Friday, December 29, 2017

The pain of being mechanically challenged

If there is reincarnation, I want to come back as a motor mechanic.

That’s because my current life has been a series of misadventures with machines that burn fossil fuels.

The latest involve a faithful old truck that will not move until it has been warmed up for 40 minutes, an ATV that shut down because of overheating and a snowblower that never overheats, in fact refuses to start unless its spark plug is warmed with a hair dryer.

I have a woeful history of trying to fix things on my own. It’s not that I am uninterested in motorized things or unwilling to tinker when they break down. But my brain’s tinkering cells go into overdrive and become confused whenever I attempt to fix something.

I tried fixing a cranky snowmobile one time. I seemed to have done everything right until I pressed the starter button and the engine exploded into flames.

Not long after that I forgot to shut the lights on my little sports car and the battery ran down. It was parked on a downward slope and had a standard transmission so the fix was obvious. I would get it rolling downhill, jump in and pop the clutch to get the engine turning.

The slope was slightly steeper than I calculated. The car began rolling and when I tried to jump in, the open door bumped me into the ditch. The car rolled progressively faster toward a sharp bend overlooking the lake.

The car never reached the water, having been grabbed and stopped by a large poplar tree. The auto body shop bill was quite a bit larger than the cost of a battery charger, as I recall.

Then there was the time that a friend gave me an old but perfectly usable snowmobile. It started and ran great just before we loaded it onto the truck. I was going to drop it off at my cottage.

It was mid-February and I was not wearing winter gear, but that was not a problem. I would quickly pull the machine off the truck and drive it the short distance into the cottage where I had winter clothes.

The machine pulled off the truck easily, but would not start. I fiddled with the choke, checked the carb and a variety of other things as hypothermia began to set in. As I shivered and cursed, another snowmobile approached.

Its rider, dressed in black, got off his machine, approached, reached out and turned off the kill switch, then turned the key and my machine roared to life.

The stranger turned and left without a word.

My latest misadventure involved my ATV. I was plowing with it last week when a flashing thermometer symbol appeared on the console. I checked the ATV manual to see what that was about.

The manual said a flashing thermometer means the ATV is overheating and should be shut down immediately.

I went to work trying to find the problem. The radiator was hidden under the plastic hood, which had an entry panel. I got to it, but not before breaking the entry panel locking pins.

The coolant was at its proper level so I put the entry panel in place and secured it with my favourite tool – duct tape. I checked out other parts of the machine, found nothing, but determined the ATV the cooling fan was not working.

Broken cooling fans are a bit beyond my mechanical skills so I called the ATV dealer and made an appointment.

I spent an hour shovelling out the ATV trailer, then loaded the machine, strapped it down and hauled it down the highway to the dealership.

The mechanic asked a couple of questions before logging the machine into the repair line.

“So you say the coolant is fine and you checked the fuse, right?”

Fuse? ATV’s have fuses?

He gave me a strange look, pulled the seat off the ATV then opened a little black box that I always had wondered about but never opened. There were rows of little coloured fuses.

He pulled one fuse out and said: “Yep, blown fuse.”

Later that day I was back plowing, my face cherry red, and not from the cold.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Memories

The best Christmas presents are memories.
Happy memories of times spent with special people, some now gone. Memories that never break or wear out, and are as wonderful and inspiring this Christmas as they were last year, or five years ago.
My absolute favourite Christmas memory I have written about many times. The number of times is irrelevant because every time I write about it, tears fall on my keyboard. This is that memory:
Fresh-fallen snow protested beneath the crush of my gumboots breaking trail down the unploughed lane. Dry, sharp squeaks, not unlike the cries of cheap chalk cruelly scrapped against too clean a blackboard.
Skuur-eek, skuur-eek.

