Packing It In

Life has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Technologically, we’ve gone from hard-wired telephones and physical communication modes to an unlimited universe of advanced electronic, mobile, and Internet devices. Despite all those technological changes in our lives, perhaps our societal attitudes have evolved even more.

Think of how dramatically our thoughts about gay rights, abortion, drinking and driving, privacy, climate change, public safety and other big ticket issues have been altered over that time.

If you’ve ever watched the television show Mad Men before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Set in the early 1960s, almost every scene in the program involves someone either a) drinking alcohol b) cheating on their spouses or c) smoking in a venue where it would be prohibited today.

What brought the last point to mind this week was a photo I noticed of a diplomat sitting in the White House with then-President John F. Kennedy back in 1962. Tucked in the very corner of the photo, sitting inconspicuously on a coffee table, is a fancy glass case loaded with cigarettes.

To anyone born in the last 20-30 years, the thought of being able to smoke in the White House, let alone an airplane, movie theatre, doctors’ office, hospital or restaurant, is something totally foreign.

Today, it is not just illegal, it’s also socially unacceptable in many circles. Ostensibly, JFK was a cigar smoker in private and his wife Jackie was a heavy cigarette smoker but, even in 1962, this was not something generally acknowledged in public. However, that certainly didn’t stop the rest of North Americans puffing away wherever they pleased.

According to a 2013 University of Waterloo report on smoking, in 1965, over 62% of Canadian men were smokers and about 50% of all adults in this country smoked, the all-time peak in tobacco usage. Today, just 16% of Canadians are regular smokers and the number continues to fall every single year.

That’s a phenomenal change in less than half a century. Pressure by The Canadian Cancer Society, the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association and a variety of other public and private organizations has led to more and more restrictions on where people can smoke and what age you can buy cigarettes, along with packaging changes and warning notices, plus a whole bunch of other deterrents.

Health concerns have become better known. Workplaces have banned smoking. Governments have systematically bumped up “sin” taxes. The list of hindrances has grown to the point where smokers are not just a tiny minority, they’re ostracized for taking part in an activity that, in addition to being perfectly legal, continues to be a massive source of revenue for government, accounting for over $7 billion in tax revenue annually.

Most politicians wouldn’t be caught dead smoking a cigarette in public, partly because they know their political careers would likely be dead, too. In July 1984, I was working in the Press Gallery on Parliament Hill and found myself at a picnic one Sunday afternoon, chowing down next to Brian Mulroney, who would become Canada’s Prime Minister just two months later. Seeing the writing on the wall, he told me how he’d quit smoking a short time before that, as he realized how difficult being a smoker would be while holding the highest office in the country.

Barack Obama made a similar decision in February 2011 after 30 years of being addicted to the weed. And I’m sure thousands of other politicians made the same commitment, partly for their health, but mostly because it’s become a habit the majority of people not only don’t participate in, but actually frown upon, especially when it comes to the people they elect.

There’s an interesting article in the November 2014 issue of The Walrus by longtime magazine writer Lynn Cunningham about her lifelong attempt to quit smoking, part of which details her spending time in the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Centre.

After 50 years and numerous attempts to rid herself of the habit, nicotine had become a vice she knew she couldn’t overcome without serious help. Serious enough to travel to Rochester, Minnesota and pay $5,500 U.S. for the Mayo’s eight-day cessation program.

Cunningham talks about the lack of residential treatment options for those who simply cannot quit on their own – and the similar lack of public sympathy for cigarette addicts. Unlike other addictions for which there are numerous support groups available, she says reformed smokers rarely have such avenues.

She comments on the fact that many recovering addicts, especially alcoholics, are often chain smokers who don’t even consider smoking an addiction.

And she even talks about how many popular movies have been made about the struggles of quitting alcohol or drugs – when nobody would even think of making a blockbuster about someone who quit smoking.

