Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Suicide Hill made for snow much fun

There is a terrific tobogganing hill a couple hundred metres from where I live.
There are several grades from a leisurely slide down the hill to a rocket-like decent for the brave and foolhardy.
The best part is, the run off area is a football field.
My children spent many an hour sliding down and climbing up that hill as did numerous other kids from around the neighbourhood.
There were even a few of us older kids out there once in a while, reliving our youth by taking a blast of frozen ice particles to the face.
I never had an actual toboggan when I was a young lad, but I have ridden on one a few and the snow just pours over the top of the wooden contraption and hits you in the face, tearing off the first layer of skin and rendering you temporarily blind.
Of course, the more the hill is used the less powder there is. Eventually, the snow packs down and the slope ices up until it is basically a downhill skating rink, allowing participants to break the sound barrier before they reach the bottom of the hill.
As a young lad, we would all gather at 'Suicide Hill' to do our sledding.
What else would a group of youngsters name a tobogganing hill? Gentle Slope of Fun? Slide of Silliness?
No, it had to be something dangerous, something that evoked the death-defying acts we were performing.
Actually, it was not the safest sledding hill in the country. There were two runs: a short fast one, and a long slower one.
The short fast one went down a fairly steep slope into a run off area. Doesn't sound too bad except for the barbed wire fence at the end of the run. If you had too much speed, you actually had to jump off your mount to slow down or you would hit the fence – as had been done by many people on many occasions.
The other run was much slower and if you did it right you would slide across a driveway, through a cross road and down another road that was even longer than the actual hill you started out on. The full length of this run could only done when there was a fresh, unplowed snowfall blanketing the blacktop because sliding on bare asphalt is a bad idea any time of the year.
Aside from the risk of being run over, it was a lot of fun. Kids rarely factor danger into their activities, so we hardly ever thought about being clobbered by a car.
Our focus was on racing down the mountain and seeing who could slide the farthest, the fastest.
No one was ever seriously hurt, but one intrepid slider did crash into the side of a car, much the displeasure of the car owner who was more worried about a dent in his automobile than the head of the child that caused the dent.
That hill is now a housing development, so never again will a child have to dodge a Dodge or find a way to stop before sailing through a barbed wire fence.
And perhaps that is a good thing.

Copyright 2014 Darren Handschuh

Friday, December 19, 2014

You are not alone at Christmas

“It's the most wonderful time of the year...”
Or so the song goes anyways, but for many people, Christmas is not all that wonderful.
In fact, it can be the worst time of the year.
For people struggling with mental illness, Christmas can magnify the suffering and the challenges they face on a daily basis.
Depression and other mental difficulties can often be isolating. Being trapped in the darkness of an unhealthy mind is one of the loneliest places in the world.
I told a friend once it is like I was screaming in a crowded elevator and no one hears me.
I can remember driving around in my car and feeling so overwhelmed by loneliness I honestly did not know how I was going to make it through another Christmas.
It is such a desolate place to be: trapped in your own mind that is telling you no one is there for you, no one is in your corner.
Of course, these are lies fed by my illness. I had people who cared about me, but I could not see it through the choking smog of pain ignited by the fires of mental illness.
Christmas and all the joy and togetherness it represents was like pouring fuel on that fire. Those feelings of solitude, isolation and, indeed, desperation, grew to such a fury, the fires of hades paled in comparison.
Over the years, I have come a long way in my personal struggle. I have  sought out  counselling, read a lot of books, taken courses and worked hard to understand why I was feeling the way I was. Dealing with mental health issues, no matter the type, is a self-determined journey: you are the only one who can take the first step on the road to wellness. You are the only one who can make you climb that mountain.
For the most part, those feelings of loneliness are now gone, but they are far from forgotten.
Even as I write this, I remember how alone I felt, how empty I thought my life was and my heart breaks for anyone suffering through such darkness  at any time of year, let alone Christmas.
You are not alone. You are not the only one struggling with those feelings.
I know how hard it is, I know the anguish it can cause, the desolation of the spirit it can bring upon someone.
But there are places to go to not be alone. Many churches hold candlelight Christmas eve services. You do not have to be a person of faith to attend. It is just a peaceful, welcoming place to be where you are not alone, where you interact with people.
A good friend of mine found solace in an online group and it is now a tradition for him to spend Christmas chatting and Skyping with people all over North America.
The Canadian Mental Health Association also has numerous resources available to help,
And if you feel it is more than you can take, I implore you, please call the crisis line where you will find people who care about your well being.
Remember, you are not alone, others walk with you. Help is available, all you have to do it accept it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Paranoid people are out to get me

