Thankful Thursday XLI – Thanksgiving

Well, I missed Thankful Thursday last week, not because I lacked things to be thankful for but rather because as with many of you, its been a very busy time for me lately, with the holidays coming besides other things. So this week seems a good time to come back and be thankful for … Thanksgiving.

As a Canadian, it still seems a bit strange to me to be celebrating Thanksgiving so late in the season, so close to Christmas. But it’s a moot point, and the important thing is whether Thanksgiving for you falls in October or the end of November, the sentiment is the same. A time to hopefully slow down a bit, get together with family and take note of all the good things we have in life.

For me, it will be one of the rare days when everyone in the house and the family has a day off. I’ll be going with my sweetie and the kiddo to my step-son and his wife’s place for a turkey dinner; a bit of a collaborative affair with us doing some side-dishes, my mother-in-law adding some more and a variety of desserts from all of us. I’m not a huge fan of turkey, but I was still delighted to be able to buy one last month and freeze it; we’d heard reports they might be rare or hard to find this season. Of course, two weeks after that the store coolers were laden with them for about half what I’d paid, but we had the peace of mind of not having to go out and fret at the grocery store this week, so it was a price worth paying. Of the holiday foods here, green bean casserole is probably my favorite, and a fine southern specialty. Or so it seems to me. We ate green beans up north, and mushrooms and mushroom soup, and onions… but not all in a single tasty dish! But I’d be fine with a meal of sandwiches or pizza. It’s the feel of the day and the togetherness which makes it special, and above all the realization of all the things we have to be thankful for in our lives.

For nearly a year, I’ve been writing a bit about some of the things that make me thankful, from the big – like being in pretty good health, something we all have come to see the value of in this past year or two – to the trivial, like watching a flock of songbirds or a well-written novel to read. I could go on similarly for years, but with other projects always present and popping up, both here and in “real” life, I’m going to take this point to wrap up the project. However, I will still be posting columns here, book, movie reviews and who knows what else, plus things on my mind, whether it’s something I’m thankful for or not … and I fully encourage you to start your own list of “thankfuls”. After awhile, it becomes a lot easier to let the problems and annoyances of life wash over you when you know how much good is overshadowing them. Or at least so I find.

So, wishing all of you a very happy Thanksgiving, a good dinner, good company and a day where you become aware of at least one more thing to give thanks for.

Thankful Thursday XL – Fish Wrappers

This Thankful Thur…, err Friday, I’m thankful for newspapers, an important anachronism in this day and age.

I grew up in a house that had newspapers. We subscribed to a daily big city paper (the Toronto Star) and were in a suburb that had a couple of weekly or semi-weekly local ones delivered automatically. I might have been nerdy as a child, but I loved them. By the time I could read well, I’d always look at it; perhaps even more than my parents did a lot of the time. I got to know what was going on in the world as well as the weather and keep track of the baseball scores and stats in that era that long preceded the internet and real-time updates. And of course, being a kid after all, I looked forward to the comics every day… Peanuts was my favorite back then. The local papers were thinner and didn’t have as much of interest, but being local, they were great at informing us of minor events in town and once in awhile, you’d see people you knew in the photos.

As I grew up and went out on my own, the papers stayed a big part of my life. Much of the time I subscribed to the Star, like my parents (my dad did right up until his death, even though he was having a fair bit of difficulty seeing it well enough to read in his last year or two) and quite often I’d buy the rival Toronto Sun as well. The Star was a big, broadsheet, but was surprisingly liberal in stance; the Sun was a tabloid that was more conservative … the opposite of what most would expect. Both had their pros and cons. The Star was better for in-depth national and world news and usually had better comics (yep, still liked them as I got older though by my 20s I was a fan of things like The Far Side). The Sun was better for local news and sports. Plus its smaller size made it ideal for reading on the bus or at a coffee shop table, making it all the better to take to work. Both offered thought-provoking editorials and by reading both, I’d get two sides to the same story quite often. It helped me think better and be better-informed.

