My thoughts on the Newtown tragedy

Friday, December 14, 2012 | | 2 comments

Today, like millions of people around the world, I was devastated by the news that 28 people, including 20 small children, were killed in Newtown, Connecticut when a gunman opened fire at a school.

Early reports are that the children killed were between five and 10 years old. As a parent, this is the kind of thing my mind just can’t comprehend. I’m shaken, confused and heartbroken. It’s undoubtedly pointless to try to make sense of this, but I’ve done just that, asking questions that can’t be answered, getting nowhere except to feel an even deeper sadness for the families of those affected.
The youngest of these victims, the five-year-olds, those who died and those who survived - still victims in my eyes – were or are just beginning their childhoods, their memories of meaningful experiences or events just starting to dance in their heads.  
I was five years old a very long time ago, but I still have vivid memories of what I had experienced, what my life was like at that time. Perhaps to help me put this in some perspective, to try to understand who we lost today and who will forever be affected, I thought back to who I was at that age.  
I woke up each morning before anyone else and crept down the stairs to the TV room, stopping at the door, terrified to reach inside the darkened room to turn on the lights, certain that one day someone or something would grab me. I’d have only a test pattern to watch on the black and white set, until eventually the national anthem would play, followed by a show like The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.
I’d walk to school alone, covering a distance that seemed normal then, but is laughable today and would surely have me taking a bus. I dawdled every step of the way, turning each trip into an hour long adventure, making me forever late and exasperating my parents.
I once accidentally painted a girl’s hair green.
Our teacher, Mrs. Schneider, taught us odd and even numbers by having Stephen and Moninder stand at the front of the class and count to ten, Stephen saying his numbers in a normal voice, Moninder whispering hers, Moninder seeming unsure of the exercise and her role the entire time.
We read Mr. Muggs.
I wore a shirt with Charlie Brown patterns on it for my school picture day, my unbrushed hair standing straight up on end.
There was a girl who waited for me after school every day, so she could walk across the road, never speaking to me, seeming just to watch me, years before I knew that this odd behaviour was called “stalking.”
At night, we played at Redford Park, unsupervised, and rode our bicycles with Charlie’s Angels trading cards stuck in the spokes so we sounded like motorcycles.
We walked to the Cambria Quick Stop, about halfway to the school, to spend our parents’ money on Lucky Elephant Pink Candy Popcorn and other treats.
I watched The Six Million Dollar Man on TV once a week, thinking the episodes that featured Bigfoot – a most ridiculous plot twist and quite obviously a man in an ape costume - pure television magic.
I had sleepovers at my friend Tommy’s house, one evening getting to run to his house after an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, in a snowstorm, a freedom I’d never felt before.
On hot sunny days, when my grandfather would come to visit, I’d sit on the back of his pickup truck and stare at the rocks that lined my driveway, once falling and cracking open my forehead and blacking out.
Sometimes we’d get together on someone’s lawn and throw our Tonka Trucks as high into the air as we could, then watch them as they crashed to the ground. A Tonka Truck mishap resulted in another busted scalp, blackout, and a trip to the hospital.
At Christmas, my dad shook his gift and joked that it might be a hockey stick, an umbrella, maybe a car, before I yelled, “It’s a tie!” which made everyone laugh, though I didn’t understand the reason for the laughter.
I was terrified of the snow plow that cleared the sidewalk, seeming to sneak up on me each time from around the corner, filling me with adrenaline and sending me scurrying to the nearest driveway to safety.
I have no idea how similar or different these memories were or are from the Newtown kids, but this is what I know of 5-years-old, what I remember. This is who we lost.
I’ve done so much living since this time that it’s impossible for me to fathom, again as a parent, the knowledge that your child may only have had these experiences, these memories. So too is it impossible to think of the life of the child who now must also carry the burden of this terrible day, knowing tragedy that no 5-year-old should ever know.
I sincerely hope that after today, countries everywhere, including my own, will look more closely at gun control and do whatever needs to be done to make these tragedies less likely. We also need to ask if we’re doing all we can do to help people with mental illnesses.
If this doesn’t get people to act, I’m not sure what will. 

Standing in line at Starbucks

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 | | 2 comments

I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable in line at Starbucks. Well, I suppose I was comfortable enough the first time, roughly twelve years ago, but that’s exactly when a lot of these problems began.

I was attending a business conference in Orlando, Florida and – my memory is a bit cloudy on the details – I was between meetings, likely the company financial update and the meeting where we were told we had just been named the single greatest concern in the history of business. There may have been a plaque, but as I said, my memory is not perfect on this point.
“I could really go for a coffee,” I said to one of my colleagues.
“Look! There’s a Starbucks right over there!” they said.
I had heard of Starbucks, but before it magically appeared that day in the hotel, I had never been a customer. Excitedly, I approached the counter. My excitement quickly disappeared though when I glanced at the menu and became confused beyond description. What I wanted was a coffee, “a normal, regular coffee,” I may have added, but nowhere did I see anything that matched this description. Not even close.
Behind the counter was what appeared to be a woman, but I later learned this was not a woman at all, but a barista. It is almost impossible to tell the difference, but these distinctions are part of the Starbucks charm and must be recognized.  Like all good baristas, she could sense that I was confused by the menu and offered to help me make my choice. I was thrilled that she spoke English, but remember I was new to the whole barista thing.  I told her that I really wanted a normal, regular coffee, and she impressed me by asking four or five qualifying questions that no one at my local coffee shop had ever taken the time to ask. I made a mental note to scold them when I returned home for their total disregard of my true coffee needs, relative to the Starbucks experience unfolding before me.
Having established exactly the type of normal, regular coffee that suited me perfectly, we moved onto the matter of size. Again, I was unable to quickly grasp the unique names of the different cups and resorted to demonstrating the size I wanted by holding my hands apart as a fisherman might do when describing the size of a largemouth bass, realizing only too late that pointing to the cups was a superior option.   Undaunted, I waited for my perfect coffee, served in the perfect cup, prepared by a barista -- which is practically like having an angel serve you. Really, it’s nearly the same thing.  
Little did I know, I was about to be surprised -- very surprised. The barista returned with my order, but it didn’t look at all like I was expecting. Instead, she presented what appeared to be a hot chocolate with cinnamon sprinkles, whipped cream, chocolate flakes and quite possibly a breadstick. There is no doubt that I should have realized something was going horribly wrong when my drink took seven minutes to create and required a blender, but I had been under an angel trance and missed all of it.
That was a long time ago and I’ve learned enough to never repeat the disaster of Orlando, but it’s hardly stress free to stand in line today. I’ve learned that normal, regular coffee is a Pike Place Roast, but as I stand in line, I practice saying “I’ll have a Pike Place Roast, please,” which is possibly the hardest thing I ever have to say. Even in my head it often comes out “I’ll have a Pike Pace Roast, Peese” or sometimes “a Plike Plake Roast, Peese,” the word “Roast” somehow always coming out as intended.
I’ve learned the sizes too: Short, Tall, Grande and Venti. I don’t practice saying Grande and Venti because I’m entirely unsure of the proper way to say them so it makes little difference if I say Grand-ay or Grand-ee, Vent-ee, Vent-ay or Vant-ay, so I simply blurt out whatever version comes out that day, fully expecting baristas to gather after work and imitate me to their families and friends. Nowhere else is my inability to speak Italian such a problem and when what comes next is “I’ll have a Pleak Paced Roast, Plike Please,” really, what difference does it make?
One of the things I genuinely enjoy about Starbucks is enjoying my coffee on one of the comfortable couches or chairs. At my last visit however, I looked around and saw that the only available seats were the less comfortable wooden seats, unless I wanted to share a small couch with a woman who seemed even less likely than me to enjoy the idea.
Just then, a group started to get up to leave and I thought I’d found my comfy seat! But before I could get there, a woman who had left her friends in line to hover near the comfortable seats claimed them all.  They were working in teams – a brilliant tactic! I hadn’t seen it coming, but really, what chance did I have?
I guess that’s just one more thing to worry about.