Just because you are paranoid does not mean people are not out to get you.
I have heard that saying before and found it kind of amusing.
But there is another version that goes something like this: Just because you are paranoid does not mean people are out to get you.
It just means you are paranoid and perhaps you have an inflated sense of self importance.
My wife and I popped into a little restaurant for lunch a while back when a small group of people came in following a GMO protest.
I am hardly an expert on the whole modified food thing, but I support the anti-GMO movement because man and his scientific brain can not improve on what nature has already perfected.
How can a beaker hugger in a lab make something better than nature perfected millennia ago?
Why do I need a genetically modified tomato when the one God made thousands of years ago works just fine – always has.
I don't need some weenie in a corporate sterile room messing around with my apple so it will not go brown if it sits out too long. That is what apples do, and have done for centuries with no harm to mankind.
I have read the whole thing is driven by massive corporations out to make massive amounts of money. Now that, I believe. And of course the Canadian political machine would never stand up to big business.
Anyway, the Missus and I were having lunch when these people came in and started talking about the protest.
"Ya, I have had an unmarked police car parked in front of my house for almost a month,” said one protester. “I guess someone doesn't like what we are doing.”
Added another, “I know, they have been tapping my phone for weeks now. I guess they wanted to know what our plans were.”
I'm sorry, but I just have a hard time believing the RCMP have nothing better to do with their manpower than to keep personal watch over someone organizing a protest they are legally allowed to hold.
The government, police and secret spy agencies have much bigger fish to fry, but these people were convinced the helicopter flying over the protest – that attracted about 50 people – was taking secret videos of them to add to some massive database.
Really? With terrorists, drug gangs and all sorts of threats to our nation, the government will allocate massive resources to keep watch over a few people peacefully protesting?
Like I said, somehow I doubt it.
I recently dealt with one group that wanted publicity for their cause. They sent the newsroom emails about it, asked we do a story on it, but when I started contacting people on the list, no one wanted to go on the record.
Then why did you contact us in the first place if no one is willing to talk about it?
I spoke with half a dozen people, none of whom would give me any comments and instead passed me along to someone else.
One person said he would not talk to me because he did not know me and sounded very suspicious that I was even a real reporter.
And then these groups wonder why people have a hard time taking them seriously.
But we live in a free country where you can be as paranoid as you want, you can believe government agents are camping out in the hedge in front of your home and that there is a secret conspiracy aimed at your cause.
Now if you will excuse me, I have to put on my tinfoil hat to keep the secret government mind-reading machine from accessing this column before it is published.

