, for the most part. Even once we reached the valley floor I felt like I might have been overdressed with my Zoo hoody and baseball jacket on. We have had some warm Januaries in the past around Toronto but it was over-the-top today, to say the least. You can see some snow and slushy ice around the stairs in this picture and there were still patches of both along the pathway, but in the park behind our building I would say about 99% of the snow has disappeared in the past thirty-six hours. I know plenty of people around here who rejoice at that idea; the problem, though, is that we are almost certainly not done receiving snow for this winter and it's really frustrating (I feel) to have to deal with the traffic jams and digging out during each snowfall if it's not going to stick around and actually make it look like winter for more than a week at a time. This is one ugly winter city to live in. However, griping aside, it was nice to get out for a walk with Sarah today as most of my meanderings recently have been at the Zoo and, more often than not, solo jaunts.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Parable

Imagine you own a company that makes widgets. Once upon a time your widget company was the best in all the world and for most of the recorded history of the widget industry it's been a standard-bearer for excellence in widget making—one of the top two companies for decades. But recently your company has fallen on hard times in one sense: it's been over forty-five years since you last created a widget that was the best in the world (or even second-best) and you're running on reputation alone. Oh, you're still turning a profit—a huge profit, given the circumstances—because you have generations of consumers still buying your widgets out of some kind of misguided loyalty. Some years you offer different colours; other years different shapes and sizes; still others no noticeable change whatsoever. No improvement in how these widgets operate, though: they still break down when the going gets tough (except for one notable year when they were sabotaged by an outside agent beyond your control) and have never truly adapted to the ever-changing landscape. For the past seven years, in fact, yours are the only widgets to have never appeared in the publication This Year in Widgets even once. You're exceedingly happy with your financial situation—and how could you not be?—but embarrassed on some visceral level that your product has become the laughing stock of the entire widget industry. Surely there will come a time when the loyalty factor will be removed from the equation and your profits will take a nosedive...right?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

My White-Handed Gibbon Presentation

White-handed gibbon in a rare spot: on the ground
Tomorrow I have to give a short (three minute) presentation on an animal of my choice to an imaginary class level of my choice as part of my Zoo Volunteer training. I have chosen the white-handed gibbon as my animal and a Grade 6 Biodiversity Workshop Tour as my audience. I am spending much of the day practicing this presentation and will likely not have much else to write about in any event, so I thought it would be fun to just print my entire talk out here for your amusement. I am having trouble keeping this talk below four minutes—and that's without allowing for any interaction with the audience—so I clearly have some work to do. It's entirely possible that my final "script" will be shorter than this one, although I have no idea, at this point, what part(s) I would want to cut out. Anything you see in square brackets ("[ ]") are sentences or thoughts I feel I could eliminate if pressed for time. Questions I wish to pose to the group are in italics and will probably be followed by a short pause for answers. The absolutely vital talking points are in bold. And now, without further ado....pretend you're eleven years old again and standing in front of the gibbon enclosure in the Indomalayan pavilion....

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

TPS, You've Got Some 'Splainin' To Do

As I've mentioned in this blog several times, I am training to be a Volunteer for the Toronto Zoo. I have four classes left and at the end of that time I need to put in a few more hours of training before I can lead a tour on my own. One would think that would be the toughest part of this whole venture, but one would be very, very wrong. For, you see, I also have to pass a police background check—supposedly at the "Vulnerable Sector" level—before I can be entrusted with the leading of young people into pavilions. Fair enough: I've already gone through this procedure twice before in order to coach peewee hockey and, much earlier than that, to volunteer at my kids' schools. On those occasions, I paid a small amount of money and filled out a form; the organizations took care of the rest and that was the end of it. But not the Zoo, oh no. This has to be done on a whole other level which is making me now wonder exactly how much information they are trying to find out about me before allowing me to perform a non-paying job for them.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Being a Stay-at-Home Dad