The boots ignored the sounds. They moved on, ribbed rubber bottoms and laced high leather tops creating a meandering wake in the ankle deep snow. 
From each side of the lane, drifted snow leaned tiredly against the backsides of the bungalows, dropped there to rest by an impatient blizzard just passed through. Their crests were indistinguishable against the white stucco walls but nearly reached tufted piles of fluffy snow clinging nervously to windowsills and eavestrough lips.
The squeaks flew through the still night air, dodging fat flakes that fell heavy and straight onto my cap bill, occasionally splashing into my face flushed warm from the walk. I could have rode back home from Christmas Eve Mass with the family, but the teenage mind prefers independence, and it was a chance to visit friends along the way.
Faint strains of music joined the squeaking as I approached our back fence. I stopped to hear the music more clearly, now identifiable as singing voices escaping through an open window. I shuffled forward and listened to the notes float out crisply and clearly, then mingle with smoke rising from the chimneys. Notes and smoke rose together into an icy sky illuminated by frost crystals set shimmering by thousands of stars and the frosty moon the Ojibwe called Minidoo Geezis, the little spirit moon that appears small and cold early in winter.
I held my breath to hear better and determined that the music was the Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” and the notes came from the window in my grandmother’s room. It was open to the cold because most people smoked cigarettes back then and at gatherings cracked a window to thin the smoke. They sang the first verse, and, when they reached the sixth line, the other voices ceased and one voice carried on alone:
“Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! O Niiii ... iiight Diii...vine! ...” That’s the part where the notes rise higher and higher until the singer reaches an awesome note.
The solo voice belonged to my grandmother, and I knew she was hitting that high note while sitting on the edge of the bed that crippling rheumatoid arthritis had made her prison for sixteen years. She was unable to walk without assistance and had trouble holding a cigarette between her gnarled fingers.
The others had stopped singing to listen to her. The second time she hit the high notes at the words “O Night Divine,” a shiver danced on my spine.
When she finished singing “O Holy Night,” the other voices started up again, this time with “Silent Night” and other favourite carols. I went into the house and found Christmas Eve celebrants — my mom, dad, and some neighbours — crowded into the ten-by-ten bedroom that was my grandmother’s world. They sang long into the night, mostly in French because the neighbours were the Gauthiers who seldom spoke English to my grandmother and my mother.
After the singing ended my mother served tourtière, which I slathered with mustard. Then we gathered at the tree and opened our gifts.
I have long forgotten what I got, and it doesn’t matter, because my real gift came many years later: the realization that those high notes were not solely the products of my grandmother’s lungs. They came from a strength far beyond anything that a mere body can produce.
They were high notes driven by something far stronger than flesh — an unbreakable spirit.
(This column was adapted from my book Waking Nanabijou: Uncovering a Secret Past – Dundurn Group 2007)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Drowning in Plastic

Sometimes I worry about the strangest things. Like yesterday I worried whether the plastic drink cup I saw tossed from a car window will end up in the ocean.

It’s entirely possible. The wind blows it into a creek that flows into a lake drained by a river that goes to Lake Ontario, into the St. Lawrence River and eventually out to the Atlantic Ocean. Plastic never decomposes completely, so that cup has plenty of time to make the journey.

If it does, it will join the estimated10 million tons of plastic entering the oceans every year. The scientific journal PLOS ONE has published a study that estimates there now are 270,000 tons of plastic floating on the oceans. Some of these floating carpets are dense enough to block sunlight from entering the water.

All that plastic has an impact on wildlife. A University of British Columbia study found that 93 percent of beached northern fulmars had plastic in their bellies. Fulmars are migratory seabirds related to the albatross.

Ocean plastic pollution is estimated to kill or injure more than 260 species around the world.

A good chunk of ocean plastic debris is plastic bags. We Canadians use nine to 15 billion plastic bags a year, says the environmental group Greener Footprints. That is enough plastic bags to encircle the earth 55 times. (Folks in the U.S. use an estimated 100 billion plastic bags every year.)

Plastics are a helpful and important part of life today. They are in almost everything that we use but the problem is that, like many other things, we overuse them.

Plastic bags are an example. Various sources estimate the world uses up to one trillion plastic bags a year, or roughly one million every minute. Only one in every 200 of those bags gets recycled.

There is so much concern about plastic bags damaging the environment that user
fees, restrictive laws and outright bans are being put in place. A variety of Canadian cities have, or are considering, measures to control plastic bag use.

Some African nations have placed controls or outright bans on plastic bags. Kenya has passed laws under which anyone selling or importing plastic bags can get up to four years in prison.

Rwanda has declared plastic bags contraband. It is illegal to produce, import, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging except within specific industries like health care. Rwandan border guards say women have been caught smuggling plastic bags – tucking them into their bras and underpants.

Plastics are only one part, albeit a large part, of the world’s waste pollution problem. Even all the admirable efforts being made to recycle are hitting snags. Too often there is too much recyclable waste to recycle.