Copyright 2014 Darren Handschuh

Friday, December 12, 2014

Lighting up the Yuletide night

The plan was simple enough: every year I would purchase another string of Christmas lights and by the time the Missus and I were married 100 years, I would have enough lights tacked onto the house it could be seen from space.
However, as we all know, things don't always go as planned. Actually, they rarely go as planned.
Initially, I bought several strings of lights at once because I did not decorate our rental unit and when be finally managed to scratch enough together to buy a house, having just a single strand lighting up the Yuletide night would look pathetic.
So, I bought a strand for every year we had been married to that point. It was enough to give the house a festive feel and my plan was well underway.
Then one day as I was walking my then elementary-aged kids to school, my son asked why I took the lights down.
Some Grinch has pilfered a good portion of my pretty lights. At least half the lights were gone. The Yuletide dirtbag had simply grabbed a strand, pulled and took off with his ill-gotten goods.
Whoever took the lights did not put a lot of effort into their act of skullduggery and grabbed the easiest ones they could. They left a few strings still attached to the tree, but it was far from the extravagant light show it had once been.
Hoping the thieving little, um, er, person would get a lump of coal for Christmas, I trudged down to the local mega-store where I bought some replacement strands.
The lights were back on and there were no more acts of holiday barbarism. Until the next year that is, when more strands were stolen.
The strand-a-year plan was officially dead – just like my Christmas light display. But I refused to give up and on Dec. 27 I bought several more strands – on sale – and made plans for next year.
I would put the lights up higher where they could not be easily reached. The tree next to the sidewalk would have to go through Christmas naked even though it looked really cool when the snow covered the lights.
The plan worked and no lights were removed without my consent.
While I was taking care of the outside show of celebration, my wife was looking after the decorations inside.
I never had a Christmas tree when I was a kid, my parents did not believe in it. I did not have my first Christmas tree until after I married. We were young, I was going to college and finances were scarce so we bought the cheapest tree we could find.
It cost $5 and was the quintessential Charley Brown Christmas tree. It was small, spindly and lopsided, but it was the coolest Christmas tree I had ever seen.
Since then, our finances and subsequent tree budget has grown so now, 26 Christmases later, we get a decent tree.
Which is good, because each year the Missus purchases a decoration to represent the year that was. She also buys special ornaments for the children each year and that means we have a lot of decorations to cram onto a tree.
Eventually, we will be looking at a California redwood Christmas tree because a Canadian pine tree just will not be large enough to hold everything.
Every year it takes a little longer to decorate. Not only are there the decorations we purchased, but ones the children made at school over the years, so that little tree is drooping under the weight of it all.
Do the math: three kids, each doing seven years of elementary school and each making at least one ornament per year. That alone is 21 ornaments and we have managed to keep almost all of them.
The kids get a real kick out of seeing ornaments they made when they were little, and they are by far my favourite ornaments inside or out.

Copyright 2014 Darren Handschuh

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christmas plays sure have changed over the years

For the second year now, I will not have to attend a school Christmas play function.
My youngest is in Grade 9 and high school kids are way too cool to put on a Christmas production, so my days of sitting through an Yuletide show are over.
I don't mean to sound like a theatrical Scrooge or anything, but I must admit I do not miss the annual event.
Sure it was great to see my kids up there singing a song or doing some acting, and for the five minutes they were on stage they had my complete and full attention.
The other 90 minutes or so dragged on like a visit to a singing dentist.
By the time the show was over, the gymnasium was stifling as a couple hundred parents wearing their finest winter gear sat in hard plastic chairs and gave somewhat forced applause as kids they have never seen before did their act.
But every year we would go, we would cheer and we would clap because to the children, it was a big deal. To them it was their chance to shine on stage, whether they wanted to or not.
Christmas productions have been around as long as there have been schools and Christmas.
I participated in them in elementary school even though I was so shy I had a hard time looking myself in the eye in a mirror.
Being more comfortable in the background, I never sought the leading role, but instead opted for something a little more hidden – like a goat, or a tree, or a rock.
Some years I managed to get off the stage completely and helped with building the set, a much more comfortable role for someone of my shy disposition.
Christmas productions have changed dramatically over the years.
When I was in elementary school we always did the manger scene depicting the birth of Christ. Sure there was some singing of Christmas carols and what not, but the show always ended with Mary, Joseph and the baby JC.
By the time my kids were in elementary school, JC was out and it was all about Santa. Political correctness had once again taken over a holiday tradition and the annual production went from the manger to Santa's workshop and stories of elves making presents and Santa saving Christmas from sort of calamity.
God forbid we should offend anyone with a view or belief they did not share.
Sorry, I mean non-specific supreme deity we should offend anyone with a view or belief they do not share.

