Friday, July 8, 2011

Manitoba's Bird of Prey

One thing I like about Manitoba in the summer is that Mother Nature is kind and gentle, and nothing wants to kill you.

Living in the deepsouth was an eye opening experience when it came to our love of nature. Everything that walked, crawled, slithered, or flew, wanted to do you harm. Mixed in with poisonous spiders, deadly snakes, alligators, rabid bats and killer fire ants, were terribly horrible summer storms that threatened to level entire towns. Just the heat alone from April to November was enough to kill an ill prepared Sunday shopper, and heat stroke gardening accidents were common in our neighborhood.

Manitoba generally has gorgeous summer weather. You need to be quick to catch it, as this summer is forcast for two weeks in August, but when it arrives, it is almost Utopic. Calm winds, highs of 85 degrees, lows of 60, sunshine and clear skies. The stuff of legend. When summer arrives, all worries depart for the few weeks we are blessed, the days are long, and people become uncharacteristically pleasant to one another.

While the deepsouth weather was a bit to handle and while there were dangerous creatures lurking in every nook and cranny that would surely eat you if you ventured too close, what they didn't have were mosquitoes.

Sure there were palmetto bugs, an affectionate name for giant flying cockroaches that are faster on their feet then in the air, and sure, there were cicadas, which look like some horror story version of a house fly and emit a deafening drone from the trees, and yup, spiders everywhere, but there were NO MOSQUITOES.

The mosquitoes in Manitoba are bad. When I say they are bad, I mean they have tattoos, carry weapons, and ride motorcycles. They are clearly angry with their lot in life, and take out their pent up rage and frustration on the general population. Just yesterday, while returning home from yet another trip to the store for mosquito repellent, I witnessed a group of four or five mosquitoes beating up a duck. The right thing to do would have been to try and help, or call the police, but honestly, I was too afraid and didn't want to get involved. I feel bad, but really, it was either him or me.

We have used any number of mosquito repellents to try and keep the monsters at bay, lotions, creams, sprays, electric appliances, and old wives' home remedies, but all that we have accomplished is to create a roving gang of drugged out blood thirsty devils in the neighborhood looking for their next fix. If you have never seen a mosquito coming off a DEET high, I can assure you it not a pretty sight. One town close to us has even built a giant mosquito idol to which they worship and offer small sacrifices, but it has done nothing to appease the mosquito leaders. I heard that they lost the town hall and the post office last week and are now paying protection money to use the facilities.

When August rolls around, and our two weeks of summer hit, We will be enjoying the nice weather and calm skies trough the relative safety of our livingroom picture window, so long as no mosquitoes make eye contact. The last time we spent summer in Manitoba, they kicked in our door and tried to steal one of the hounds.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rest In Peace Sweet Mickey

I was ugly as a child. So ugly in fact, that most of the other neighborhood children gave me a wide berth and pretty much left me alone. In an effort to get me out of the house, my Grandmother would often give me leftover dinner bones to attract the dogs that roamed freely in the neighborhood, in the hopes it would give me someone to play with. One of the only dogs that would even come close by for a free snack was a neighbor’s retired racing greyhound named Casey.

Casey and I became close friends, best friends actually, as we had a lot in common. Casey was sort of beat up and kind of funny looking too, with deep scars and a mangled ear. He also didn’t have a lot of friends, and we made quite a spectacle roaming through the neighborhood.

Our relationship grew to the point that we were pretty much inseparable, and remained that way for a number of years. Eventually I moved away and promised to write, but I never did. We lost contact, I got new friends, and Casey likely started getting his bones from another neighbor because dogs are pretty flippant and easily swayed when it comes to free treats. I never forgot about Casey, but I never saw another racing greyhound.

I grew up, developed a career, got married and had children. Every once in awhile, thoughts of Casey would come to me, but they would be gone just as quickly as they had arrived. I had related the story of Casey to the Boss at some point in our lives together, but for the life of me, I can not remember when or why.

Work had taken us to South Carolina, and one day, as the Boss was watching TV, she saw a story about retired racing greyhounds available for adoption. Remembering my story of Casey, and knowing that the easiest way to get something she wants is to make it my idea, she very casually mentioned that you could adopt a retired racing greyhound right in our area. I was on the phone to the adoption group the very next day.

Mickey came into our lives on Thanksgiving 2005. Fate or some higher power must have chosen Mickey for us, as out of the dozens of hounds available, she was the one I was attracted to immediately. In fact, I prefer male dogs, but something about her captured my attention and I was smitten. She was tall and lean with a striking pose and a long beautiful tail. The day we took her home, she settled in like she had always been there, and our bond was strong right from the beginning.