Back roads

Wednesday, August 8, 2012 | | 1 comments

Everyone’s gone to the washroom? You’re all wearing your seatbelts? Ok, let’s go.

You sure we didn’t forget anything? Ok.
I love this road because there’s never any traffic. I’ll bet a lot of people don’t even know of this road. Yes, I know you got a ticket on this road once, but in all the times I’ve been on this road, I’ve never seen any speed traps. It doesn’t mean I’m going to speed, I’m just saying I’ve never seen...never mind.
That’s an amazing house on that corner, but I’d never want to live this far from town. Yes, I suppose it’s not really that far from town.
Yes, that smell is coming from outside the van...it’s that farm over there. Yes, I know, they’re chicken coops, but how you think you know the difference between chicken coops and other farms and smells....
Isn’t that nice? Look at the fresh hay bales in that field! I love that. Doesn’t that look amazing the way they sit in that field, on the hills? They look so much better when they’re round rather than those squares that you still see sometimes. I suppose it would be cubes not squares.
Ugh! Why is it that someone is always driving this speed on this road when there’s no chance to pass? I know, we’re at our corner in a minute anyway. I know.
Did you know that it may not be called Marden Road on this stretch? Yeah, I noticed the last time through that it’s something else on this side of highway six. Yeah, we’re never actually on Marden Road. Not sure what this is called. I’m sure we’ll keep calling it Marden Road...passes through Marden, so that’s what it is to me.
Kids, do we need to go to the washroom? Because we’re in Fergus and this is the last washroom we’re going to see. No, we still have a long way to go...we just left Cambridge about half an hour ago.
This is my turn here isn’t it? Don’t know why I always think it’s the next turn. I think I still feel like we’re going to the next corner like we used to even though we haven’t gone that way in years. It was nice driving through Fergus, past the ball diamond where I played when I was a kid, but this is faster, that’s for sure. It’s not a ball diamond now, but seems to be where they have the Highland Games. I’ve told you about the time I got pulled over going around this corner in a snowstorm when the officer said I wasn’t in the turning lane? I don’t know how anyone could have seen a turning lane on a day like that...yeah, I thought I’d told you.
This is Bellwood Lake, kids. Wow, this lake always looks so nice. We really should look at what it would cost to have a place here. Nope, no one jumping off the bridge today. Wonder why there are either 20 people or no one jumping off the bridge? Maybe depends on the time of day.
Haha! That guy still has that sign on his lawn that says, “It’s 50 you idiot.” Man, he must be so mad at people driving too fast. It’s a weird speed limit though, coming down that hill, it’s impossible to be going 50 unless you turn at the corner like we do and have to slow down...
No, I had to change it because we were losing the station. No, I’m not going back to that song. You’ve got your iPod, why don’t you just listen to that? Well, maybe we’ll get that song for you. No, not now, later. When we’re home. Just listen to your—
I know, I always take that curve too fast. One of these days I’ll be going the right speed. I know, in the van I can’t be going as fast as my car. I know.
This is a funny four way stop. Why do they even have those two roads? Have you ever, even once, seen a car on either of those roads? Ah well, makes no difference I suppose.
Look kids, see that hawk? Up there! Over there! Look at where I’m pointing...no, you’re not looking where I’m—
You can’t see it now. Well, I can’t do anything about it. I know you wanted to see it, I can’t—
I don’t know why I point these out. I still think it’s interesting to see a hawk, but I realize that I’ve created this thought in my head that hawks are really rare and I like to point them out, but they’re really not. When I was a kid, I thought they were rare...
The speed limit in this town is a little crazy. Why do they make us go 40 through here? If you were actually doing 40, by the time you got up that hill, you’d be stopped.
Do you remember the time we came through here and they had the sign saying the road was going to be closed for something, but it wasn’t for an hour, but it was closed already? That was so weird...how do they just close the road an hour earlier than what the sign said?
Wow, I just noticed they have a Sears store, but it’s just a place where you can order things and pick up packages. I remember those from when I was a kid, but thought they had all gone away. Wow.
That restaurant is advertising hot coffee, that little ma and pa. Wonder if anyone stops just for that? I remember they have that sign too that says washrooms are for paying customers only. Do you remember the time we had to buy a coffee because the kids needed to use the washroom? Yeah, we probably didn’t need to buy anything...
I swear, some of these vehicles have been for sale for about eight years. When do you give up? Must be a pain to always have a truck like that parked at the end of your driveway for eight years.
Yep, it’s been eight years that we’ve been taking this way to the cottage. I know...hard to believe. Lauren was only two and Alex wasn’t even born yet. We had our other van too, we didn’t have this one yet.
Yes, this is where you lost your “Stitch” doll. No, probably not still there. That was a few years ago wasn’t it? I know you got another one. No, I’m sure someone picked it up or it disintegrated along the side of the road. I know you have a new one, so no need to worry.
Hey kids, we’re coming up on the windmills! Yep, half way there. An hour to go. One hour. That’s two TV shows. No, that’s more than an hour. It’s going to take us an hour to get there. The whole trip is two hours. We’ve been on the road for an hour.
Wow, there are a lot of signs around here for these windmills. The quarry too. We need to protect the fish! No idea where the quarry is going. Must be somewhere around here.
Wow, people here sure seem to have problems with these windmills. Look at that one – Wind Turbines Destroy Communities. Wind Turbines We All Lose. I have no idea what the problem is, must be something. I wonder how they got so many, but now everyone hates them? Yeah, that’s strange.
Look at those hay bales! Isn’t that nice? Seriously, the way the sun hits them in that field, with the blue sky, I can’t get enough of that.
Kids, do you need to use the washroom? We’re coming up to the gas station. Do we need more gas? We’ll wait until we get to Collingwood? Ok. So we are getting gas? Ok, how much? Ok.
I will never understand how this next gas station with only two pumps can always be so much more expensive than the bigger one that we just passed, the one with the washroom! I mean, really, does anyone ever buy their gas from that guy? You’d have to not know about the other station and mistakenly buy gas from him, the price is always more. It’s crazy.
Looks like the hockey team is collecting again. I think they must be out here every weekend collecting money! Do you have some change? Yeah, that’s good. Perfect.
They’re collecting for their hockey team. Must need money for something. I know you play hockey. Yep, maybe you’ll be collecting like they are.
Yes, we are on the hill. Oh, I don’t know...another half an hour, maybe less? One TV show...
There are a lot of little places off of this road. I wonder if we’ll ever get to any of them. Probably not.
It said “Mad River.” It’s the name of the river we just crossed. Not sure why it’s called Mad River...no, it doesn’t seem very mad to me either. Maybe it’s mad somewhere else, just not at the road.
Yep, almost there. We’ll be there in about 10 minutes. Not sure what we’re going to do when we get to the cottage, we’re not there yet. We’ll figure it out then, ok?
Ok.

It's getting harder to buy groceries

Tuesday, July 31, 2012 | | 0 comments

The other night, on my way home from work, I stopped at the grocery store. I don’t buy the family groceries, but I frequently stop in after work to pick up the items that we forgot, ran out of, or have recently decided we’d like to eat. I am by far the biggest contributor to the new items on our grocery list, so I don’t mind being the one to stop in on my way home from work.

