It isn’t any trouble just to S-M-I-L-E!

Last week, I went to the doctor’s office with a funny cough and what I was pretty sure was a contagious lung infection (I was right, but I’m fine now). As I neared reception, I saw a sign and, good little rule-follower that I am, picked up and donned one of those sexy blue masks. (You know the ones I mean? They threatened to become a new fashionSurgical-mask trend in the wake of SARS and H1N1.) I’m guessing most people don’t read the sign, because the doctor laughed and said it looked like I was going into surgery.

But I digress….

Little did I know at the time that putting on this mask would turn into my own little personal social experiment and blog post. As soon as I snapped it over my ears, I found myself immensely uncomfortable: Not because my glasses were fogging up, or because the mask quickly got warm and humid (ok, maybe those things a bit too too). Mainly, it was because I realized that I couldn’t communicate with my face. I couldn’t smile as I thanked the receptionist or nurse, or at the people entering the waiting room. I couldn’t smile at the doctor. I actually felt like I was being rude (however, spreading infectious bacteria around the room would have been somewhat less considerate methinks).

This left me wondering, when people don these masks regularly, as surgeons, dentists or nurses, do they feel they can adequately sympathize and communicate with their patients? How much compassion and comfort are Ebola victims missing out on when treated by nurses and doctors in hazmat suits and masks? Not that there’s any choice in the matter in West Africa right now, but it does make me think about how important the simple act of smiling can be in communicating with people on a daily basis.

(As an unrelated side-note, I think the doctors, nurses and other staff dealing with Ebola right now are some of the bravest heroes out there. They have my utmost respect and admiration.)

Now, back to our regularly scheduled program …

There are people who don’t smile. You’ve met them: The cashier who refuses to make eye contact. The receptionist who communicates in one-word sentences. The bus driver who grunts in your general direction. Not that these people are the norm … far from it! These are just the people who need help the most. Whether they are having a bad day, year, or life, I really believe that smiling at these people can make a difference.

IMG_7608Manners aside, research has demonstrated that smiling can improve your own mood and even immune system. Here are some articles on the benefits of smiling:

Smile Therapy

Reduce Stress

 

So … and this seems blatantly obvious to me (and probably to you as well), but apparently not everyone:

Smile at people you pass on the street. Smile at old people. Smile at teenagers. Smile at the receptionist, the cashier and the bus driver. Smile at strangers and smile at friends. When someone smiles at you, smile back.

And of course, most importantly, always smile at children and babies. They’re learning from you.

What a simple way to change the world!

Doctors, nurses, dentists? Have you had this experience?

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Time to Spruce Things Up!

Halloween is over. It’s the beginning of November, and if the decorations in the stores or the recent Southern Ontario snowfall are any indication, it’s time to start talking about Christmas!

Ok! Ok! Don’t yell at me! I happened to take some pictures of a tree a while ago, and wanted to write a “Species of the Week” about it. It just happens that this particular tree is also a very popular Christmas tree.

This is a Spruce tree. More specifically, if I’m not mistaken, it is a Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens), and our Species of the Week! As usual, if there are any experts out there, please feel free to correct me!

IMG_20141015_091007 Blue spruce needles are 4-sided, sharp, short and have a dull blue-grey colour. Needles on a spruce are arranged all around the branch, rather than in a plane (the fir tree needle arrangement). Blue spruces are also popular ornamentals and grow up to 115 feet. They are not native to Southern Ontario, but are common in the Rocky Mountains area of the States.

While Blue Spruces are popular as Christmas trees, I prefer friendlier trees that hurt less while decorating, (pungens means “sharp” in latin), so please see my post on the Balsam fir.

 

Some other interesting facts:IMG_20141015_090946_1

Spruce trees are typically used for basic construction and paper-making purposes. Historically, woodsmen often chewed spruce sap like gum, and it was sold in stores. If you are so inclined (although I’m not), there are a number of online sites that demonstrate how to make and purify spruce gum. (Anyone tried it before?) Also, as with most other species of flora I have discussed so far, various parts of the spruce tree have been used for a variety of medicinal purposes.

And, of course, Blue Spruces provide shelter and food for birds and small mammals.

