Dealing with Detritus

There I was at the kitchen sink, armed with dish detergent, a sponge, scouring pad and an old toothbrush. I knew that I would be a while. Was I cleaning up after a dinner party? Had I let the dishes pile up? Was I taking drastic measures with my oral hygiene?

None of the above.

I was merely washing my recycling materials that had accumulated.

Remember when taking out the trash was a simple task?

At worst, it was an annoying chore; sometimes it would be forgotten or left for someone else to deal with. Back in the day, most of our garbage was relegated to trash bags / cans that was collected by the city. Many folks didn’t think twice about it; newspapers, empty food cans, milk cartons, jars, etc. all ended up in our waste bins and ultimately, in landfill sites.

Growing up in Montreal, I recall helping my father bring in the family’s empty beverage bottles to Steinberg’s grocer for cash refund. Fortunately, today, there are bottle depots that accept almost all drink containers for refund.

Some folks frugally reuse or repurpose items. Empty cans and jars have been used for collecting nails, screws and odds and ends. Newspapers have become improvised floor mats, pet litter, place mats, coasters, among other things.

Reusing our refuse is fine but we only need so many empty jars, cans and old newsprint.

Then came recycling. Large metal bins were placed in the parking lots of supermarkets where materials were deposited. Then came blue curb-side bins for weekly pick-up, then black bins for conventional garbage. Now, there are bins for composting. But all these bins are generating new problems; having to position them a certain way by the curb, bins getting blown / knocked down, remembering what days to put your bins out, etc.

Things have “bin” getting rather bothersome, no?

Styrofoam always seems to be a misfit item when it comes to disposal; we are not supposed to recycle Styrofoam but it sometimes ends up in the blue bins, anyway. People are reluctant to place it in the garbage because they know it takes essentially forever to biodegrade and is harmful to scavenging wildlife.

The condo building where I live in Calgary has a good recycling program for everything; paper products, cans, glass jars, plastics, and beverage containers. Also, each condo unit has a compost bucket with a lid which, when full (or reeking), is brought down to compost bins. The city – in addition to collecting trash and recyclables – collects the compost matter which is brought to a facility, thank you very mulch.

Our empty beverage containers are deposited in designated bins. A group of volunteer residents sorts and counts the empties. Every two or three months, a local bottle depot sends a truck for collection; any available volunteers then load the truck. A refund amount is issued to us for the empties. The money is earmarked for the building’s social events and for charities.

I have been one of the volunteers for some time now. I could have helped out more often, but the sign-up sheet always fills up faster than the ink can dry.

The volunteer spirit is quite impressive.

Kudos to the volunteers — and to those who dispose of their refuse properly.

But being eco-friendly has become rather tedious. Perhaps I am overly fastidious, but have you ever tried to rinse out an empty bottle of shampoo or liquid detergent? Sometimes, even after filling it with water, shaking and emptying it, there is still some stubborn, infernal, sudsy residue.

How about cleaning empty fish cans? Simply rinsing them with water isn’t always enough. In some cases, I have filled the cans with soapy water for a while and they were still oily and smelled fishy. I even resorted to using scouring pads and old toothbrushes to remove as much residue as possible.

Years ago, I made the mistake of putting an empty salmon can in the dishwasher. The resulting aroma in my apartment was comparable to a dumpster behind a seafood restaurant during a heat wave.

And the can still wasn’t entirely clean!

Meanwhile, cats were showing up at my apartment ready for a fish-feeding frenzy. Some of them were even wearing lobster bibs and brought tartar sauce and lemon.

As a recycler, my intentions are good but I sometimes wonder if it makes much of a difference in “saving the planet.” On top of using water to drink, bathe, cook and clean, now we are using more water – and maybe detergent – to wash what we no longer need. Meanwhile, we are encouraged to conserve water.

The remnants of fruits and vegetables are compostable but any plastic labels must be removed and relegated to the black bin (conventional garbage). Plastic soup and yogurt containers and their lids are recyclable but not the inner plastic seals.

In the world of recycling, size does matter. According to the City of Calgary, if a plastic lid is more than 7.5 centimeters (about 3 inches in diameter), it qualifies for recycling. I wonder if the sales of rulers and tape measures have increased.

Paper envelopes can go into the blue cart (recycling) but their cellophane windows are to be separated and tossed into the black bin. And like Styrofoam, cellophane is still old-fashioned trash.

I heard on the news that black plastics are not recyclable; apparently, they contaminate other plastics.

Cereal boxes are recyclable but the inner plastic bags that contain the cereal are not. Furthermore, plastic cutlery, drinking straws, twist-ties, among other things, are not recyclable.

Honestly, even the most diligent, conscientious recycler must become exasperated with all the dos and don’ts of disposal. We almost need a library of how-to manuals just to keep up with everything we must remember.

