Monthly Archives: August 2012

That Monkey On Your Back

They came at us from the front of the room and as they picked each person off one by one, good intentions flaring like the quivering proboscis of an enraged primate, I grappled for a response I could maybe live with for the rest of my life.

An education seminar that begins with six suspiciously keen and terrifically alert presenters, all of them eager to feed upon the attentions of a captive and as yet hapless audience, is a deadly, deadly Thing indeed.  8:15AM sharp.  Bright shiny eyes, grinning from ear to ear. Gorgy faces gazing back at them, totally unawares.

The subject was reading – literacy – how do we as The Concerned get The Youth to enjoy reading as everyone everywhere, naturally, should.  Or something.


“Without thinking about it, tell us what your favourite book is!”


See how they sparkle in the sunlight?

A trick!

A question the answer to which serves to define the questioned for the questioner according to level of intellectual and/or emotional and/or aesthetic maturity – or possibly even to showcase the supposedly advanced capacities of the asker – and infused with an unquestioned imperativeness (WITHOUT THINKING…TELL US) that mires it, all of it, in all kinds of smug, self-satisfied celebration.

A mess.

I am not good at giving people advice.  Any “advice” I do give can easily be broken down to its essential elements: a heady blend of avoidance and denial, topped with a generous dollop of after-the-fact rationalization.  Bait and switch. Cut and run.  That kind of Thing.

But I want to help here. I feel compelled to ease the blunt force trauma of the trick that is the question that is a mess.

I really do.

And if only to get that wild, demented monkey to stop clawing deep into the raw flesh of your back and off of you already!  To stop it from biting up and down your neck as it clings there, frothing at the mouth.

They haunt me still.

It’s in the eyes where they get you, really.

The Alchemist

Sensibilities aside, invoking the title of this book at least puts you on par with the nine other people in the room who already sighed it out as their answer.  It is the classic hide-as-a-face-in-the-crowd tactic.  Much like that time in church when you didn’t feel like singing the hymns so you just mouthed “tomato, tomato, watermelon, tomato” until it was, finally, over.  Or come to think of it your entire career in middle school choir, which you saw through just so you could satisfy the extracurricular requirements established by the board of education – the ones that evidently demonstrate your well roundedness and civic mindedness, thereby setting you on the right path towards a bright and prosperous future as a valued member of society.  And everybody.




War & Peace

Go ahead and fire off this salvo at them – a real fatty – and do it with everything you have in you, and especially if you’ve never read War & Peace. They will not call your bluff. They will move on after a moment of dubious yet acquiescent pause. The risk here is just too great. The stakes too high for anyone to do otherwise.

Black Beauty

“But not the one with the horse.”

Catcher in the Rye

A lot of people find this book admirable not just as reading material but as evidence, unequivocal, of a mind able to slice through the phoniness of society just like everybody else who has read this same exact book in high school for 11th grade English because every single copy of Life of Pi had been checked out and there was, like, no way you were going to take the bus across town on a Friday afternoon to the main library just to get it.  So you might as well let them have it. Go with it.

How to Train Your Cuttlefish

GRIPPING… an extraordinary achievement that completely redefines everything we thought we knew and then some. [How to Train Your Cuttlefish] is both deeply rich and luxuriously illuminating…[an] utter tour de force! With cuttlefish.”

 I, Platypus

No lies.  You’ll probably get called out right away for this one, but that actually makes it worth the effort. And if you don’t? Still totally worth it. You cannot lose.

The Phantasmagorical Journey Through the Outworlds of Nibs and Doon: Oridon’s Lament (First Edition, Vol. 2)

Extra points (10, 000+) if you can: 1) say this with a straight face and 2) preempt any follow-up questions as to the actual existence of this book (“Really? I’ve never heard of it”) with a dramatic, over the top eye-roll. Then flip the table and leave the room without another word. Have a sandwich and congratulations!

The Bakers’ Dozen

I dunno.  But sounds good, doesn’t it?  Legitimate, even. If pressed, try: “It’s a mixed-genre mystery thriller/cookbook. It is very psychological.”  That should do it.

Indigenous in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

These lovelies are known as Persians. Their pinkness is literally and figuratively the icing on the cake.

Shakespeare’s 10 Things I Hate About You


Infinite Jest

“By David Foster Wallace? Have you heard of him?”

No?  OK. Then, yeah.  With raised brow and laudable guffaw I repeat: Infinite Jest.”

Yes? OK. Never mind. My favourite book is, uh, The Alchemist. It changed my life or something.”

Like I said.  Cut and run.