Mickey was born on February 7, 2002, and actually shared her birthday with the Princess. She was born WVs McDowell, and competed in over 90 races under that name. She was a good runner, and graduated all the way to A class, which is the best a racing dog can hope for. One day however, Mickey decided that she just didn’t want to race any more and when the starter box opened, she just stood there and refused to run. She never ran another race.

Mickey was not an ordinary dog. She had these little quarks and unique mannerisms that you just don’t see in other dogs. In the first weeks we had her home, she developed a habit of stealing things from us and taking them to her bed. Shoes, purses, books, and even pillows were all fair game. She never damaged anything, she just seemed to want our personal objects for herself and horded them like an old hobo. It got to the point where when leaving the house, we no longer looked for footwear by the door, but rather went straight to Mickey’s bed. I once found a very expensive watch and the Boss’s wedding rings among her “stash”. She was a master thief that could steal food from counters in the blink of an eye. She once stole an entire meal right off the table while we were sitting there without getting caught. She was also a master escape artist, and once got through three layers of security to run the neighborhood. She was a deep passionate singer, and would howl with all her heart if you got her going, and she could kill a stuffed animal like nobody’s business.

Due to immigration issues and work, Mickey and I spent many months alone together. She was the one constant companion in my life. She had these huge deep brown eyes that looked right into your soul, and no matter what she had done, it was impossible to be upset with her. She was my heart dog, the K9 version of a soul mate, and I loved her dearly.

Mickey was almost perfect in every way. She was friendly and out going, and would literally pull me across the street to visit children. Toddlers were her favorite, and if she were allowed, would kiss them with gusto. Her personality made it possible for us to take in other troubled dogs, as she was able to keep them in line, while showing them how to behave in a home and how to enjoy human interaction. She was dainty and lady like, and would accept a treat with perfect manners, and she always insisted on jumping up with a paw on each shoulder to plant a kiss on every person she met. I was greeted in this manner every single day of all the years she was with us, whether I had been gone or hours or simply minutes. She insisted on sleeping with us, and I often found myself with lack of covers, lack of space, and lack of sleep, but her comfort for a bit of cold or a few hours sleep was a pretty good trade I thought.

The only issue Mickey had, if you can call it an issue, was a deathly fear of thunder. Even before us humans could hear the rumbles, Mickey would start to pace and whine when a storm approached. When the thunder grew intense, Mickey would start to shake, pant, and tremble all over. Her trembles were so severe that you could actually hear the vibrations of her muscles, and she would often cower in the bathroom. No soft gentle words would soothe her fears, and no amount of petting or gentle hugs could comfort her. We worked with Mickey throughout her entire time with us, and even tried calming drugs, but no mater how much of the medication we took, her fear persisted.

In late March Mickey had some stomach issues. We took her in for some tests, and she showed signs of a digestive tract infection. We gave her a medication to take care of that, but she had a very bad reaction and we nearly lost her. We switched to a different medication, and she improved.

Her tummy issues resurfaced in the middle of May. She became very ill, and we again ran tests and thought the infection had returned. We started on a different course of medication, but it didn’t seem to have any effect. We returned to the vet for x-rays and an ultrasound to try and get to the bottom of what was ailing her, and discovered a large and aggressive tumor. By the time we made the discovery, her liver had swollen to about four times the normal size and was compressing other vital organs. By the evening of the diagnosis, she was clearly in distress and was crashing fast. The next day, Mickey was barely able to walk, and was struggling to breathe. The spark had gone from her eyes, and she looked so so tired. She was fading away from us, and we were powerless to stop her. We made an emergency appointment and put her to rest.

Mickey passed in our arms. When the injection was given, we held her tight and we cried. We spoke encouraging words, and told her how much we loved her through deep sobs and a river of tears. Moments before she drew her final breath, it seemed that she knew we were there and she was at peace.

When she passed she was with us, she was pain free, and she was beautiful. In the end, she died just like she lived.

Having to put Mickey to sleep is the hardest thing I have ever done. I cried for days, and I am still deeply sorry for loosing her. Being with her when she passed was a very traumatic experience, but it was the last final gift we could give to her in return for the years of unconditional love, the joy, and the companionship she gave us.

Hopefully, she is now running free with the angels that passed before her, and stealing all the shoes and pillows she can. There will never be another dog like Mickey, and we are incredibly lucky and eternally grateful for having her come into our lives.

Mickey Filby
2/7/2002 – 5/24/2011

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Winter Wonderland

Having lived in the south for a good deal of time, where winter forecast temperatures never include a negative number, you forget just how cold, cold really is.