Happy Holidays!  ;)

 

Sources:

http://www.christmastrees.on.ca/index.php?action=display&cat=25&v=29

http://cwf-fcf.org/en/discover-wildlife/flora-fauna/flora/spruce-trees-of-canada.html

 

 

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The Battle of the Sexes

We wondered when it would happen. It hadn’t been a problem up until now, but it had to happen one day….

As I have mentioned before, we live on a friendly street and have many good friends here. Our children have grown up together. Some of my son’s best friends, as a result of this arrangement, happen to be girls. This past weekend, one of the girls rang our doorbell and asked him to come and play. He happily skipped out the door and ran to her driveway, only to find that they were playing with …Gasp! …Oh no! Dolls!

Now, as a side note, we don’t believe in “boy toys” and “girl toys.” We never labelled these things, and encourage our children in (almost) anything they choose. But, there are cultural norms that we simply have no control over. That said, I never really played with dolls either (although I am female). I always found Cabbage Patch kids and Barbies equally repulsive.

So, back to the story…. my son, understandably, was at a loss when he arrived at the house. After a few minutes of awkwardly hanging around while the girls brushed hair and changed outfits, he sadly turned around and went home. He returned with a ball and some scoops, hoping to coax at least one of them into a game of catch. No luck. This time, he returned to our house in tears.

DSC00252Then, with a stroke of what I can only call parenting genius, my husband came up with a plan. He loaded up a wagon with scraps of wood and sent him back down the street. He said…”go build those girls a dollhouse.” Our little guy arrived with the wood, and the girls cheered! The dolls were promptly dropped and all of the kids worked on building structures together.

Give that man a medal! He may have missed his calling as a mediator!

 

 

That wood has since been requested for other driveways for similar purposes. Wonderful!

IMG_20141015_211327

This also brings to mind adventure playgrounds and the theory of loose parts. Check these out if you’re interested:

http://playgroundology.wordpress.com/category/a-guide-for-educators-to-move-beyond-conventional-school-playgrounds/

http://earthplay.net/adventure-playgrounds/

AND, if you live in my area, look what’s coming:

http://www.kitchener.ca/en/livinginkitchener/HuronNaturalAreaPlayscapesProject.asp

Sounds like fun, right?

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To Vote or Not to Vote: Is That Even a Question?

In my house we watch elections like most Canadians watch hockey. We have multiple websites streaming news, and various forms of social media open and running. We yell at the screens and write indignant or celebratory posts on Facebook and Twitter. Why do we do this? We happen to be a family that actually believes these things matter. (Plus, since we don’t watch hockey, we need something to get excited about.)

voteWe have a local election coming up, so I will be watching debates and reading candidate profiles and their responses to questions in the paper. We have a large number of people to choose: city councillor, mayor, regional chair, regional councillors, and school board trustees. That means there is a plethora of ugly signs adorning the streets of our community (for the record, I really wish we could eliminate election signs altogether).

I just found out yesterday that we typically get a municipal election turnout of something like 20-30%. Unbelievable! I’m amazed at the number of people who can’t be bothered to learn anything about candidates or important issues.

So, why put this all on a blog about children, nature and community? Let me say this again: “I BELIEVE ELECTIONS MATTER!” Our elected representatives make decisions about schools, parks, neighbourhoods, programs, healthcare, planning, the environment … the list is really quite long, so let’s just stop there for now. It’s probably safe to say you care about at least one of these things. I serve on an advisory committee for the city, and through that process, I get to watch the direct influence these people have over our community’s well-being.

Yes, you can easily be jaded by the system. Yes, there are problems with how our government works. No, you will not always agree with your favourite candidate’s decisions. Yes, government can move slower than a geriatric snail. But, at least we get the opportunity to have a say. That certainly isn’t the case everywhere. There are also plenty of other ways to get involved in municipal politics. There are committees to join, surveys to answer and public consultations to attend. Heck, if you’re so inclined (and have a thick skin), you can even run for office.

When1 I vote, I really like to bring my children along. I want them to believe that elections matter too. I want them to feel that they have the opportunity to make a difference; that every voice counts. (However, last election, I did have a seriously disappointed 2 year old when he found out we were going to VOTE, rather than on a BOAT (which is what he thought he heard)).

