Friday, 25 November 2016

I’m sorry, Phoebe! A cautionary tale about skinning a mouse

Four of the mice that were caught, skinned and stuffed during
Biota NB 2016.
I learned an important lesson while participating in Biota NB 2016: Do not name the mouse you are about to skin. And then stuff. And then pin to a board. Do not.

This was certainly not a lesson I ever expected to learn, but on my second day of participating in Biota NB’s 2016 field season, I found myself learning just that. And as lessons are so often revealed, I learned it the hard way.

I had spent the better part of the day in the lab, photographing the activities going on therein and pestering researchers with questions. As most of the action was occurring at the small mammal table, under the guideship of Biota’s small mammal researcher Karen Vanderwolf, I spent a good chunk of my time there, happily taking photographs and observing from a distance (emphasis on distance).
Front to back: Karen Vanderwolf, Val Calvin and Ron Pine hard at
work with some mice at the small mammal table.
I thought I’d gotten away safe. It was nearing dinnertime and I was wrapping up my notes for the day when, “How about you? Do you want to skin a mouse?”

No no no no no no no no no.

“Yes, you do. Here, I’ll show you.”

Rats. Or mice or whatever.

Now this was definitely not the way I wanted to end the afternoon, but I also didn’t want to look like a wimp by saying no. So I went over to the skinning table and sat down.

For those who don’t know me, I’m a pretty soft-hearted person. I feel bad if I see a loaf of bread lying desolately all by itself after being knocked off a shelf at the grocery store. I apologize to trees if I run into them when I walk by. The possibility of skinning a mouse was so far off my bucket list that you would have needed the Hubble Telescope to see it. But here I was, joining the Biota “sewing club.”

I was handed a thawed deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) in a clear plastic bag. It was so little with its fur all spiky and cute. However, it was also cold and clammy.

Maybe this won’t be so bad after all. The mouse definitely seems dead, I thought. But these thoughts didn’t last for long when Karen explained to me that the mice we were skinning and stuffing had been caught that morning. Somehow the thoughts of the little mouse on the table in front of me blissfully running about just hours before did little to relieve my already great misgivings about the entire situation.

Skinning a mouse is a very delicate procedure. First you have to find the skin under its fur and make a small cut. If you cut too deeply you’ll just get a lot of blood. I let a little part of me die and made the first cut. It took a few tries.
Making the first cut.
This is where things took a turn for the worse. Karen took a look at my mouse and informed me that it was a lactating female. She handed the mouse back to me and I looked down at it and … You look like a Phoebe. Hi Phoebe.

Uh-oh.

An impossible task was just made infinitely more impossible.

The skin of a mouse is separated from its flesh by turning the skin inside out as it is pulled off the body, gently separating the connecting tissues as you go along. Pull too hard and the delicate skin will rip. Don’t pull hard enough and you won’t make any progress at all. I was left foundering in the latter category.

Come on Phoebe, that’s a girl. I was having difficulty pushing Phoebe’s leg out of the skin. For some reason I was scared of hurting her. (How was I supposed to skin something that I kept saying sorry to?) The other difficulty was how sticky the flesh was. Although there was no blood as long as you were careful (thank goodness), we had to use corn flour to absorb the fat and any blood that might be encountered accidentally.
To remove the skin from the rest of the mouse’s body, 
the skin must be pulled inside out.
Phoebe’s limbs and face required extra attention. With a mouse’s limbs, you have to push the limb out of the skin and then cut it at the ankle/wrist bone. For the face, there are a lot more connecting tissues. Special care must be taken around the jaw, ears, eyes and snout. I gave Phoebe up to Karen’s expertise for this part. With a few careful snips, Phoebe’s skin went over and off her snout and the task of skinning was complete.

Although Phoebe had started out cold and damp, as I worked at her skin, it became warm and dry. If her skin had not been clearly separated from her flesh, it would have been easy to mistake her warm skin as belonging to a living, breathing creature. This is something I tried vainly not to think about.

Phoebe’s carcass was another story. There it was lying on the table in front of me. Her little beady black eyes, from which the skin had been so carefully snipped away, stared up at me. I had to prepare the cotton stuffing with this pitiful site at the fringes of my vision.
A skinned mouse. Samples of its flesh and organs 
will be taken for further research.

