Monday, January 25, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – January Story

West Caucasian tur adolescents testing their sparring skills

As I was selling my unbelievably successful animal calendars for 2016 (four printings and $511 raised for rhinos – thank you all so much!!!) I would often sit with someone while they leafed through its pages, telling stories about the photos I chose for this year's edition. After a while, I realized that every single photo selected has some sort of back story; at the very least, they can each benefit from a little "fleshing out". So I decided to write a blog post for each of them and publish it in the appropriate month. January's is very late, but I will post-date all the rest so they appear on the first of each month. If you have a calendar and want to know more about the featured animals, please visit often. If not...well, the stories are still likely to be fun!

This month's animal is the west Caucasian tur, found in the Eurasian Wilds area of the Toronto Zoo, directly across from the snow leopard enclosure. These are among my favourite animals in our whole collection, because they are always so calm, sociable and inquisitive. This is one of the extremely rare areas of the zoo where a visitor can actually get close enough to touch the animal on display (but please don't!!). The huge enclosure has a high fence all around it, but one that has a wide weave and which one can very easily walk right up to at most points on its perimeter. These relatively passive goats can often be found on the cliffs (as is the case with the young lads in the picture above), but just as often they will be very close to the fence, nibbling on hay, sipping at their water, or just looking quizzically and comically at the silly human standing mere feet away, making clucking sounds and talking nonsensically at him or her in a sing-song voice. Well, at least that's what I've heard: clearly that isn't something I'd ever do. Heh heh. Heh.

I think this is the photo that I was originally going to go with for January's page, until Sarah came to the rescue. She mentioned that the other shot was much more dynamic and wondered why I had rejected it. I explained that I had tried to use it (the eventual winner) but that it had been cut off at the top and this annoyed me just enough to switch to the one at left. So Sarah went into the Vistaprint program and patiently showed me that the photo could be manipulated within its frame – similar to what one does with one's Facebook avatar when changing it to something not perfectly square – and I sheepishly admitted I hadn't even tried that. When we slid the jousting photo down a few millimetres, it fit beautifully into frame. Since it was the far superior choice, I went with it. This would have been enough of a lesson on its own, but Sarah wasn't finished (luckily for me). She asked how I had been cropping my photos in PhotoShop for the calendar pages. I explained that, because each page was 8 1/2 x 11", I had chosen the closest photo ratio I could (8 x 10) and just let it work itself out. Sarah then asked me why I had chosen that size and not, you know, actually 8 1/2 x 11. Only at that moment did it dawn on me that I could use the "Custom" crop tool to choose a specific size to match the paper I was printing it on; up until that point I had only really used the "Unrestricted" crop or the set ratios for my photos. It was a bit of a head-slapping moment, similar to the time I watched someone take pictures of our brand-new baby gorilla, heard his shutter go "click-click-click-click...", and literally exclaimed out loud, "Of course!!`I`m not buying film any more, so I can use the multiple-shot setting!" I have learned a great many things about my camera and digital photography in general in the past three years; this (multiple-shot photography) was one of the biggest game-changers of all of them. This new cropping discovery is right there with it. I hope I can improve my calendars every single time I print them. The 2016 edition is easily my favourite so far.

All of the above didn't make the cut for various reasons ranging from difficulty to crop to 8 x10, to too much fencing showing (I try to remove any visible fences from all of my shots if possible), to – in the case of the centre one ~ just having the misfortune of being up against more suitable choices. But look how cute!! I was hunting around on my hard drive for a photo of one of the tiny darlings sitting inside the hay-dispenser, happily munching away, because I know I've seen that happen numerous times; sadly, I couldn't find a single one. I can't imagine I've not taken any of those shots, but there you go. Maybe it's somewhere I didn't look. I'll keep hunting.

As for this final shot, there is one very good reason it didn't make the grade. Well, ok, maybe two reasons. In the first place, I think it's a fantastic photo, full of meaning and science and nature and all of that. I'm just not sure that enough people would think it belonged on their wall for the entire month of January. Maybe I'm selling a lot of people short, but after the reactions I had to leaving the blood in a previous year's photo of our Indian rhinos post-courtship, I'm a little reluctant to take that chance.