Since I relocated, newspapers aren’t as much a part of my life. For a couple of years we did subscribe to the daily in our city here. It was a disappointment compared to the ones I was used to – much thinner, with more limited national and international news, drawn almost exclusively from wire services, less actual coverage of local events – but it was still something. I’d get the big stories of the day, and at least baseball boxscores for early games the night before. But it kept getting smaller and its price went up so when we moved, we decided to forego it. And with it now costing $2 a copy at the stores, I rarely buy one on a whim.

It’s a theme repeated across the globe. It’s a downward spiral and one of the worst side-effects of the Online Age. Fewer people have time to read a whole newspaper, and most of the things they want to see in one are found online anyway. Classified ads are a dinosaur, so ad revenue drops for the newspapers, circulation drops, so they cut back to try to save money. Which in turn makes the paper less interesting… less original content, smaller staffs, fewer photos, less expensive syndicated columnists or features…and sales drop more. One by one, city newspapers across the country shut down shop.

It’s a shame, and a socially dangerous trend. One only has to see All the President’s Men or know a bit about American political history to see the importance of a widely-read newspaper with good journalists. Or more recently, Spotlight chronicling the Boston Globe‘s role in exposing child abuse and the church cover-up to try to avoid blame. At their best, they not only report the news, they find it.

The only security of all is in a free press,” Thomas Jefferson once said. So yesterday I decided it was time to do my part, and subscribe to the local one again. I’m thankful there still is one and that we live in a land where they’re free to print, and we’re free to read them.

Thankful Thursday XXXIX – Sasquatch, And Other Things We Don’t Know

This Thankful Thursday (or Saturday) I’m thankful to not be a Know-it-all…although some who’ve known me might dispute that assertion! I’m actually glad no one’s a “know-it-all”. I’m glad there are still things we, as a species, haven’t figured out yet. thankful for mystery. After all, who doesn’t love a good Agatha Christie story? I’m glad there are things that are like that for all of us, and that unlike her books, haven’t yet been wrapped up neatly with a “that solves that” answer.

I thought of that this week while reading a book about American parks. The author categorized a couple of national parks – Congaree and Crater Lake as “mystery.” Fair enough. Neither gets a lot of traffic and both have an air of mystery around them. Crater Lake is said to be the deepest lake in the U.S., but sits hidden in the mountains. It took decades to be found, even after the Oregon Territory had been settled and rumors of its existence abounded. Furthermore, there’s a huge log that floats around it sticking upright for totally unexplained reasons. Congaree is a deep, floodplain swamp, ancient cypress trees growing out of the murky water. Bugs, Water Moccasins and alligators abound, and trails are few so not surprisingly, so too are casual day-tripping sightseers. Adding to the mystery of the place are occasional reports suggesting that maybe, just maybe, two of the rarest types of birds in the Americas still live there – the fabled Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the diminutive Bachman’s Warbler. Both have always been, by most accounts rare and hard to find, preferring just the inhospitable flooded forests that Congaree offers. The tiny warbler, a bright yellow little songbird that eats bugs, hasn’t been seen for decades. The woodpecker, on the other hand, is large, showy…but wary of humans at best. It was last heard from in 2005 when some blurry video in an Arkansas swamp seemed to show one fly by, backed up by disputed eye-witness sightings there. If either still exists is debatable, but nature-lovers like myself live in hope that they are…perhaps in Congaree’s dark recesses.

They’re mysteries not too unlike the “great” American one – Sasquatch. The famed Bigfoot has been reported since Europeans began to settle the Pacific coast forests…and long before by the local Natives who had various names for it including “Sasquatch”. For over a hundred years people have wondered if they exist, and gone out searching for them, with little to show so far. A few videos which might have been faked, suggestively huge footprints in mud, weird unearthly screaming sounds in the forest. One wonders why, with the settlers love of guns, someone along the way hasn’t shot one, inethical as that might be, or hit one with a car. Likewise though, one wonders how there could be so many similar stories through the pre-internet decades of big, unknown ape-like creatures from Montana to B.C. if something we don’t yet know is out there. It’s a mystery.

UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, what’s out on the outer limits of the universe… no one really knows yet. That’s exciting to the scientific part of me…and comforting to the spiritual part that likes to think that no matter how smart people are, we’re still dwarfed by something bigger than all of us…something that has the answers but will only share them when we’re ready. Til then, if we want to know, all we can do is load up on bugspray and head out into the forest primeval.

Thankful Thursday XXXVIII – ‘Owl’ Drink To Napa Valley Going Green

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for Napa Valley wines. And I’m a beer guy, not an oenophile, which is apparently a wine lover. A word I’d probably have already known if I actually loved wine. I might seldom partake in their beverages, but I’m thankful for them after seeing a story recently about how they are beginning to “go green.” More and more of the vineyards in that California valley are turning away from chemical pesticides and towards organic solutions…including owls!

Wine might be healthy for us in moderation, but creating it isn’t always healthy for the land. Growing the grapes invites a lot of nuisance animals to the area… rats and mice especially. For much of the past century, the growers relied on heavy doses of pesticides to keep the rodents in check. Needless to say, this isn’t beneficial. Besides the rodents they’re looking to control, other animals can ingest it and die, or eat the poisoned rats and in turn sicken or die themselves as the poison builds up inside them. And while one would imagine that the amounts of pesticide retained by the grapes during the production would be minimal, the risk to farm workers is real. For instance, zinc phosphides, a common type of rat poison will “increase calcium levels in the blood, leading to organ failure” according to scientists. One would think even a trace amount lingering in the wine wouldn’t be doing its enthusiasts any good and working in the fields with it day in, day out even less so.

So, I’m happy more and more grape-growers are shunning the chemicals and instead encouraging owls. Barn Owls in particular, an especially effective rodent weapon. Apparently a typical one will eat close to ten critters a night, so just a couple of pairs of nesting ones is going to significantly lessen the enjoyment of the area for rats! The vineyards are cleaner, and the growers save money. It costs far less to put up a few nestboxes for owls than to buy pounds of chemicals, needless to say. They may even reap a small financial reward as birdwatchers begin to take the vineyard tours in hopes of seeing a striking-looking owl more than tasting a fine Chardonnay. And the Barn Owls, declining in numbers across the country are finding new homes with ready supplies of food. A win-win.

Organic wine, helped along by owls. I’ll drink to that. Or should I say, “owl” drink to that!

Thankful Thursday XXXVII – Fannie Flagg & The Storytellers

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for storytellers. No, not the used car dealers who assure you that 2003 Mustang was only driven to church on Sunday by a little old lady, but the great ones who write the books and movies we love. Shakespeare was a story-teller. So too Dickens, and Steinbeck and Twain. Even Stephen King. And Fannie Flagg. She came to mind because I just finished reading a book by her, so I’ll rather combine two blogs here and review it.

One of the out of left-field hit movies from the ’90s was Fried Green Tomatoes, a sort of ode to both the Deep South and feminism, starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Louise Parker. The story revolved around the close friendship of two young women, Idgie and Ruth during the Depression-era South, as told by an elderly relative of Idgie’s decades later. It’s an unusual sort of dramedy, mixing well elements of both humor, sometimes quite dark (ie – the disappearance of Ruth’s violent, abusive husband, which shall we say led to a “tasty” subplot) and tear-jerking drama. Most of it centred around a little diner, the Whistle Stop Cafe, run by the two friends.

Anyway, undoubedly some have wondered what ever happened to those characters; when the film ended, Idgie was still alive and looking after Ruth’s young boy, Buddy Jr., and Evelyn, the middle-aged lady hearing the stories from old Ninny was on her way to a whole career and life makeover. Well, it turns out we now know, thanks to the story’s creator, Fannie Flagg. Last year she published a sequel, The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop. It’s a good, quick read that brings us up to date on all the main characters, through a similar series of present-day events and flashbacks.