On this particular trip I picked up some eggs and a package of spring mix, which is really just a collection of different lettuces, with no actual ties to any particular season, and approached the check-out aisle.  I use the aisle that caters to those shoppers who only ever come to the grocery store on their way home from work, the one for eight items or fewer, and loaded my food onto the conveyor belt.
The woman working at the counter is someone I’ve seen several times before, never striking me as friendly or unfriendly, she’s just pleasant enough. My assessment of the check-out woman will factor into the story in just a bit.
While my eggs and spring mix took their short ride to the front of the line, the check-out woman noticed her co-worker walking by, pushing a cart loaded with boxes, apparently on her way to stock some shelves.
“Make sure you take it easy, Janice!” she yelled over my shoulder.
“I will,” said Janice.
Turning back to me, the check-out woman said, “She’s pregnant.”
“Ah,” I said. That’s what you say when you really have no reaction, but don’t want to seem like you don’t care at all.
“It’s not that bad,” she said.
“Hmm?” I asked. That’s what you say when you hadn’t said anything in the first place, making you wonder what the response is in reference to, while also wondering if the person you’re talking to believes they are able to read your mind.  
“Working here, it’s not that tiring for someone who’s pregnant.”
“Oh!” I said, wondering why she might think I was concerned about how tired Janice would be from her cart pushing and shelf stocking.
“I tended bar right up until my due date, it’s not that tiring,” she volunteered, now seeming surer of her ability to know and respond to my every unspoken thought.
“Oh, really?” I offered, though I hadn’t at any point expected her to provide me with details of her own pregnancy, had I known there was ever a pregnancy to discuss.  
“And there’s no reason to put on a lot of weight when you’re pregnant,” she added with the hint of disdain you might expect when talking to an infrequent grocery shopper who obviously had been misinformed about the proper weight gain of pregnant women and needed to be set straight.
“Nope,” she carried on, “when I was pregnant, I actually lost weight! I was 113 pounds when I got pregnant and 117 pounds after.”
Wait, what? That doesn’t even make—
“A woman should put on the weight of the baby, plus 10 pounds of water weight, and that’s it. There’s no reason for any woman to put on more than that.” I thought she might pound her fist on the conveyor belt or throw my spring mix at me for emphasis.
Though this check-out woman would have no way of knowing, I have two kids of my own, have witnessed many family members, friends and co-workers go through pregnancies and I know that being pregnant seems to turn you into a magnet for advice and criticism. But what I’d never witnessed before was the nerve one could strike simply by trying to buy some eggs and spring mix, actions so rarely associated with confrontation, and saying “Ah,” “Hmm?” and “Oh!” When did it become so acceptable to offer pregnancy advice that even infrequent grocery shoppers - men no less! - would have to worry about people dispelling myths they didn’t promote and stand corrected on thoughts they never had?
As I stood there, dumbfounded, I thought the following:
I don’t know why you’re telling me this...Hmm, I don’t even know your name, but I’m going to call you ‘Sally’ for the rest of this thought, not because it’s your name, quite likely it isn’t, but it makes it easier on me and I’m getting a little pleasure out of calling you a name I suspect to be wrong. Listen, Sally, I don’t know how I offended you with my spring mix and my eggs, or maybe it’s the fact that I don’t come in as often as some and sure, I only ever go to the aisle with eight items or fewer. But I follow your rules, I never exceed the eight items, except once and several of those items were the same thing (and there’s no way you even knew about that). I bring my own bags, even though I forget them half the time in my car because I don’t do this very often, but I try, Sally, I try. And yeah, I see that there’s now someone behind me who has three cans of cat food, a bottle of Diet Pepsi and some celery and I’m as confused as you are about how any of that goes together and I know that if this thought goes on too long, we’re going to have to open another line.
But Sally, you’re wrong about me. I don’t judge you or any other pregnant woman for the weight she gains, the shelves she stocks or the bar she tends. I think it’s weird that people just put their hands on the bellies of pregnant women without asking and think more people need to just stop doing that.  I wish more people would keep their opinions to themselves and unless some harm is going to come to a baby by not speaking up, can’t we please just let each woman experience her pregnancy her own way?
I am not going to ever benefit from your advice, I have never violated these rules, nor have I ever gained so much weight to warrant this lecture. I have no idea why you’re angry, how the conversation ever got this far, or why we couldn’t just stick to what I came in here for in the first place.
I need some eggs and spring mix.
And for the first time, I hoped she could read my mind.

For the love of Elvis: Collingwood Elvis Festival 2012

Sunday, July 29, 2012 | | 0 comments

As we stood outside the toy store, watching a dizzying number of people walk up and down Hurontario Street, a street many towns would refer to as Main Street, we spotted our first Elvis.

The unmistakeable jet-black hair, the bright yellow blazer, set against black pants and two-tone dress shoes, he seemed to rise above the crowd as he walked past.  We were only five minutes into our afternoon at the 18th annual Collingwood Elvis Festival and already the kids, looking over toys they didn’t need, had missed what we had come to see.
They were disappointed when they emerged from the store, but we told them they had nothing to worry about, because this weekend Elvis was everywhere.
He was on posters and on life-size cardboard cut-outs in storefront windows, squished beside mannequins, vacuum cleaners and offers of great savings on beach getaways. He was in the bank, waiting to use the ATM and sampling hot sauces from a vendor at a temporary location on the street. He was inside car dealerships and on cookies at Tim Horton’s. According to the banner above the main entrance, he was at All Saints Church on Saturday, parishioners also enjoying bacon on a bun in the parking lot from 10 am to 7 pm. 
He was old, young, thin, heavy, wearing jewel encrusted jump suits, capes and blazers of blindingly brilliant colours. There truly was an Elvis for everyone.
If you’re wondering about a connection between Collingwood and Elvis, and why this event has come to be held here, as far as I can tell there isn’t one.  But the Elvis Festival, which celebrates the man, the music, and the nostalgia of Elvis Presley, brings fans and tribute artists (the preferred term over impersonators)  to Collingwood from all around the world for four days each year, making this the largest Elvis Festival held anywhere.
Anxious to take in the festival, we walked farther down the street, hearing Elvis songs played over loudspeakers that lined the sidewalk. We passed an Elvis fan singing a karaoke version of Love me Tender, surrounding most notes but drawing a good crowd nonetheless. As we walked on, I heard the announcer say, “We have lots of songs to choose from, not just Elvis, we have Johnny Cash...Patsy Cline...” his voice trailing off, perhaps unsure if his song selection truly was very expansive.
At the corner of Hurontario and Simcoe Streets there was an area cordoned off for the different Elvises to perform on the street. A female Elvis was set to perform, her white SUV with Florida license plates parked nearby, pictures on the vehicle indicating she called herself “Lady E,” a bumper sticker urging people not to re-elect Barack Obama revealing that she is also likely a Republican.  
Just as she was about to sing, Lady E realized her microphone wasn’t working, causing the sound man and a giant Elvis, who moments earlier had been standing behind me in the crowd, to try to fix the problem. While the 200 people watched and waited in the hot sun, I watched Lady E for any hint that she was upset that she had driven all the way from Florida and now couldn’t perform, but instead, saw her smile and pose for pictures. Knowing we had much more to see, we left before the problem was resolved and only hope she was finally able to do her set.
Around the corner was the main stage where both amateur and professional tribute artists were performing for a panel of judges and a crowd of 1,200 people.  The first three performers that we saw were from Japan, Denmark and Brazil, removing any doubt that this had indeed become an international event.
“The preliminary rounds were held at the curling club so you know the people on the main stage can all sing,” said the master of ceremonies, in the first of many offhand remarks we would hear.
Several other performers from near and far took the stage and excited the crowd to varying degrees. One performer, singing The Impossible Dream, stopped after the first line and asked if he could start again as the song was too low and the judges allowed it without a problem. I assume the performers have their songs on CDs and aside from simply not being prepared, it was puzzling how the song could ever be too low, but to his credit he did a great job of the song the second time around. Clearly, while the Elvis Festival has grown to be a significant international event, the handling of situations like this let you know that the focus is still on the performers and the fans and it hasn’t taken itself too seriously.
The master of ceremonies took the stage again and talked about the time, money and effort that each of the tribute artists puts into their craft, in particular getting to Collingwood to compete against their peers and to entertain all of the Elvis fans that assemble. Each has made enormous sacrifices to be here, he told us, before adding the cringe inducing, “The prize money is not that good.”
While better words could surely have been used to capture the thought, he did make a good point – very few of the people we saw on that stage were able to make a decent living, or a living at all, from their act, but they do it for the thrill of performing, to pay tribute to Elvis Presley and to take part in festivals such as this.
And as long as there are Elvis fans, tribute artists and events like the Elvis Festival, there will be a special kind of entertainment in Collingwood and I’ll try to attend every year.