As for composting, now we have a third bin to contend with. If you have a garage, the trio of bins may compete for space with bicycles, lawn-mowers, unused furniture – and maybe even your car(s). If you live in an apartment, your compost bucket and your kitchen trash pail not only take up space but they join forces to create malodorous emanations. Often, I have to dump my decaying detritus before the bags are even half full.

For a while, I had a hell of a time opening my compost bags; it was akin to trying to split a dime in two with my fingers. But my mother – after pre-opening a few bags for me – suggested that I wet my fingers beforehand. Thanks, Ma.

On the plus side: composting bags bio-degrade faster than conventional trash bags since they are composed of plant matter. I wonder how they would taste with Ranch dressing. “Lunch bag” suddenly has new meaning.

While recycling has generated more employment and less landfill clutter, you wonder about the materials used in the recycling process. Consider the machinery, the buildings that house the machinery, the vehicles for collection, the gasoline for these vehicles, etc. All these contribute to the detriment of the Earth’s atmosphere. Mind you, I’m not condemning recycling but we just can’t win.

Now and then, don’t you perversely miss the old days of just tossing your refuse in the communal garbage? When papers, plastics, metals, etc. were all one big happy family?

Oh well, I better get back to my drudgery; I have empty containers to rinse and recycle, trash to toss, yogurt lids to measure, etc.

Please remember to recycle this article.





My Summer Guest

My summer guest had just settled in. Though I had accommodated him before, this time it was to be for almost two months. This particular guest had a peculiar diet and was rather dependent on others to survive.

No, he was not a sick relative or friend. He was inhuman. In fact, he was an absolute rodent.

And no, I am not being mean-spirited.

He was my nieces’ pet guinea pig.

While my brother and his family were staying at their home-away-from-home, out of province, Caramel and I got re-acquainted. But I had several nicknames for my shaggy cavy, such as Munch-Mouth, Critter, or simply, Kaka. If you saw what he was capable of producing with factory-like regularity, you would understand why I called him Kaka.

But he didn’t seem to mind these appellations. And I’m sure that he had a few choice names for me, in his own rodential language, when I was not fast enough in bringing his spinach leaves and parsley sprigs – things he couldn’t seem to get enough of. But my brother had left a supply of food: timothy hay, alfalfa grass, “Guinea Gourmet,” and “Cavy Cuisine.”

Apparently, fresh, dark, leafy greens and to a lesser extent, fresh fruit are good supplements for guinea pigs. Indeed, I had been buying more produce than I usually do. In fact, Kaka – er, I mean, Caramel – seemed to prefer the “human” stuff to the commercial pet food. Some of his pellets (not the ones he made) and grass often ended up being rejected.

While I was shopping for guinea groceries, a sales clerk informed me that “this is the best buy,” referring to bag of feed so immense that it would have required a forklift to move. Caramel had never tried that particular brand and so, I wasn’t about to risk using him as a guinea pig (pun intended) by getting a surfeit of something that he might have rejected. I think that some of these “best buys” are best for the stores and not so much for the customer. While I did provide my “boarder” with some experimental variety, I generally stuck to the tried-and-true approach.

But Caramel had proven to be more maintenance than I anticipated. For one thing, I work from home – as a writer and not an animal expert – so my presence seemed to startle or stimulate him often. He had his down time, of course, but whenever I would pass by his enclosure, he would squeal or twitter (in the pre-Internet sense) with anticipation, often rearing up on his hind legs. He would become especially anxious whenever I would open something from the kitchen, either for him or me. Another suitable nickname could have been Pavlov.

So, he would graze throughout the day, as opposed to being fed only two or three times. Sometimes when he would sleep, I would actually tip-toe when passing by so as not to wake him and thus, elicit a “gimme greens” frenzy. I didn’t respond every time he squealed but it was hard to know if he was genuinely hungry, lonely or restless.

I cleaned his water bottle daily with hot soapy water and a toothbrush. After thoroughly rinsing the bottle, I filled it with fresh drinking water.
I petted him regularly and took him out of his cage but he didn’t seem to like “thinking outside the box.” Guinea pigs, like all rodents, like to seek shelter. He had a little log cabin in his cage where he could sleep, hide, etc.

I would sometimes place Caramel on the bathroom floor where he could have a change of scenery and a wider roaming area, though he wasn’t too enthusiastic about these outings. I know I wasn’t. He chewed on the edges of the throw rug so I threw the rug out of the bathroom. As far as I know, guinea pigs cannot be toilet trained, so they “go” wherever they are – even beside the toilet. Therefore, some clean-up was necessary.