We find that Evelyn parlayed her Mary Kay sales into a major business career and she’s now a mover and shaker in Birmingham, but a bored one. She once again connects with the family of Idgie and Ruth. While the original mainly centred on those two, this one is seen largely through the scope of Buddy Jr., who’d become a successful veterinarian but is now retired and lonely back in Georgia, and his daughter, Ruthie. Together they become a new sort of family and embark on a “if you build it they will come” sort of project to bring the past into the future.

The chapters are short and fast-paced and the story interesting. Like the first one, it highlights feminism and individuality while throwing some shade on class elitism and other less lovable traits of “Dixie.” With her blend of unusual but likable characters and championing of community and small town life, Flagg is something of a Garrison Keillor of the South…a title people like Evelyn and Ruthie would take as an honor. They might not be Tolstoy or Rushdie, but they know how to tell a story that touches us and characters who stay with us.

Thankful Thursday XXXVI – Meatloaf

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for meatloaf. Not the rotund Texas singer, although I sometimes don’t mind his operatic rock epics. Instead I mean the food, a food many call a “comfort food.”

My sweetie made a meatloaf earlier this week. It’s not a meal we eat much in our household; if we have a pound or two of hamburger meat, we’re more likely to make tacos or hamburgers. Hamburger Helper perhaps. But this week she baked a meatloaf, ketchup, bread crumbs and all.

So, you’re probably thinking “he must really like meatloaf!” In fact… I don’t. I have my share of comfort foods – pasta dinners, sandwiches, spicy tomato soup, pizza when my stomach’s up for it – but meatloaf, not so much! In fact, I really don’t like it much at all.

But that’s ok. It reminded me how lucky I was to have someone who cares for me and cooks up nice meals for me and the kiddo frequently. Moreover, I’m very thankful for us having enough food. Even in our community, there are some who are hungry most days, and we’re better off than half the world. There’s a whole lot of people who would love to have the problem of having lots of healthy-enough food to eat and simply not thoroughly enjoying a little of it. Earlier this week on my music blog, I’d featured a record by Harry Chapin, a singer who put his career on the back burner at one time to help the government combat hunger in our country. You know he’d have appreciated some meatloaf!

The next evening we had some fish, and I was even more thankful. But I had some leftover meatloaf for lunch, said a few thanks, and made a note to myself to buy some stuff to donate next time the supermarket runs a food drive.

Thankful Thursday XXV – Companies Who Care About Their People

Since the pandemic hit hard early last year, my sweetie has been working at home instead of the large office she had clocked in at before. My sweetie and thousands others like her, in her corporation and countless others. They sent home computers and monitors and the software needed for her to trouble-shoot customer problems from the desk in our bedroom. It’s a familiar scenario across the land, and across the world. This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for companies which care about their employees.

It struck me a few days back but was really reinforced in my mind earlier today. While there are downsides to the work at home – at times she misses the comraderie of having her worker friends around, she had a more comfortable chair and movable, ergonomic desk in the office, for instance – for the most part it’s been great. We’ve saved hundreds in gas by not having to have her drive back and forth daily, and most importantly, she and most of her co-workers have been able to stay safe. Thinking back, even pre-Covid, it seemed like she was sick a lot more frequently and flu had rampaged through their ranks the winter before. I appreciate the corporation doing their part, and I expect if they ever recall the office, there’ll be differences. More space between desks, perhaps people working some days at home, some days on site, partitions between desks…who knows?

Anyway, that leads to today, when she received an intranet e-mail saying to check her door. The company had sent over a gift bag… snacks, keychain, pens and notepads, that sort of thing. Even a large bagged pickle with a note saying “we think you’re a big dill!” It was cute, and brightened her work day. Little things like that go a long way from employers.