What's on your bucket list?

Thursday, July 26, 2012 | | 2 comments

The other night, I was at an industry event that began with a “get to know someone new” kind of game. I generally dislike these games because I’m not overly willing to open up to people I don’t know well and it makes it harder to insist that no one ever takes the time to get to know the real me. That’s harder not impossible.

My partner and I very quickly hit on eleven things we did not have in common before she asked me something that caught me totally by surprise, “What’s on your bucket list?”
I’m not sure how long people have been talking about bucket lists, but the first I heard of it was a few years ago, around the release of the movie of the same name, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. (I’ve never seen the movie, but hear it’s quite good, none of which is relevant to this story).
The concept of a bucket list is listing those things you wish to do before you die, or “kick the bucket,” a phrase that likely has some literal meaning that someday I must look up to make myself an even greater bore at parties. 
While it may seem unlikely, I believe this was the first time I’ve ever been asked this question and since I had no prepared answer, certainly not one I’m comfortable sharing with someone I don’t know overly well, who may take this an opportunity to tell the world that I’m an open book, it fell into the category of questions I’ve been asked throughout my life to which I can only provide disappointing answers:
What did you do on your summer vacation?
Um... is it possible I didn’t do anything?
You had a day to yourself, what have you been doing all this time?
Um...
So, what do you do for a living?
I’m in Communications, which means that, I... um...
How was your weekend?
(Remembering nothing)  It was good, but too short! *hilarious laughter*
But getting back to the bucket list, you may ask, “Why would this be tough to answer?”  Is it because I never think of dying and therefore have no sense of urgency to create such a list? No, I know as well as anyone that I may be hit by a bus tomorrow, contract scurvy or spontaneously combust, so that can’t be it.
Is it because I’m not a list maker? No, I spend a great deal of time making lists of all kinds: “To do” lists, grocery lists...ok, I expected there to be more lists, but the point is that I do make them.

So, why then have I never come up with a bucket list? I think the answer is that I don’t think my bucket list captures the wondrous, near magical experiences and adventures that I hear from others when they openly share their bucket lists with me.  
They want to skydive, attend the Olympics, sleep in ice hotels, visit every continent over a long weekend, and have picnics in outer space. These are the items that I hear on bucket lists. This is what is expected.
My list is quite different.
Just once, I’d like to leave my house without breaking a spider web with my face. I’d like put on a t-shirt and not have an antiperspirant mark.  On many a weekend, my goal is simply, to not shave.
How do you tell people this is your bucket list?

Just once, I’d like to accidentally eat too much horseradish and not feel like I’ve been “Maced.” I’d like to someday have a blog post go viral (and just because I once wrote a post that contained the phrase “swimming with sharks” that gets five daily page views forever, that doesn’t count). I’d like to know once and for all which way I’m supposed to point my toes when I get a cramp in my calf muscle.
These are not the items that most people have on their bucket lists.
I’d like to someday be comfortable with people telling me I look five years younger than I am before I wake up to realize that I look 10 years older than my age, likely caused by the stress of this impossible to explain attitude toward looking younger.
I’d like to someday throw away my glasses and contacts, but realize that laser eye surgery is a simple solution that I’m avoiding due to a fear of lasers ever being pointed at my eyes. So, at best, this belongs on the list of “incomplete ideas” not the bucket list.
You see the trouble I’m having?
I’d like to someday find my unread copy of On the Road which is lost somewhere in my house or possibly borrowed by my father-in-law and never returned. I’d like to know the difference between a zucchini and an English cucumber, though admittedly I’ve only cared since seeing them side by side at the grocery store one evening this week.
I’d like to know how Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony were ever married. This doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but none of it sits right with me.
These are my priorities.
I suppose I should try to be better prepared to answer the question the next time I’m asked. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not likely to share my true list with too many people, so I’ll avoid all that and give them what they expect, what they want.
Before I die I really want to ride my bicycle clear across Italy, stopping occasionally to learn the language from the locals, to drink wine and to eat cheese, lots and lots of cheese.
This is my dream.  

Rhubarb season

Monday, May 14, 2012 | | 2 comments

The other day I walked to the side of my yard and something caught my attention. There, on the ground, close to the house were the first signs of my rhubarb patch sprouting up from the ground.  

Ah, yes. Glorious rhubarb.  

I must admit I've developed a love-hate relationship with rhubarb and you really can't say you know me until you know these details. 

Let's start with the plant itself. I didn't plant it, it came with the house. In fact, no one in history has ever planted rhubarb, it just comes with houses and people eat it. Look it up. 

Rhubarb requires no effort. It grows, you pick it, it grows back, you pick it again, it snows, the rhubarb spends the entire winter thinking of ways to grow sooner next year. You don't prepare the ground for rhubarb, it prefers to grow out of dirt, but will grow out of concrete slabs if necessary. You don't water rhubarb and you don't talk to rhubarb. You simply pass by every few days and say, "Are you kidding me? How could you possibly have grown that much since I last looked?" 

Rhubarb patches cannot be destroyed. When I was a kid, our rhubarb patch was in the middle of our backyard toboggan hill and doubled as first base in warmer months. We slid over it over and ran through it thousands of times a year and the rhubarb was never affected. Rhubarb patches will live forever and scientists should spend more time studying rhubarb DNA, specifically the "live forever" part. 

There are two ways to eat rhubarb-raw and with massive amounts of sugar. The taste of raw rhubarb is too sour for human beings so I would recommend the massive amount of sugar option. When you think you have enough sugar, you don't. Trust me. 

My wife doesn't enjoy the taste of rhubarb and refuses to eat it. I could lie to myself and say I'll make rhubarb pies and rhubarb tarts and just simply stick rhubarb stalks into sugar dishes until my teeth rot, but none of that is ever going to happen. So, I give my rhubarb away to my mother and my sister. 

My mother has taught me all that I know about rhubarb and perhaps all there is to know about rhubarb. She tells me I need to pull it out by grabbing it near the bottom of the stalk and just pull. She repeats the "just pull" part, likely figuring the second mention will prevent me from cutting down the rhubarb with an axe, or harvesting only the poisonous leaves. She also taught me that rhubarb is only good for the first few months of the growing season, so it should be noted that each year will only produce about 75 arm-fulls of rhubarb or enough to make 900 or so pies. 

My sister lives close by and will sometimes just take the rhubarb without asking. It grows so fast, there is only a 10 minute window where you will know that any of it has been taken and all rhubarb stealers know this. 

Between the two of them, they take more rhubarb than they can use themselves and give some away to other family members. If I'm ever at a family function where rhubarb is served, there's a good chance it came from my patch. People make a fuss over me as though I am in some way responsible for the quality of the rhubarb... 

If they only knew.

The importance of Where The Wild Things Are

Tuesday, May 8, 2012 | | 0 comments

 Maurice Sendak, best known as the author and illustrator of the beloved children’s book, Where The Wild Things Are, died today at age 83.

If, like me, you were born after 1960, chances are good that Where The Wild Things Are was part of your childhood. If you have children of your own, you’ve likely made it part of theirs too.

As a child I had a vivid imagination and would get absolutely lost in worlds I had invented, so it’s no surprise that I related so easily to the adventure that begins, “The night that Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another.”  

Like Max, forests would sometimes grow and grow in my room after I had leaped into my bed to avoid the wild things hiding beneath and covered my head with my blankets to protect me from the creatures that lurked in the darkness.

I dreamed of travelling in and out of weeks and almost over a year to jungles filled with dinosaurs and other strange beasts where I was forced to conquer my fears before I could land safely back in my bed.