Hooray for my Full-Time Dad!
A very good friend of mine is about to embark on a totally awesome part of his life that, when he looks back on it many years from now, he will likely remember as the best thing he ever did. He has just begun a six-month paternity leave and, in just a few short days, will become a full-time stay-at-home Dad when his wife returns to her job. He will be writing a blog about his adventures, entitled Daddy? Are You Awake? and I urge you to check it out (I've also linked to it permanently in the side column of my own blog page). He has not attached his own name to his blog; therefore, I will refrain from doing so here but anyone who knows both of us will easily "crack the code". I envy him these next few months, because I was also my own children's Primary Caregiver when they were very young—albeit slightly older than his two are now—and nothing I have ever done in my life since that time can come close to being as satisfying, productive, wondrous or just plain fun as those brief years were. It's been nearly two decades since I embarked on that journey myself; there are days where it seems like forever ago and others where I swear it was just last week. Before I had kids of my own I never thought of myself as someone who had any kind of connection with the little folk—nor, really, any affinity for them—but all of that changed like a switch being flipped "on" the moment my son was born. Actually, I think it really changed the moment my ex and I found out we were expecting.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Max Turns Five!

Max at full speed
Our nephew, Max, turned five years old on Sunday and his parents (Sarah's brother and his wife) booked a birthday party for him at Active Kids Zone near Dufferin between Finch and Steeles. The party was booked to run from 10 a.m. until noon and the folks in charge of the joint sure packed a lot of fun and great activities into the two hours. Sarah and I arrived just before ten (Sarah's job was to hold Georgia, only nine weeks old, if she was awake; otherwise, to watch over Charlie, Max's younger brother) and actually beat all of the other party guests, which is very unusual for us. I popped back out briefly to replace a coffee that Michelle, Max's Mom, had received in error and I was gone no more than ten minutes; when I got back the place was absolutely full of kids and parents. I think every single other family arrived in those ten minutes!

For the first little while, the kids randomly blew off steam kicking a couple of soccer balls around, then the "coach" organized a game of "Octopus" (a variation of Freeze Tag) with Max as "It". That's what he's playing in the picture above, where he looks more like an airplane than a scary sea monster. Then they played a game of "crazy soccer", which consisted of two teams but also two balls, to really keep the action going:

Samantha's got style
Max is ready for anything

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A "Dear John Letter" to the NHL

"And so you're back from outer space,
I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face;
I should have changed that stupid lock, I should have made you leave your key,
If I had known for just one second you'd be back to bother me..."

- Gloria Gaynor, I Will Survive

Says it all

Dear John National Hockey League:

This is a difficult letter for me to write. Well, it should be a difficult letter for me to write but it really isn't, so it must be the right thing to do. I've decided our relationship has run its course and I am writing to tell you I'm breaking up with you. No, there's nobody else, not specifically. I just don't love you any more and that's the bottom line.

We've been together a very long time and I always thought our relationship would last forever, but things change, you know? People change and they want different things sometimes. It's nobody's fault, really.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Better Late Than Never....Right?

The birthday girl

Last October—on the twelfth, to be precise—my beautiful partner, Sarah, had a milestone birthday. Because the depression I have spoken of a couple of times was already taking hold I only managed four blog posts for that entire month, and one of those was about that depression. As a result, two big events during that month—Sarah's birthday itself and the surprise party a bit later on—went virtually unreported, restricted mainly to Facebook postings. That was horribly unfair to Sarah, so today I will relate the tale of the party, the incredible cake and the amazing people who helped put it all together. Very soon I will give Sarah the birthday post she very much deserves; when I do so I will back-date it to October 12, 2012, not because I want to try to cover my tracks but simply because that is where it belongs.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Friday is Zoo Day!

The older of our two female otters
Our training doesn't officially resume until next Friday so I had another opportunity today to do a walkabout at the Zoo on my own. I decided to drop in on some animals I hadn't seen in quite a while; I had hoped to catch up with the jaguars at the Mayan Temple but the whole area is closed for the season. I don't know why this fact had eluded me until now, but it did. While I was contemplating this turn of events, I heard a rustling from the ground around the pool off to my left and below me. When I went over to the railing I saw one of the otters was very interested in me—possibly expecting some food—and had come bounding out of the light brush in the exhibit to perch on one of the logs and stare at me. Unfortunately, my camera was still in its case and the case was still inside my knapsack; by the time I got it ready to go, she (the otter, for I have yet to anthropomorphize my camera) had slipped into the water and was swimming around, still watching me closely. I was there for quite a while, but could not coax her back out of the pool and onto that log, so I had to settle for a series of swim-related pictures, of which I think this is the best. None of them were remarkable but who doesn't love looking at otters? Obviously I had to include one here.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Next Ken Jennings?

