Friday, February 27, 2015

Goodbye my friend, I miss you

A good friend of mine died last week.
He was taken at age 51 by the scourge of cancer. He went from a powerful, bull of a man to a thin shadow of his former self.
It was heartbreaking to watch.
I met Bryon 17 years ago and he quickly became one of my best friends. He was a good man, with a good heart.
Whenever I needed a hand with something, Bryon was there. He was always willing to pop over and help me out, or loan me a tool I did not have.
All I had to do what ask.
I jokingly said once, “You must dread seeing my number on caller ID.”
メOf course not, it is always good to hear from you,” was his reply and I could feel he really meant it.
I have not met many people in the world with as positive an attitude as Bryon. He was always smiling, always looking on the bright side and always ready with a funny quip.
He is barely gone from the earth and I miss him fiercely. True friends are hard to come by, and he really was a true friend.
I wish I could go over to his place this weekend and throw some darts, or shoot his BB guns in his workshop.
I enjoyed those times more than I realized - just a couple guys hanging out, sharing the bond of friendship.
It is not fair that he should be taken from this world so early.
Why Bryon? Why such a good man? There are so many unworthy people out there, why claim a genuinely nice guy and let the others live and carry on their selfish, uncaring lives?
It makes no sense, but so often life does not make sense.
Why did my friend Greg die at 50, also from the scourge of cancer. I had known Greg since I was four years old. It has been more than three years since he left this earth and I still miss him. I doubt I will ever stop missing him. I doubt I will ever stop missing Bryon.
So many things remind me of Bryon: seeing a truck that looks like his, or a person with the same build, and driving past places where we spent time together remind me we never will again.
You can't replace a long-term friendship. There are new friends to be made, but only time can forge the bond of a long-time friendship.
Even if you have gone several months without seeing each other, when you meet it is like not a moment has passed.
You speak with an ease only a real friendship can provide. There is a comfort in each other's presence  only time can build.
But now, he is gone and with him a friendship years in the making.
It is heart wrenching to lose someone so close. The grief and pain his wife and children are experiencing makes the coals of anguish and loss in my own heart burn even hotter.
And I know the pain I feel in his loss pales in comparison to what they have lost.
But life carries on. We do our best to live with the loss. We will do our jobs, we will play and we will live our own lives.
But in the deep reaches of my mind there will always be the shadow of sadness. A vapour roaming the edge of my conciousness, always present and if allowed it would easily fill my heart with sorrow. There are several shadows dwelling in that dark place.
Those black memories of loss are banished to the part of my mind I rarely visit, I do not want to visit. They are always there, and like a cool breeze, I can always feel their presence.
But even the smallest light can pierce the darkest night and like the sun on a spring day, the memories of friendship warm my heart and make it little easier to carry on.

Copyright 2015, Darren Handschuh

Friday, February 20, 2015

Enjoy your flight and hand over your money

When you go on a trip, you expect to get fleeced a little bit.
At times, you are a captive audience and those holding you captive know it. They have the power. They have the means to suck as much money out of your pockets as they want, and there is little you can do about it.
Gouging is an appropriate term for how travellers are treated, as every little way to exploit their vulnerability and lack of alternatives is milked like a fat cow with an endless supply of milk.
These people are ruthless and merciless in their quest for the almighty dollar.
I learned this on a recent trip to Mexico, where we were legally robbed by a group of banditos with dollar signs spinning in their eyes.
I am, of course, referring to the airline industry.
There are no free rides in life and the airline industry is taking that mantra to a whole new level.
First, you purchase a ticket to be transported on the flying machine, which is an obvious and expected part of the trip.
But when we went to check in, we were informed our ticket would let us fly, but not our luggage.
That would be an extra US$25 per bag – each way.
Why not just include that in the price of the ticket in the first place?
Because then it would make the ticket more expensive and people would not think they are getting such a great deal. And once you are actually at the airport, odds are you are not going to cancel your trip just because these skyway robbers are holding your luggage hostage.
So you mumble under your breath as you kick out even more money for something you thought you already paid for.
Once in the air, the fleecing is far from over.
No problem, for just another US$6-10 you can purchase something resembling food.
The airline equivalent of a TV dinner is not exactly fine dinning, but what can you do? You can either buy the slop they are selling, or go hungry.
Alcoholic beverages can also be purchased at insanely jacked up prices. I did not buy any myself, but the man next to me paid US$6 for a single can of beer.
That’s more than seven loonies for a can of hops and barly the airline purchases for less than a single greenback.
But the airline did offer some personal service in the form of a free tiny cup of water or pop. I have seen communion glasses larger than that.
They also offer a scrumptious bag of flavoured pretzels – totally free of charge. (I guess they had to stop serving peanuts because of people with nut allergies.)
The pretzels were quite tasty, but with a bag that small it was hard to fully appreciate the culinary experience.
Feeling a little personally violated, we did get to our destination in a matter of hours, making flying a much faster and efficient way to cover the great distance from Canada to Mexico.
While in Mexico, we visited a market and were beseiged by vendors selling their wares. You could not walk past a little shop without someone soliciting you to come in and buy something. But unlike the air bandits, I could walk away from this attempt to extract money from my wallet.
And with the vendors, everything was negotiable. What they were asking was merely a starting point, whereas the US$6 beer was not up for haggling.
The vendors were somewhat intense in their aggressive selling tactics, but at least with them when you settled on a price, that was it. There were no hidden fees.
“The sombrero is $10, but the string to hold it on is another three.”
That conversation would only happen if the vendors were taken over by airline executives.
The Mexican vendors tried to get as much money out of us gringos as possible, but at least they were upfront about it.

