Category Archives: Blog

My grandfather and the 1918 flu pandemic


Neil Alexander Lithgow Robson - cropped

Neil Alexander Lithgow Robson

One hundred years ago. October 27, 1918. My grandfather, Neil Alexander Lithgow Robson, became the latest statistic in the small town of Fenelon Falls, Ontario. He was 27 years old with a wife and three small children when the H1N1 virus, known as the “Spanish Flu,” swept across North America.

Over 20 million people died in that pandemic, including 30,000 to 50,000 Canadians. Roughly half the population of Fenelon Falls was wiped out in just a few weeks. It ravaged my family there as it was ravaging — and in some cases completely destroying — families around the world.

The flu did not and does not discriminate. It killed off young and old, infirm and healthy, weak and strong, man and woman, rich and poor. It didn’t care about race, religion, or political affiliation. It just killed.

But we moved forward. Scientific research led to vaccines that did a better and better job of protecting us not just from influenza, but a whole host of other diseases. There are always people afraid of the unknown, afraid of change, and so vaccines weren’t universally accepted. They were widespread enough to completely eliminate some diseases from the U.S. and dramatically reduce others.

Then, in February of 1998, a doctor named Andrew Wakefield, along with a dozen co-authors, published a paper in the Lancet, a highly-respected British medical journal, which made a connection between MMR vaccines and autism. People panicked and began withholding the vaccine from their children, and Wakefield went on a speaking tour.

When former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy’s son was diagnosed with autism, she became the most prominent member of the anti-vax movement in the U.S. As vaccination rates plummeted, thousands of people came down with mumps and measles.

It later came out that Wakefield had been paid £435,643 (plus expenses) to fabricate his results by a lawyer suing a company that produced the vaccine. Ten of his co-authors issued a retraction. The Lancet retracted the paper and the editor-in-chief called the paper “utterly false.” Wakefield was barred from practicing medicine in the U.K. after the General Medical Council ruled that over 30 charges, including multiple counts of dishonesty and abuse of developmentally delayed children, had been proven.

Even though Wakefield was shown to be a fraud, he isn’t licensed to practice medicine in the U.S., and dozens of studies around the world involving hundreds of thousands of children (Wakefield’s paper involved 12 children) have found no connection between vaccines and autism, he continues his crusade. Jenny McCarthy and others like her support him.

And people die needlessly.

My grandfather would be appalled.

Robson headstone 2-Neil A L - Findlay - Wm Lithgow et al

I’ve walked through the graveyard in Fenelon Falls, looking at rows of headstones from people who died in that pandemic, and hoping that we as a society will get smart enough to prevent it from happening again.

2 Minutes in the Yellowstone Ecosystem


Podcast-header

My new job has given me the opportunity to dive into some new and interesting projects. For quite some time, I’ve wanted to play around with podcasting. I’ve been on other people’s podcasts (The Successful Author Podcast with Julie Anne Eason, for example), and done various radio gigs, but I’ve never had my own podcast.

Here’s how it came to be.

YWS Logo color - smallAs Education Director at the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary, part of my job is outreach. Outreach isn’t the same as advertising. Outreach has to have an educational component to it. But walking into a new job at a little 501(c)(3) nonprofit and getting attention with your outreach programs can be … challenging.

Back when my wife and I owned Red Lodge Books & Tea, I had a little segment I did once a week on FM99 radio called This Week in Books. By “segment,” I mean “60 second live advertisement.” Each week, I’d give the radio host a topic and he’d throw a few (mostly scripted) questions at me. Remembering this segment turned on the lightbulb in my head.

For those who haven’t dabbled in podcasting, you can broadly separate podcasts into two production styles: casual and professional. Anyone with a quiet spot and a smartphone can do a casual podcast, but that’s not what I wanted mine to sound like.

Serious podcasting requires a bit of an investment in equipment and software, and a studio to record in. I have enough in the budget for hosting and some professional audio editing software, but not enough for a studio.

So I went to FM99 and set up a weekly segment again. Just like the old book segment, this one would be completely live. Unlike the old book segment, this one would be recorded. Thus was born Two Minutes in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Every Wednesday at 8:22 a.m., I go to the studio with my notes (and sometimes a few sound effects on a flash drive) and sit down with morning host Les King. I give him a heads-up on what we’re doing, and we talk for a couple of minutes on live radio. When we’re done, I have a professional recording from a professional studio on my flash drive.

I go back to the Wildlife Sanctuary, load up the script in Adobe Audition CC, and clean it up. Usually, the sound editing is pretty simple: clean up a false start or two, trim the beginning and end, and add a canned open and close. Sometimes I have to re-record a piece, and sometimes I add animal sounds in the background.