But the worst part of his time on the tiles was this odoriferous emanation that seemed to occur only when he was out of his comfort zone. I found out from the Internet that cavies have a scent gland near their rears. In my guest’s case, his rear end was sometimes hard to distinguish from his head, due to his naturally long locks. Perhaps he was marking his territory. Perhaps he had bad breath.

Maybe he needed a bath. I never got around to bathing him, though I had purchased a small bottle of pet shampoo. If bathing a cavy is anything like bathing a cat, then I would just as soon have him washed professionally. For those of you who have never bathed a cat, you would likely have an easier time brushing the teeth of a fire-breathing dragon.

Anyway, Caramel was too big for a hamster wheel, so the bulk of his exercise was simply scurrying around in his cage (about four square feet). Every three days or so, I would muck out his cage and thoroughly wash it. The first step was to remove his log cabin which would trigger a mad dash through his litter (great exercise). Then I removed his food dishes and placed them in the bathtub. Despite their smaller size – or perhaps because of it – picking up a guinea pig is more challenging than lifting a dog or a cat. They can be pretty evasive.

After many laps around his box – he inside, me outside – I would have him frantically scrambling in my hands. I would then transfer him to the bathtub with his food. I had put another little shelter – a plastic dome with an opening – in the tub where he could hide while I cleaned his cage in the separate shower stall.

He also used an empty Kleenex box with both ends opened as another shelter in the tub (my idea, not his). I had removed any plastic materials from the box. But for Caramel, it was more of a chew toy. Guinea pigs are natural gnawers and I read that cardboard is safe for them; after all, it is essentially plant material which is what humans and herbivores are supposed to eat. But I would discourage you from sampling an empty cereal box or the brown paper bag that contained your lunch.

So after disinfecting, washing and drying his premises, I would add fresh litter (store-bought wood shavings). Then, rodent would be reunited with residence with fresh food and water.

One morning, I became alarmed when I discovered his water bottle had somehow fallen from its mounted position. He must have been parched – and perhaps disgruntled with me. But I promptly remounted his bottle; he took a good drink and I was relieved when he didn’t seem the worse for wear.

A curious habit of Caramel was “doing his business” in the corner where his bottle was. While his . . . how shall I say, production was more or less everywhere in his cage – and I did scoop out his soiled litter on a regular basis – you’d think that he would “make his deposits” further away from his food and water.

At one point, one of his eyes became coated with a curious whitish substance. I didn’t see any of it in his litter or food and since his appetite and pellet production were still prodigious, I wasn’t too worried. An on-line search revealed that this eye condition is not uncommon. One explanation was that it could have been a scab-like covering to promote the healing of a minor injury (such as a scrap of litter entering the eye).

Another suggestion was that the white coating was for cleansing purposes; the cavy supposedly washes itself with the stuff, using its forepaws. But during his visit, I never saw him actually use this built-in soap dispenser.

A third possibility could have been that Caramel simply had a cold and that the substance in his eye was mucous. From time to time, he would make this guttural sound that I had never heard during his previous stay. At first, I panicked because I thought he was choking on something. Mercifully, this retching was only momentary so I figured he was merely coughing or sneezing. And the white stuff in his eye cleared up after about 10 days.

It occurred to me that he possibly swallowed some of his own loose hairs. So upon my next trip to the pet store, I picked up a small brush. But he would scurry away after only a few fur strokes as if telling me, “Fur-get about it.” Anyway, I never actually saw any hair balls.

My vacuum cleaner was getting more mileage than usual. Inevitably, guinea litter and grass were ending up just about everywhere in small but annoying quantities. I regularly moved his box to different spots for a change of scenery (especially when vacuuming); however, cavies should not be kept in direct sunlight or in cold drafts.

But I also heard that they do not like total darkness. One wonders how they manage at night in the wild. Do they scurry off to Las Vegas or Times Square? Do they live in some sort of comic book universe where they behave like pets in the presence of humans but then walk upright and speak, once their owners leave the room?

Anyway, I kept a neon light on in the kitchen to give him a soft glow once I hit the hay. Speaking of hay, even in my bed, I sometimes felt a scrap of his bedding or grass even though he had never been in the bedroom (unless his “human” side took over while I was away. . .)

I was hesitant to be out of the house for too long, lest he became sick enough to warrant a trip to a veterinarian. Caramel was almost six years old at the time. The lifespan of domestic guinea pigs is four to eight years, so I was concerned about him giving up the ghost during his stay with me. Thankfully, he survived at least another year. I was hoping that he would have set the Guinness Book of World Records – or shall I say, Guinea Book of World Records – for oldest domestic rodent.

So, after about eight weeks, my brother and his family returned from their trip and collected their cavy. Long after he went home, I was still finding and stepping on scraps of wood shavings, despite my frequent vacuuming. I would feel it in my socks and shoes, usually when I was out of the house and couldn’t easily remove my footwear and extract the souvenir.