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Without looking it up first, I’d say that a museum is a place where certain stories called and/or loosely categorized under “history” are told and, in service of that, where unique and/or expensive Things are stored and also displayed for posterity as well as in the service of some sort of tacitly agreed-upon although at times contentious and frequently negotiated collective memory.  Whatever “collective memory” is and way, much more frequently then you may think.

(The above has been edited only for spelling, punctuation and grammar.  Trust me.)

Second, according to a source with some import and authority in the defining of The Things – the dictionary[1] – a museum is:

: a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited;[2]

: an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value;[3]

: a girl that’s nice to look at, but impossible to get remotely intimate with.[4]

So even there we find but varying degrees of definition.

Museums at best, I think, purport certainty, the really successful kind that withstands change until and unless there is cause for otherwise.  The evidence must, of course, be extremely compelling.

What I do know of museums with some certainty is that museums have to be a kind of sexy now, with all manner of hands-on and stimulations and interactivities and augmented realities.

It is being thought provoking! It is juxtaposing narratives!  It is new! and exciting! specimens as you’ve never experienced them before!!!

It’s not just a matter of hype matching experience. Hype is in many ways part of the experience itself. Enmeshed.


Some find this varying sexiness innovative and fresh; some find it troubling in the abstract; some find it downright bleak.  Others seem resigned to the whole affair as something that is happening anyway and is, granted, not without its more interesting aspects.  Writing of the collections of the lavish Natural History Museum in London, England, Richard Fortey muses rather primly that:

A museum is a place where the visitor can come to examine the evidence, as well as to be diverted. Before the exhibitions stated to tell stories, that was one of the main functions of a museum, and the evidence was laid out in ranks.  There are still galleries in the Natural History Museum displaying minerals, the objects themselves  – unadorned but for labels – a kind of museum of a museum, preserved in aspic from the days of such systematic rather than dramatic exhibits. Few people now find their way to these galleries (2008: 7).

Things were certainly bleak for the Banff Park Museum in Banff, Alberta, late into the 1950s, when the museum – whose neglect really began in 1932 when its curator, Norman Sanson, retired and there was no one to replace him – faced not only imminent closure but final closure by way of total demolishment.  The place, with its staring heads and dusty warblers, had become outdated, and a firetrap besides.

Circa 1903

CAPTION: “Detailed Douglas Fir woodwork blends with Victorian taxidermy; Western Canada’s first natural history museum was seen to be “An emblematic ornament to the Rocky Mountains Park of Canada.”

Fortunately, prominent citizens, as they are wont to do, objected to the closure and a plan was devised to save the museum.  But somewhere along the way, the BPM – centrally located and built in 1903 after Banff’s first natural history museum became too crowded and remained too distant  – went beyond restoration. In fact, it transcended it.  Or maybe the word is “transgressed”?

You don’t have to take my word on this one:


The Banff Park Museum is of national historic significance because this museum of museums developed by Norman Bethune Sanson reflects an early approach to the interpretation of natural history in Canada and because of the architectural style and detailing so characteristic of early federal buildings in the Park (Parks Canada Pamphlet, emphasis original).

In other words: it is the display of the displays that is on display:

This unique museum features remarkable displays of wildlife, but it is the fashion in which they are displayed which is of real interest here. Housed in a 1903 log cabin, the collection of specimens reflects an approach taken by naturalists at the beginning of the 20th century (emphasis mine).[5]

The instant your foot crosses the threshold of the Banff Park Museum’s carefully preserved yet wonderfully restored doors, you’re in two places at once, twice: the museum and the museum of the museum.

Bienvenue à tous!

Come one come all.

Strolling leisurely around the main hall and up the solid staircase with just that little bit of give, railings slightly sticky with other people’s fingerprints, amid glass cabinets of beasts great and small and others frozen in free-range, you really do appreciate how the BPM’s lantern-like windows and open space allow natural light to infuse entire building – itself beset with overhanging eaves, carved brackets and made of wood so deep and rich as to appear soft and golden even in the darker reaches of the museum – all the while catching sight of a few unassuming displays of newspaper clippings, blueprints and original designs that serve as gentle reassurance that (don’t worry!) you’re not actually, really, wholly there.

Removed from the moment, you are free to enjoy from a comfortable distance.

Touch with your eyes only, please!

“Help us protect this National Historic Site, by not leaning on the historic exhibit cases’ fragile rolled glass panes. They are original and irreplaceable artifacts too!” (Parks Canada Pamphlet).

Dr. Harlan Smith’s[6] once avant-garde exhibits (animals as they are found in their natural habitats!) blasé by our HD standards (animals as they are found in their natural habitats?) can now and again be indulged, although perhaps more as a good-natured parent patronizes a precocious child rather than as a breakthrough worthy of scholarly ecstasy.

