Thursday, June 30, 2016

Aroma in the Gloamin'

Aroma in the Gloamin'
Here’s a thing. It’s very hard to know if you smell bad. 
But if you were God at 8:45 this morning and looked down from heaven, you would have seen me standing in a parking lot bending and twisting and waving my arms like one of those inflatable giant creatures that secondhand car dealers use to attract customers.

I was trying to see if I stank.

I could smell skunk alright; but I didn’t know if it was just “in the air” or coming from me. And you’re correct. I would not be writing this if answer was not door number two. (Door number two. That’s my senior-kindergarten-level pun about the aroma.)

Ten hours ago, I was about 50 minutes north of Winnipeg in the parking lot of the headquarters of Ducks Unlimited (DU), the conservation group my friend Nigel Simms is the National Manager of Communications and Marketing of.

I wasn’t there to go skunk hunting.

In addition to a lot of other things, Nigel and his team publish a lovely magazine called The Conservator, and they’re constantly trying to make things better. Because I’ve got some 30 years in publishing, Nigel reckoned I might have something to contribute. He invited me out for a look.

Nigel works in one of the neatest buildings ever. The spectacular Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre is one third-research lab, one-third eco-tourist attraction; and 33-percent corporate HQ. There’s a small restaurant and a big performance
GOOSE GOOSE DUCK!: The place is alive with crittters. 
theatre, and it all sits on a huge restored prairie marsh alive with all manner of wildlife: Ducks; herons, beavers, geese, muskrat, and, of course, skunks.

That is where I would be doing my thing as The Consultant. From Toronto.

Meantime, Nigel lives near the heart of Winnipeg. I stayed in the Norwood Hotel, near his place.

Tuesday and then again this morning, he picked me up at the hotel to come to work, and because they can, his part-rottweiler-part-shepherd mutts Quinn and Keikho came along to spend their days at the office.

Both days, before work began, we took the dogs for a walk around the DU swamp--dog Nirvana, really.

As they romped, Nigel and I walked, talked about publishing and slapped ourselves repeatedly, fighting off huge Manitoba mosquitoes and ticks. In vain.

MY EYE they don't bite. My cheek they did. 
First day, the only truly exciting part was when Quinn found and started playing with an old moose skull.

But second morning—today—when the walkabout was done, we smelled the smell. We hadn’t seen a skunk; but still.

I sniffed me. Nigel sniffed the dogs. Then Nigel sniffed me again.

This did not look good.  The Consultant from Toronto had a meeting in 15 minutes.

We decided the smell was not on us, it was just in the air.

We entered the lobby.

The first staff member we met pulled  the top part of her shirt up over the nose. Another just looked shocked. In a strange unprecedented sequence of events, the scent had followed the dogs, instead of vice versa.   
THREE LUCKY DUCKS at  play, from left, Nigel, Keikho and Quinn or the other way around.

We sniffed Kiekho and Quinn again. It was strong.  They’d obviously been sprayed. Not enough that little squiggly cartoon lines rose above them, but they were pretty putrid.

Nigel decided that no way could the dogs stay on the premises, and to keep them in his truck all day would be inhumane. He would get them home and he could work the rest of the day from there.
We walked out to the parking lot; he loaded the dogs, and headed to Winnipeg.

I re-entered the office. The two women at reception agreed it was too hard to tell if what they smelled was the leftover from the dog or me. I rounded a corner and met the affable (and honest) Conservator editor Leigh Patterson and staff writer Ashley Lewis.

They told me something or some one smelled really bad.

One of the big meetings I had flown to Winnipeg for was supposed to begin shortly. (I thought of canceling; if only because I could say I was pulling rank—get it?)  

But really, at that moment, running out the door and throwing myself into the swamp seemed like the most viable option.

Then appeared a Superhero: Bill Howard, the facilities staff member responsible for opening up the place every morning.  

“What we need is Aromx," he said, coolly.

I’d never heard of it and asked him if it was like Dustbane, the mystery cleaning substance school janitors used to haul out every time a kid barfed.

“Yeah good old Dustbane,” he said. “Aromx’s really powerful. You have to mix it with water.”

“I think,” Bill said, “I know where there’s some.”