Step two of my ordeal – let’s be honest, Phoebe’s ordeal – was to stuff Phoebe with cotton. To do this you have to take a thin piece of cotton stuffing and wrap it around a wire, trying to mimic the shape of the mouse’s body. This part wasn’t so bad but I don’t think I did Phoebe much justice as she was left looking a little emaciated.
Karen prepares the cotton stuffing in the shape of her mouse.
Once stuffed, the mouse is stitched up with cotton thread.
The final stages of stuffing a mouse involve putting wires in the limbs and tail. Once this is done, the mouse is stitched with cotton thread. I carefully brushed off Phoebe’s skin until it shone again, but to add insult to injury, I had to pin Phoebe to a board for the last step.
The finished product. Phoebe is in the middle, now immortalized
for further research at the museum.
Although skinning and stuffing Phoebe was definitely way out of my comfort zone, looking back on the experience has left me with a positive final impression (I’m sure being away from Phoebe’s remains helps). First of all, Phoebe wasn’t trapped and stuffed for nothing. She, along with her body and tissue and organ samples, will now be stored in the museum’s collection. Ultimately she will contribute to our understanding of her own species as well as the greater picture about the diversity of all species in the province. I also now have a greater respect for the people who have to do things like this often.


The final note I took away from the experience is a personal one. I will likely never skin another living thing for the rest of my life, but now I can say that I can do something that I would never have done otherwise – and I got a pretty cool tale (or should I say tail?) to tell out of it too.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Falling


I wrote my problems on a page
                Ripped them up

Shreds of a past I’d like to change
                torn to pieces

I threw the pieces in the air
                Made it snow

Because I thought:

Why not try to coat my world

                once more in white?


Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Once Upon a Bus


The oddest thing happened to me today, prompting me to dust the cobwebs from this blog and FINALLY write a new post. I'm not really sure what to make of it and, as I am wont to do in situations such as this one, I turned to the pen and page to sort out my thoughts.

Before I get to my story, there are a few background things to explain. First of all, I started taking the bus regularly this summer because, between work and summer courses, it seemed the easiest method of transportation. However, as someone who suffers with anxiety, city transit can be a pretty scary situation for me. After all, it involves being stuck in a relatively small space with a collection of strangers. Add to that the possibility of getting on the wrong bus or getting off at the wrong stop and *POOF* you get a panic-inducing shuttle straight to the hell of the darkest depths of your imagination. 

Anyhow, today I was at King's Square waiting for bus #3 to take me to UNBSJ. No big deal. Or at least that was what I was trying to convince myself. I was most likely staring at the ground, willing myself to disappear. Then from what seemed like out of nowhere, I felt a hand on my arm. I looked up to see a girl around my age. She was wearing jeans and a faux-leather jacket. Her brown hair was held back in a ponytail and she had a purple book bag slung over one shoulder. I had never seen her before. My mind quickly turned to stranger-danger alert.

"Hey, do you know when the bus that goes to UNBSJ stops here?" she asked.

"8:30, I think. I'm going there too, actually," I replied.

"What time is it now?"

I took out my cell phone. "8:26 - should be here soon."

And lo and behold, the bus pulls up. The girl walked with me to the door, chattering about how convenient monthly bus passes are and did I have one? (I did.) We got on the bus. She went to the back while I balked at the sea of faces before me. I quickly sat down up front and tried to settle my anxiety-riddled brain for the ride ahead. As the bus started on its way, I heard someone sit down beside me. I looked up to see the girl again.

"Hey, I was thinking, we should get together for coffee sometime seeing as we both go to UNBSJ," she said.

"Um, sure," I said, thinking how I'd only just met her.

Then she started telling me a bit about herself (her name was Meghan) and the courses she was taking at university, occasionally asking me some questions about myself. She liked to talk and seemed quite friendly. I was just glad for the distraction from the bus ride and found it easy to talk to her (unusual for me). The drive passed quickly and soon we parted ways on campus. 

