Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Past Deadline: More Bad News About Fish

I’ve learned a thing or two about neon tetras in the last six months.

There are many schools (schools – get it? Fish joke) of thought out there about these little fish and I’m tending to agree with those who say they are extremely sensitive. For those of you who have been following my Fish Tank of Doom saga, there’s more. I’m hoping some sort of fish police don’t pull up to my front door and cart me away to rehab for well-meaning fish keepers.

Neon tetras are silver with red and blue racing stripes and they are quite lovely. They zoom around the tank and are such fun to watch.

Unless they’re dead.

The whole saga started after the last of Boychild’s long-lived goldfish floated to the proverbial aquarium in the sky. We decided on neon tetras because they’re so flashy and because I had kept some years ago with no problem or fuss.

The story of our first batch of 14 ended badly. Some rather serious water chemistry issues led to 100 per cent mortality within 24 hours. We learn from our mistakes, though, and when we purchased a fresh dozen (from a different store – too embarrassed to go back to the first), we were certain we had solved all problems.

This is a great theory if you follow basic fish-introduction rules, primarily: float the bag, you idiot! Floating the bag is literally that. You put the bag of fish in your tank for a while so they get used to the temperature and so that you can slowly exchange the water. Dumping new fish directly into a tank results in shock. Their bellies puff up (swim bladders) and they swim funny and float to the top. If you’re lucky, like I was, they will survive the Fish Tank of Doom.

For a long time things went merrily along with our 12 tetras and two algae eaters. Then they got ick – a charming fish illness. I nursed all but two of them back to good health.

Over the past several months a few have died off for no discernable reason and I’m willing to speculate it is because it was simply their time. After all, I have learned a lot. I change water and clean tanks and use special stuff to keep things healthy and I test the water frequently and watch the fish almost as compulsively as I check e-mail.

When we got down to five, I suggested to Boychild that maybe we could replenish the population a little, so we went to a fish store that had come highly recommended. We got eight new neon tetras and four little peppered corys that look like spotted catfish and comb through the pebbles looking for debris with their whiskers. Very cute.

The tank was ready. I tested the water. I floated the bag. I tested the bag water. I exchanged the water. I slowly and carefully released the new fish. I tested the water again.

And we watched.

Things looked great. The new fish (which were frighteningly tiny) schooled with the old fish. They zoomed around. They ate. There was no sign of shock and no sign of ick – no sign of anything.

And then, one by one over 48 hours, each of the new little tetras went off by itself and, within half an hour of doing so, died.


Everyone else was fine, though, including the corys. A knowledgeable friend says it sounds as if I did everything right. I even chatted with a guy at a local bait shop who has been rearing minnows for decades, and he says fish stocks aren’t what they used to be.

I turned to the Internet, where you can always find reassurance if you look in the right places. I quickly discovered many websites and blogs proclaiming the hardships of neon tetra ownership. I have concluded that these fish are likely to die if you look at them funny.

Boychild is taking it well – better than I am. He is used to Bad News About Fish. My friend says that someday, years from now, he’ll say, “Hey, Mom, remember that time when you kept killing all of my fish?”

Good times.
Published in The Perth Courier, Aug. 19/10

Past Deadline: Spinning the Petty Crime

If a petty crime falls in the forest, does anybody report it? Even more importantly, does anybody go to prison for it? And how exactly will we know?

If there is ever another federal election, there should be some nifty spin when it comes time to discuss the long-form census issue, not to mention the criminal nature of statistics or, rather, the statistical nature of crime. It will be interesting to see what sort of stuff Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s control-freak message people come up with.

True to form, the Harper government is letting its hyper-vigilance about privacy and secrecy trump common sense in its decision to make the completion of the long-form census voluntary instead of mandatory. After all, why would you want to have real, valid statistical information that a government could use to make informed policy and program decisions? Why, that might be a way to prevent spending, say, $13 billion on new prisons we might not need, for example.

In HarperWorld™, though, you don’t actually need valid information – that’s just crazy talk. After all, valid information has to come from real people, and those folks (you and me) might not like to be asked personal questions.

This from the government that is known for ducking any forum where there is no guarantee that the message can be controlled by the PMO. In HarperWorld™ made-up information is much preferred because by the time it is verified (or not) the Harperites assume we the people have all dozed off and have forgotten the original issue.

Please oh please, people. Stay awake!

The recent example that had me slapping my forehead in disbelief was the fact that Treasury Board president Stockwell Day, who will probably never shake the wetsuit-wearing image, recently told reporters the federal government needs to spend billions of dollars to build new prisons to lock up people who commit unreported crimes.


See, this is confusing on many levels. First of all, I would have thought the tough-on-crime-Tories would be crowing over the news that crime rates in Canada are dropping but, oh no, they are choosing to focus on a statistic (of all things) that shows the number of unreported crimes is actually increasing.