Winter in Northern Canada is harsh. It takes a tough and hardy type of person to live in a climate where the daily weather forecasts include words like "daytime highs of -38 with winds gusting to 90 kilometers per hour". It takes a mentally unstable and slightly deranged type of person to willingly relocate back, after having experienced a number of southern winters.

For those like me who are metrically challenged, 90 kilometers per hour is our legal posted highway driving speed. To fully experience the thrill of a Canadian winter, simply dump a bag of ice into your undergarments, get into your vehicle, and drive at full speed with your head sticking out of the window. For a more realistic experience, you could have a friend tow you on a trailer while you perform simple tasks such as chopping fire wood, changing a flat tire, or boosting a dead battery.

I remember as a child walking through huge mountains of snow on my way to school each morning. Drifts of snow blown up over the sidewalks would present formidable obstacles, one side we would climb, and the other we would slide down. I remember temperatures so cold your eyelashes would freeze and stick together when you blinked. I remember cars frozen into the street, who’s owners would be shoveling around spinning tires, or cursing non-starting stone dead batteries.

The kids from my neighborhood walked about a mile to school. There was no yellow bus that came by our houses and no parents ever drove their kids. We walked a mile each way, every day. A mile in the rain, a mile in the snow, a mile in temperatures so cold that loosing extremities was a real and serious possibility. Each and every kid in my school by the age of six, had experienced severe frostbite and had been stuck by their tongues to a pole or some other large immobile metal object. In fact, successfully daring a classmate to lick a frozen metal fence post is a coveted skill. You can reach local legend status if the classmate remains stuck to the post until a teacher or other responsible care giver is forced to search for the poor gullible victim. Canadian law dictates that you are immediately graduated from grade school with full honors if you can convince the same kid to lick a frozen pole twice, regardless of present marks or current grade.

I remember winter as being fun and exciting. I remember waiting with anticipation, surpassed only by Christmas Day itself, for the first wondrous snowfall to arrive. I remember rushing to the window every morning when winter drew near to see if the world had been blanketed by a beautiful layer of pristine white snow, and being thoroughly disappointed to discover it had not. While we had fun playing outside in the summer, snow added an entirely new dimension to fun, with a bonus of endless potential for torment to neighborhood children. There were face-washes, where a handful of snow would be rubbed vigorously into one's unprotected cheeks, and dunks, where one's entire head would be forced into a snowbank. Snowballs would be carefully constructed and then tossed full force at unsuspecting prey who's distance was carefully gauged to ensure an easy escape without the possibility of retaliation, and gloves or toques would be stolen and filled with cold frozen snow. We would spend a week building an ice fort which we would then vigorously defend against neighborhood marauders brandishing ice-balls and hockey sticks. I don't remember when I started to hate the cold, but it seems that my distaste for winter has increased in exact proportion to the increase in my age.

Winter, and more specifically cold and snow, now represent pain and suffering. There is work and toil in everything that involves leaving the warmth and comfort of my easy chair. Long hours of extended darkness, chapped and bleeding lips, crippled aching joints, and mountains and mountains of shoveling. Snow is removed from walkways and dog runs, roofs, driveways, and cars. Snow is now something to be dreaded, and long months of cold and darkness becomes depressing. Thankfully, just when the season seems the darkest, and all hope is near dashed, some poor kid comes along and licks our fence. 

That just never, ever, gets old..

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Thinker

In some weird intergalactic twist of fate, I find myself working in a gold mine. Although I have spent my entire life as a design engineer and production manager, fate has decided that I should enter into a working field as foreign and far removed from my career experience as possible. I have tried to do the math, but the odds of any human being in 32 generations going from production manager to miner are so infinitesimal, you would be more likely to get struck by lightning in January, while holding a winning lottery ticket, and standing on a four leaf clover.

I am a thinker by nature. When something requiring manual labor needs to be done, I usually have a comfortable sit-down and take a good long think on how to approach the task. Generally, right about the time I have thought it though and worked up the gumption to tackle the job, someone has come along and taken care of it. This method has served me well in both my working life and my home life. It has carried me far, with nary a broken nail or hammered thumb. No calloused hands, no missing digits, no sore and aching muscles. Actually, hardly any muscles at all..

When you work in a mine for a living, the first thing you discover is that even the most innocent looking objects want to do you great harm. On my very first day underground, I nearly lost my left eye on a paper coffee cup, and managed to break every nail on both hands and both feet. I accidentally pierced my own ear, and permanently stained my right thigh orange. By the second day, I had developed callouses so large that I could no longer close my hands, and I was so sore, even my eyelashes hurt when I blinked.