I didn't really expect to see her again, truth be told. It's not that I didn't want to - despite how I am generally nervous around others, I do genuinely like people - the frailty of humanity sates my constant need to be compassionate. But it was such a fleeting encounter and, like the many individuals we meet for mere moments before drifting on in life upon our own changing currents, I didn't sense that there was anything that tied us together beyond that one bus ride among the hundreds I'm bound to take in my lifetime. 

How wrong I often am.

Two-and-a-half hours of statistics later and the morning meeting had all but blown into the back corners of my memory. Class had ended a few minutes late and I knew I was going to miss the 11:52 bus that would take me back to King's Square, so of course I was panicking. That's probably why I completely forgot that there were two buses that stopped at the university, but only one that went uptown. So when a bus pulled up a few minutes later, I didn't think to check which one it was and boarded it without a second thought.

I'll pause here and emphasize the point that when I got on the bus, it was empty. Only one other woman got on when I did. I was sitting near the front of the bus and could see who got on and off as the ride progressed. No one boarded, to my knowledge, that I recognized.

As the bus drove along it's route, I still did not realize that anything was amiss because all the stops were the same. But when a man got on and inquired whether the bus was headed uptown and the driver said no that they were going west, I went into full-on panic mode. For me, full-on panic mode means that basically my brain shuts down and I have trouble with things like talking and breathing. So when I heard a voice behind me say, "Oh my gosh, you're not stopping uptown?" and turned around, I was not prepared to see Meghan. Her face mirrored my own.

Somehow I gathered myself together enough to say that I was in the same boat (er, bus). Everything else is a bit of a blur but somehow Meghan got us off the bus, over a wall, through a parking lot, and across a street to another bus stop where a bus eventually took us to King's Square. I got off but Meghan did not. 

She called goodbye. I'm not sure if I'll ever see her again. I don't even know if I properly thanked her. What I do know though, is that if I hadn't met her this morning and if she hadn't somehow appeared on my bus later, today would have gone much worse. I realize that to many who read this, getting on the wrong bus is not a big deal. But for me, it's a nightmare and I'll forever be grateful to Meghan.

What I learned today is that we can never know the extent of how much someone may someday impact us - even if you've just met. In the same way, it is also impossible to tell how we may someday impact another. It's as easy as just looking up and smiling when you pass someone on the street. Or, like Meghan, take it a step further and ask for the time. It can make a world of difference. Heck, if enough people do it, I bet we can make a different world.





Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Paradox Found












Some say it was the apple that was the downfall of man
Scholars will tell you that, technically, it couldn't possibly have been an apple
But it makes for a good metaphor

Let's go back to the beginning

Some say mankind fell from grace because of an apple
evil entered
And the world was never the same

Then what?
A man kills his brother
That had something to do with fruit too

But always the apple
It's the most important
Let's go back to it

Because

some say that one day a man happened to see an apple fall
it sparked an idea
And the world was never the same

That man eventually came up with three laws
You know, inertia, F=ma,
for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction

Well apple to apples,
he missed one
He forgot about the evil part

For this is the fourth universal law:
For every act of hatred
there is a response of equal or greater magnitude

Don't believe me?
Watch the news
Better yet, look in the mirror

Actually, maybe it's best to listen to scholars after all

Because there are still apples today
And if it were an apple that first time
then the world would never be able to change.


Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Superhero Effect


Last year alone in only three movies, the super hero genre grossed more than 1.3 billion dollars. This year is shaping up similarly. For a world that seems to scoff at the mere mention of the word “saviour”, we are still obsessed with the idea of someone rising against evil to save us all.

And yet, this is a world that is so confident of the fact that we no longer need to be saved. What with our man-made laws, weapons, scientific advances and other inventions, we seem to think that we are above requiring a saviour. After all, we have pillars of democracy, knowledge and military power upon which to found society.  

So why is it that we idolize men (and women too) in tights and capes, with money and big machines and with powers beyond normal human abilities? Wouldn’t this hero worship contradict the entire movement of western thought – an immigration from faith to reason? For as surely as we worship money and science, we make gods out of the likes of Ironman and Batman. After all this time, we are still looking to someone better, someone more than human, to save the world.

I guess when it comes down to it, what these movies appear to offer is a kind of hope. Indeed, there is assurance given with having evil always lose and that what is bad in the world can be clearly distinguished and eradicated. Or maybe it’s more than even that. Perhaps the heroes of the big screen sate a secret yearning that someone will be able to make up for humanity’s shortcomings.