Anyhow, if you are one of those people who can’t be bothered to cast your vote, I urge you to think again. ELECTIONS MATTER. (Plus, you still have time to learn about the issues. The election isn’t until the end of the month.)

Rant over.

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The Times, They Are A-Changin’

In today’s news: September 24, 2014: “Chad becomes 37th African state to seek ban on homosexuality”

In Canada, LGBT rights are some of the most advanced in the world. Our children will be relatively safe in this country, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity. But, this has not always been the case, and in many places around the world, homosexuality continues to be a crime, sometimes punishable by death. But, when it comes to LGBT rights, “the times, they are a-changin’.” And, they are a-changin’ quickly.

With these changing times come changes in the way we explain the world to our children. I was fortunate to be raised in a family that believed in equality and respect for all people, so I am happy to see these values reflected in Canadian policies. My husband and I have gay-rights-same-sex-marriage-symbols-rainbow-flag-jpgalways made a concerted effort to explain to our children that marriage is a union between two people who love each other, period. We refuse to use words like “normal.” But, we will also need to teach them the harsh realities of the world. Same-sex marriage is not legal in most countries. Some countries are even creating stricter laws against homosexuality. There are still parents who disown their gay children and bullying still happens….a lot.

When I was a teenager, Ellen shocked the world by coming out on television. It was a time when offensive phrases like “that’s so gay” were thrown about with reckless abandon. It was a time when my health teacher got angry at the class and refused to answer when she read the anonymously submitted question: “How do gay people have sex?”

I like to think that these things have changed, but I’m not sure how much they have. Our provincial government has stalled on implementing a new sex education curriculum, as the old one is very outdated. There is still substantial resistance from a number of parents who would prefer their children not learn about diverse types of families, or how to help fight homophobia. Children are obviously already exposed to many messages through the media. Popular television shows have done a lot to “normalize” different types of relationships. However, children also see a lot of violence, hate and fear.

We can’t rely on the schools or the media to send the right messages. I want my children to have a broad definition of family and to live in a world where same sex couples can hold hands in public without a second thought. I want them to believe that “coming out” is no longer a necessity because the closet never existed in the first place. We still have a long way to go. But, we are one of the first generations who can proudly teach our children a new definition of marriage. These are new lessons. These definitions weren’t in my school curricula, the shows I watched growing up or the books I read. We must come up with our own ways of teaching this information.

I still stumble over definitions. Recently, I was speaking with someone about a common acquaintance who is transsexual. When I knew this person, he was male, and now she is IMG_20140210_091054female. I struggled with pronouns, and was embarrassed by my awkwardness. This makes me wonder what kind of example I can possibly set for my kids. Even while writing this post, I kept wondering: “Should I be using LGBTQ instead of LGBT now?” “Am I using the correct terms?” But, while I may stumble, I have to hope that my intentions come through.

Last week, I read an online article about a family where both parents were transsexual. They were discussing how they would reveal this information to their children. Too many of the comments that followed the article were hateful, ignorant, and some, downright shocking. Living, as I do, in a bubble of liberal family, neighbours and friends, I am shocked when I encounter attitudes like this.

At various points in my life, I have had gay neighbours, roommates and friends. It always makes me sad that when people I meet “come out” to me, there is a wariness in their eyes as they wait for a response. You can always tell that they have been burned one too many times.

I applaud those of you who fight for LGBT rights, from youth leading gay-straight alliances in local high schools, to stable, loving, same-sex families hoping to adopt children in Utah, to those facing the death penalty for “homosexual acts” in the Middle East. I hope you know how many of us are standing behind you, trying to raise a generation that thinks about love in a new, more inclusive way.

Our job is not finished until blog posts such as this one no longer make sense.

Love is love.

“It takes no compromise to give people their rights…it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression.”
Harvey Milk

 

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Yo Ho! Yo Ho! A pirate’s life for me! (Geocaching 101)

Do you remember how excited you used to get when some adult mentioned the words “Treasure Hunt?” What if I told you that millions, yes millions, of people are setting up treasure hunts all around the world (many of which are probably right in your neighbourhood), and are just waiting for you to participate?