Me: “If not, we’ll need tomato juice.” Bill told me I’d have to go to the cafeteria for that. 

I followed him out to a storage room where there, in the second drawer he looked, stood a spray bottle of Aromx. Like a mom squirting sunblock on her senior-kindergarden son headed to the beach, Bill  proceeded to spray up one of my legs and then down the other. Then, for good measure, my shoes.

Aromx, turns out, is an industrial-strength odor-eater. Febreze on steroids.

I couldn’t smell skunk any more. Neither could my new bff  Bill.

I re-entered the office area. Approached the reception desk. Walked past once and no shirts were hoisted over noses.

I, literally, passed a sniff test. 

(P.S. Another critter I picked up at DU? An earworm. It's where the title of this blog comes from. And with that... I share.)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

My Sisters. Oh Brother.

My four sisters Charlene, Norma, Mary, and Bertholde are wonderful generous adults, with professional designations and they all lead rich interesting lives. Charlene's in Little Current, Ontario, and the other three are in Sudbury, where we all grew up.

Mary has several university degrees in both official languages. Bertholde runs a successful counselling business. Charlene and Norma are retired from nursing and have three fantastic kids each.   

In other words, my sisters present as normal.


All you have to know is, as my children were growing up, their nickname for their beloved aunt Mary Carter (BSc, M.Ed.) was “Auntie Dumb Bunny.”

For another example, a few years ago, after a long and selfless career as an RN, Charlene decided to take a break from helping the sick and landed a retail job in a gift shop near her home in Little Current, ON. It was called the “Cuckoo’s Nest.”

I remember phoning. 

This was her, answering: “Cuckoo’s Nest. Charlene speaking.”

I thought: “Took a while, but she’s made it home.”

I love my sisters with all my heart but, you know, sometimes……  

Take tomorrow for example.

Tomorrow, I’m going to interview one of my favourite writers—Linwood Barclay.  I was pretty pleased with myself when I texted Charlene about tomorrow’s meeting, and she got back to me with, “I love his books!”  

The interview is for InBetween Magazine, which is aimed at parents of teenagers, and when you read the next issue, you’ll see why Mr. Barclay is an apt subject for InBetween.

Meantime, right in the middle of the intersection where Mr. Barclay’s books meet my interests, there’s some really bizarre stuff going on and it somehow involves my grounded-seeming sisters.

Mr. Barclay writes thrillers. And in many thrillers, there’s a pattern. Regular life in a small town is interrupted when, say, a little kid goes missing, and soon dozens of citizens get caught in a growing swamp of troubles and 290 pages later, everything comes to a climax involving in a burning dynamite factory,  a boat chase or a shootout in an abandoned factory.  The End.

It’s not that thrillers are simple. Quite the opposite. A decent thriller, by Linwood Barclay, Michael Connelly, Dan Brown or Stephen King, is full of mysterious magnetism.  I wish I had an ounce of those guys' talent. To make a 21st-century book reader want to turn a page to see what happens next borders on the miraculous. The fact that I—and my sisters—get addicted to these books is proof of that magic.

But back to the cuckoo’s nest.

Norma and Bertholde, both of whom have tons of admiration for Mr. Barclay, want me to ask him this: What about post-traumatic stress disorder?

All those fictional characters:  How are they expected to go back to their everyday lives after the book ends?
Out here in the real world, most of us have never seen a decent car crash. Really. Who gets to witness a murder?

But in a thriller? A small-town mayor who used to work for the phone company turns psycho, he offs a few locals, and ultimately gets torn to pieces by a high-powered blade in the darkness of an old sawmill milliseconds before the single mom’s baby gets saved by the handsome retired cop. And a bunch of locals are on hand to see it happen.

A character might start the story as an elementary school teacher but by the time the book ends, the teacher has had a front-row seat watching machine-gun-wielding FBI agents chase a malevolent piano-playing physician-turned murderer up a half-erected skyscraper until he falls to his death.  Right before the teacher’s eyes.

“Think of the PTSD!” argue my (whacked) sisters.

According to Bertholde and Norma, when I meet Linwood Barclay, I am to tell him that they are planning to open a PTSD clinic specifically for all those characters and bit-part-players from thriller novels who need counselling after the books end. 

