Fantastic beasts and where I find them



We live downtown in a city of millions of hurried people, but there are stranger kinds of life to be found in our own back yard.

In the spring I bought cheap wooden birdhouses at a craft store to decorate a theme party and afterwards hung them in the gazebo to add a little effect to summer evenings. Summer passed without effect, since the bugs were out and it was hot. At the end of August a yellow-bellied sapsucker hopped into one of the birdhouses to check out the real estate; it was so thrilling I hung up on the person I was talking to on the phone. She disappeared completely, but the birdhouse bounced a bit while she checked its dimensions for a couple of minutes and peeked out the hole. Then she flew off. Fingers crossed she comes back for brooding.

The raccoons -- there's no point in getting rid of them and (like human babies) they're lucky they're cute. In the middle of the night they dig small, round holes in the grass to pry out grubs, then visit the small pond in the back corner to wash them before they eat. In the morning the lawn looks like a putting green for a cheap miniature golf course. Once a mother raccoon with two kits the size of Beanie Babies waddled across our front garden in broad daylight. She took one in her teeth, climbed a yew bush at my study window and stuck it to a branch as if it were a Christmas tree ornament. She did the same with the second and then hurried off.  The kits stayed there all day as I worked and watched them from a foot away. The mother fetched them around five o'clock and off they went to their new nursery, probably somewhere in our roof.

Another time when I was reading in the garden a dart of movement on the stone deck turned out to be a three-inch, ruby-red salamander that must have hitchhiked in on a planter from Fiesta Gardens. It shimmied around the plants for a few minutes and disappeared.

We kept a bird feeder for a few winters to welcome sparrows, bright red cardinals (I prefer the female, actually, which is a more subtle orange), finches, and squirrels. College-age kids hired to clean the deck one spring disturbed a family of rats under the porch that, unknown to us, had moved in to eat the buffet of corn and seeds that fell below the feeder. When half-a-dozen rats scurried out into the garden a girl from the crew shrieked, ran to her car and refused to come back. She cried in the passenger seat, arms folded on her chest like a protester against the one percent. We don't have a feeder anymore and hired a pest controller, but it would be worth another family of rats to watch that drama again.

So many birds come to visit: the red-tailed hawk snacking greedily on a poor sparrow, sitting on the fence. A majestic peregrine falcon, its wings outspread as if it were the Phantom of the Opera, hopping down the roof and taking wing towards the pigeons next door.

Speaking of sparrows, they are around both summer and winter, hopping back and forth in the garden in a group as if doing committee work: evaluating the food supply or checking the fitness of the laundry exhaust for winter housing and holding a meeting to discuss their findings with cheap cheeps. They still chatter in the branches of the yew tree beside the kitchen during minus 25 degree winter weather, convening, wasting precious calories. I never find any sparrow bodies and wonder if they are incorporeal, feathered fairies.

In recent weeks it has been both uplifting and heart-breaking to observe a hardworking, distraught female robin that has built two nests for two eggs each and lost three of four fledglings. From the first hatching one was eaten by a raccoon, which left a stripped-clean feather on the porch like a used toothpick. Another died a quiet death next to the pond due to some kind of internal illness and was buried in the grey bin.

This frazzled mother then made a second nest in the crabapple tree near the front bay window, oblivious to the chaos of cars, construction and cyclists ten feet away. Me, however, she glared at whenever I peeked from inside to check on the progress of her second set of fledglings. When we returned from holiday the nest was deserted and I thought she had abandoned it because of Hydro workers digging in a corner of the garden. 

But on the last day of summer I saw her under the bushes in the back, leading the last fledging of the four -- bigger than she was, bratty, insistent, following her on a worm-hunt and demanding its dinner. The fate of the other one is a mystery.


If you enjoy these posts, please share.

Your 60-Year-Old Body Checks In

A few updates:

I know you had a bunion removed on your right big toe around seven years ago. The new achy knob that is growing there reflects my opinion of the six pairs of dressy new shoes you have bought since.

The moles appearing every month on your back are part of my ongoing art project to make the shape of a pony.

Sigmund Freud once said, "The ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body." Discuss with your friends over lunch and report back with their comments.

It was embarrassing to both of us a month ago when you used the Dyson dryer in the Yorkdale Shopping Mall washroom, noticed the skin on your hands no longer stayed in place but rippled upwards like a flowing veiny epidermal stream, and told everyone around about it including your 26-year-old daughter. 


I have a story to tell you about that lump on your chest. It's called a 'Bible cyst.' I know the doctor told you it was a lump of intransigent fat but my version is less hurtful and more interesting. It was called a Bible cyst because in the old days a doctor making house calls would take a Bible from the family bookshelf and thwack it on the patient's chest to make the cyst disappear. Neat, eh? If you can't find a Bible in the house use the atlas that still has East Germany and Czechoslovakia in it.