“Popular culture basically doesn’t acknowledge smoking as a dangerous addiction, nor does it lend it the patina of romantic dissolution that might garner users more sympathy – or better treatment options,” writes Cunningham.

Last week, the Canadian Cancer Society said it is taking the “next logical step” by urging Health Canada to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes, according to a Canadian Press article.

It’s already the law in Australia, where cigarettes have been packaged in plain olive brown wrapping since late December 2012 and cigarette use has fallen sharply since.

The CP story says similar plans are in the works in Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and France. “Plain packaging is an important and logical next step for Canada to curb tobacco marketing, reduce smoking and save lives,” says Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Cancer Society.

As more and more pressure is inflicted on Canada’s remaining smokers to quit the killer weed, it’s amazing to look back at the changes that have taken place since the 1960s. When the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) was formed in 1974, its founders had very modest goals. They hoped to convince a few people that smoking was bad for their health and, in doing so, make them consider the idea of quitting.

As Canada gets closer and closer to being a non-smoking society, the NSRA must look back and marvel at how boldly life has changed in their 40 years of existence. It’s just one example of the ways our lives in this country have evolved, but it’s a profound one.

Hand Me The Remote

Are you excited about the kick-off of the new fall television season? Or could you care less? When I was a tiny TV watcher many, many years ago, I used to love this time of year. All the new shows starting and barely enough hours in the day to view them all.

Like many people, however, now the new season barely seems like a big deal at all. I emailed a few friends last month with some random magazine list about the Top 25 new network television programs this fall and they both told me they don’t even watch anything on regular television anymore, having switched their allegiances several years ago to specialty channels.

In the ever-evolving world of TV programming, it’s become a huge challenge for the formerly powerful American networks like ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX to bolster their sagging ratings against the formidable competition from outlets like HBO, AMC and Showtime.

Over the past several years, those latter stations have given viewers enticing choices they haven’t had in the past – commercial-free programming, full-length shows that fill most of an hour instead of being chopped up into little bits, and award-winning quality (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, etc.) without nearly as much censorship as conventional television.

Plus, with viewers’ ever-shrinking attention spans, most of these stations only produce 12-13 episodes per year and run them every week. Network television airs 22-23 episodes of prime time programs and they’re constantly pre-empted for “special events” or during holidays. They also go on hiatus for months at a time, annoying regular viewers and making it difficult to follow storylines.

It’s no wonder people like my friends have pretty much given up on the old-school television many of us grew up on – and switched to shows that are fresh, new and creative.

Now the television landscape is changing again. With the introduction of Netflix a few years ago, people have a whole new way of watching their favourite programs. If you’re unfamiliar with this service, think of it as a giant video store (remember those?) where you have instant access to thousands of movies and television series.

Rather than having to drag out a DVD or Blu-ray disc (remember those?), you flick on a box and pick out whatever the heck you want to watch. All without even having to move your lazy butt from your La-Z-Boy.

Theoretically, you could watch entire seasons of television programs all in one sitting. And that’s exactly what people are doing. Forget commercials. Forget taking a hiatus whenever the network feels like pulling your favourite show from the air. Forget even having to insert a disc in a machine and waiting for ten seconds while it loads.

Of course, not every program or movie is available on Netflix, so most viewers will continue to fill their plates with a combination of other programming from conventional networks, specialty stations, live sports and other options.

Still, there’s no doubt that Netflix has revolutionized many people’s television viewing habits – just as cable and satellite TV did decades ago, as VCRs (remember those?) did in the 1980s, and as the original specialty stations (including channels like Food Network and HGTV) have done over the last 20 years.

But Netflix hasn’t stopped there. No longer just a re-broadcaster of other networks’ movies and television shows, these feisty folks are now producing their own original programming, including the most recent season of Arrested Development, along with top-notch series like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.

Not only are they creating some amazing, groundbreaking programs, they’re also doing something unprecedented in the history of television. They’re making entire seasons of new programs available instantly, releasing what used to take months to accumulate all in one moment.