 Copyright 2014 Darren Handschuh

Friday, December 5, 2014

How parenting has made me ready for the circus

Who would have thought being a parent would give me the skills needed to be in the circus.
There is a whole bunch of circus-related duties I could perform, all from the skills I picked up as I helped the Missus raise three adorable children.
They really are good kids. They are not perfect little angels (like their father was at that age), but they have good hearts, mostly stay out of trouble and have high morals and standards.
But like all young adults, the teen years brought moments of great challenge for their parental charges and it was during those tumultuous years I honed my many circus skills.
I could be a clown. Ask pretty much any teen what they think of their parents and they will agree mom and dad are qualified to wear a red nose, funny wig and outlandish make up.
All teens seem to go through a phase where mom and dad are an embarrassment, old fashioned and don't know anything. It is amazing the 'old people' can walk and talk at the same time they are so incompetent.
Of course, I never thought that of my parents. Just like I never copped an attitude, thought I knew everything or considered them an embarrassment. It was always, 'Yes, mother' and 'Yes, father,' 'What ever you say father.'
No, really, that is how I was as a teen, honest.
Anyway, circus clown is more of a title bestowed upon parents by their children than one they have to work for.
But there are other circus jobs parenting is a perfect training ground for.
Lion tamer. Who has not walked into the lions cage – a.k.a. a teenagers' room to 'discuss' something only to come face-to-face with a ferocious beast.
Sticking your head in a lion's mouth is kiddie play compared to dealing with a hostile teen.
But the good thing about a teen, especially a teen girl, is if you wait a few minutes, their mood will change and the danger will pass. However, as all parents know all you have to do is wait another minute and a new mood will emerge, and so on and so on.
Such it the life of a parent.
When the kids are younger, parents develop skills as a juggler. My wife pretty much mastered the skill of holding one child and chasing another while carrying an armload of groceries.
If a professional juggler really wants to impress me – do all that fancy stuff they do while looking after an ankle biter or two, now that raises the difficulty level to extreme.
Another circus skill is tightrope walking. I am currently in the learning process of this one as I deal with a very emotional teenage daughter.
When it comes to dealing with a young lass who is being assaulted by a hurricane of hormones as she makes the transition from child to woman, walking a tightrope is a must-have skill.
I am quickly learning you have to achieve just the right balance between discipline and freedom.
If the discipline is too heavy handed, you aggravate the situation and said daughter throws up a wall of teenaged anger and defiance and things escalate from there (see lions den.)
Too much freedom and they could get into trouble, but not enough freedom and they feel repressed, spawning that anger and defiance I was talking about.
So it is a fine line, a high-wire balancing act of majestic proportions to find just the right amount of parenting and the right amount of letting them make their own mistakes and figure things out themselves without getting into too much trouble.
So being a parent has developed many skills that are applicable to becoming a carnival performer, and believe me, more than once I have thought about running away and joining the circus.

Copyright 2014 Darren Handschuh

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mystery of missing brains a real head scratcher

OK, this is just a little too strange to ignore.
The University of Texas in Austin has reported 100 brains have gone missing.
That's about half of the university's collection of brains that were preserved in jars of formaldehyde and used for a variety of studies.
This opens up a whole universe of questions from who took them to why did they take them?
Why would anyone want one brain in a jar let alone 100?
I know people like to collect things – I have several old tools mounted on the wall of my man cave – but I have never thought I needed a brain collection.
What would you do with them? Put them on the mantle? Perhaps on the coffee table as a conversation piece – a conversation that I hope would include the recommendation to interact with a mental health professional.
But wait, that is not all.
The university is home to some of the greatest minds alive today, and this is what one of those great minds had to say about it:
“We think somebody may have taken the brains, but we don't know at all for sure," psychology Professor Tim Schallert, co-curator of the collection said.
You think somebody may have taken the brains!
What do you mean, you think someone took the brains?
If no one took them, what the hell happened to them?
Did they some how come back to life and figure out how to get out on their own? If so, there are a lot of people in Ottawa who could use a method of bringing their brains to life.
Is this some weird horror movie coming to life: Night of the Bottled Brains, Attack of the Fermented Gray Matter, Charge of the Contained Craniums?
I am no detective, or even a high-IQ professor type, but even I can figure out someone took the brains and I have never even been to Texas.
His co-curator, psychology Professor Lawrence Cormack came to the same conclusion and suspected undergrad students may have liberated the brains from the facility for Halloween or other juvenile reasons.
Now that makes much more sense.
Of course, there is always the Frankenstein monster scenario where undergrads are regenerating their own creatures made of accumulated body parts and needed a brain to complete the set, but I highly doubt it.
More than likely it was a youthful adventure by high-IQ, low common sense students who did it for a gag.
The remaining 100 brains are being moved to a different location in the hopes they won't wander away like the others.

Copyright 2014 Darren Handschuh