But the world’s not made like the movies. Right and wrong are never straightforward. And the hero we expect only blinds us from the one we never deserved. 

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Thoughts on Boston



In the aftermath of the bombing of the Boston Marathon, we have read and heard stories of countless people offering aid and prayers to the victims and families. In the wake of tragedy, we find hope and compassion in humanity.  But while a nation grieves, while we in North America are shaken by an attack so close to home, there is something I feel we are forgetting.

You see, what happened yesterday in Boston is an everyday occurrence for countless lives in other parts of the world.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not in any way trying to downplay the terrible events in Boston. My heart goes out to everyone affected and I have certainly been praying.  But it remains to be said that there are a lot of people in the world who are all too familiar with this sort of suffering.

Take Syria for example. This is a broken nation where, averaged out, there have been 6 children killed per day for over 2 years. That number is staggering and it only gets worse. With a climbing death toll of over 70 000 (10 per cent of which are women and children), the horror to which our eyes have only just been opened is a never-ending reality for over 2 million children in Syria. These are the stories that aren’t widely circulated: of torture and stolen education and rape that also deserve our attention. The first-hand accounts are heart-rending.

Yesterday, Twitter and other social networks were abuzz with posts about praying for Boston. It’s heartening to know that we are willing to rally behind victims and stand against hatred. I would only ask that we do not leave out the rest of humanity’s sufferers. It would only take a little more of our time to offer up a prayer to the rest of the world too.

To finish, I would like to make a comment on the picture at the top of this post. It is a photograph of a young Syrian boy in a refugee camp in Jordan; but it could be a picture of a boy anywhere in the world.

You see, fear and pain are universal. Peace isn’t.

But it’s something that we take for granted.


More info:




Thursday, 4 April 2013

From “Womb Mates” to Roommates


- A Tale of Two Twins

It was the perfect set-up for a sit-com straight off the Family Channel: Inseparable (and shall I say rather sheltered?) twin sisters find themselves experiencing the fun and mishaps of university life together as roommates. Close your eyes and imagine it for a minute. I know what you’re probably thinking: Bring out the drama and cat-fights; this is going to be one heck of a year.

Cue the screeching halt.

Well, I wish I had something that interesting to write about.  The truth is, Room 317 saw about as much action as a documentary on the art of crochet… minus the hooking. If you want to talk about “fun”, does blasting gospel music while studying on Friday nights count? Or how about the mishaps? Those amounted to running out of our daily fix of pretzels and (dare I even mention it?) running out of hot chocolate on a Saturday night. Probably the most adventurous we ever got was eating cereal with a fork – and we were pretty proud to be so hard-core.

---

So maybe Johanna and I didn’t experience the typical life of most university students living in residence. Actually, I feel quite confident about that statement. For instance, while my little sister will never hold a record for the most shots in one night, she has pulled all-nighters without coffee (and went to all her classes the next day no less). As for me, I’ve done Johanna’s laundry every week without complaining – not even once! (That’s just one of the perks of living with your sister.)

I think the most difficult thing Johanna and I discovered this year was how not to be stereotypical twins. I’m pretty sure we creeped out a few people at meal hall by always choosing the exact same meals… and eating them in the exact same way. We tried to make sure we didn’t accidently wear the same clothes or go to the washroom at the same time… because that’s just downright awkward. On the other hand, the reactions of everyone else when these incidents did occur were always amusing.

This is really all I have to write about LBR’s rather reclusive twins and their quaint ways. I’d have more to say about Johanna but, then again, it’s not as if we’ll part ways once summer begins. I’d rather avoid the possibility of revenge if I can. I will tell you this though: her dirty socks stink.

