Sunday, September 25, 2011

Dark Science

At some point in almost all of our endeavours, science rears its head.

Just this morning, I conducted a chemistry experiment, in which I created a  nonenzymatic reaction between a nucleophylic amino acid and a reactive carbonyl by the application of radiant heat.

This procedure, which people have been performing for millennia, was first described by French chemist, Louis-Camille Maillard in the early 1900's. He was attempting to reproduce biological protein synthesis, and in his honour, the result is known as the Maillard Reaction.

To make a long story short, which rarely happens here, I was making toast.

Six thousand or so years ago the process would have involved placing your piece of baked bread onto a hot, flat rock, or by securing it, in some manner, in the proximity of an open flame. Usually, you did this because your bread had become stale and unpleasant to taste. Toasting made it into a different sort of thing altogether, and people found that they liked the flavour. In time, they even stopped waiting for their bread to go stale before toasting it.

I prefer whole wheat toast spread with butter and a smear of coarse-shredded orange marmalade. Some of the cats have expressed an interest in this culinary delight, but will usually retreat once they have seen me holding the bread steadfast between my teeth and heard me growling. The Tall Lady is an easier mark, and sometimes they get a share of her white toast with its Smucker's flavour of the week. This, however, is where my line has been drawn.

You can toast all manner of baked goods, from sliced bread to bagels to scones to frozen waffles - I'm told that at some weddings, the guests have even been know to toast the happy couple, but I would hope that's apocryphal.

There are several schools of opinion regarding the proper Making of Toast. At one end of the spectrum are those who place their bread onto the plate and turn up the room thermostat for a moment. Then there are those who hold that the toast is done only when their smoke detector screams in agony. Even they will concede that it might be overdone when the fire engines arrive. I maintain that when it is properly toasted, the colour of the bread will have been transformed to a dark, rich caramel, its aroma will be smoky and a little bit intoxicating. The pat of butter which is dropped onto its surface will spread, top to bottom and left to right, of its own will and volition. Anything less is mere heresy.

But you decide for yourselves - it isn't rocket science.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


"The only service a friend can really render is to keep up your courage by holding up to you a mirror in which you can see a noble image of yourself. "
George Bernard Shaw

Normally, people don't get to take photos of me. I am the one hiding behind the camera, and they need to be both fleet of foot and quick of eye to get around my defenses.

It's not that I think my features are unusually absurd or particularly grotesque, but over the years I've developed a dislike for others' lenses, and a tendency to mug for their cameras. This serves to frustrate their endeavours, and it accounts for the great volume of horrible pictures of me on file. Oliver Cromwell is reported to have said "My image is a poor one but mine own; you must paint me as you find me, wart and all"

When I was smaller, I became quite fascinated by the lines and creases that developed in people's faces over the course of time. I even spent long hours looking into the bathroom mirror, experimenting with different expressions, trying to impress the lines I wanted into the pale, unformed lump of dough that was my own undistinguished map. 

As you can see, it worked! I believe that we grow into the faces we deserve. Heredity, health and hazard play their parts, but mostly we wear the faces of our unique experience, and frequently, they betray our character.

My friend, Caer Weber, has a new camera and last week, she asked a number of friends to pose for her. She lined us up in front of the wall of a building where we meet on occasion, gave us a few simple directions, and snapped away. These two pictures are her result for me.

The black and white image at the top of the page is the one that she likes best. She says, " I think it's a really nice one of you. The kindness in you comes through your eyes so well." Well, I suppose that, like the rest of my face, is something that I'll have to learn to live with. 

Thank you, Caer - I am very pleased with your work. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

But the Greatest of These

"And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."
I Corinthians 13:13 (King James Bible)

One evening last month, our friend, Maria Soroski, called us to ask for our help. She was on her way down to the Grandview Cut, where trains run occasionally through the East Side of Vancouver, to try to trap a small, black cat who had been spotted wandering along the track-bed. Maria wanted us to stay up on the bridge above the tracks with our binoculars and one of her walkie-talkies, to warn her of any approaching rail traffic, while she and another friend set their traps below. We were official train-spotters.

People being what they are - social and curious - the exercise attracted a number of passersby. One young woman stopped to ask what we were doing, and the Tall Lady told her the story.