The second reason is a little harsher: this tiny guy, sadly, didn't make it. He had some very serious issues with his legs and he was rejected by his first-time mother. It didn't make sense for him to be hand-raised with all of the obstacles he was going to have to overcome. In the harsh natural environment that these animals live in, he would have been doomed from the moment his mom walked away from him. At least he was given a fighting chance at the Toronto Zoo until his untreatable front-end issues were discovered. Such is life (and death) in the world of animal care providers. It was still incredible to be there at the moment he entered the world. I didn't see the actual birth, as it happened inside the cave you can see in the photo, but the keepers told me it was happening and I saw mom and kid shortly thereafter.

Well, that's all I have for January. Next up: the photo that I knew was going to be February's offering the moment I took it. Tune in on the first of next month for that story!

Monday, January 11, 2016

There's a Starman Waiting in the Sky

Time May Change Me by Helen Green

I got up this morning to have coffee with Sarah before she left for work at the "crack of stupid", as our friend Ruth Cheesman would say. It's a new routine, begun on the advice of the psychiatrist – Dr. Feldmann – who has been treating me for ADHD. We're experimenting with increasing levels of Vyvanse (an amphetamine – and yes, I do recognize the irony in me needing an "upper" but thanks anyhow) and it seems to finally be having a positive effect on my ability to focus and stick to a task; however, as the good doctor pointed out to me, the medicine is just a tool and the heavy lifting now is left to me to relearn good organizational and goal-oriented skills. So last night I opened up "Google Keep" on my phone and created a long To Do list for the rest of this month. And my first order of business this morning, after seeing Sarah safely off, was to sit down at the computer and create my first new blog post in nearly a year, providing the back story for the January photo in my incredibly successful Connecting with Animals calendar for 2016

It's no longer morning. And this isn't that post. That post will have to wait.

Ordinarily I would check my emails and social media first thing in the morning just to be sure I wasn't missing anything of "vital importance" before getting on with my day, but I was so determined not to disappear down that particular rabbit hole today that I skipped Facebook and Twitter and only glanced at my email headers as I grabbed my mug of remaining coffee and began to head down the hall to my desk. I would, therefore, have missed all news of the stunning loss the world suffered overnight, but for one small detail: I subscribe to an email notification service called "Celebrity Death Beeper." I had received an email from them at 2:32 this morning and the header (in my phone's tiny window) said only, "A celebrity death? LEGENDARY ARTIS..." Assuming the recently departed would turn out to be someone I knew of only slightly, but with whom Sarah would be much more familiar, I clicked on the email in order to pass along the news to her so she might look into it on her bus ride. And of course, I couldn't have been more wrong. "LEGENDARY ARTIST DAVID BOWIE DIES AT 69" read the full header, my first "WTF" moment of 2016. With all of the notorious internet death hoaxes which seem to crop up nearly daily, I quickly went online for other, credible sources. I was met with an absolute wall of messages and laments on every single social media platform currently existing. And I sat down on the couch, knowing in that moment that my morning's plans had been irreversibly altered.

David Bowie, who seemed virtually immortal to anyone who actually considered the possibility of his death, was gone. Dead of cancer, with which he had apparently waged a battle for 18 months. 18 bloody months. How in the hell had I not known of this? How does anyone of Bowie's celebrity stature manage to keep that kind of thing a secret for 18 months?? He had released a brand-new album – his 25th – just last Friday. His first video, for the song Lazarus, I had already viewed without even the remotest inkling of its now all-too-clearly deliberate message. David Bowie, dying as suddenly (it seemed) as if he had been killed in an accident, a mere two days after his 69th birthday, which had coincided brilliantly with the release of Blackstar, an album giving no indication that the legendary rocker was even slowing down, let alone at death's door.