Copyright 2015 Darren Handschuh

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Hola from the real Mexico, where many lives were changed

Turning off the rugged, pothole-filled paved road, a caravan of vehicles made its way along a dirt road through the barrio of a coastal Mexican town.
For several of us, it was the first time we had ever been to Mexico, let alone deep into a neighbourhood of shacks, small rundown travel trailers and peace-meal homes built from whatever material could be found.
The homes sit atop an old landfill and pieces of plastic, glass and other materials poke through the light-brown dessert sand.
By North American standards, it looks like a slum, but for the people living in the barrio of Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point) it is home and not an uncommon neighbourhood. With a wage of mere $40 a week, it can be a challenge to provide even that.
While only a few kilometers from a pristine collection of resorts, condos and towering luxury buildings, the barrio might as well have been on a different planet, the contrast is so stunning.
As we pulled up to one particular shack, we were warmly greeted my Meetay, Jasmine and Charlie. Charlie is not his given name, but because of the difficulty our Canadian tongues would have in pronouncing his real name, he told everyone to just call him Charlie. So we did.
I thought our mission was to change the life of this Mexican family, but when it was over it would be my life and the outlook I have that would be changed.
Charlie and his family were typical of so many in the area. Honest, caring people who were doing their best to scratch out a living in an economy where wages were dollars a day and a litre of gas cost the same as Canada. Alcohol is cheap, milk is not.
We piled out of rented cars into the hot Mexican sun and immediately got to work building a ‘house’ for this warm and genuine family.
The house, by North American standards, was really not much to look at. A rectangle box with two doors, two windows and a tiny bathroom area, it measured 220 square feet – roughly the same size and the garage of my Okanagan home.
Dozens of wheelbarrows of concrete were mixed by hand to make the floor and foundation. The family was hooked up to electricity only a few months ago. Water was from a small pipe sticking out of the ground with a garden hose attached to it. There were no cement mixers, just wheelbarrows, shovels and large hoes with holes in them to mix the cement.
Prior to our arrival, the building material was dropped off at Charlie’s home. Someone had to stay at the home at all times to watch over the pressboard, bags of cement and two-by-fours. Charlie assured they would be safe.
“It’s OK, I have my 45,” he said not referring to a handgun caliber, but to his dog, whose name was 45.
First the forms were made to contain the cement mixture before everyone grabbed a shovel or hoe and began the laborious task of mixing the concrete.
Gravel and cement were first mixed dry before water was added and the whole thing was mixed yet again. When the last wheelbarrow was dumped, we turned our attention to framing the walls that would be put up the next day.
As the work progressed, neighbourhood children came over, shy at first, but by the end of the build they were running up to some of the foreigners they had bonded with, wanting piggyback rides or to sit in the sand with them and stack small pieces of cut wood in a game they had just made up. The children were a delight and irresistible to hang out with. Besides, it was also a good excuse to take a break from mixing cement, or later, swinging a hammer for a few minutes. Who could deny someone a chance to interact with a small child with huge brown eyes and an even bigger smile. These beautiful children would remember the people who played games with them and gave them their time long after the memory of the builders had faded.
A few venders showed up as well to ply their wares, but they were not aggressive like the ones in the Old Port market who do whatever they could to entice you into their shop.
“Amigo, you buy. You come look. We make deal.” were oft heard phrases in the market crammed with vendors, restaurants, taxis and more vendors all clambering to get the attention of the gringos. If you were white, you were assumed to have money.
Because we were there during the off season, there were not too many white folk to be found so the ones who were there were besieged by vendors. After a short while, I must admit it became very irritating to be constantly declining offers to purchase something, as you would no sooner decline an offer from one when another would attempt to get your attention. The sidewalks salesmen were relentless and almost overwhelming with their omnipresent sales pitch. Nothing had a price tag and everything was negotiable.