"Why don't you worry about homeless people," the woman snapped, "instead of wasting all of your time and money on useless, fucking cats!" At the best of times, Sheral is not confrontational, so she just stood, open-mouthed and silent, as the woman stalked away, emitting streams of indignant smoke from her lug-'oles.

A few months before, I read a column in one of our national newspapers. The correspondent eloquently derided the the work of those ubiquitous animal rescue groups (all of which, incidentally, are exclusively comprised of psychotic, lonely, single women of middle age, each of whom hoards hundreds of sick, fertile, feral cats in her single-wide trailer), which are funneling away resources that would be better used in caring for sick children.

There is drought in Africa. Crops fail, and famine is the result. Surely that is a more reasonable direction for our compassion!

 Sometimes, we believe that things are either/or. There are two choices, and we are in or out, on or off, pro or or white. This is most especially true when we are measuring the actions of others. If they embrace one cause, they must, of necessity, reject all others.

By the same logic, the carrot sticks I ate last night would make me a vegan, and the milk I poured over my Rice Krispees this morning makes me a hypocrite. I hope that neither is true.

I am proud of my friends involved in VOKRA, as I am proud of all of you who try to give until the hurting stops. Our capacity for charity is not limited to any one arena, it goes as generously as we can afford, and as deeply as we can care. And I'm not trying to disorient your moral compass - you know best who is in need and how deep to reach.

I'm only saying that this is one of my concerns, and asking that you consider adding it to your long list.

Thank you again, friends - be well.

To donate to
The Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Gambler

Maria Soroski, aka the Mad Trapper, aka Cat Angel, aka Queen of the Night, takes a day off every now and again. This is what her last one was like:

August 29, 2011:

"Murphy's Law: My one and only day to have off and go to the PNE to see Kenny Rogers. I get a call in the am, kittens in a warehouse, gotta go get 'em, bottle feed 'em, take 'em to a foster to pet-sit so I can go to PNE and then set a trap for the mom. I go to the PNE, get dozens of calls on my cell re rescue. Finally get home after PNE (waiting for a bus forever, feet swollen and back hurts from sitting for hours to get a good seat to see Kenny), and get a call that the stray in an alley is there, so get in my van and go get him. Back home 12 midnight. Drop into bed"

The stray in the back alley was an old-timer with dirty, white fur and a few rotten molars who had been drinking from muddy puddles. It may be that Maria has a soft spot for unkempt, old guys who drink in the wrong places - maybe that's why she and I get along so well. In any case, the old boy needed a name, and Maria didn't need to think about it very long. He is now christened "Kenny Pawgers".

Kenny is an old street cat who likes people. Obviously, he had a home once, and he'd like to have one again. He is also a bit of a gambler. It seems that he was trying to sneak into apartments on the East Side and sleep in the occupants' beds, possibly thinking they wouldn't notice or wouldn't care; maybe hoping that they'd like him and let him stay. Nobody did. So poor, skinny Kenny slept in lawn chairs, drank from puddles and got by as best he could. Then, he met Maria.

He spent the next day with his head in his food bowl, coming up once in awhile to catch a breath and smile his toothless smile. When Maria let him out of his cage, he would leap into her arms without much encouragement and cover her face with wet, sloppy kisses. He is, she says, the most affectionate cat she has ever known. That's pretty high praise from someone who's known as many cats as she has.

When Maria got home last night, Kenny was sick. He was vomiting foam, dehydrated, lethargic and even thinner than usual. She rushed him to emergency, where he was put on IV fluids. This morning, he had emergency surgery. The vet removed a tumor about the size of a golf ball from his twisted stomach. Later today, he was moved to Maria's vet and is eating, smiling and giving wet, sloppy kisses again.

Kenny is doing much better today, but his surgery will cost VOKRA about two thousand dollars. Once again, it's money that VOKRA hasn't got to spare; once again, I'm shaking the tambourine, hoping you've got a few more of those rolled pennies in the bottom of your drawer.

I know that all of you are stretched pretty thin these days, and I know that I ask for your help a lot. 

If you're wondering what's in it for you, I've heard about this nice, old, toothless guy who gives great kisses. And no, it's not me!

Thanks again - be well, friends. 