Sometimes, before nodding off, I would imagine my bed was a jet airplane and my blankets would hold me tight as I shot through my window, out into the open sky, to circle the earth at dizzying speeds.

Some nights, I imagined I was a wild thing myself, powerful, brave, unafraid of anything.

Whatever it was, I was constantly dreaming and Where The Wild Things Are told me that was okay. It told me that little boys and girls were expected to imagine things. The book confirmed what I already knew - that the world was full of possibilities and that nothing was too wonderful to imagine if you tried.

It told me too that there are times that all boys and girls get in trouble with their parents, but after a while, the anger passes and you realize that they never stopped loving you. Not even long enough for your supper to get cold.

The story captured so perfectly the magic of imagining yourself in a thrilling adventure that often defied all logic and the comfort of the most magical place of all – your own bed.    

When they were smaller, I read Where The Wild Things Are to both my children and today, I watch them as they play make-believe games in their rooms with dolls, cars and other things. I hope they never lose the wonder of using their imaginations. I know I never did.

If you haven’t read Where The Wild Things Are in a while, you should. If you’ve never read it to your children, make sure that you do. And most of all, no matter what your situation, remember to sometimes let your imagination run wild and explore worlds and times that challenge and scare us.

Let the wild rumpus start. Go to where the wild things are.

RIP Maurice Sendak

The Laser Quest birthday party

Monday, May 7, 2012 | | 1 comments

This past weekend, we held my son’s seventh birthday party at Laser Quest in Kitchener. Although my son was naturally excited to have his friends at his party, for weeks he had made it clear that he really wanted me to play in the laser games.

Before we were allowed into the urban laser warzone, each of us had to pick our codenames. With varying degrees of thought and originality, our band of warriors became: Yourself, Sonic, Princess, Zack, Smiley, Hulk, Ironman and Arceus. I chose the codename “Hawkeye” for no reason whatsoever.

My son, “Hulk,” insisted that the two of us team up and he led me to high ground as soon as we were allowed into the game area. When our lasers were activated and the game began, Hulk shot rapidly and randomly in all directions and I had to be careful that I wasn’t zapped in one of the worst cases of friendly fire in laser quest history.

There were two other children’s birthday parties going on at the same time, all of us contributing to the laser chaos of mostly little people running around the game area.  I had very little strategy coming into the match, but what little I had went out the window when lasers started flying at me from all directions, many of them aimed at my kneecaps. Hulk and I ran from place to place, often finding ourselves pinned down in a bad spot, taking heavy laser fire, before shooting ourselves out of danger.

 During the first game, “Ironman” started to cry when he couldn’t find any of his comrades and I felt really awful for him. I wondered if he might change his codename to “Lost and Scared” and knew that I needed to take better care of him for the remainder of the games.

After a gruelling 15 minutes, the game was over and we exited the game area to see our scores. Surprisingly, I had bested the other 33 players and had the high score. Considering that I had beaten 28 children in claiming top spot, it was a dubious honour indeed.

Before the second game started, one of the other groups of kids pointed at me and said, “We’re all going to get you next game!”  It seemed that by winning the first round, Hawkeye had earned a Bullseye and I was in a bit of laser trouble. Thinking quickly, I asked the other kids in my son’s party if they would join me and the soldier formerly known as Hulk, who now went by “Mr. Time Twister,” in battling this other group of kids. Zack, who now called himself “Super Zack” and Ironman were the most enthusiastic and I had myself an army of little people.

Game one chaos returned for game two and I realized I was in more danger than ever of being zapped by my own men. “Listen up guys,” I said. “Whatever you do – don’t shoot each other!” It was an order I would repeat 50 or 60 additional times throughout the game.

I swear, I have no military experience.

 Super Zack volunteered to lead all enemy attacks, mostly those he called himself, without warning or backup. On those rare times he led something other than a suicide mission, his objective seemed to be to get to a place directly in our line of fire and not surprisingly, he was lasered more than any other player in the game.

Sonic was a lone wolf who regularly wandered away from the group, surprising us by emerging quickly from behind a corner, forcing us to shoot him on sight.

Arceus had changed his name to “Hunter” for the second game, but if he did any hunting, I did not notice.

Ironman shrugged off the effects of war and suffered no further breakdowns on the battlefield. Though he posted a lousy score, I think he was thrilled to be part of the group.

Our guns deactivated, we returned to base and waited to see our scores. Hunter turned to me and asked if I had gel or sweat dripping down my forehead.

“Both, Hunter,” I replied. “Both.”

Completely exhausted, we filed into the party room and sat around the long, wooden table. We helped ourselves to a juice box, some Oreo cookies, potato chips, and more mini marshmallows than anyone should ever eat. The room was filled with laughter and battle stories as the ice cream cake was served.

Ironman and Super Zack asked me between bites of their cake to explain their scorecards to them, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them they had placed 33rd and 34th, each of them finishing with negative scores.

“You both did great,” I told them as huge smiles grew on their faces, turned blue from the cake and marshmallows.

What else could you tell your laser brothers in arms?

How trips to the eye doctor change once you reach "this age"

Monday, April 30, 2012 | | 4 comments

Today, in the midst of a typical day at the office, I snuck out for my annual eye exam.

While there’s no sign telling me to announce my presence upon arrival, I know this is the accepted practice at every doctor’s office on the planet, so I provided my name to the woman behind the counter and told her that I was here for my appointment.

She seemed puzzled and mumbled to herself, “Hmm...you are, are you?” as she glanced at the computer screen in front of her, robbing me immediately of the confidence I’d had when I walked in. An instant later she said, “Oh, yes you’ve been here many times,” which seemed to imply that those with a long history of bad eyesight would certainly have their appointments honoured.

The woman, “Helen,” asked me to follow her and another young woman to the examination room. There, the younger woman was introduced to me as “the intern” in much the same way one might refer to “the desk” or “the chair.”

While my forehead and chin were pressed unnaturally against the outside of a machine, Helen gave the intern a quick lesson on how the machine worked and how they were going to record whatever measurements it spit out. Then, she said, “Because of his age, we’ll also need to do this test here,” her hand pointing to something on the other side of the machine I obviously couldn’t see. I chose to ignore the comment about my age and instead braced myself for whatever the machine might soon do – shooting bursts of air into my unsuspecting eyes or merely blinding me with bright lights are the two options of which I am most fond.

I was pleased to learn that I was only asked to refrain from blinking for about seven minutes and focus on a series of green squares, while ignoring the red line that dissected the squares that was impossible not to notice. The tests done, I was told that the machine had taken pictures of my eyes and that I would be reviewing with my eye doctor. I could hardly wait.

Led out of the first waiting room, I was taken to another where my eye doctor was waiting. I was asked to read letters projected on the wall, while covering one eye with a paddle and strap myself into another machine, telling my eye doctor that one was clearer than two, three was clearer than one and five was obviously for an entirely different patient.

The final test was to hold a card at arm’s length and read a short paragraph. I was able to see it clearly and while I don’t remember the exact words, it went something like:

In today’s society there a great many instances of men having to chase their hats...

When I was finished with those words, without thinking, I said, “Well, isn’t that the truth?” My doctor burst out laughing and I was reminded that with each passing day, I’m becoming more like my father.

As we were finished with the tests, my doctor turned to her computer and clicked on the pictures of my eyes taken in the next room. “So this is the back of your eye,” she said, as she pointed to something that looked like the moon with a series of red rivers running through it. The rivers, she explained, were blood vessels and she asked me if it bothered me to look at these pictures. “No, I’m fine,” I lied, as I felt my hands grow cold.

“This is the optical nerve,” she continued, “And this is the macular area,” her tone indicating that the white and the black moon spots were exactly as she had hoped they would be.

My second moon looked just like my first and I was told that these pictures allowed for a profile view, where the layers of the eye’s moon rivers could be better seen. The screen changed to what appeared to be a mountain range and I learned that my mountain moon eyes dipped in exactly the right place.

At my age...I can’t tell you what a relief that was.

