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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

If you give, you get, this Christmas

I don’t have a surplus of cash to donate at Christmastime, or any time of year. I can’t afford to put a bill in the kettle every time I encounter a Salvation Army bell ringer. And yet, I have found a way to give to their worthy cause this Christmas. I donate my time.

It sounds quite charitable of me – standing beside a kettle between the drafty double doors at the grocery store for two hours at a time. In reality, I am the one who benefits. Being a bell ringer is the gift I give myself during the hectic pre-holiday season.

Where would you rather be – standing in line in a packed shopping mall, overheated under your winter coat, feet and head aching from the effort of searching for every last item on your gift list – or bopping along to Christmas music, jingle bells in hand, greeting smile after smile?

After several years volunteering as a bell ringer, I have developed a system. First, you find out where you will be situated. If it’s the local liquor store, they don’t always like you to ring your bells, but they do have their own holiday music playing, which helps put people in the giving mood.

If you are at the local grocery or hardware store you may find it helpful to bring your own portable Bluetooth speaker along. Select the random Christmas playlist on your smartphone Spotify app and Bingo! You are a mobile Christmas karaoke party.

If equipped with a set of jingle bells, I suggest you tap it on your leg as you would a tambourine. It’s pretty hard to ignore a woman standing in your path who is having her own little Christmas celebration. Bang your bells to the music, and watch how many passers-by join in with the song. If you have a good voice you may even attempt to sing along – it all depends on your environment. You aren’t busking, after all. But there are several inspiring videos online of Salvation Army bell ringers who have turned the practice of kettle work into performance art. Just Google “Christmas bell ringer” and you will find everything from charming carolers to choreographed dance routines.

Most people don’t realize that the annual six-week fundraising campaign executed by the Salvation Army just before Christmas funds most of their programming for the rest of the year. When you are asked to put some of your spare change in the kettle, you are contributing to the Christmas Hamper program, supporting community dinners, and providing toys for children who might not otherwise receive a gift this year. But you are also helping to fund programs for young moms, providing business attire for hopeful interviewees, and building an emergency fund to benefit those who have lost their homes to fire or other natural disasters.

Christmas is a high-stress time for many. It’s an intense pressure-cooker of emotions. When you ring the bells at a kettle, many of the people you meet may be current or future beneficiaries of the Salvation Army. They visit the food bank to feed their families – many of them for the first time. They turn to the organization for help when there is nowhere else to turn – and they get the help they need.

When I’m working the kettle, some people come up and tell me their own personal experiences with the Salvation Army. I’d say about 1 in 3 people will actually stop and put some money in the kettle. But very rarely does someone pass by without meeting my eye and saying something. I’m too flashy to ignore.

I’m wearing a green felt elf hat with bells on it. My sweater features a fuzzy white polar bear adorned with Christmas lights that actually flash and change colours. I’m harmonizing to the music, and jingling my bells to the beat. You can walk by me without putting money in the kettle. You don’t even have to wish me a Merry Christmas. But most of you will smile, and I will smile back.
Working the kettle is my gift to myself. I walk out of there after two hours, layered in smiles and well-wishes. By being there, I am helping the charity to receive an average $100 per hour – more than I could ever afford to give on my own. It feels great.

There is still time for you to give this awesome gift to yourself. Take a stress break from your Christmas preparations and man the kettle for a couple hours in your own neighbourhood.

Fergus the Destroyer

I pictured a Golden Retriever as soft, cuddly and playful. I knew there would be a teething phase and a digging phase. I did not expect to meet Fergus the Destroyer. I am on the hunt for a dog toy that is indestructible. Fergus appears to be teething again. Either that or he just likes chewing things.

We got through the puppy teeth stage virtually unscathed. Fergus sampled a few prohibited items like the carpet on the stairs and a cardboard baby book that probably smelled of milk when his sharp little puppy teeth were coming in. But he didn’t destroy any shoes or anything else of particular value because we kept a close eye on him when he wasn’t locked in his crate. He carried stuffed toys around for a few months, and this was a cute trait.  He would select one from the toy box, then proudly parade around the house with it in his mouth, wagging his whole body proudly to show us what he had “retrieved”. Then he began ripping their limbs and head off. Now he is making short work of any toy he discovers, even if it is made specifically for a teething dog and rated 9 out of 10 for durability.  

Fergus thinks the 10 rating refers to the number of minutes it should take to complete de-stuff a thing. I am kicking myself for buying those expensive chew toys at the local pet store. The only toy he hasn’t completely destroyed yet is the rubber chicken I bought him from the dollar store. Granted he leaves it outside for playing fetch so it is dark, dirty and likely not very tasty anymore. It’s missing its squeaker but it still has all its body parts.

I bought the Ferg an identical rubber chicken for the house and he declawed, de-beaked and de-squeaked it immediately.