In contrast, the sellers at the build site sat patiently near the side of the road and waited for us to come to them - which we did at the end of each working day. Bartering is a given in Mexico, but most of us could not bring ourselves to haggle too much knowing these people were barely surviving and the few greenbacks we gave them would feed their family while our wallets would barely notice the absence of a few pieces of paper.
The first day’s work done, it was time to head back to base camp for a meal and time together before going to bed. We would be up before the sun to get as much work done as we could before the afternoon heat bore down on our winterized Canadian bodies.
Day two saw the walls go up, a roof put on and the first layer of stucco (a mixture of sifted sand and cement) as the swarm of pasty-white Canucks labored shoulder to shoulder with Charlie, his family and neighbours. When the first walls went up and the shape of a building began to form the volunteer work crew was re-energized, as real progress could be seen. Once the walls were secured, the roof was added and sheets of Tolko pressboard covered the entire structure.
Tar paper and chicken wire was then added to the exterior before it was back to the wheelbarrows and more hand-mixing cement and sifted sand for the first layer of stucco.
Day three had ther final coat of stucco added, windows and doors installed and finishing touches to the structure that would more than double their living area.
Through it all, Meetay could not stop smiling, a joy that infected the 20 people who travelled from the Great White North to help 1 Mission build yet another home for a deserving family. The heat of the day was barely noticed as we closed in on completion of the home and the excitement of making such a huge difference. The look of pride carried by Charlie was not lost on any of us.
A faith-based organization, 1 Mission builds 75 homes a year for the people of the barrio – for free. All that is required from those receiving the home is to put in 200 volunteer hours helping their neighbours. 1 Mission has been operating in Rocky Point for several years and have built some 300 homes; a feat that has not gone unnoticed among the barrio community who treat 1 Mission and its workers with respect.
As the last nail was driven into the door frame, you could not help but feel a sense of accomplishment, an inner joy for helping out such a deserving family and a humbling feeling of just how blessed we in Canada are to live in such a rich and luxurious nation.
For the first time in her life, 12-year-old Jasmine would have her own bedroom. Charlie and Meetay would take the other room and their former house would be their kitchen and common area. As a brief ceremony was held at the end of the build, Meetay and Jasmine could not hold back their tears and several of the builders also found themselves filled with emotion.
It was wonderful and fulfilling to spend time with ‘real’ Mexicans. To see the ‘real’ Mexico and not just some sanitized Americanized version of the nation that so many people visit, but few really experience.
These were just regular, everyday people, and we were blessed to be able to share a short portion of their lives. The unpaved roads, roaming dogs, blowing dust and sheer poverty in which so many Mexicans live was so far from anything I have ever seen in Canada, it takes a few days to process.
In this Mexico, there are no swimming pools, no waiters catering to your every whim, no maids cleaning your room while you lounge at the beach with a tequila, and I loved every minute of it.
We spent five days in Mexico, three building the home and two at a resort only a few kilometers away. By far, spending time with Charlie and his family was the more enjoyable of the two. It does the soul good to help others, there is a joy that cannot be found poolside as you sweat in the midday sun and rinse dust from your teeth or nurse a finger that got in the way of a swinging hammer.
I would highly recommend it. There is reward in giving of yourself to help others. The time at the resort is reduced to a few photographs and souvenirs, but the house built memories that will last a lifetime. The resort offers a few days of luxury, the home offers a family a life-changing blessing – both Charlie’s family and my own.
While my family and I chose to support a Christian-based group, there are many agencies working in communities throughout Mexico that could use some free labour. So perhaps the next time you go south, considering skipping a couple days of a king-size bed, big screen TV and room service to experience the real Mexico and to get more than just a tan. By helping out you will get a sense of satisfaction, lifelong memories and the knowledge that you made a difference in the life of someone not as blessed as you. You will not regret it.