China, the world’s largest importer of waste for recycling, has announced that it will restrict the type of waste it imports for recycling. The Chinese import huge amounts of waste, which they recycle for producing goods they export for sale, or use for themselves.

The U.S. shipped $56 billion worth of scrap to China last year, mainly plastic, metal and paper. European Union countries send 87 per cent of all their plastic waste to China.

The problem is that recyclable waste often contains contaminants that must be sorted and removed before recycling. Sorting and removing contaminants costs time and money. China will no longer will take waste containing more than 0.5 per cent contaminants.

Experts say it will be nearly impossible to meet the 0.5 per cent target. So the U.S. and other major waste exporters to China will be stuck with huge amounts of waste.

The real answer to stopping waste pollution, plastic and otherwise, will not be found only in recycling. We all need to use less; stop our incredible overuse of almost everything. And, focus and educate ourselves about what is happening to our environment.

Some will argue that using more is good for the economy. More products rolling off conveyor belts mean more jobs and more money.

Yes, but we all should pause and consider a quote from Edward Abbey, the American writer and environmentalist:

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Drama from the Brits

I’ve not been caught up in and enraptured by the romantic British drama of Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle.

Much of the world has and is feverishly awaiting answers to the big questions: When exactly will the wedding be? What will she wear? Will Harry shave for the wedding? Will they get pregnant immediately?

I haven’t had time for the American princess drama. Too busy with another British  drama, the BBC television series Peaky Blinders.

Peaky Blinders is a captivating but raw show about a family street gang operating in the industrial slums of Birmingham in the early 1920s. The gang was into a variety of thuggery and corruption, plus illegal betting, horse-race fixing, extortion and murder.

The Peaky Blinders was a real life Birmingham gang, but its story is heavily fictionalized in the BBC show. It operated between the late 1880s and the start of the First World War in 1914. The show sets the heyday of the Blinders much later - after that war and into the early 1920s.

The name Peaky Blinders comes from the peaked Tweed flat caps worn by its members. A gang member would head butt a person, the peak of the cap striking the victim across the eyes, temporarily blinding him. Another version of gang history has members sewing razor blades into cap peaks.

The caps were specially popular among working class men and teenagers in the late 1880s.

The show follows the gang family’s rise from basic street thugs to a sophisticated criminal organization that has police and politicians in its pocket. Thomas Shelby, played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, is the leader of the gang, composed of his brothers, an aunt and a passel of petty criminals.

Variety, the weekly American entertainment magazine and website, gave the show a brutal review after it first appeared in autumn 2013. It has played three seasons now and a fourth is planned. The first three seasons have been picked up by Netflix.

“Handsome but hollow,” wrote Variety reviewer Brian Lowry. “Even armed with razor blades, it doesn’t quite cut it.”

Lowry’s definitely was a minority opinion. Variety’s website was plugged with comments from viewers who did not agree with the review.

 “This series is phenomenal!!!’ wrote one commenter. “Hollywood is incapable of putting out this quality.” (I tend to agree. Hollywood is slipping behind overseas productions).

Peaky Blinders is a very watchable story with suspense, unexpected twists and a great portrayal of a hard-nosed, tough-talking family whose members, despite their differences, are truly bonded to each other. Characters are well played and the dialogue is excellent, something we have come to expect from British shows.

The show is brutally raw, increasingly so as the series progresses. The violence moves from general thumpings and knifings to the gun play you expect from American television. 

Ditto the sex scenes, which leave little to the imagination as the series rolls along. The final episode of Season 3 features an orgy the likes of which I’ve never seen on TV.

Season 3 was close to being overdone. It confirms my belief that television series are best ended after one or two seasons. When they run longer, producers and writers stretch to get stuff that will titillate viewers.

What I like best about Peaky Blinders is the showing of what life was like in Birmingham (and many other cities) 100 years ago. The poverty, the lack of education, the corruption and the moral rot.

We have come a long way since then. British and North American societies are better today: more civilized, better educated, morally elevated and have learned better health habits. (Tommy Shelby smokes a cigarette in almost every scene).

On second thought, are we really that better today?

We dress better, eat better, have more and better appliances and toys. However, the disparity between our haves and have-nots grows alarmingly, jobs continue to disappear, drug addiction is at a crisis level, gun violence is a daily occurrence in our big cities. Corruption and moral rot remain features of our political systems.

The Harry and Meghan drama, like Peaky Blinders, is a temporary escape from the world around us. And, I guess that’s a good thing.