There is nothing that cannot be solved by a basket. Preferably the wicker ones, so it looks like a woman is both organized and makes her own jam. 



The mittens and gloves go in a basket that goes in a drawer. My mittens and gloves, because the other three members of the household put theirs on the kitchen table or on the radiator when they're wet from snow and rain, or they just hang out the pockets of their jackets like wine-box bladders. 

Now that fall is approaching we're going to discover the bulbs that were supposed to last for 20,000 years or something have burned out. BUT I have a basket of bulbs and florescents and little sparky halogens under the pantry sink. I bought extras last year so we'd be ready, if the apocalypse is coming, but some of them are dead just from waiting in the dark. Most of the time I forget they're there and buy new ones from the store, which I put in the same basket until it overflows and I have to throw out the old ones.

Baskets are metaphor of course. I thought at the beginning of this essay they were a metaphor for organization. It turns out they're a metaphor for spillage, foreboding and what doesn't fit. I don't make jam either, but I have clipped out the recipe from the paper. Peach, I think.

Ten Minutes with Andy

So welcome back, to Day Five of the Balance pack. For now, get comfortable, in the usual way. And let’s begin with some deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth.

Geoffrey will be downstairs any minute. I can hear him. He's going to drop the newspapers on the floor again too.

Gently close your eyes, if you haven’t done so already. And as you continue to focus on the breath, scan down through the body, not resting anywhere, noting any physical or emotional changes.

12,722 steps yesterday. My knees never hurt when Andy asks about them, but they’re hot clamps on the stairs. 

And now, return to the breath. Just breathe as you would normally. And for a moment, remember why you’re doing this, how this might impact your relationships. Think about who might benefit from you doing this.

Why should I? ‘Nice stracci, thanks.’ ‘Hey, the beet yogurt from Chobani? Thanks.’ If you bought the yogurt, Geoffrey, I’d thank you too.

Keep your mind focused on the breath as it moves through the body. If it wanders, that’s normal, just gently return it to the breath.

Andy has such big arms. He must work out every day.  Those blue shirts look like they’re going to burst. 

You can put your hand on your diaphragm, just above the stomach, to feel the air move in and out.

I wonder what his body says to him when he scans through it.

Feel the warm, liquid sunlight, the spaciousness, flowing down into the body, into your feet, your legs, your arms.


Now, for the last few moments of the exercise, let your mind wander, let it go free, let it think whatever it wants.

Nope. Nothing. 

Remembering the quality of –

Warmth? Spaciousness? I bet spaciousness.

Spaciousness you feel. Try to carry that with you as you go about your day.

Andy never says to think of an ocean wave, but Jason Stephenson does, and he’s free on Youtube.

And as you become aware of the body, of the weight of the body, reflect for a moment on how good it is to take time out for yourself . . .

Damn straight.

And if you can, try to take a moment now and then throughout the day to reflect on this feeling, and to be in the present, even if it’s just for a moment.

Ellen at Aroma in half an hour. I’ve got a streak of five, and she’s only got three. 

And I’ll see you back here next time, for Day Six.

The ethics of news withdrawal

My family always subscribed to two newspapers: the Ottawa Citizen and the Globe and Mail. I started my own Globe subscription in my early twenties. In the last two decades my own family has subscribed to the Globe and the New York Times daily. It is inadvisable to interrupt us early in the morning until we have digested the day's news along with our cereal and coffee.

Everyone knows what happened in the United States election in 2016. At the time I tried, like most, to understand why it had happened. At first there was media interest in the voters who elected Trump, how they felt disaffected and ignored by the government purporting to represent them. Later there was stellar writing by the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about underlying racism behind the American vote in his collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power. What white people feared was never 'bad Negro government, but good Negro government,' Coates wrote--except he was quoting from W.E.B. Du Bois in 1895 about African-run communities in the U.S.

Too many newspapers and media have become cork boards upon which any random dart lands on a story about Donald Trump. Doug Ford's election as premier of Ontario is about Trump. Bill Clinton's and James' Patterson novel must be about Trump. #MeToo is about Trump. The World Cup of football is declared a relief from Trump; even his absence becomes a presence. Shoot darts at the same spot on a dartboard and eventually there's not enough cork for the darts to stick. 

Now I read the Globe for Canadian news. The New York Times front section I skim or avoid altogether with visceral apathy. My withdrawal embarrasses me. Decades ago when an acquaintance told us he never read the news I avoided him afterwards, convinced he was not worth talking to. Is that person now me?

Maybe not. Reporting the news is supposed to be who, what, where, when and why.  Commentary is the opinion of a writer explaining and giving an opinion about reported news. This week Trump visited Vladimir Putin in Russia; afterwards CNN anchor Anderson Cooper began his commentary by saying "You have been watching perhaps one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russian leader, certainly that I've ever seen," he said.

When the media starts providing content again, I'll pay it better attention.

Source: Source: Elijah O'Donell