Back in the day, in my first of two employers that were in the photographic industry, we were at a small store. The pay wasn’t great, the ventilation around the processing equipment sub-standard I’m sure. So were my sinuses, and other co-workers who seemed to get a whole lot of sinus infections. But the co-workers were great and the owner of the franchise at least made sure he had a couple of big parties annually for all of us. Mid-summer there was a big pool party at his house, with softball (and his famous “Skydome of Beer!” at home plate – a cooler shaped like the Toronto sports stadium) , a BBQ and of course, cooling off in his pool. It was a great day to relax and have fun with the others outside the “office”. Same thing come winter time, with a Christmas party, full dinner and all those fun things at his place. I appreciated that. So too the freebies he got and passed out readily. Olympus mugs, Ilford film frisbees, Ricoh attaches or something, clothing. Particularly, clothing. The store had a uniform but, if you were in a comfy Canon sweatshirt say, you could skip the dress code for a day. It made me feel quite appreciated.

So here’s to all the employers going the extra mile, to keep the employers safe and put a smile upon their face. I’m thankful for all of you.

Thankful Thursday XXXIV – Rainy Days (And Mondays?)

Well, it’s a dreary looking day outside here today. Overnight thunderstorms scudded off, dragging along a blanket of low-lying clouds, cooler air and rain showers behind them. This Thankful Thursday, or Friday actually, I’m thankful for Rainy Days. They don’t always get me down!

Now, living in Texas, my mind has changed a little here. Back in Canada, fall often meant rainy day after rainy day, rainy weeks dripping into each other until they turned to snow. As if the days weren’t short enough already there in October, the light was often blocked by thick layers of stratus clouds. I think I came home from work enough times having to peel off my socks because the water had soaked right through my shoes on the way home. It wasn’t uplifting. Here however, sunny days are more the norm. And don’t get me wrong, I love bright, clear days. They energize me. But, there’s something to be said for their grayer counterparts.

Here, the ground gets parched and plants wither all too readily in the warm weather – which is to say about nine months of the year – times. The rain is welcomed. Nature watering the flowers and veggies for once, filling up the bird baths by itself. It gets the grass growing, but the rainy days themselves are a great excuse to put off cutting the lawn without feeling guilty about it.

Rainy days are great in fact, for reminding ourselves to slow down once in awhile. Lie on the sofa and watch a movie. Read those last two chapters of the novel you started two months ago. Pull out the dusty board games and sit around the table with the family. The yard work, the shopping errands… they can wait for tomorrow. Not to mention that cooking homemade soup or chili seems a bit absurd when it’s 95 degrees and there’s a UV rating of about 1000 out. But it seems the right, the comforting, thing to do when the clouds are leaky!

Basically, the rain is a reminder of the “laws” we need to keep in mind. Into each life a little rain must fall, they say. Indeed. We need a little rain, we need a little dark just to remind us to appreciate the sun and the heat. Yin and yang. Chicken soup for the soul. And hey… it might be a chicken soup dinner day! Bright spots abound on the dullest day, if we look for them.

Thankful Thursday XXXIII – Benevolent Celebrities

As many of you know, I also do a daily music blog. Recently while writing pieces I featured Janis Ian. Janis is a singer who had one big hit in the 1970s, “At Seventeen” and has periodically recorded since as well as written a few books. But an interesting sidebar to her story is that she also runs a charity called the Pearl Foundation that raises money for scholarship for adults returning to school. I think that’s pretty great and noble. To date, with her help it’s given out over a million dollars to help further the education of people who might not otherwise be able to go back to school to better their lives. The same week I looked at Farm Aid, a charity designed to help out struggling small family farmers around the country. It was started as a one-off rock concert in 1985 set up by John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young. Little did they know back then that it would still be an ongoing event, and they’d all still be performing almost every year and the charity a round-the-calendar organization assisting farmers and lobbying for their interests. Again, a very worthy cause. So, this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for celebrities who use their fame (and quite often money) to help others through such events and organizations.

There’s no shortage of them of course. Elton John has worked extensively for various organizations helping AIDS patients. Peter Gabriel brought Amnesty International onto the radar for millions of his fans by talking about them and having booths of theirs set up at his concerts. And of course, it’s by no means limited to the music world. Actor Gary Sinise became a hard-working advocate for disabled veterans after playing one in Forrest Gump and being contacted by many real-life people with stories like his fictitious Lt. Dan. Reese Witherspoon has been involved with a number of organizations promoting improving childrens’ lives in the Third World, helping battered women and encouraging reading. And the list goes on and on.

