Sunday, April 19, 2015

what a wonderful world

Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You 
- Dan Riskin

We are all meat robots, nothing but transfer systems for our DNA, whose only goal is to replicate itself. That drives the actions of all living creatures and it can result in some utterly ruthless behaviour. Humans, despite our opposable thumbs and self-awareness, are not above this drive.

That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Dan Riskin's book. It's a rollicking good read, especially if you are fascinated (like I am) by all the wonderfully gory and ruthless methods that creatures use to stay alive and stay ahead of the competition.

Riskin - the co-host of Daily Planet (my favourite televised science show) - is an evolutionary biologist who grew up in Edmonton and who is bat-shit crazy about bats. He did his doctorate research on the mechanics of bat locomotion. Essentially, a man after my own heart. 

In Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You, Riskin mines much of his own life for examples of the ways in which ... well, mother nature is trying to kill you. He begins the book with the cheery little tale of the time he came home from a bat-studying expedition in Belize with a botfly maggot lodged in his head. For two weeks, the maggot (which his friends named Georgia) provided Riskin with a neat little party trick with which to amaze and gross-out his friends before he finally had it removed. Riskin uses this tale to demonstrate the cool life-cycle of the botfly and the complex strategy (using mosquitoes as carrier systems) that it uses to propagate itself. 

And that's merely the introduction. The body of the book is divided into chapters named for the Seven Deadly Sins, chock-full of examples of ways in which nature is greedy, lustful, slothful, envious .. well, you get it. Riskin provides fascinating examples of the ingenious and often deadly ways in which living creatures commit these sins in order to make sure that their own DNA is passed on to the next generation. Riskin, being a meat robot for DNA just like every other creature, even questions his own motives behind the love he feels for his young son. Is this fraternal emotion merely a technique utilized by his DNA to ensure that Sam (the recipient of Riskin's DNA) survives to propagate and pass that DNA to the next generation?

Not afraid to court controversy, Riskin occasionally editorializes, using his innate sensibility and scientific understanding to take the piss (sometimes gently, sometimes less so) out of delusional zealots, like the man who claims to have subsisted on nothing but sunlight since 1940 or the waitress with whom he used to work who would only take drugs that "came from nature". His thoughts on GMO crops were so sensible that I wanted to hug this well-spoken and thoughtful meat robot.

Meat robot or not, Dan Riskin has written a highly readable and fascinating treatise. From cannibal spiders to gang-raping ducks to fire-ants to parasites in all their clever guises, Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You gleefully covers all the good stuff.  

Friday, April 10, 2015

ring the bell

Hanging out in an unfinished National Music Centre lends itself to photo ops that are rife with compelling shapes and unexpected colours. 

Just wait until the place is filled with sound.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

the hunter and the hunted

I have started to crawl out of my office again. It's been a very productive two and half weeks, with a tonne of articles under my belt, as well as a rush website editting job. I've got a few more articles to write over the next week, but for the next few days it's going to be all reno decisions all the time. 

I've got a mitt-full of paint chips spread out on the dining room table, in the hopes that they will start speaking to me and assert themselves as the only possible choices. Right now they are still duking it out for my love. 

In a couple of days, the Spousal Unit and I are going on a reconnaissance excursion, which will hopefully result in some tough decisions quickly made - toilets, vanities, faucets, tiles, lighting and paint for three bathrooms, plus a bath/shower combo for the main. The contractor is drumming his fingers, waiting for our decisions. So, no pressure.

In more magazinely news, the new spring issue of Latent Image has hit the stands. I've contributed a story and a photo and - in a case of the hunter becoming the hunted - I also got a chance to dish on Calgary culture. Check it out.   

Friday, March 20, 2015


I am deep in the grips of magazine-writing, swirling in a world of interviews and type type typing. Every word is spoken for and I can't spare a single pronoun. I shall return soon.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

butterless in the burbs

The big gap over the stove is still waiting for a range hood, since we have sworn to never again get sucked into buying another over-the-range microwave. But the other new appliances are all installed and, although it still feels weird to not have to coax and cajole and caress in a certain way to get the dishwasher or oven to do its job, it's a mental adjustment I don't mind making. Not in the least.

We did end up throwing out the butter and a bag of sunflower seeds with the old fridge, apparently, something I discovered a couple of days later, when body memory had me reaching for the covered compartment in the right-hand door, which is where the butter resided. I am pretty sure I did one of those classic double-takes when my hand encountered no butter compartment, followed by a rapid internal conversation: hey there's no butter compartment, oh yeah new fridge, so where is the butter compartment in this one, there is no butter compartment, so where did I put the butter, I didn't, must still be in the old fridge.