Like all gold mines, the one I work at is far past the end of habitable land, in the extreme northern wilderness. We are shipped in once a month and live in mining camp during our two week rotation. Our day begins in the wee early hours of the morning, when even the Canadian winter wind has not yet woken. We file into the kitchen for some Stephen King version of breakfast, while it looks and smells like bacon and eggs, the taste is slightly off in an eerily familiar yet just slightly unexplainable way. From breakfast we file into the "dry", (mining speak for change room), where we don every single piece of personal safety equipment ever invented, who's collective weight adds an additional 123 pounds to my already overburdened skeletal structure. From the dry, we get our shift line up from the "shifter", and enter into the head-frame to await our turn to take the trip in the "cage" to the bottom.

The cage is no end of excitement in itself. Picture a regular sized elevator, cut it in half both in width and in depth, and remove the front. Replace the front with a wire mesh door and stuff in 26 large burly miners, their tools, their lunch bags, mining equipment, and extra personal protective equipment. There is actually a guy who's only job is to squish the miners and extra equipment in, so the screen door can be closed. Once all the miners have been squeezed in, the cage departs the surface and begins a 15 minute free fall at terminal velocity. Attached to the surface by only a single wire cable the cage, miners, lunches, and equipment bounce and jostle down the main shaft at just slightly less than the speed of sound. Once at the very bottom, a mile and a half below the real world, the hoist operator throws the hoist brake which simultaneously causes the door to open from the shock force and we all tumble into the mine heading with a collective large gasp of relief.

I spend the rest of the 12 hour work day trying to avoid falling into open holes, dodging falling rock and equipment, jumping out of the way of fast moving heavy mining cars, and generally trying to survive the day. I lift heavy objects and pile them in one place, them pick them up and pile them in another. I break big rocks into smaller rocks, then break those into rocks smaller still, all the while in total absolute darkness save only the light from my helmet lamp. Once a day, the cry "Fire in the Hole!!" goes out and we all take cover while they blast more rocks from the walls for me to break into tiny pieces.

I have no time to think about the task at hand, and no one tackles it themselves. At the end of the day, well past sunset, I emerge from underground, shower, have a Stephen King dinner, phone home to check on the hounds, and drop wearily into bed in the camp. Sometimes, for a brief moment I get an opportunity to think before passing out from either excruciating pain or utter exhaustion. Mostly, between thoughts of the family and the greyhounds, I think about how much I love this job.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Lord, What Have We Done

Circumstance and deep cover Government Conspiracy has forced a move from the urban deep south to the untamed wilds of northern Canada. When the boss's visit home turned in to a bureaucratic immigration quagmire of forms and delays, we hatched an exit strategy, packed up the hounds, the trolls, and the princess, and headed for the land of ice and snow.

While driving 2000 miles over main trucking routes and heavily traveled interstates with three motion sensitive hounds, all your worldly possessions, a box full of hungry trolls and a princess who must look her very best at all times in case we run into at the Flying J sounded like a fun adventure prior to departure, I can assure you that if ever given a choice in the future, I would want permanently disfiguring torture or disabling chronic illness. There is no description I can muster to explain the effects on vehicle upholstery after three car sick hounds spend three days expelling horror and mayhem in all directions. It's really all a blur, thankfully suppressed far in the subconscious, but burned deep into my memory, as clear as a video, I recall trying to deal with a princess who had a steamy foul substance of undetermined origin sprayed at high pressure into her hair while hurtling down the interstate at 75 miles per hour, one hand on the steering wheel, the other desperately trying to keep her from jumping completely out of the vehicle at highway speed. All that kept playing over and over in my mind was that Marlon Brando quote from Apocalypse Now.. The Horror... The Horror.. 

With our infinite wisdom and uncanny foresight, we chose to reacquaint ourselves with the far north climate in a record snowfall year. Taking three southern hounds who have never before seen even a single snowflake, putting them into a vehicle for three days, and letting them out into 8 feet of snow and wilderness is kind of cruel, but watching a hound try to figure out how to pee with all four paws off the ground at the same time is amazing. Two of them can pee while standing on one foot. The other can actually change feet mid pee. Our nightly routine now includes carrying our 80 pound dogs back into the house after freezing solid, and placing them by the wood stove to thaw over night.

The princess, having only been about 10-11 when we left this climate, has had to relearn basic survival skills such as not to wear a dress at -35 below, a parka CAN be a fashion statement if purchased at the right store, and do not stick your tongue on metal objects. Kids grow up so fast these days.. One day you are changing diapers and wiping noses, and the next you are prying tongues off of frozen gates and carrying their stiff dogs into the house..