Our Golden Retriever is 9 months old this month. According to the lady who attempted to give us obedience lessons, he is right on schedule for the second round of teething for the molars. Those are incredibly powerful jaws he is exercising, and although I have found most of his baby teeth embedded in various items around the house, his adult teeth seem to be adequately sharp as well.
I posted about my chew toy problem on Facebook. I was recommended the heavy duty Kong toy. Fergus ate it. I was told to buy the Chuckit brand tennis balls. Fergus ripped the fur off them and cracked them in half. I bought street hockey balls, which I remember as being hard as rocks. It took the better part of an evening but eventually Fergus chewed those into little pieces too.

The only chew toy he has not been able to crack is a rock-hard fake white bone that is lightly scented like chicken. He likes it more than the real deer antler I bought him and it is lasting longer than anything else I have purchased. I guess I will have to go back and get another one as backup because I hate to think what will happen if we lose this one.

Fergus is also destroying the landscape. The Farmer is mourning the loss of his beautiful lawn and garden. Originally trained to do his business at the edge of the yard in the long grass, Fergus has taken to using our perennial flowerbed as his toilet. I stoop and scoop his poop every day but his stomping and digging is taking its toll. There are huge holes in the garden leading to tunnels under the porch. He loves to leap up onto the porch, down the stairs, through the garden, under the porch and pop out on the other side. He seems to find it hilarious if you yell at him, and he speeds up like a runner performing for his cheering fans.

The Internet doesn’t have much advice on how to stop a dog from digging. My husband has long talks with his dog, in an attempt to appeal to his sense of reason. The trainer says there is only one way to stop a dog from digging: tire him out. So the Ferg is going on walkabout with the Farmer on a daily basis now. It’s helping him to stay out of mischief, and the Farmer is getting some exercise too.

Soon, with any luck, there will be snow and the Ferg will be able to dig to his heart’s content.

Return of the coyotes

Fergus the Golden Retriever and I went for a walk in the back forty on a sunny autumn day. Halfway through the second field I realized I had chosen the best possible conditions for the dog to get as muddy as possible. The pasture, which appeared to be lush and green, was deceptively wet. Fergus was in his glory. I looked down and realized my own legs were splattered with mud. There was no use turning back.

More than once I have realized I am very lucky that Fergus does not have the urge to roll in foul-smelling things he finds on the ground. The carcasses of roadkill and the droppings of other beasts are irresistible to some dogs. They drop and wriggle happily in the stink like a pig in mud. The smellier the better. But Fergus is not tempted. He stops and sniffs and sometimes he marks the spot as his own by peeing on it. But that is the extent of his interaction with the offensive things. For this I am truly grateful.

On this particular walk, Fergus found something really strange. He was quite captivated by it, so I came closer to have a look. It looked like a pile of dog droppings, but it was covered in white fur. There were half a dozen similar art installations, in a semi-circle at the corner of our field. This corner is slightly raised in elevation, which made it a favourite spot in the past for our cattle, and coyotes. Clearly this pack had found a meal of wild rabbit.

In earlier years when we had sheep the coyotes used to perch on the velvety moss-covered rails of the cedar fence and watch “sheep TV.” From that elevated spot, they could see all the way up the field into the barnyard, where the fat fluffies were snacking on hay, oblivious. From that vantage point, the wild dogs could plan their next move.

I only witnessed one attack, from two fields away, for about thirty seconds. I saw the coyote pouncing toward the grazing flock like a pup that wanted to play. When he made his selection and moved in for the kill, I ran looking for the Farmer.

“Coyote’s got a sheep!” I screamed. I couldn’t shoot a gun, so I just ran out of the house in my sock feet, flailing my arms and hollering. The coyote didn’t even look at me. He dragged the sheep to the edge of the field, where he left her. He and his pack would be back later for their feast.
Usually coyotes are much more discreet about their dining habits. They take the smaller or weaker animals that stray from the group. They invite their friends to share the meal. They leave very little behind.

After that bold daylight coyote attack, we got Donkey. And that was the end of the coyote kills, to our knowledge. The Farmer and his hunting buddies left the coyotes alone, because they were staying in their own territory. They ate rodents, rabbits and groundhogs and left our sheep alone. They weren’t our favourite animals, but they were allowed to stay.

When we replaced our sheep with cattle, the coyotes appeared to leave. But now that the cattle are gone, we see more deer, and the coyotes have returned.

They can stay, as long as they leave my dog alone. Fergus is on a wireless fencing system, and we don’t leave him outside when we aren’t home so he should be ok. The deer are on their own. Hopefully the coyotes will be satisfied with smaller animals for food.

A friend told me the local wildlife sanctuary is building a special kennel for coyote rehabilitation, to help build up their numbers. I was a bit flabbergasted. I know coyotes must have a purpose in the larger ecosystem but I did not think they were in danger of extinction.

In the spring we will have turkeys and chickens and a few steers that we will raise for our own beef. Fergus should be big enough by then to be pose a threat to any hungry coyotes.

But then the coyotes might be the least of our worries. On her way to Sunday dinner the other night, one of our guests reported seeing a ‘big cat.” We have confirmed cougar pawprints in the last few years, and we have seen a catlike creature at the back of our property.
I’m hoping the big cat has no interest in Golden Retrievers.