In my defence, the delivery dudes did arrive hours earlier than I expected. At least they didn't get the kale or, worse, the cheese.

Monday, March 09, 2015

throwing rocks at strangers

Disclosure: the Spousal Unit and I did not actually win the Brier Tankard. 

But we did see some great shots made and greater opportunities blown. We saw diehard fans, some of whom travelled across the country to attend, some of whom have not missed a Brier in decades. We talked to people who attended all seventeen draws plus qualifiers and playoffs, over all twelve days, and who were still disappointed that there were no tiebreaker games on Friday afternoon. We saw group outfits, like Walls of Plaid and the ever-matching Sociables. 

We saw hearts broken and hopes dashed. We witnessed fist pumps and sticks raised in victory salutes.

And in the end, somebody won.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

never take me anywhere but here

There is a town in north Ontario. Well, not a town, really, more like a truck stop tucked into the edge of the wilds that dot the Canadian Shield. A place where 18-wheelers idle beside stands of jack pine and landscape-weary travellers linger over hot turkey sandwiches on white bread.

Somewhere between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, it lies. Northwestern Ontario, technically, which further obliterates any nebulous connection to the Neil Young song. It is one of the landmarks that I will always remember along the highway of change that I have travelled.

I was on my way to London, moving from Winnipeg with only my clothes and several boxes of books piled into the back of my rust bucket Chevy Nova. No air conditioning, no tape deck, only an AM radio that would occasionally catch snippets of CBC in the clear spaces between vast expanse of rock and boreal forest. I had stopped there for lunch, drawn in by the well-treed parking lot, the expanse of glass fronting the restaurant window, the hand-lettered signs for blueberries and fishing worms that reminded me so much of previous trips through the rocky lake country of the shield.

I had lucked out the previous evening, finding a roadside motel where the parking spots outside the rooms had plug-ins for block heaters. Although it was only the end of September, it got cool enough at night that my near-dead automobile needed life support each evening, in order to make it through to the next day. The Nova had started on the second try that morning, so life was looking pretty good.

There was a job awaiting me in Ontario (which didn’t last) and a boyfriend (who did) and I was simultaneously excited and a little terrified. Although I had moved once or twice a year all through university and although I had travelled a lot for all my summer jobs, relocating to southwestern Ontario was a pretty big departure. I had bluffed my way into the job as territory sales rep for a livestock feed company, emboldened by the lure of a company car and a regular salary. I had even forked over a goodly percentage of what was left of my meagre bank account to buy new clothes for the job. In retrospect, I really didn’t consider the realities of making cold sales calls and just how soul-destroying that would prove to be. I chose not to look past the fantasy of wearing my clothes and driving my shiny new car.

But that afternoon, as I paid for my toasted Denver sandwich and pulled away from the tree-lined parking lot of the truck stop somewhere between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, the road ahead of me glimmered with promise. The sky was clear - that saturated blue that you only see on a late September day - still reflecting the depths of Lake Superior now miles away. The radio station crackled in and out, allowing me to hear a few words of an interview or a few bars of music every now and then, reminding me that I wasn’t completely alone in the wilderness.

And then, as I crested the top of a rolling hill, I saw spread out in front of me a horizon blazing with red, sugar maple trees in their full autumn glory as far as the eye could see. I knew that everything was going to be alright. And ultimately, it was.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

snack attack

She didn’t think that “green bean” should be listed as the first ingredient on her snack pack of wasabi peas. Fortunately, she knew just enough French to be reassured by the “pois verts” heading up the French version.

She wondered why wasabi always made the back of her skull feel like it was about to explode, and how you would say “cerebral event” in Japanese, anyway. Sometimes, after a particularly potent mouthful, she would find herself clutching the back of her head, as though sheer force alone would keep her skull intact. She certainly didn’t want to be the first person in the world to be written up in a medical quarterly for having a wasabi-induced stroke.
Eyes tearing, nose streaming, she reached into the package for just one more “one last one”.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

songs for felines

The cat is not a Simon and Garfunkel fan.

Her ears retreat further and further back on her skull and her eyes search my face with concern as I continue to serenade her with Sounds of Silence. By the final verse, she is ready to bolt for quieter ground. 

Just wait till I channel my inner Freddy Mercury and treat her to a little Bohemian Rhapsody.