Because people are funny with taxidermy – the collection of which remains of vital importance to the “interpretation of national history” (i.e. bodies posed and poised, stacked and patterned, and sometimes bones too) – especially if they perceive that they are not getting their money’s worth in terms of learning or fun or both or whatever.

At issue is the matter of what people get out of taxidermy, really, and what, exactly, and beyond the wrenchingly obvious, taxidermy is.

Science? Art? Sacrilege? 

I like how Rachel Poliquin puts it:

Taxidermy rebuilds animals with human longing. No longer purely animal, nor fully human-made, taxidermy is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. Technically speaking, the tanned skin of an animal stretched over an armature and adorned with glass eyes is really nothing more than a fancy species of upholstery. But encounters with taxidermy are as fundamentally different from encounters with leather sofas as they are from encounters with living animals, photographs of animals, or videos of animals. Taxidermy isn’t a sculpture or interpretation of an animal. It still is the animal but forever blurred with human desire (2012).

Taxidermy is a subculture (emphasis obvious), and it is at once delightful and distressing.  It requires order, after a fashion, and for that very reason seems to elude it at every turn.  It is certainly, as Poliquin states above and if nothing else, imposing.

The Big Bad.

“Predators were once considered mean and menacing, and mounted to look fearsome. The Museum’s 1914 handbook described predators like the wolf as ‘cunning and merciless’ while the white-tailed deer were ‘happy and carefree'” (Parks Canada Pamphlet).

So imagine how it is with old taxidermy, in which specimens were killed, stretched and sculpted in an abundance even we in our own prevalent excesses would gawk at, and the animals collected were made to be exaggeratingly vicious or disturbingly coy,[7] according to the sensibilities of the time (not that those have that changed much), and are silent and still and kind of…lumpy, besides.

Not to mention never ever getting up again, circumstances being what they are.

The beaver seems to really need the stump, ‘ere he risk falling over completely.

A museum of a museum, the Banff Park Museum offers a lot with the one hand without having to offer very much with the other.  Even the interactive stations on the main floor (set up, I suspect, mostly for children) – “good/OK touch stations” of various animal parts (a skull, a few antlers, some mattered fur and greasy animal hair, one great singular curl from a bighorn sheep) – seem almost an afterthought thrown alongside the main event: the museum’s museum of the museum.

Clever, very clever.  Ingenious even, considering that the BPM is pretty much doing what museums do anyway, but with a kind of mindful sleight-of-hand that is, well, hip.

It is what is happening.

So, is that it then for the Banff Park Museum?  Will it be like this, for always?  For forever? There doesn’t seem to be anywhere left to go.

What is forever anyway?

It’s an eternity so long as it lasts, to be sure.



Fortey, Richard. (2008). Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.

Poliquin, Rachel. (2012). Obsessed: Taxidermy. Huffington Post [Online]. Available: 

[1] Dictionaries themselves are, I know, highly political and often contentious sources of knowledge.  But we work with what we have and go from there.  We do what we can.

[6] An archaeologist working out of the National Museum in Ottawa, Harlan Smith designed many of the displays at the Banff Park Museum, the best and most immediate example of which is the impressive mountain goat and bighorn sheep “habitat” that greets visitors on the main floor.

[7] With all the connotations of “alluring”, “attractive” and “tempting” therein.

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If you have pet fish, you probably will need to know how to kill a pet fish.  Taking that long car ride to the vet like you would for gallant Fido or faithful Muffy strikes as a bit out of touch with the situation, not to mention coming immediately to mind as being an absolute logistical nightmare.

As I have learned, there are many ways to kill a pet fish.  They vary in level of difficulty, depending mostly on the materials at hand and the type of fish involved (big, small, tropical, freshwater, pretty, ugly, duration and intensity of relationship, etc).

As to the right way to do this from here on in it gets tricky.  There are standards.


1) Clove Oil

I’ve discovered that it’s easy, actually, to get attached to fish, even if it’s not quite so easy to convey to many others such affection. Affection is not necessary to the act of killing your pet fish, of course, but it is a factor. It counts for something.

Along with Lou, there have been a series of fish that I have kept as pets over the past seven years or so.  All bettas, a popular species of small, flamboyantly pretty freshwater fish more popularly known as the “Siamese Fighting Fish”.  All males.  Caligula, Bruce Willis, Pip and the recently late Jethro.  All but dear Jethro died of what I’m basically calling “natural causes” (READ: I came home and found them dead or they died too quickly or suddenly for me to worry about how to carry out proper actions).