Episode_4_-_Bobcat_vs_LynxOnce it’s finalized, I type up the transcript — which is sometimes completely different from my original notes because it’s unrehearsed live radio — and create an “album cover” for the episode. Friday morning, the podcast goes live on the podcast section of the Sanctuary’s website along with iTunes and various aggregators.

If you have an interest in the critters of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, I hope you’ll give it a listen. Most of the episodes run 3-5 minutes (despite the name), and they cover a variety of topics related to this ecosystem and our wildlife sanctuary. As of this writing, there are seven episodes up, covering Sandhill Cranes, feeding wildlife, bobcats & lynxes, what the greater Yellowstone ecosystem actually is, porcupines, bear safety, and Swainson’s Hawks.

Return of the Ferret?


Okay. I’ll admit it. Things have been pretty darned crazy this last year, and I got so caught up in stuff I have to do that I let a bunch of stuff I like to do slide. One of those things was my Ferret in a Lab Coat webcomic.

FerretBanner 2017-03

I started the webcomic in February of 2017 as an experiment. In my opinion, far too many webcomics today are basically print comics on the web. The web, however, has the potential to be much, much more than that. Ferret in a Lab Coat is what I call an “enhanced webcomic.” I was inspired by comics like xkcd, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and Argon Zark, but shamelessly built on ideas from others as well. I discovered quickly that I am not an artist. I decided not to let a little thing like that get in my way, and forged forward anyway.

It takes me a long time to create one of these comics. I spend anywhere from an hour to a day working on the artwork, and then painstakingly create the imagemap that lets viewers mouse over different elements in the comic and click on them to get more info. Last June, I posted some of my most ambitious comics and then went on hiatus because I just couldn’t keep up.

Ferret 028-Remove Fangs First-teaser imageDo you have any idea how long it took me to draw that spider?
(This image is just a teaser. Here’s the link to read experience the whole comic.)

I think I’m finally ready to get back to it. I’m not making a commitment to update twice a week (that was killing me), but I posted a new comic today and I’ll be doing more of them on a somewhat-regular basis. I’m going to shoot for once a week. As I get better at it, hopefully I’ll be able to produce more of them.

Ferret 026-The Sound of Science-teaser imageThe Sound of Science” was probably my favorite Ferret in a Lab coat comic ever.
Well, so far, anyway!

So go ahead and take a look. Start at the current comic and work backwards. Or start at the first comic and work forward. Or go to a random comic and wander through in whatever order you choose. It doesn’t really matter. I just hope you enjoy reading and exploring them as much as I enjoy creating them.

Nature Education: A new (?) challenge


Wildlife sanctuary header

I have a really exciting announcement to make: I’ve been involved with the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary on and off for sixteen years. It was called the Beartooth Nature Center back when I met then-Executive Director Ruth Brown. I’ve served on their board of directors on two separate occasions, emceed fundraisers for them, given poop talks, and made donations. My wife also volunteered, served on their board, and led tours.

But in less than two weeks, I will be a full-time employee of the Sanctuary. I’ll be combining my love of animals with my love of teaching as their Education Director.

Fear not!

The tea shop isn’t going anywhere! My daughter, Gwen, has been handling the day-to-day management for quite a while, my wife will still be involved, and I’ll still be doing events in the shop.

My writing won’t stop, either. For the vast majority of the time that I’ve been pumping out books, I’ve had a full-time job. And as Education Director, writing will be a big part of my job. You’ll hear a lot more from me both here and through the Sanctuary.

All the details!

For those who want to know everything, here’s the full text of the press release:


 

Red Lodge — 20 Feb 2018 — The Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary has hired Red Lodge resident Gary Robson as their new Education Director.

“We’re really looking forward to having Gary on board,” said Mark Eder, the President of the Sanctuary’s board of directors. “With his background and experience, he’s the perfect fit for the position, and he has the right personality for education and outreach.”

The Education Director position at the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary has been vacant for almost six months, and the Sanctuary has been searching both locally and around the country for candidates. In his new role, Robson will be responsible for creating educational materials and curricula; conducting on-site education through tours and seminars; conducting outreach into schools, museums, and other organizations; setting up field trips; collaborating with other wildlife-focused nonprofits; and working with other staff members on the Sanctuary’s website and social media.

Gary Robson has a varied background. He has written dozens of books, with his children’s nature series, Who Pooped in the Park?, selling over 500,000 copies to date. His background is in technology, where he worked in software engineering and circuit design in the 80’s and 90’s. That turned into extensive work in accessibility technology for deaf people, and teaching computer courses for three colleges, including Rocky Mountain College in Billings.