Cue the drama and cat-fights.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

In Storm


When I was a kid, I was told that life can give you sunny days and rainy days.
I thought they were talking about the weather.
I thought that by carrying an umbrella, I could shield myself from any pain that would ever come my way.
I was wrong.
What I didn’t know was that a lot of life can be like a hurricane.
There are times when the rushing currents sweep up and overwhelm you.
There are days when the waves leave you battered and bruised
coughing up water
on a sand bar
twenty miles from shore.
Don’t tell me there’s an umbrella strong enough to shield me from that blast.
I know better.
And I know that sometimes life is like a race.
Where you find yourself prepared to sprint to the finish line.
Except sometimes it’s not until the starting gun sounds that you realize you’ve tied your shoelaces together
And you’re running into a nose dive.
Well, I’ve learned something from that too.
You see, when else but when your arms are outstretched to catch a fall are you able to fully embrace life?
Bruises and all.
And I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to take a minute and breathe in the moment.
Because how do you know how much air you will need to breathe to take the plunge into that icy sea called life?
When I was a kid, I was told that it took both rain and sunlight to make a rainbow.
And while I know they were talking about the weather,
True beauty is born of both as well.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Mom, I Forgot My Life Jacket


Mom, I forgot my life jacket.
I know you were probably waving it out the door, calling after me in my haste to leave.
I’m sorry. I probably ignored you.
Now I’m up to my neck in my own troubles, adrift in a life I thought I could control.
Remember it raining when I was three? I held out my hands to catch the raindrops, only to watch them slip through my fingers. My tears soon followed.
That was the day you took a red bucket and scooped up the rain. You gave it to me and told me not to spill it.
But of course I did.
When I was five and fell off my bicycle, I thought the world was going to end.
But that was when I was five and Band-Aids and kisses could make everything better.
The world never ended of course. It just kept going.
Remember when I was eight and you tried to explain the multiplication table to me? You said it was easy.
Well, I didn’t know it then but things do multiply easily. They tend to get out of control.
But Mom, I’ve never forgotten that five times six equals thirty. And as I’m quietly repeating those lessons to myself, I’m thanking God that you are never more than a phone number away.
How can I forget twelve? I thought I was so grown up then. You always seemed so quick to tell me otherwise. I suppose, now, that you were right. Thanks for always cleaning up my messes anyway.
Skip a few years and I’m fifteen. That was when I thought a kiss would make everything better. So I followed what I thought was love. And still it was you who were always ready to patch a wounded heart.
But now I’m eighteen.
I’m trying to navigate things by myself now. And I keep knocking over that red bucket as I try to get away from the messes I’ve left behind so that the floor is flooded with more than my tears and I feel like I’m drowning.
And I’m thinking about that life jacket.
I’m wondering now if I should pick up the phone and tell you this myself.
But if I do I’ll probably just say everything is fine and that will be that.
So I’m writing this instead.
See Mom, what I’m trying to say is this:
Because now I’m trying to catch the sunlight.
I’m bottling up the smiles and love you’ve always had for me.
Love,
Your little girl 

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Cycle



In my opinion, a lot of people are stuck in a cycle of self-blame coupled with an inability to forgive. As I've written before, it’s easy to be sucked into this mindset but very difficult to move on. I suppose somehow, by blaming ourselves for everything, we feel self-righteous. It’s almost as if we think by holding ourselves responsible for everything, we are satisfying some guilty part of us. But this doesn’t solve the deeper problem, it only adds to it.

And the truth of the matter seems so obvious: We can only be responsible for ourselves. But it’s one thing to know something; it takes a whole lot of courage to actually believe it’s true. So instead, we condemn ourselves for the actions of others and allow it to tie us down. We become prisoners to another’s guilt.
What are we thinking? That by somehow bearing the brunt of the blame, we are buying ourselves some kind of freedom?

These are all things with which I have struggled. But I, no more than any other living person, can buy forgiveness. The fact is, it has already been paid for.


Thursday, 24 January 2013

Masquerade


She’s walking down the town’s main street. Not on the side walk, but in  the middle of the street, hands out, balancing on the solid white line that keeps opposing traffic in its proper place.

Alone in her own world.

The sound of her feet skipping as she progresses down the road is made louder by the emptiness of the usually bustling town centre.  In fact, it echoes to me still as I gaze at the photograph taken of myself when I was all but ten years of age. Carefree is what it whispers to me, but I no longer know the meaning of that word.