My memories of Levon Helm

Friday, April 20, 2012 | | 2 comments

Yesterday, the world lost a great musician as Levon Helm, the drummer and singer of The Band, lost his battle with cancer. He was 71.

As most of The Band’s biggest hits were released in the late 1960s, a few years before I was born, many from my generation are unaware of Helm and his music. For them, the news of his passing will barely register, but through a series of hometown connections, The Band has touched my life and for me, this is truly sad news.

The Band

My story begins when I was a boy of 12. My mother told me that there was a big concert in my hometown of Stratford starring The Band. Their name struck me as terribly odd and it took me some time to digest that anyone would ever have picked that as their name. She told me however that they had been a huge success and that it was a very big deal that they were playing a show in Stratford. Their keyboard player, Richard Manuel, who they all called “Beak,” was from Stratford and I believed that had to be the only reason this big deal had ever come to be.

The Revols

My mother was just as excited though by the opening act, a band called The Revols, who, as teenagers in Stratford, had been about as popular as The Beatles, playing every dance that she, my father and their friends thought worth going to, at a time when going to dances was the thing to do.

Before he had been with The Band, Manuel had been an original member of The Revols, along with John Till, Ken Kalmusky, Doug Rhodes and Jim Winkler. Till would later leave the group and be replaced by Garth Picot. Their success in Stratford and surrounding area led to opening for Ronnie Hawkins, the Arkansas native credited with bringing rock and roll to Canada. While still teenagers, they would travel to Arkansas to play at Hawkins’ club in Fayetteville.

The group would disperse, some going on to play with other high profile bands – Till played with Janis Joplin (including her show at Woodstock in 69) and Kalmusky with Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s group, Great Speckled Bird.

Manuel would join Hawkins’ own band, The Hawks, which ultimately included Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko. The Hawks left Hawkins in 1964 to play with Bob Dylan (at a time that Dylan was moving his music from acoustic folk to electric rock), finally forming their own group, The Band.

Teen years in Stratford and the girl from Toronto

Throughout my teen years, our local radio station in Stratford, which advertised a format of “oldies and more” (with the oldies being prominent and the more being highly suspect) would occasionally play The Band’s biggest hits, The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. There was something so different about these songs, something that got me immediately and I was ever more a fan.

Years later, when I was nearly through university, I would meet a girl from Toronto. She told me her dad had grown up in Goderich, Ontario, but moved to Stratford as a teenager. He was a guitar player who lived with Richard Manuel and played in his band, The Revols. That girl is now my wife and the mother of our two amazing children. My father-in-law is Garth Picot, easily the best guitar player I’ve ever known.

A birthday gift for me

On my birthday the following year, my girlfriend, her family and John Till and family went to see The Band play a show in Toronto. They had just released their album Jericho and thrilled the crowd with classic hits and selections from the new album that I loved instantly.

The concert was absolutely brilliant, but my night was about to get much better. Till went down to the stage after the show and told the group’s people who he was and that he, Garth and their families wanted to come backstage and talk to the guys. A quick check with the band members and we were led backstage into their dressing room.

I remember meeting Danko and being surprised that he wasn't nearly as tall as he seemed on stage. He was really friendly and joked that since we were both Ricks that he’d have an easy time remembering my name – an awful joke, but delivered in a way that made you feel glad he had said it. Hudson seemed to be mostly a giant beard and possibly shy so our introduction was predictably short.

Helm had been the star onstage and backstage too he was larger than life. He was pleased to meet me, but thrilled to see the two men he had known and with whom he had shared the stage many years earlier - Till and my father-in-law. I had known my father-in-law had been an accomplished musician, with uncommon skill, but to see him treated as an equal by these men was a memory I’ll never forget.

Helm said he remembered Garth’s daughter (my girlfriend) from her attendance at Manuel’s funeral in Stratford in 1986. As unlikely as that was to be true, Levon had a southern charm that made it impossible not to believe him. If nothing else, perhaps he just knew enough to say he remembered her, smile and make sure everyone that made the effort to see him play was having a good night. That stuck with me too.

The music goes on

The Band hasn’t been together since the death of Danko, but the remaining members of The Revols , including my father-in-law, reunited in Stratford on a perfect summer day in Stratford in 2008 to open a show for Ronnie Hawkins. Yes, that Ronnie Hawkins. Some estimated the crowd to be as many as 20,000 people.

The crowd was in awe that these men, now in their 60s, could still play as well as ever; maybe even better than when they were younger. There wasn’t a song in the set that didn’t hit its mark, but I think the ones that people remember most were Up on Cripple Creek, The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

By The Band.

RIP Levon Helm

Weeding out lawn care companies: How we evaluate small businesses

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 | | 5 comments

Recently, I received a letter in the mail addressed to “R. HASTINGS
or RESIDENT” and as I can claim to be both, I opened it. The letter came from a lawn care company that wants to provide me (or resident) with special packages on their services for 2012. I wasn’t looking for a lawn care company to take care of my property, although my epic failure over the past few years to take care of this myself caused me to look a little bit more closely at their offer.

Years ago, I would have asked family, friends, neighbours or coworkers if they knew anything about the company that mailed me a letter.Today, the way we do our homework is very different and small businesses need to understand how customers make buying decisions.

Here are my thoughts on how we evaluate small businesses with some suggestions for this lawn care company (and others like them).

1. Company websites: With lawn care companies, potential customers are looking at websites for price, availability and some background on the company. Testimonials are very important to provide the credibility that was once earned through word-of-mouth referrals. The answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) are helpful to potential customers and to the business for creating credibility and possibly offloading some phone calls to customer service reps. However, what businesses in this day and age must understand is that a solid website is merely table stakes, our starting point.
2. Social Media: Potential customers will look for the company on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ and notice if they’re not there. Companies who choose not to participate in social media miss many opportunities:

· The ability to provide an easy way for customers and potential customers to connect with the business
· The ability to carry on a conversation with their customers
· The ability to build a closer bond

Customers are hanging out on social media sites, talking about lawn care – how can any business afford not to be here too?
3. Blog: FAQs are helpful on the website, but in no way establish credibility like an effective blog. A blog can paint you as a leader in your industry, it shows your thoughts on your products/services, customers and trends that impact the business. A blog lets customers know they’re dealing with a human being. That matters. There’s a very small chance that customers want to know more about grubs or the difference between crabgrass and quackgrass, and that information can be provided through the website and FAQs, but what customers really want to know is that you understand their true needs – how do I get a beautiful lawn that I can enjoy and be proud of when I host my family and friends, without having to spend 10,000 hours or dollars?
4. Content of social media: When your service is grass, you can and should give us interesting information about grass – where it comes from, how best to care for it, interesting ways to cut it, how to prevent insects from destroying it. But what people REALLY care about is the enjoyment of their property. Show them how they can play with their kids in a lawn that won’t harm them or the environment. Publish a list of 10 fun activities on a perfect looking lawn. Show them interesting deck designs that look great against green grass. Talk about the latest in outdoor barbecues, gardens, sprinkler systems. It’s about the emotion that comes with owning a property that looks and feels just right that moves people to hire lawn care companies. Smart companies know this and provide what people want. Join forces with companies that provide products that add to the enjoyment of a beautiful property. Talk about how to host an outdoor party. Become the trusted source for creating, maintaining and, most of all, enjoying a perfect lawn.
5. Beautiful pictures: Encourage customers to send pictures of their lawns and interesting properties they’ve seen as they travel in the summer. Put pictures of families lying on their backs in the grass, all holding hands...actually, scratch that – you have that picture in your brochure and it’s downright creepy.

What do you look for when you’re evaluating a small
business? What else can they do to make a great first impression?

What really matters about Brett Lawrie’s attempted steal of home?

Sunday, April 15, 2012 | | 0 comments

I’m a huge baseball fan, but I don’t often find my blog topics from watching my favourite team, the Toronto Blue Jays. This weekend however, there was a very interesting play and an even more interesting reaction from the team’s manager that deserves some conversation.