Robson has lived in Carbon County with his wife, Kathy, since 2001. They owned Red Lodge Books & Tea for 15 years, published the Local Rag newspaper, and currently own the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern, which is managed by their daughter, Gwen. Robson is a regular emcee for events in town, and is the announcer for the Home of Champions Rodeo Parade and the Winter Fest Parade.

“This job is an exciting new challenge for me,” Robson said. “It dovetails with all of my past work in education and nature, and takes me a step farther in my work with local nonprofits.” He has served on the boards of the Red Lodge Area Chamber of Commerce, Beartooth Elks, and the Festival of Nations, and been active on committees for the Convention & Visitors Bureau and the City of Red Lodge. He is currently a member of the Sanctuary board, but is stepping down when he starts the new job.

The Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with the mission of providing lifelong sanctuary to non-releasable native wildlife and sharing a message of conservation and education. The Sanctuary was founded in 1987 when a group of concerned citizens took over the Red Lodge Zoological Society and created what was then called the Beartooth Nature Center.

Today, the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary is home to a wide variety of animals native to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, ranging from carnivores (mountain lion, coyote, bobcat, fox, lynx) to large hoofed mammals (bison, elk), smaller mammals (porcupine, marmot, raccoon), and birds (eagle, raven, owl, crow). The bears are some of the most popular residents. The Sanctuary has recently locked in funding for a large new wolf enclosure and a new sandhill crane/vulture habitat.

A Red Lodge Night Before Christmas


My wife and I have a Christmas tradition. Every year for Christmas Eve we go down to the local radio station (FM99.3 the Mountain) and record Night Before Christmas. We started out doing Clement C. Moore’s original A Visit from St. Nicholas, and then switched things up with the Rocky Mountain Night Before Christmas and Cowboy Night Before Christmas.

This year, we decided to try something different. We love the town where we live, and Kathy & I are both heavily involved in Red Lodge. She works on the Christmas Stroll every year and I’m the announcer for the big 4th of July parade. We’ve served on volunteer boards all over town, from the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Merchants & Lodging Association to the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary and the Festival of Nations.

So I wrote a Red Lodge version of the Clement Moore’s original this year, and Kathy did a little video as I read it on the air. We hope you enjoy it!

A Red Lodge Night Before Christmas

©2017 Gary Robson

‘Twas the night before Christmas in Red Lodge, Montana
The whole town was anxiously waiting for Santa;
There were cookies laid out with some milk in a cup,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would show up;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of snowboards and skis filled their heads;
My wife in her jammies all festive and red,
Had turned off the Xbox and joined me in bed.

And then a commotion arose in the street;
“A coyote!” I cried as I leaped to my feet.
Away to the window I ran with my gun,
And my wife grabbed hers too, since she won’t be outdone.

The noise had awakened the huge turkey flock,
Asleep in the tree at the end of the block,
But the thing that had caused me that night to arouse,
Was a beat up old sleigh pulled by eight Angus cows,

With a chubby old driver in Carhartts and jeans,
Grabbing his Stetson and urging his team.
Sauntering slowly his cattle they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

“Now, Stevie-Ray, Burger and Daisy and T-Bone!
On, Clarabelle, Bessie, on Brindle and Joan!
Drag this sleigh right away to the roof of the house,
Or we’ll have you for dinner with taters and grouse!”

They grunted and puffed and they snorted and moo’ed.
They dragged that old sleigh so they wouldn’t be food.
And up to the rooftop they pulled old St. Nick,
But nobody’s saying those cattle were quick.

And then moments later, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each big ol’ hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed in a duster all sooty and black,
Three layers of shirts kept him warm front and back;
He carried a bag stuffed with candy and toys,
And he looked like he’d had a few drinks with the boys.

His cheeks were all red from a long day of fun,
And his rodeo belt buckle shone like the sun.
Good roping and riding had won him that prize,
And it twinkled darned near as bright as his eyes.

That man had a smile that would set you at ease,
On that cold winter night it was like a warm breeze.
He laughed long and deep and I’ll never forget
How I saw in that moment that he was no threat.

He smiled and he said that those toys weighed a ton,
He laid down his sack and I laid down my gun.
I gave him a Helio straight from the fridge,
He winked and he said, “Well, I’ll just have a smidge.”

He drank down his beer and he dropped to one knee,
Putting our presents all under the tree.
He rose to his feet and his knees he unbent,
And giving a wink, up the chimney he went.

He sprang to his sleigh, to his cows gave a yell,
And away they all flew with a bovine “Noel.”
And I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Merry Christmas to Red Lodge; to all a good night!”

 

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