I’ve been told that discovery is all about the journey. So maybe that’s why I find myself back at my childhood home, trying to recreate the portrait of my then care-free existence.  At least that’s what I’m trying to convince myself. The more truthful reason, whether I like to admit it or not, is that I am escaping from the looks of forced sympathy and words of advice from people who think they have wisdom about my “situation.”

And to be honest, there wasn’t anything altogether wise about telling my boss I would be leaving my job “indefinitely”, taking all my savings and packing off to a place to which I have not been in decades. Though even then, despite all my efforts to stop caring and forcing myself to take things a day at a time, peace still eludes me.

I guess in a way I am once more alone in my own world. I choose solitude now, prize it above rubies. Memories of the looks I have received from friends and co-workers over the past few months follow me still. Their eyes were like fish-hooks, willing the tears from my eyes, each one wanting for themselves the pride of being the shoulder I would cry on. But I never gave anyone that satisfaction.

Today I find myself on the very same street of the distant photograph. It is once again unnaturally still – most of the town’s inhabitants having taken off as I had so many years ago.  I see the street differently now, I realise. The stores that line it no longer hold for me the alluring sense of mystery that delighted my childhood eyes. Each one stands tall and proud, their brightly-painted faces give off a false sense of self-righteousness. For behind their painted facades hang dusty shelves of material desires – insubstantial objects that feed the whims and careless fancies of passing times – filling up the shells of each edifice.  

By now my thoughts have carried me to the end of the street. For some weird reason I can’t quite explain, I find I am not able to face the stores any longer. I decide to end my stroll early, so I turn my back on the empty street and start trudging uphill. It only takes a few moments before I find myself blinking.

Maybe it’s just the wind, but there are tears in my eyes. 



Saturday, 19 January 2013

When Idols Crumble




For a society that is increasingly turning to the practice of scorning Faith, we are very adept at constructing pedestals. The problem begins when we base our ideals on those who are as flawed as ourselves. Actors, athletes and the many others who may be grouped in the celebrity class are worshipped and adored by millions of frantic fans who hold them at lofty positions. In fact, when it comes down to it, Hollywood and the various sports industries have surely garnered a cult-like following.

But there is nothing solid about these idols. Though we flock from all over just for the chance to shake their hands and express admiration, they will inevitably let us down. Like us, they are vulnerable to poor choices and immoral desires. Fame does not shield a person from the path of erring. Praise will not keep one from falling.

As long as we consider fellow humans as the standard for which to strive, we will never cease to be disappointed. Instead we must ask ourselves this: Is it better to look to someone placed upon a pedestal of our own creation or to turn our eyes elsewhere and stand upon the firm foundation we had no hand in building?

 
 
Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made.

                                                                                                ~ Immanuel Kant




Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Moving On



If life’s a race from beginning to end, then everyone has their fair share of steep hills and rocky roads along the way; some more than others. But no matter what the circumstances, it seems many people live with a constant fear of the past catching up with them. This makes moving on difficult, and the obsessive action of looking back will only hinder that ability further and slow us down. This natural tendency appears at times to be impossible to overcome, especially when any hope is overshadowed by guilt and regret.  As hard as it is, taking the initiative to prevent these from holding you back is the only way to break away.

It is my hope that you’ll come to this revelation: To forgive the past is to give yourself the future.



Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Simple Act of Giving



“To give” is often seen in a negative light. We’re told not to “give up,” that to “give in” is to show weakness and when something finally “gives out” it’s done for. It’s actually slightly depressing. How different these meanings seem from the simple act of giving that is at the heart of compassion.

This Christmas, I want to redefine the terms I have so often held to be faults. Instead maybe it’s best to alter our outlook and “give up” our worries to the One whose vision is ever far-seeing. To “give in” to the joy that surrounded that first Christmas and to “give out’’ to others the love and offer the hope that this season is all about.

Some might disagree and tell me that to do this IS weakness. But, in all its simplicity, I have found strength in it.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

November Sky


Scene outside the window:
Sweeping winds of desolate daydreams,
Rattle knobbly branches;
Care-worn leaves limply lie.

It’s here that:
Memories of rosy summer,
Like rows of toppling toy soldiers,
Can’t stand against late-autumn’s breath.

Canvas of grey on grey:
Rolling cloud’s face revealed
Brings rain upon the windowpane,
Drops of November sky.