It’s often said we idolize our entertainers far too much. Perhaps true. Also true is that the bar keeps being lowered for what it takes to be considered a “star”. These days a “leaked” sex tape or filming yourself walking around dollar stores pointing out new items with a little bit of panache are sometimes all it takes. We can debate what this means for society in general, but while it is the case, I say more power to those who find that rising star and use the enormous pulpit they have to influence their fans and make the world a little better.

Thankful Thursday XXII – Trains… A Nature Lover’s Best Friend?

This “Thankful Thursday” is a Friday as it turns out. Either way, I’m thankful for trains.

Now as many of you know, I grew up like many little boys, living near a busy rail line, watching the big, colorful, loud trains rumble by with fascination. And of course, I had a model train set and my dad and I periodically worked away on a table in the “spare room,” putting together a layout that never really was fully realized. But we had fun together.

Later on, living not far outside Toronto, the easy and fast way into the downtown was by the GO Train, a commuter rail line that served the various suburbs and brought people downtown, right by the offices, Eaton Centre mall and the baseball stadium, and pretty much everything else in the city center. The commute was far less stressful than trying to drive through the gridlocked highways and was at times quite fun. A stretch of the run ran alongside the lake, atop the “bluffs”, affording great views of the lake below on one side, the glittering skyline on the other. I even took a longer train ride to visit a girlfriend on the East Coast in the ’80s…it took about two days to get there (compared to maybe half a day by plane, given the time in airports ) but it was fun. Sleeping in one of those little berths that fold up in the daytime, eating in the dining car… kind of a Canuck version of The City of New Orleans.

I still like watching trains go by, but I’m thankful for them for a bigger reason than that. I also love nature and am an environmentalist, and trains really help us preserve our natural resources and keep the environment clean. A hard thing to believe when you see clouds of black smoke puffing out of a diesel locomotive struggling to get going, but true nonetheless.

Trains burn a lot of diesel fuel, it’s true. But the important point is they burn a lot less fuel than trucks, let alone planes, do. It makes sense when you stop and look. A regular Class I (that is mainline, intercity) freight train usually has over 100 cars behind it. Coal hoppers, 80+ foot long auto racks carrying new cars and trucks, tankers, 50′ boxcars, flat cars stacked up with containers from overseas. And these days, they’re usually pulled by just two big locomotives. A tractor trailer, by comparison, obviously pulls just one “freight car”, usually 53′ in length behind it. Ergo, each big freight train is equivalent to over a hundred trucks. And there is their greatness. Not only do they keep our already over-crowded highways less congested, making all our drives a bit quicker and safer, they also do so using a lot less fossil fuel.

Now getting accurate figures for fuel use by either trucks or trains is notoriously difficult, and inexact. The weight of the load, whether they’re on a flat road or a grade, the temperature, all play into the equation. But in general, a Peterbilt 379, one of the most popular trucks of the past decade, gets about 4 mpg pulling a trailer, according to drivers themselves. A newer Peterbilt was recently tested at over 10 mpg – not bad at all as a minivan we had averaged only 15! – but that was under test conditions, barreling along by itself, without a payload to haul.

Compare that to a new locomotive. The SD70ace is perhaps the most ubiquitous locomotive this century. It packs 4300 horsepower, and can theoretically pull 200 loaded freight cars by itself … although rail crews point out, it would have a heck of a hard time getting going from a stop with that much behind it. Typically they pull about 50 to 60 cars (hence the multiple engines afront a long train.) And pulling a fully loaded coal train, engineers report they get about a third of a mile per gallon. 0.3 mpg! Not good… except when one considers that is doing what 130 trucks would be needed to do otherwise. On average, the U.S. government rate trains as the most efficient way of moving heavy loads… about seven times less fuel used per ton than trucks in fact, and an absurd 70 times better than planes.

So, next time you’re stuck in traffic, waiting to go and counting those Railboxes roll by, don’t be impatient. Be grateful. That train is making our air a little cleaner and our oil supply last a little longer.

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