To donate to
The Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association


A few months ago, I applied for the Peer Support Workers' training program through Vancouver Coastal Health. This is the second time that I've made the same application. Last year they had sixty applicants for their twenty places, and I was not selected. This time, there were only forty candidates, but I still missed the cut. I was beginning to feel as though there could have been twenty-one candidates, and I would not have been picked.

I got over it - after all, I did have a Plan B, which involved taking a course in Community Counselling at Vancouver Community College. I'm almost certain that my application package is under one of the big litter boxes, so as you can see, I am prepared to explore other options.

Fortunately, I didn't need to find my compass and sextant this time. I got a call three weeks ago from one of the co-ordinators of the PSW program, telling me that she had two withdrawals from this year's group, and asking if I would like one of the vacancies. 

I said "yes, please!".

I got the call on a Friday afternoon, and she advised me that she would mail the acceptance package to me on the following Tuesday. It still hadn't arrived by the next Friday, nor the next, nor the next...

Now, all of us make jokes about how slowly Canada Post moves our mail, but they aren't that bad! I called VCH last Friday afternoon to ask if my package might not have been sent. The two people I wanted to talk to are away from the office until September 20th. The woman who is filling in for them offered to find me a replacement package and mail it to me. I enquired if I might pick it up instead.

Yesterday, I dropped by their office, and picked up a single page letter of congratulation, marked with an apology from my new friend, telling me that it was the only relevant document that she could find. Since it listed the date and time of the first class, along with the address, I was pretty certain that it was all that I would require for the moment. But it also advised me that I would need to go to the Vancouver Police Department and complete a Criminal Record check before the class began.

I have had Criminal Record checks completed before, and I know that they take two to three weeks. I need to have mine in nine days! Of course, I have a good excuse, and I can always ask for a deferral for the first lesson - I may not get it, but I can ask!

And so it was, armed with my letter of acceptance, the purity of my heart and my kindly, honest face, that I followed the Road Paved with Good Intentions to the doors of 2120 Cambie Street.

Not too long ago, VPD would accept CRC applications at 312 Main Street, but that's just one of the things that's changed. Now, you enter the New, Improved Police Station, and speak to the young woman at the reception wicket. She examines your two pieces of identification, asks a couple of pertinent questions and issues a number tag to you. My tag said "45", and the sign on the wall read "35". I picked up a clipboard, a request for investigation form and sat down feeling a bit like Arlo Guthrie at Whitehall Street. I filled my form out quickly and carefully, making sure that I'd signed where I needed to sign, ensuring that I'd ticked all of the right boxes.

I was still waiting forty-five minutes later when one of my FaceBook buddies and known associates walked in the door to take her turn at the same process. The sign on the wall now said "41".

After just a few minutes more, it was my turn, and I was beckoned over by another pleasant, young woman, who took my letter, my application and my two pieces of ID. She asked me a few more pertinent questions, filled in the spaces that she was supposed to fill in, and told me that the cost of the application would be seventy dollars - which I'd expected - that my CRC would be completed in three to four months, and that the fingerprints would cost me twenty-five dollars more!

I have never been fingerprinted. Somehow, it's been an event that I've managed to avoid in the course of the misadventures that comprise my life story (the reader and all of the cats yawn). But, I asked myself, how bad can it be? After all, it's only ink to skin to paper - right? It can't be all that traumatic, can it? The pleasant, young woman took me into a room that was roughly the size of a toilet cubicle in a public washroom, inked a board on the counter, and tried to roll my fingers onto it, telling me to "just relax". Several attempts later, yet a third pleasant, young woman informed me that I had marred and defaced enough of her ten-cards, and I was free to leave the building. Honestly - I was trying my very best! It's not like I smeared the ink on my face and did my Al Jolson impression.

Since I had no urgent appointments this afternoon, I stayed behind to wait for my friend. I'd spent two hours at this little exercise, but I could have gone on for two or three more - I'm not proud...or tired. As it happened, she was through just a few minutes after me. She'd come in with the same letter for the same course, filled in the same application, but had been processed by a different clerk.

It cost her twenty-five dollars, and her CRC will be completed in two or three weeks. 

And Hell, she didn't even get to fingerpaint!