Don’t be surprised, though, for even in HarperWorld™ a statistic can be useful – as long as it is in restraints.

It was later reported Day’s information came from an honest-to-goodness Statistics Canada survey that showed a slight rise in unreported crimes. Gosh. Those surveys sure are helpful when you need them! A StatsCan analyst went on to say, though, the most common reason people give for not calling police about a crime is that they don’t believe it to be serious enough. You know, stuff like property crimes and petty theft. (Folks tend to snitch about violent crimes.)

The thing is, even if these petty crimes had been reported, they probably wouldn’t have been serious enough to warrant a jail term. Not only that, but we’re talking about building federal prisons here, and to earn yourself a spot in one of those you need to get a sentence of at least two years. Petty crime just isn’t going to cut it.

So, to recap, if we’re not locking up people who aren’t being charged or even if they are being charged but the crimes are petty, why do we need more prison cells?

Well, it’s because suddenly HarperWorld™ needs to come up with some sort of logical argument to defend the expenditure of billions of dollars to expand prisons when crime rates are apparently falling. So there’s lots of spin about imposing longer sentences and stopping the practice of discounted sentences – but it sure makes one wonder what else might be going on.

Not to mention, of course, the irony of HarperWorld™ relying on statistics, of all things, to argue its point. It’s also ironic that if this government were to keep the long-form census mandatory, they might actually need all those new prison cells to house the folks who refuse to fill out the forms. After all, I’m sure we all know someone who has gone to prison for not completing the long-form census.

Or am I being petty?
Published in The Perth Courier, Aug. 12/10

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Past Deadline: Squirmy Joy

Sometimes I think if I could go back in time I would go back to being four. There’s just something about that age that is, well, squirmy!

Four-year-olds still need their moms. They still snuggle. They want to play and the world is still new. They are not yet fully jaded – only a little jaded. They soak in knowledge like sponges and blossom with their new experiences like the biggest, brightest flowers.

Girlchild, who is four, had her first and second rounds of swimming lessons this summer. For the previous year she had joined me on the bleachers at the indoor pool to watch her brother move through some badges and was quite delighted when we suggested she could take lessons when school finished.

Oh, my. What an excruciating wait it was for those lessons to get started less than a week after her last day of school. We counted the days. Then the hours. Then the minutes.

Kids who are Girlchild’s age start with a beginner program, and her first level was Sea Turtle because she is big enough to go in the water without a parent.

Despite the obvious anticipation, I approached the whole thing with a tiny bit of caution because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but kids can be weird. Sometimes, even though they might express unbridled enthusiasm about a thing, it can suddenly become the Most Fearsome Thing in the World and Something To Avoid Entirely.

Sometimes we seek refunds.

This time, though, there was little doubt Girlchild was excited. She couldn’t sit still on the bleachers as we waited to see who her teacher would be. That’s when a fellow named Jeff appeared and called for the Sea Turtles. I am now certain Girlchild would follow him to the ends of the earth and back – or at the very least to the end of the pool and back. Several times, even.

One of my most favourite things in the world is watching a kid “get it.” I remember when Boychild learned to read. In school and at home we worked through letter sounds and spent a long time trying to put it all together. He’d bring home the books to practise at night and we’d settle in and work ever so slowly through those words on the pages.

Then, one night, eureka! It was literally as if a light switch had been flicked on and the boy could read. The words flowed and reading became fun! It is an exciting privilege to be witness to this sort of thing when it happens.

Swimming is a bit like this because there are certain preparations to be made and obstacles to overcome before one really gets it. We watched as, day after day, Girlchild rose to the challenges and eagerly embraced them. We started calling her Esther Williams, in fact, because you couldn’t wipe the grin off her face. When it was her turn to do a task, she was so excited she squirmed in the water with joy, and when she completed it her excitement practically rippled across the water.

For example, at home in the wading pool before her lessons started, Girlchild practised sticking part of her face in the water and blowing bubbles. Putting her whole head under water, however, was a Much Bigger Deal.

It was kind of like that reading thing when it happened – when a little switch was flicked and she realized that not only did nothing bad happen when she did it, but it’s actually kind of fun to go underwater and be fish-like or mermaid-like or Esther Williams-like or what have you.

She can do it and now she does it all the time and it seems to have been a springboard into accomplishing all sorts of wonderful things – such as swimming a few metres without any floaty stuff at all.

She moved on to become a Salamander under Lorel’s care and is ready to move on to the Sunfish level next time. And she’ll still follow Jeff around anywhere, I’m sure.

Oh, to be four again, when the whole wide world is just brimming with these joyful, squirmy, exciting, new things!

Published in The Perth Courier, Aug. 5, 2010

Past Deadline: On Hunger and Gravity

Just in case too much time has passed since I last told you about my apparent obsession with the Quest to Find My Waist (I think it has been a whole two weeks, after all), here is an update.