Did you see that play?

If you watched the Jays play the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday afternoon, one play above all others would have stood out. In the second inning, with the bases loaded, two outs and the Jays’ best hitter, Jose Bautista, at the plate, Brett Lawrie was thrown out by an eyelash as he attempted to steal home. The potential for a big inning was gone and the Jays eventually lost the game.

Analysis

To the casual baseball fan (and the Jays have collected many this season through a tremendous public relations plan) this play may seem like a slight miscalculation by Lawrie, easily one of the team’s most exciting players. He plays the game to win and who can blame him for attempting such a high risk manoeuvre, they will say. Even though he was unsuccessful, the mere attempt to steal home was enough to bring the fans out of their seats and what could be wrong with that?

Those who know the game however, will call this play a serious blunder. With the Orioles pitcher on the ropes, as surely he was with the bases loaded and facing the Jays’ most dangerous hitter, you never “run into an out” to end an inning. Worse yet, you never take the bat out of the hands of the team’s leader, the man who has led the team in every offensive category each of the last two seasons. In every sense, Lawrie’s attempted steal was a complete mistake.

The aftermath

After the play, cameras captured the Jays’ manager, John Farrell, talking to Lawrie in the dugout. The message from the manager to the young star was simple – under those circumstances, we never want you to try that again.

A reporter asked Farrell after the game if he would have reacted differently if Lawrie had been called safe on the play and scored a very important run. Farrell replied that his reaction would have been identical, that Lawrie hadn’t made the right decision and that even if he was safe, he needs to be more aware of the game situation than he was on that play.

The art of leadership

In sports, at work, at home, in life, we are rarely in complete control of our outcomes. We are however, in control of ourselves, our behaviours, our actions and our focus should always be here and not on outcomes we cannot control.

And so it is the job of leaders to focus on what we did right, what we did wrong, and communicate how we wish to behave in similar situations that come up down the road. We may do the right things and still fail and we may win despite ourselves – this is life. But to focus primarily on outcomes may seriously miss the point and set us up for long term failure.

A parent will be grateful that his child didn’t break their arm falling out of a tree, but would be remiss if he didn’t use the opportunity to talk about the dangers of tree climbing to all of his children. A manager will be pleased that her customer didn’t jump to a competitor over a poor customer service situation, but must use this “near miss” as a coaching opportunity to change the behaviours that nearly caused this loss of business.

Farrell knows that he has a gem in Lawrie and must be leery of saying anything to his young third baseman that might alter his style of play. He knows too well though that the young man who plays like his hair is on fire still has a lot to learn about the game and that nothing must come between the manager and his delivery of these important baseball lessons.

Lawrie, and all Blue Jays, will be better players if they focus on executing over the course of 162 ball games and not on the wins and losses that are sometimes beyond their control. Farrell seems like the kind of leader that will make sure his team gets that message.

Were you watching the game? What did you think?

You’re not hearing me, Petro-Canada

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 | | 0 comments

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a problem I was having at Petro-Canada where my debit card wouldn’t swipe at their pump and I wasn’t finding any easy way to resolve the problem.

I shared the blog post with Petro-Canada on Twitter and to their credit someone replied to me within an hour, writing “We hear you!” They asked me to send them the location where this problem was occurring, so I did. They thanked me and said they would let the station manager know about the problem.

I waited for something more, but nothing ever came. Were they going to let me know when the station manager had been contacted? Was any resolution coming? Did anyone plan to contact me to let me know things had changed? What was I to do if the problem continued?

Nothing.

They were going to let the station manager know and I suppose from their perspective that settled it? I thought my blog post made it clear that if the station was taking customer problems seriously, they would already know about the problem because I had told their employee twice that I was having it!

Earlier this week, I returned to the station for the first time since complaining and once again, my debit card would not swipe at the pump, but had no problem swiping inside. I told the employee (for the third time) that I was having this problem, she seemed surprised, but offered little more than a shrugging of her shoulders before wishing me a good day.

I decided to write back to Petro-Canada through the original Twitter conversation because it seemed they really hadn’t heard me. They wrote back and asked if they could have someone phone me about the problem and a couple of hours later, I was on the phone with the regional manager for this particular station.

“Let me give you some background on what we’ve been doing,” he started. “We’ve upgraded the software at the pumps to the latest version...we actually had a guy here for nine hours...the company we use is (missed it)...we’ve had them here a few times making sure the software is up to date...we can’t ask our suppliers to keep coming back...so, I really don’t know what more we can do.”

What more you can do? What exactly have you done for me so far? I’ve had to put in a lot of effort just to get you to talk to me! Notice I didn’t say listen to me, because I’m not sure anyone has actually done that yet!

Very politely, I told him that it was very nice that they’ve upgraded to the latest software, but that I was still having the problem.

“Well, if you wouldn’t mind, you could go to your bank and get a new debit card.”

“Actually, I do mind, since my debit card works absolutely everywhere other than your pumps and it even works inside your location!”

“Yeah, well I don’t know what to tell you...you have to see it from our side, we get thousands of cards that go through without a problem, so we don’t know what we can do for you if you don’t want to get a new card.”

I have to see it from your side? I’m not unreasonable, but as a customer, do I really?

“We’ve upgraded the software...” he repeated for about the fourth time.

“Look, if the only solution here is for me to go to my bank and get a new card, so it might work at the only place where my current card does not, it would be easier for me to drive the extra 30 seconds to a different gas station,” I told him.

“Well, if you’re going to take that attitude, then I guess there’s nothing we can do to help you.”

Take that attitude? Did you really just say that?

Dumbfounded, I listened to him go on.

“We don’t want to lose your business obviously...”

This is obvious?

“And we’re sorry for the inconvenience...”

Funny that this is the first time I’m hearing these words!

“If you’re able to get a new card and if that doesn’t work we could tell our supplier that this is a new card…”

Yes, this game does sound like fun.

Knowing that this conversation was going nowhere, I made sure I had this person’s name and ended the conversation.

I’ve honestly not wanted to take my business to another gas station, but this problem has become so frustrating, especially what I see as a total lack of interest in listening to me or to come up with a solution that actually changes anything!

Am I asking too much? Do you really hear me?

Dealing with crisis while surrounded by alligators

Monday, April 9, 2012 | | 0 comments

Family vacations are the last place I expect to encounter a crisis, but that’s what happened to us a few days ago at Mayakka River State Park in Florida. Everything turned out fine, but I think there are lessons contained in the story about dealing with a crisis at home, on vacation or at work.

The story

We arrived at the park, expecting to rent kayaks to explore the lake and wildlife for a few hours. The lake is filled with large birds, turtles and flying fish, but the undeniable stars of the show are the hundreds of alligators that live in the lake, some as long as 15 feet.

The park was out of kayaks, so we settled instead on renting two full sized canoes. We pushed our boats into the water, a short entry channel to the main lake, but noticed immediately that the wind was going to make paddling a huge challenge for a crew of one adult and one small child. We paddled like crazy (at least the adults did), but the wind pushed both of our boats against the shore. Finally making it out of the channel and into the mouth of the lake, the wind completely took over and blew us whichever direction it pleased. Even turning around seemed impossible and it wasn’t long before we had the canoes stuck in shallow water, getting our paddles caught in thick grass that covered the lake bed, parents getting short with the kids.

We hadn’t seen any alligators, but another family, also in canoes that were blowing sideways, had somehow managed to spot one not far from us. Frustration and worry now completely took over and we knew we had to come up with another plan to get ourselves moving in the right direction – any direction - and fast!

We decided that returning to home base was absolutely necessary and that our best chance of getting there was to tie the canoes together and get everyone in one boat, all paddling together. If that didn’t work, we had the option of waiting to be rescued, but we didn’t notice anyone coming around to see if the hapless boaters were okay. Another option was walking the shore line, dragging our canoes behind us, but the possibility that alligators could be hidden in the weeds on or near shore made this option significantly less attractive.