The online auditions for Jeopardy! are right around the corner and I have signed up once again this year, because apparently I am just a glutton for punishment. To clarify: I have qualified to be on the show three times in my life but have yet to appear on the air for whatever reasons the cosmos deems hilarious in each particular year. The most recent time also happened to be the first time the online test was offered, requiring Sarah and me to take a trip to New York City after I passed the cyberquiz. Previous to that, all the tests I had written were offered in Toronto and I was two-for-three on those. The very first one I ever wrote was in 1989 and I blew it, which was even harder to swallow because I could have written it in Los Angeles the year before while I was on vacation and, I later heard, the one I wrote and failed in Toronto was the exact same test, meaning I would have had two cracks at it. Let's clarify once again: if you "fail" a Jeopardy! test it only means you scored under 70% on it, which means you got more than 15 wrong out of 50 questions. To further expand on this: over the three tests I wrote in Toronto a grand total of eleven people scored highly enough to be allowed to stick around for a mock game; I was two of those eleven people. And I still haven't been on the show. Hell, yes, I'm a little bitter! I did win a hat on one of those occasions, though, by sitting in the chair with the masking tape stuck to the bottom. So I'm a little lucky, but just not lucky enough to be on the damn show. So far.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Wintertime at the Zoo

Sarah ♥s the Zoo!
As I mentioned in my New Year's Eve blog post, I got a fantastic Christmas gift this year (well, last year, to be technical): a Canon EOS Rebel T3 (EOS 1100D) DSLR camera. For regular—or even casual—readers of this blog or my Facebook feed, it should have been painfully obvious where I would almost immediately be heading to put this beauty through its paces: the Zoo. Sarah and I went on a little "walkabout" last Friday not long after the new (and first) snow of the Toronto winter had fallen and from the very first impressions I can honestly say that I am going to love this camera for a long time. I had an old Ricoh 35mm SLR for nearly two and a half decades which gave up the ghost in late 2003 (sadly, it was on a trip to the maritimes and the disposables I had to buy to fill the gap were really quite terrible). In the years since that loss I have made do with a series of crappy-to-decent point-and-click digitals (the most recent of which I actually won in a radio promotion a few years back) and, having abandoned thoughts of obtaining a DSLR for myself (out of my price range), I had my eyes on a Nikon Coolpix P500 that I was thinking of buying used from a friend of mine. Great little camera, but at the end of the day it's still a point-and-click. So when I opened my new Rebel on Christmas (and Sarah unnecessarily apologized for not getting me the Nikon!) I was absolutely thrilled; however, it wasn't until I actually took some pictures with it that night and viewed them on the computer that I realized just how much better my photo-taking life had just become. Over the following couple of days, as I read up on the functions and settings of my Canon, the old feelings started to come back and I realized how much I actually missed my old Ricoh and, consequently, how much I had pushed that to the back of my mind for the past 9 years.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!

Ok, so that will likely be the single most unoriginal blog post title I use this entire year but, really, how could I say anything else? Sarah and I were fortunate enough to have multiple invites last night (as has happened the past couple of years, actually) and split up our visits the best way we could. In years gone by, we have spent the bulk of our New Year's Eves at the home of the Lofthouses, watching the Canada Juniors play (ordinarily against the States, it seems) and just hanging out. For two of those years, the quiet sort of evening we had with them was pretty necessary for our well-being as we took off for the Dominican Republic very, very early on January 2 (on both occasions) and did not want to be burned out just twenty-six or so hours earlier. But this year the Junior tourney (hockey, that is, if you haven't figured it out yet) is being played in Russia and the games are at ungodly hours in our time zone, so there was no hockey to be watched last night. Also, there is a very young lad in the Lofthouse family these days and it seemed prudent to just have dinner with them and leave them to their own devices. So we did exactly that and had a fantastic time. Of course, as we expected, when it came time to actually leave for the "other" party we really didn't want to go.

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