That’s right. You can watch a whole season of these programs continuously. Depending on how much abuse your retinas or your bladders can take, you could be done with an entire season of your favourite new program in less than half-a-day. They call it “binge watching” and it’s not hard to see why.

If you think traditional networks are freaking out about this, you’re right. And they’re not the only ones. The same specialty networks that seemed so hip a few years ago are now wondering how they’re ever going to top this. Why pay for a specialty station to watch a program over several months when Netflix can deliver great shows you can be finished with in just a few hours?

It’s the perfect fit for a society where we don’t like waiting for anything and impatience rules.

Life moves pretty fast. And it won’t be slowing down anytime soon. There’s not much call anymore for waiting or anticipating or dreaming about what’s around the next corner. That next corner is already in the rear-view mirror. Sorry you missed it.

Is that a good thing – or a bad one? Heck if I know. When it comes to television, I’m a graduate from the Luddite School of Idiot Box Viewing. For several years, I lived in a northern town with one measly television station, so my viewing choices were limited to “On” and “Off.” At the time, no one could have even dreamed what the future might hold. Or probably would have cared. But, like everything else in life, things evolve and we adapt. Or we don’t.

Move forward, stand still, live in the past. It’s your choice. Hand me that remote.

 

The Messiness Of Life

Just as I was about to begin this week’s meandering piece, I also happened to complete a remarkable piece of fiction that pointed me on a thoroughly different course. It’s funny how life works that way. We intend to go one way – and we take a completely different fork in the road. Fate jumps in and pushes us in one direction, while our brain is telling us to stay the course. We know what’s right – but then we do wrong. Or vice versa. Or upside down. Or inside out.

I’m not the quickest reader in the world and, especially if I’m involved in a well-written, thoughtful book, I tend to dawdle and re-read and linger much longer than I should. I found that particularly easy to do during the many weeks I spent with The Goldfinch, American author Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from last fall.

This is not a book for the faint of heart – and I would have a hard time recommending it to most people, not just for its doorstop-like 771 pages, but also for its sometimes sordid subject material, which involves some pretty horrid scenes of violence, illicit drug use, child endangerment, infidelity and more. That probably explains why a quick check of readers’ opinions on Amazon shows that a substantial percentage of consumer critics review the book very negatively.

On the flip side, for those with strong hearts, unsettled, questioning minds, fears about the future and puzzlement about the nature of love, this is a book that will likely stick in your brain for many, many years.

The main character in the novel, Theo Dekker, makes so many wrong-headed decisions in his life and is hit with so many cruel twists of fate, it’s hard to imagine he survives as long as he does. Constantly, he is met by brick walls where he is forced to make a choice between right and wrong – or, perhaps, the lesser of two evils – and it’s easy to cringe when we realize what direction he’s going to take when he’s forced to follow his misguided inclinations.

At one point he remarks, “We don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

Theo continues: “When in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: ‘Be Yourself.’ ‘Follow your heart.’”

For Theo – and for many of us – that’s where the trouble starts: “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, sell-immolation, disaster?”

In our long, messy complicated lives, we’re constantly placed in positions where we must make both ethical and practical decisions that will set us on certain paths and, in turn, force us into subsequent situations where new decisions must be made. And, at each crossroads, we can look backwards and forwards to help guide us but, ultimately, our hearts and minds will take us where they choose.

Of course, we can use the combined wisdom of our past to help us make those decisions. Our education. Our religious convictions. The knowledge imparted by our spouses and parents and teachers and mentors and countless others. They all play some part in what we choose.

But there’s no denying our own being. For Theo, that being is most often a dark one who suffers the crushing of the world around him almost every moment of his life.

“No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is catastrophe,” he ruminates.

Surrounded by that bleakness, however, Theo still manages to make his way, pulling something good out of the worst circumstances and, somehow, carrying on.

Because carrying on is what we all do, however much pain and hardship is involved along the way. For Theo, weighed down by unrelenting depression, he finds his own way to survive in the jungle, asking himself, “Does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end – and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?”