They are planning a PTSD hospital for fictional characters. Ladies and gentlemen? My sisters.

Bertholde wants to be Executive Director and Norma the Clinical Director.  I think Charlene should be on reception. Mary can do it all in French.

Two more things. It was actually me who came up with the PTSD idea. The fact that Norma and Bertholde thought it was a good one is the scary part.

Which reminds me. Just the other day, I mentioned to my brother Tom that if he ever wondered why our father liked a little nip every now and then, just remember; Dad had a whack of sisters, too.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Badly Kept Secret Formula For Excellent Luck

Counting the dead ones, I have 43 first cousins, 27 aunts and uncles (including spouses), 15 nephews and nieces, five sisters, four brothers, two daughters, one son, a grandchild, and wife.

While the vast majority of my relatives are around Ontario, I’ve got family in both Vancouver and Halifax.

Our family: There's at least one of everything.
Among us? There are teachers, nuns, doctors, nurses, full-time patients and part-time malingerers. We have university researchers, high-school dropouts, civil servants, retired miners and a few surprisingly successful business types. There's an undertaker, several social workers and a downtown-Toronto paramedic.

We’ve got labour as well as management. Trudeau supporters and anarchists.  Bankers. Social-welfare-cheque getters.

Many of my relatives are devout Catholics; quite a few others are atheists. I’m guessing most are somewhere in between.

We have artists like my sister Norma and people like me who, if a pistol-wielding crazy man came in here right this minute demanding I draw a stick man to save my life, this column would never get finished because I would be dead. 

Speaking of, some of my relatives hunt. Others we couldn’t let near a firearm because they would not know which end of the gun gets pointed away from you. 

There’s cat people and dog people.

Some members of my family have served time in the armed forces; others have just plain served time.

 Tom and Huena and Grandson number something: Rich with family indeed.
Quite a number of my relatives—especially on my mother’s side—play the guitar or piano or fiddle. My niece Patricia has one of the most beautiful singing voices you’ve ever heard.

Others have ears so tin you could use them to catch pike.

Some enjoy great marriages; others have not-so-write-home-aboutable relationships; lots knew better than to try.

Many of my relatives and I could name names sit around all day doing nothing at all.

We have calloused-handed farmers and lazy-bone writers.

We have smokers, drinkers, abstainers and more than a 2006 Dodge Caravan load of us are in denial.

As my late father Tom liked to point out, we can’t go around criticizing the neighbours because there aren’t many things—good or bad—that at least one person in our family hasn’t gotten up to.  

I’m pretty sure I would trust all of those people I’ve mentioned with my ATM card and PIN number even though  I have a feeling “PIN Number” is a tautology, like “NDP party” because the "P" in "NDP" stands for “party”. Does “Pin Number really mean “Personal Identification Number Number? Some of my relatives love talking about stuff like that; others have lives. But I’m getting off topic.    

I’m confident that if I ever need a place to stay or a few bucks to tide me over, any of the above folks would be good for it, at least for a day or two.

Lucky, huh?

When I was a kid, I remember asking my dad if we were rich. His stock-answer was, “We’re rich in family.” At the time, I believed it was his way of saying, “’Actually,’ Peter, ‘No.’”

I later learned he was telling the truth.

When my mom Huena was old and near death, she used to brag that all the little old ladies on her street were jealous because she had so much family around.  

Then one day, I thought: “How could she know a thing like that? Did one of the little old ladies tell her?  Or maybe she overheard them whispering. Did she forget for the moment that she was almost doorknob deaf?”

The facts didn’t matter. If you knew Huena, you understood: So what if the women never actually said they were jealous?  Mom knew they should be.   

One last quirk:  Believe it or not, some of my relatives will knowingly walk under a ladder. Can you imagine? These non-superstitious types do not freak out if a bird flies into a house, even though that’s a sure sign that somebody’s going to die.

But I—and my sister Charlene, too, I think—inherited the superstition gene from mom.

My wife says I’m the most superstitious person she’s ever met. She also thinks I’m the luckiest guy on the planet.   

To her I say, “do the math.”