Yes, I’m talking about Geocaching, and if you haven’t tried it yet, you really need to give it a shot. Before kids, my husband and I went all the time. Then we had pregnancy, and babies and strollers and wobbly toddlers and extreme exhaustion. Now that we have kid-sized kids, we can easily go again! Yay!

What is Geocaching?IMG_3084

I’m glad you asked.

You didn’t?

Oh.

I’m telling you anyway.

According to the geocaching website, there are around 2.5 million geocaches and 6 million players worldwide. In basic terms, a geocache is container that is hidden somewhere (like a hole in a tree stump in a forest). The cache usually contains a log book, some instructions, and a few  small tokens or toys. (Note: if you’re a real pirate and in this for profit … look elsewhere). The location of the cache is recorded in a database on the web using GPS coordinates.

Players use a GPS unit to locate the cache, then they can trade tokens, log their visit, and return it to the hiding spot. There are many variations, such as multi-caches (which require you to find a series of caches which lead to each other), or puzzle caches (which require players to solve clues to get the correct coordinates). There are varying levels, and extremely diverse locations. There are caches on the tops of mountains, and ones that require scuba gear. There are caches in your neighbourhood park and caches in Kazakhstan (well, as far as I know, your neighbourhood might be IN Kazakhstan… but you get my point).

Since the last time we did it, Geocaching has become exponentially easier. Before, we had to look up caches individually online at home and enter coordinates one number at a time using a joystick-like device on an old GPS unit. (Then we took our horse and buggy, uphill both ways, in three feet of snow…..)DSC00142

Anyhow, now there’s an app for that.

All you need to do is whip out your smartphone, click on a geocaching app and it will download the locations of all nearby caches. Pick the one you want, and it will direct you there. You can even log your successful finds and add photos.

In my view, Geocaching is a very effective way of integrating nature-time and computer technology. Can you think of an easier way of getting kids into nature? “Hey kids, let’s go play with satellite technology and look for hidden treasure.” I don’t think there are manyDSC00137 children who would turn down this kind of adventure. Also, it is a fabulous way to find all the best hidden greenspaces in your community. We found so many beautiful places while geocaching, some of which we would never have found otherwise.

So, whether you’re a pirate wannabe or simply a nature enthusiast, give it a try! If you know me personally, I’d be happy to show you sometime.

Happy Caching!

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Patience Young Grasshopper! You have much to learn.

I got this picture, and couldn’t resist doing a blog post to show off my mad camera-phone skills. Ok, a fluke maybe, but I’m still happy with it.

IMG_20140810_160341I’m going to go (not very far) out on a limb here and say this is most likely the “Red Legged Grasshopper.” However, I could be wrong. Apparently there are a number of look-alike species but this is one of the most common grasshoppers in Southern Canada.

Species of the Week:

Red Legged Grasshopper

(Melanoplus femurrubrum)

Red Legged Grasshoppers grow up to about an inch in length, and can fly up to 40 feet. They are typically found in grassy, weedy areas, as grasses and weeds are their primary food source. Found across all of North America, they can be devastating crop pests. They will do variable damage in a particular year depending on the population size. (In case you didn’t know, grasshoppers and locusts are the same thing. The plague of locusts from the bible? … grasshoppers.)

This is interesting: they have hearing organs on their abdomens!

Just now, I was looking for clips of grasshopper sounds, and found out that they’ve been the ones making the noises that I’ve always heard in tall grasses and could never identify. And now … I think there’s one outside my window going crazy. I might have accidentally called it over with my computer. I wonder what I said. Here’s the sound clip of a grasshopper (different species): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyglT-rWE5c

In many parts of the world, grasshoppers are an important protein source. I haven’t tried them myself, although I have tried crickets. (Not too bad, but the legs get stuck in your teeth.) Here’s a recipe for grasshopper. Let me know how it goes! http://mexicanfood.about.com/od/authenticfamilyrecipes/r/chapulines.htm

 

Sources:

http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/red-legged-grasshopper

http://www.americaninsects.net/o/melanoplus-femurrubrum.html

http://bugguide.net/node/view/151116

http://insects.about.com/od/grasshoppersandcrickets/a/10-Cool-Facts-About-Grasshoppers.htm

 

 

 

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