No fuss, no muss!  Life goes on!

Jethro, however.  Jethro gradually stopped eating, eventually sank to the bottom of the tank and ultimately stayed there, twitching every now and then.  It was hard to watch, even from the comfort and distance of being outside the tank and especially if you had a bit love for the fish.

After the lustre in his eyes faded away I knew, alas, that it was only a matter of time.

Farewell, sweet Prince!

A sedative at low doses, a few drops of clove oil can be used to first anesthetize your pet fish – putting it “to sleep”, as it were – and a few more drops will make sure it never wakes up again. Vodka can be added to the mixture after the initial anesthetization to ensure that the sleeping fish slips quietly and painlessly into the sweet bliss of total, unambiguous death.


2) Freezing

At a Stag ‘N Doe a few years ago, some of the prospective groom’s friends decided to use feeder fish as whimsical prizes for a game exactly no one played.  The game was a poor copy of the ping-pong-in-a-fish-bowl-win-a-fish-game sometimes seen at county fairs and your lesser amusement parks. Scenes run by carnies or occasionally, at Stag ‘N Does (“d-ohs”), by generously stupid, wondrously uninteresting 20-something-year-old brahs.

Fish Care 101 states that despite all outward appearances, fish need air to breathe.  They do not “breathe” the water but rather the air infused within it.  Ergo, fish sealed in confined spaces – such as the plastic bags placed under grimy tables at poorly-attended Stag ‘N D-ohs – can suffocate slowly, imperceptibly right under your noses and tables if air is not able to diffuse into the water.

Freezing your beloved pet fish works under the same principle but in different conditions, obviously.  Place the fish in a cup of water, place the cup in the freezer and the cold will lull the Fluffy or Goldie into slumber before shutting down all of Goldie or Fluffy’s systems entirely, forever.  There is a but, however, in that fish are cold-blooded (also per Fish Care 101), so there is doubt about whether they do in fact “fall asleep” when being frozen.

Imagine being awake the whole time.

But these dudes weren’t 101 material,[1] and it’s extremely safe to say they lacked all but the basest of imaginations.  From the outside, looking in, the fish died little by little while the brahs watched, mouths, too, agape.

I was there too, fretting over another game played by no one, feeling culpable even if still vastly superior in every other tangible way.


3) Get a Bigger Fish (‘Cause The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish!)

… in which it takes but a shuffling kind of logic to see how this one just falls apart.  Do you keep the bigger fish? Is it your new pet and/or friend?  Or have you borrowed the bigger fish from someone, with the intent to return it after the deed’s been done?  There may have to be a fee involved in exchange for services rendered.  Perhaps this is a niche market that should be explored.  I know you can rent dogs in Japan.


4) Decapitation

One summer when we were still kids, my dad took us fishing and my sisters and I caught so, so many catfish.   Medium sized, brown and beige with tapering whiskers and those big bulging, unblinking fishy eyes.

There are no mysteries of origin of the food at home; that “Chinese turkey” scene from A Christmas Story[2] remained quaint and yet unsettling until years later and after some immersion in cultural anthropology.

Turns out: people are weird with food.

Catfish are notoriously hearty, enduring fish.  They can survive without water for periods of time that are amazing.

Coupled with some form of anesthesia and a swift and steady hand accompanied by a sharp and reliable blade (a cleaver works very, very well), decapitation is another readily available method for killing, lovingly, your pet fish.  Some recommend “pithing” (physically destroying the brain with a metal rod immediately after the head is be-headed) to ensure that suffering is kept to the minimum of minimums.

On its own, a “living head” is a terrible Thing and even a split-moment after the fact can, some say, last a kind of unfathomable eternity.

And THEN did they eat cake?

Monsieur, je vous demande pardon. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès.

Did they pith Marie Antoinette?

They used to hang people in Canada.

Other ways I just couldn’t: blending,[3] boiling,[4] bashing.[5]

No matter. It’s done. Crisis over, fishy gone. Resolve in one way or another, tested.

I don’t now feel good or bad or what, but if I had to place it I’d probably say it was the kind of unexpected experience I’d rather like to do without.

In the end, the Thing I really remember was thinking about the sight of those catfish heads in the sink, blinking and gasping as much as they could before THE END.

[1] Well. Rocks for Jocks.  Maybe.

[2] “Fa-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-cist?”  It ringers, for sure.

[3] Yes. With a blender.

[4] It’s the shock, apparently, that kills the fish and surely you too, a little.  One would hope.

[5] Using bricks, largish rocks and so on.

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