Friday, February 6, 2015

This stuff is too stupid to make up

Police in the United States recently arrested a man for hiding several baggies of cocaine in his prosthetic leg.
The man went out on a limb to transport the illicit drug, but when a police dog sniffed the car he was travelling in, it detected the white powder prompting cops to search him.
Of course, the man denied it was his dope, but under the circumstances he doesn't have a leg to stand on.
And thus begins another look at the weird and wacky world we live in.
In Massachusetts, 14 employees of a pharmacy were indicted for defrauding the federal government by filling bogus prescriptions.
The owner, who was in on the scam, told his staff not to use any obviously false names and only use ones that seem plausible.
Apparently, the employees did not get the memo.
These people fell a little short of genius status when they used names like Coco Puff, Harry Potter, Baby Jesus, all of the Baldwin brothers, and my personal favourite, Hugh Jass.
This next one is just criminal in its stupidity. A five-year-old boy was mauled by a pitbull named Mickey and has had to endure numerous operations to repair the damage done by the beast.
There was public outrage over the incident – but not for the little boy. For some reason that only someone with an IQ lower than a container of yogurt can understand, more than 75,000 people signed a petition to keep Mickey from being euthanized.
Did I mention this was criminally stupid? While the young lad has to endure countless medical procedures, his mom had to quit her job to stay home and care for him and is struggling to pay for the necessities of life let alone the mounting medical bills. Thanks to the petition signers, Mickey is living a life of luxury in a 'no kill' shelter where he will be looked after for the rest of his days.
Hmmm, it would appear cats and dogs are not he only ones that should be spayed or neutered.
A small accident in downtown Phoenix between a city bus and a dumptruck drew a large of gawkers who wanted to see what was going on.
A man then burst from the nearby bushes and flashed the crowd before taking off.
Witness said that was also a 'small' incident.
The Belly Button Biodiversity project at North Carolina State University has begun examining the "faunal differences" in the microbial ecosystems of our navels, to better understand of the organisms crawling around inside us.
They believe the naval of an 85-year-old man differs from that of a five-year-old boy.
I have have never conducted such a study myself, but I already know there is a difference: the 85-year-old naval is wrinkly, the five-year-old one isn't. The five year old is also more likely to have dirt in their belly button.
Speaking of universities, A team from Britain's University of Nottingham and Queen Mary University of London found cows make two distinctly different sounds to their calves, depending on whether the calves are nearby or farther away. The team said it spent 10 months digitally recording cow noises, then a year analyzing them.
Why? How will this research will benefit the human race? I bet if you ask any rancher, anywhere in the world they will tell you the same thing these brainiacs spent almost two years researching.
In other news, some universities have officially run out of interesting things to study.
And finally, a criminal mastermind in Connecticut entered a convenience store and handed the clerk a note demanding money.
He then pulled his hand out of his pocket and pointed his finger at the clerk – while his hand was in his pocket he was trying to pretend it was a gun.
The clerk then grabbed the masked man's finger and threatened to break it if he did not get out there. The thief took off without any loot.
I wonder if the bad guy has ever considered applying for university research grant. He seems qualified.

Copyright 2015, Darren Handschuh

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Magic ring makes school officials stupid

Just when you think those in charge could not be any more ridiculous, someone digs down deep, tries harder and sinks to an even greater level of dumb-assery.
In this instance, it involved a nine-year-old boy, a 'magic' ring and a principal who really needs to give his head a shake.
It happened in Texas – where everything is bigger, including dumb decisions.
The young lad in question had just seen the latest Hobbit movie in which the hero, Bilbo Baggins, uses a magic ring to help thwart the bad guys.
Whenever Bilbo wears The One Ring – as it is referred to in the movies – he is invisible to all and the Ring of Power plays a significant and vital role in the movie.
Like most Grade 4 students, this young lad wanted to act out what he saw on the big screen so his dad bought him the 'magic ring' from the movie.
The boy took The One Ring to school to show his friends. He then told one of his friends the ring can make them disappear (as it does in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings stories).
The highly anal principal interpreted this as a threat to the other student and suspected the nine-year-old, saying threats of any type will not be tolerated.
Seriously, the principal actually kicked the boy out of school for essentially using his imagination.
I agree threats of injury, violence etc. should not be tolerated on any level, but come on, saying a magic ring can make someone disappear is hardly a threat – it's kids goofing around and being kids.
Had be brought a sword to school and said it would make his friend's head disappear that would be a threat worthy of administrative involvement.
But a magic ring?
What about a magic wand? Will all fairy princesses be outlawed because of the dangerous weapon they are packing?
Run, it's Princess Star Bright and her wand that will make you fart rainbows. Oh the humanity.”
That is just as ridiculous as a 'magic' ring being a threat.
It's not the first time administrative zealots have intervened where they are not wanted or necessary.
Also in the USA was the case of a young deaf boy who was forbidden from signing his name – Hunter – because he had to make his fingers into the shape of a gun to fully sign his moniker.
He was told if he did it again he would be suspended. His parents were quite upset with the school and rightfully so.
Another elementary school banned lunch-hour soccer matches because a parent who was walking near the field got hit in the head with a ball and claimed a concussion.
Dumber still is the elementary school that banned the game of tag because the kids had to touch each other and there was the possibility someone could get hurt.
Officials feared someone might skin a knee, or have some other calamity befall them. Heaven forbid Junior should get a boo-boo while having fun with friends and getting exercise.
Better sit them in front of a computer monitor and feed them sugar where they can't get hurt, well, aside from diabetes and other fat-related illnesses.
And then people wonder why kids today are so chubby, scared and wimpy. Skinned knees are part of being a kid, as are bruises and all sorts of boo-boos.
It's enough to make one want to put on their magic ring and disappear.