Using our paddles as poles, we pushed away from the shallowest water and got ourselves pointed in the right direction. The kids needed a lot of coaching to know on which side to paddle (read constant yelling), but very slowly, we were moving. I noticed about seven or eight giant vultures circling high overhead and couldn’t help but think that they had noticed our predicament.

After nearly an hour of struggling against the wind, we had made it back to our starting point. We barely had enough energy to pull our canoes onto shore, but we were safe and greatly relieved.

The lessons

1. Communication: When you realize you’re in trouble, communication to everyone involved needs to be clear and firm. The parenting handbook regarding calm, polite conversation goes out the window when kids need to know exactly what is expected of them, especially when failure to follow instructions puts their safety at risk.
2. Decision making: Speed and certainty are critical. Democracy might be best thrown out the window - it was in this case.
3. Contingency plans: Always be thinking about what you’ll do if Plan A doesn’t work and don’t be afraid to admit your current plan is a failure. Having options eases tension and frees your mind up to...
4. Take action: It’s easy to become paralyzed by fear, but you’ve got to get moving before the alligators find you.
5. Identify the vultures: In a crisis, vultures are only distractions and should be ignored - no good can come from allowing them to affect your decisions or your actions. Remember, they aren’t hoping for you to succeed.
6. Never rent canoes and enter an alligator lake on a windy day: Trust me.

Have you had to deal with a crisis? What advice would you add to the list?

Five ways the Toronto Blue Jays have built buzz this off season

Thursday, April 5, 2012 | | 0 comments

The Toronto Blue Jays open their 2012 season today in Cleveland and I can’t remember a season in the past 20 years that has held so much excitement. There’s an equal chance that these Jays will challenge for a playoff spot or will be exposed over 162 games as a team still a season or a key player away from contending, maybe two.

But what can’t be argued is that the Jays have done more right than wrong this off season to create a buzz about their team for the foreseeable future. There’s hope they might be good enough this year, there are players to be excited about and there’s reason to believe this is a team with a future.

How have they done it?

1. Communicating the plan: The Jays have made it very clear that their plan was to acquire players with “high ceilings” at every level of their minor league system and allow them time to grow into a championship team. They’ve made sure we hear not only about Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia and Henderson Alvarez, young stars who have made it to the big club, but Anthony Gose, Travis D’Arnaud and Drew Hutchison, future stars still a season or more away from making the big club. It doesn’t matter that we’ve never seen some of these players play, we believe that the plan is solid and that these players are going to be something special. Communicating the plan allows us to be patient and optimistic.
2. Communication from the top: Throughout last year and this off season we heard from President, Paul Beeston, General Manager, Alex Anthopoulos and Manager, John Farrell. All are open, friendly and clear when they talk about the direction of the team. The fans feel informed and trusting toward these three and are more apt to buy in to the promise of better baseball ahead.
3. Effective messaging: Team President, Paul Beeston was asked about the Jays and their chances of making the playoffs and said he expected them to be in the playoffs twice over the next five years. Beeston has said on many occasions that they’re building to be a team that can contend every year. Fans don’t want to hear, “We hope to be good,” or “We’re trying.” They want to hear, “We plan to win and more than once.” These messages go far with a fan base that wants to believe.
4. Using Social Media to connect with the fans: Jays’ players such as Jose Bautista, Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Lawrie have embraced Twitter and communicate often with their fans. They’re seen as likable, hard working players who care to be part of a Toronto championship run. Today’s fan expects better access to their favourite players and the Jays deliver. The players see themselves as ambassadors for the club and genuinely enjoy their role in promoting their team. There’s a lot of good that comes from that.
5. Putting their money where their mouth is: Prior to last season, the Jays rewarded their best player, Jose Bautista with a massive contract after only one outstanding season. The risk of Bautista being a flash in the pan was very real and the financial peril of making a mistake on such a contract must have been troubling to Anthopoulos. However, when he announced the contract he said that he believed in Bautista the person as much as Bautista the player. Again this off season, they spoke those words when announcing a contract extension to Dustin McGowan, a pitcher who has missed three full seasons due to injury. Players around baseball want to play for an organization that acquires and rewards good human beings. Fans want to cheer for such a team. As they say, doing good is good for business.

How do you feel about the Jays and the way they communicate with their fans? Please leave me a comment!

The one thing that family vacations can teach us

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 | | 0 comments

I’ve had a difficult time coming up with something to write about today. The problem is that I’m on vacation and except for a few times each day, I’m totally disconnected. I don’t have my usual inspiration from stories in the media, Twitter or issues at work that turn into blog posts.

My days have been filled with travel, hotels, Harry Potter, rented houses, pools, and today, the beach. All of us are having a wonderful time and my inability to come up with ideas for blog posts is in no way affecting my enjoyment of this time with my family. The mental break from thinking about communications as often as I do might even be good for me!

Today, while I sat in the sun, watching my kids play in the sand and swimming in the ocean, I realized not for the first time that nothing in my life is better than this. We’ve spent a lot of money to fly down here and spend a day at Universal Studios (more perhaps than this humble blogger should be spending), and every bit of it has been special and memorable. But playing together, as a family, on this beach is better than anything else that we’ll do on this trip.

My family is easily the most important part of my life. Spending special time with them like this, whether at home or on a faraway beach, is the quickest way for me to realize that my life is great. I’m fortunate that I have them and also that I can slow down enough to realize that they are what really matter – nothing else compares.

When we focus on what really matters we do the work that has the greatest impact. We reach our audience more directly. We cut through the distractions and do what produces results. We find happiness.

To put this to use, ask yourself questions like these:

• What is the one point I want to make here? Have I made it? Is it clear?
• What is the one thing my business does exceptionally well? Are we focused on doing that or something else?
• What is the one thing I could do today that makes me happiest?
• What’s the one thing my customers are asking for that I’m not currently providing? Can we change that?
• What’s the most important relationship in my life? Am I treating it like it’s the most important?

Keep it simple – focus on what matters most and make sure your life is centred on these things, first and foremost.

Was this helpful? What other ideas do you have? Please leave me a comment or send me a message.

You’ve got to see this video!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012 | | 0 comments

When we see this message attached to the same video, posted and emailed many times over, we know it’s in the process of going viral.

The latest (at least within my group of contacts) is of a teenage opera singer named Jonathan Antoine (one half of the duet Charlotte and Jonathan) singing The Prayer on Britain’s Got Talent.

In the video, we learn that Antoine has had to deal with damaging comments about his size and, not surprisingly, he completely lacks confidence. We see the judges and the show’s audience barely able to contain their laughter when he walks onstage. It’s an awful moment, but when Antoine sings, the audience is shocked to hear his incredible voice. Few, if any, who watch the video, would not be moved.

Why does a video like this go viral? It’s not because we’ve never seen a performance that exceeds our expectations so outrageously - that may have been Susan Boyle on the same show in 2009. But what we react to, what we feel so compelled to share with everyone we know, is the story of someone we discount at first glance that has the ability to amaze us. That’s what we find remarkable.

Most of us don’t know the pain of a lifetime of having people laugh at you, but we know insecurity and doubt. We know the feeling of being judged (both figuratively and literally in this example) and we know how tough it is to even make the grade, let alone amaze an audience, when no one believes we can.

We cheer for Jonathan Antoine because he’s done what we didn’t believe he could. And he does it despite longer odds than most of us face. He’s an underdog and he came through.

The video goes viral because it’s so human.

And more than going viral, it encourages all of us to take chances. It reminds us that no matter what our circumstances, we should never allow self doubt to stop us from getting on our stage and showing the world what we can do.

Do you have a story to tell? It may seem like no one wants to hear it, but if you tell it well, there’s a chance the world will stop what they’re doing and want to share it with everyone they know.

Go for it.

What did you think of Jonathan Antoine? Did the video inspire you? Leave me a comment or send me a message, I’d love to hear your thoughts.