Something remarkable has happened.

Get this: sometimes I’m not hungry, so I don’t eat.

Gasp! I know! Isn’t that crazy?

If you’ve been following along, you might remember I recently lamented that despite the fact I am running my butt off I am not, actually, running my butt off. Nor my hips. Nor my gut. So, my Calgary buddy and I have set a new goal – to adjust our eating to complement the exercising in an extraordinarily clever effort to convince our bodies that, yes, weighing a tad less would be just fine, thank you very much if you don’t mind please.

The first part of the plan was to control what gets ingested at suppertime and beyond. Portion sizes and evening snacking have long been issues for me. So instead of having a big snack of cereal before bed, I’ll settle for a bit of fruit and/or a glass of milk.

Guess what? It seems to be working! Not only have I not died of starvation while I’m doing that strenuous activity known as sleeping, but I’ve even lost a couple of pounds!

Controlling my evening eating seems to have had a surprising, but welcome, effect during the rest of the day, too. Since I am eating less at night, my body seems to be expecting less during the rest of the day. Somehow, I have managed to trick my brain into doing what so many other people do naturally. Some people won’t eat food if they’re not hungry – even if the food is right there in front of them! It’s just craziness.

Believe it or not, this is a surprisingly huge accomplishment in my world. Oh – and get this! Sometimes I eat a meal, feel full and actually stop eating. I might even leave some food on my plate – uneaten! Whoa. You have no idea how revolutionary it is to do this. The best part is that by doing this I actually feel good instead of being obnoxiously full after a meal.

Here’s something else that’s mind blowing: sometimes I feel hungry and it turn out I actually am hungry because I haven’t eaten in a while – as in hours. Hours without snacking. The best part? I’m okay! I haven’t grown weak or dizzy. I haven’t died of starvation!

This little exercise has reminded me of a few simple things that are not rocket science, for sure, but it’s nice to put into practice what I have long known. For one thing, I really don’t need to eat as much as I do. Smarter choices and smaller portion sizes make me feel better and don’t compromise my energy level – they actually increase it. (Short people and/or cats waking me up in the night compromise my energy level.)

I should add there is a Best Actor in a Supporting Role that should be thanked in this drama called Adventures in Responsible Eating, and that is Humidity. Yes, the kind of heat that makes one feel nauseous when sitting still is a good deterrent against ingesting giant meals. That means it will be interesting to see what happens with these newly rediscovered eating habits when the weather cools down in the fall and all those warm, yummy, comfort foods start popping up on the menu again.

There’s another cast member, though, that deserves an Academy Award for its villainous role. That is Gravity. While I am pleased to report there are signs my waist might reappear, it is definitely in an altered form. It’s amazing how having kids and gaining some weight redistributes things in unflattering and strange bulgy ways. I now totally get why girdles were invented. They weren’t necessarily a form of torture. It’s just that some of us girls need more help with elasticity than others. I suppose I should feel gratified in knowing some of the problem is skin as opposed to fat, but strangely I am not appeased by this.

Oh, yes. It’s wonderful being a girl. Indeed.

Published in The Perth Courier, July 29, 2010

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Past Deadline: Now for Today's Special- Nothing!

I don’t remember being bratty about summer boredom when I was a kid. In fact, I don’t remember being bored much before the end of August. There always seemed to be something to do – whether it was playing with neighbourhood kids or reading a book.

I remember our family camping trips and travelling and the things that used to keep me happy during long car rides waaaaay before portable DVDs and Nintendo DSIs. Indeed, if I wasn’t fighting with my brother or checking out the scenery, then I was adding to my licence plate collection in my notebook.

Yes, I would record all the licence plate numbers I saw on our travels. This was particularly exciting if they were out of province or – gasp! – out of country. I had a list of hundreds.

I’m willing to admit it’s possible I was a strange child who was easily amused.

Now that I am a parent I sometimes think my children are little space aliens and I wonder if my parents felt the same way about my brother and me. Or maybe it’s just a different world today.

Something I find about kids – and maybe it’s mine in particular – but as soon as you do something “exciting” it becomes an expectation that something “exciting” will happen every day. This turns into a pester fest (“What are we doing today, Mom? What are we doing today?”) that occasionally makes me wonder if it would simply be easier to raise them in a mushroom-like environment – in the dark and feeding them lots of…well, you know.

Just kidding! Sort of.

Boychild, for example, is at an age where it seems to take a lot to enthral him, which I find odd considering he takes great delight in talking about gastrointestinal emissions with his sister. I’ve been living with this kid for more than eight years now and I still sometimes have no idea if he is ever really impressed by anything.