If you are considering owning any guinea pigs, I urge you to consult a pet expert.

Being a pet owner – while rewarding for some – is not always a walk in the park.

Sometimes it’s a walk in the LITTER.

Memories of Summer Jobs

Hello. And welcome to my blog. I am a stay-at-home writer, though I have held more conventional jobs back in the days of yore. (Perhaps daze of yore might be more fitting.)
At this point in the year during the dog days of summer, I harken back to my summer employment era. I was 16 when I landed my first summer job, thanks to my father’s help.
For minimum wage, I worked mostly weekends as a labourer at a public golf centre in Montreal. Since I didn’t yet have a driver’s licence – only a learner’s permit – I had to take two buses and walk. Some mornings, Dad or my brother kindly got up early and drove me to work. But I would drive, to gain some experience behind the wheel, while they panicked – I mean, guided me.
There I was, early in the morning before opening time, out on the edges of the driving range, flicking golf balls with a long, hooked rod towards the center of the field. A tractor-like vehicle with a wire cage around the driver would collect the balls which would then be washed and placed in wire baskets. The customers would buy baskets, whack the balls out in the field; the balls would be collected and washed anew. This cycle would continue until closing time.
Sometimes I would mow the grass near the snack bar and putting green. Other times, I would stack the shelves behind the counter with baskets of balls for purchase. Sweeping the grounds, collecting empty baskets and trash-removal were other duties.
Apparently, my first day on the job had been the busiest on record, vis-à-vis the number of customers or perhaps the number of baskets sold – I forget which. So, personally, that hectic day was a baptism of fire.
One time, the lady behind the counter asked me to fill in for her while she had to
. . . powder her nose. I was daunted but I actually sold two or three baskets and made correct change. Gratefully, she returned before long.
If memory serves, there was also a nine-hole course but I don’t recall having to work in that area.
Most of my co-workers were amiable; some were fellow students. My immediate supervisor was “Harry;” a hard-working middle-aged man. He was the type who would have shown up for work even if he was sick, injured or three days dead.
Harry’s work area was in a garage-like shed. Here, he would unload the golf balls that were collected by the tractor, hose them down and sprinkle them with a powdered cleaning agent. He would scrub the balls with a bristle broom then rinse them. Finally, he would shovel the balls into wire baskets. He and I would place the baskets onto a big cart and then another worker and I would wheel it to the customer counter.
But it seemed that I had a habit of being too slow or getting in Harry’s way. One time, he brusquely told me to get out and to collect the garbage from the outdoor waste baskets.
Another time, when he had to . . . powder his nose, I had taken the initiative of filling in for him when a new batch of golf balls arrived.
Big mistake.
When Harry returned, he was outraged and banished me from his domain once more.
I was embarrassed and confused. I thought he would have appreciated my work ethic. I was silently cursing my job and actually looking forward to going back to school. Later, it occurred to me that perhaps Harry was worried that his job was going to be taken over by some entry-level twerp (me). So, there is a fine line between going the extra mile and stepping on a supervisor’s turf.
My resentment towards my boss was tempered when he revealed that he was a widower. I didn’t get many details but I suppose that the loss of his wife might have contributed to his gruff exterior. Harry did have his good moments. He once relieved me of a load of balls that I was removing from the tractor; it wasn’t necessary, but I appreciated the gesture. Another time during a lull, he told me to rest for a moment, even though he kept busy.
Later that summer, I was grateful to receive a weekend off in order to be with family at a summer cottage. I had offered to make up for my two days absence but the manager – who was not the type that suffered fools gladly – declined. Apparently, he had enough workers on hand.
The following week, however, Montreal had been stricken by a public transit strike. And I still had not attained my driver’s licence. Also, my father and brother were not available to shuttle me to work (not that I took their help for granted).
Without any viable transportation, I had to break the news to the manager. Once more, I offered to make up for lost time but again, he passed. I was grateful that he did not reproach me but my gratitude had congealed to guilt. My family was working fulltime and my co-workers likely had to pick up the slack from my absence.
Then again, sometimes my duties seemed to be little more than “keep busy” tasks. I recall mopping a clean-looking floor and emptying deep waste baskets that were almost empty. One morning, the manager assigned me to collect golf balls from a swampy section of the driving range. Wearing holey rubber boots and armed with some tools, I exhumed mouldy golf balls that had been mired in overgrown grass and mud.
When I was convinced that there were no more balls to retrieve, I brought them in to be washed. To my chagrin, the manager sent me back to the swamp to resume my rummaging until lunch time. Harry found the situation far more amusing than I did.
While it was rewarding to earn some money – and I would have worked more days had I been asked – it was a relief to resign just before beginning my final year of high school.