The news hit me like a hammer, which I don't really understand. I've certainly been aware of David Bowie since my earliest days of listening to radio. 2001:A Space Odyssey is one of my favourite movies of all time; likewise, I devoured every grain of information about the Apollo moon program in the late '60s. Thus it was only natural that I would take an immediate shine to Space Oddity when it was re-released by Bowie in Canada in 1973, having flown under the radar the first time around in 1969. But for the rest of the '70s, I really had very little exposure to his music other than the AM hits such as Fame and Golden Years, which was a shame because I really didn't care very much for those songs (and still don't). Being a bit of an unsophisticated music aficionado in my formative years, I stayed away from Glam Rock and Prog Rock and Hard Rock and...well, anything that even slightly required a good, hard listen and not just something you could put on in the background and ignore. I suspect this would have been quite different had I gone to a high school where I would have been the "nerdy kid" on the outside; as I attended UTS where we were all the nerdy kids, I didn't need to find solace or refuge or strength in the quirkiness of David Bowie. I vividly recall the one and only visit I made to a classmate's home in Thorncliffe Park in the mid-'70s when he put on Bowie and Genesis and Zappa and just generally made me so uncomfortable that I never returned.

Three events in my life would change how I felt about David Bowie and his music. The first was my meeting Stephe Yorke (one of the owners of Dead Dog Records on Bloor West in Toronto) in second-year university. He broke me out of the box I had been in and forever altered the way I approached all music for the rest of my life. I am forever in his debt for this. The second event was when my friend John Rose and I went to see Christiane F. at a rep theatre in Toronto in the very early '80s. The movie itself is devastatingly dark and disturbing and depressing and just generally an uncomfortable thing to watch....except for the footage of the David Bowie concert the main protagonist attends. I don't know if I was desperate for something, anything to relieve the incredible tension and angst of the film, but I do know that the songs of the soundtrack which played throughout the movie had a very positive effect on me and I rushed out to buy the album the next day (if not actually the very same evening). To this day, the song Heroes holds a very special place in my heart.

And the third event? Well, the third event is when I realized that this gender-bending, shock-producing, misfit chameleon could actually sing. I mean really, really sing.

In the early part of the 1980s, I was beginning to discover the joy of the old Jazz performers and one of my favourites was Nina Simone. One day around this time I had left the television on MuchMusic but wasn't paying attention to it when the above video began to play. It took me a few moments to recognize the tune being played and by the time I looked up, the name of the performer was no longer showing on the screen. I sat there mesmerized, listening to this amazing rendition of one of Simone's fabulous songs and trying to figure out how this person could sound so much like David Bowie and yet could clearly not be David Bowie. When the song was coming to an end and the credits came back up on the screen I was dumbfounded. How could this rock star, this androgynous performance artist with the bizarre costumes and gimmick after gimmick up his sleeve, how on earth could he produce a sound like this? In those days, MuchMusic repeated its programming every three hours (as I recall) so I set up the VCR to record this song in its entirety the next time it would show. I think I might even still have that tape, but I'd imagine it be worn so thin from repeated plays that one could likely see right through it. Of course, I also rushed out and bought the Golden Years compilation album within a day or two. To this day, no Bowie recording – and there have been some monumental performances – has come close to replacing Wild is the Wind as my favourite of his entire repertoire.

But while I now took his immense talent very seriously, I never truly became a "fan". I've loved many of his songs – some obscure, some not – but I only own one of all of his studio albums (sadly, it's Let's Dance) and three compilations: Changesonebowie, the aforementioned Golden Years, and the 2-CD set Singles: 1969-1993, the latter of which I only purchased, truth be told, because it contained a bonus third disc containing the video of Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy from his appearance on the Bing Crosby Christmas special so many years earlier. So why did his loss hit me so hard? I really can't say, other than that it was so sudden, while he was seemingly still so strong and experimental (his final album one final re-invention); and that he had been such a force in every aspect of the entertainment industry for so long it never really occurred to me (nor, apparently, to many others, judging from social media today) that he might one day simply vanish forever. That is to say, vanish as a living being; it's a certainty that he will never vanish entirely until humans disappear from the universe.

And if you doubt the sincerity or veracity of that last sentence, I will let the final words here be those of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who tweeted this today:

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