Friends of ours invited us for a visit that included a ferry ride to see some giant windmills, a trip to a splash pad and a meal at a restaurant where the chef cooks in front of you and juggles eggs and sets fire to things. Both of the kids had a good time, but their favourite part of the day was frolicking in the hot tub back at our friends’ place. (Scratches head.) I guess that’s sort of like the cliché of the child enjoying the box more than the toy that was in it.

Another friend of mine sometimes comments that kids today seem to need things to be really “whammy” before they are remotely impressed. Whammy often means expensive and far away and filled with constant activity. I guess it’s hard for me to understand because if you change my scenery and park me beside a shoreline where I can stare into the water for hours and look for critters I am perfectly content but, then again, I am that easily amused person….(Nice girl, but a bit odd.)

Oh, I know, there are a handful of very simple explanations for why kids are this way – assuming it’s even considered to be a bad thing. Maybe we’re supposed to be saving up for trips into space or month-long journeys on ocean-going vessels or mountain climbing or backpacking across the universe or whatever.

“They” say kids’ brains are affected by all the flickering lights in televisions and video games and, thusly, they now require constant stimulation. Or maybe it’s just that they see too much about what is out there in the world through media and are, as a result, underwhelmed when real life shows up live and in person (I know sometimes I feel that way).

Or maybe they just need to get used to the idea that life has exciting times and not-so-exciting times. Around these-here parts we are not likely to have every moment scheduled with some sort of whammy activity. For that matter, we are not likely to have every moment scheduled – period.

After all, in my day (uphill both ways) we used to collect licence plate numbers in a notebook and we liked it. We LOVED it!

(Nice girl, but a little odd.)

Published in the Perth Courier, July 22, 2010

Past Deadline: Sharp, Itchy Nature

I’ve mentioned before that when we were kids my brother and I used to roam the fields, woods and river near our home. At that time, the biggest dangers we faced were some thistle scratches, mosquito bites and the wrath of our mother if we traipsed into the house with dirty feet.

In the “olden days” I remember being quite paranoid about poison ivy. We didn’t have any in the haunts we frequented, but my dad used to tell stories about the terrible reactions he had to poison ivy when he was younger, and I was certain it would be the Worst Thing Ever should I have the misfortune to encounter it.

These days, if you were at all inclined to overreact to things you hear on the news, you would have to take a deep breath before you go outside. You’d want to take that breath INside in case there is a smog alert. These days the mosquitoes might carry West Nile virus. The sun will destroy you. The water could contain unpleasant bacteria.

And that’s not even counting the invasive species.

Today there are lots of kids whose feet will never get toughened up on pebbles in the water because they are wearing water socks to protect them from slashes by sharp-edged zebra mussels. (I know a kid who had to get stitches in his foot from a zebra mussel cut.) It is sad to see our local lakes and rivers polluted with this scourge. Yes, they filter the water and “clear it up,” but this means they are removing the tiny micro-organisms that other beasties feed upon. If those beasties die off, the bigger beasties that eat them suffer. And so on. Food chain stuff.

A decade or so ago we watched as fields and marshlands were overtaken by the invasive species du jour – purple loosestrife. Now we’re as likely to see a sea of yellow – especially along our roadways.

I remember when I first started noticing the yellow flowers of the wild parsnip a year or two ago. I wasn’t sure what it was and thought it was a variation of Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot) – the tall, white roadside wildflower that also came from somewhere else a long time ago. Since then, though, I’ve learned this other member of the carrot family is not a very nice plant. It appears to be an escapee of vegetable gardens that has spread over many many decades. The root is edible, but if you are unlucky enough to get the sap from the plant on your skin, particularly in combination with sunlight (it is photosensitive), you’re in for painful blisters that can take some time to heal.

Hurray. And it seems to be everywhere now.

Oh, and don’t forget about giant hogweed. It’s another member of the (apparently pesky!) carrot family that is even worse than wild parsnip. It’s an escapee from Europe and the sap from this huge plant can burn the skin and cause blindness if it gets in the eyes. I haven’t seen any yet, but apparently it’s moving this way so I am keeping an eye out for six-foot-tall plants with big white flowers and giant leaves.

The good news about these plants is you can generally see them and avoid them whilst out gallivanting in the wilds. Unfortunately, though, ticks are not as easy to see, and they are spreading this way from southern climes. Since some of them carry Lyme disease, you want to make sure you do a tick check when you return from your nature ramble.

So, about that deep breath. Nature, apparently, is not for the weak.

Rather than cover the children from head to toe with some sort of impenetrable bodysuit (not to mention the tin foil hat to ward off space aliens), I’m sticking with the “knowledge is power” notion. We know what to look for while we’re out and what to check for when we return. We wear water socks in zebra mussel territory and sunscreen whenever we’re outside. The end.

Sure seems that it used to be easier, though, back in the day….

Published in the Perth Courier, July 15, 2010