We all find joy in our own unique ways. We can share it with others, but their reaction to or acceptance of that joy will not be the same as ours, because their joy is found in a totally different space. We search for happiness all our lives, tripping and falling and wondering and questioning, sorting our way through the catastrophes of life and discovering what’s important and wonderful and life-affirming along the way.

As Theo discovers, life is short. “Fate is cruel, but maybe not random,” he ruminates. “Even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.”

Dive straight in. Get drenched. Because life is waiting for you.

Guilty Pleasures

We all have them. Chocolate. Soap operas. Romance novels. Ice cream. Trashy reality television shows. Tabloid newspapers. They’re called “guilty pleasures.” Mostly innocuous stuff but, perhaps, not the types of things you’ll readily mention to strangers or casual acquaintances.

One of my personal favourites is detective novels. I used to read a lot of the “classics” like Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man series with Nick & Nora Charles) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye).

Over the years, I began enjoying many of the later authors in the genre, which include John D. MacDonald, Robert P. Parker and more recent practitioners such as Robert Crais and Louise Penny, among many others.

But, in my opinion, there’s one particular novelist and one specific “detective” who stand above the rest. The author’s name is Lawrence Block, a Buffalo, New York born writer who’s lived much of his 76 years in New York City and sets many of his novels there.

Block has written several different series, a humourous one about a gentleman burglar named Bernie Rhodenbarr and a more recent one about a hit man called simply “Keller.”

All of the series are entertaining in one way or another, but if Block did nothing else but create one particular character, that would have been fine with me. His name is Matthew Scudder. To say he’s “flawed” would only begin to poke at Scudder’s many issues.

When the series started back in 1976 – nearly 40 years ago – he was an alcoholic, ex-NYPD detective who’d left his wife and two boys. He admits to taking bribes, sleeping with prostitutes, covering up crimes and much more during his time on the force. He makes the decision to quit the NYPD after accidentally killing a young girl when he was off-duty and had been drinking.

The first few novels in the series are good but, other than Scudder’s many less-than-savoury habits, aren’t particularly memorable. Ironically, the whole enterprise really takes off when the character, who now gets by as an unlicensed “detective” who helps out friends for money and lives in a seedy Hell’s Kitchen hotel, wises up and quits boozing, joining Alcoholics Anonymous.

The story goes that, at this point, Block had decided to abandon the series because he didn’t think there was any future in the story of a dry alcoholic. It goes to show that sometimes we’re not the best judges of our own talents. Far from being over, Scudder’s story had really just begun to be told.

Much of the next few novels deals with the reformed drunk’s agonizing attempts to remain sober. You’d think that learning about someone’s efforts to find his next AA meeting or trying to overcome the pull of alcohol everywhere he goes would be pretty dull stuff. On the contrary.   Instead, Block creates one of the most multi-layered, morally-conflicted humans you’re likely to encounter in fiction.

On top of that, he’s some kind of detective. Dogged. Determined. Brilliantly analytical. Able to take the tiniest most insubstantial thread and keep pulling on it with his mind until a twisted, unsolvable case is put to bed. As one of his former coworkers on the police force described him, he’s like a dog with a bone.

But, having created a great character is only part of Lawrence Block’s attraction. He also happens to be a spectacular wordsmith. And he does it with seeming effortlessness, a true sign, in my mind, of a very talented writer.

Much like Chandler or Parker in their prime, his writing is spare, his imagery always on the money. As the New York Times Book Review put it: “Bulls-eye dialogue and laser-image description,” calling his characters “almost real enough to touch.”

I rarely re-read books. Without exaggeration, I can count on one hand the number I’ve read more than once. But, that hand does not include Block. I have read the entire Scudder series, many of them more than once.

And a few years back, I decided to make it my mission to purchase each of the books in order, one or two a year, and take a run at the entire 17-volume series, just to experience the pure joy of the character that Block created so many years ago.

What a pleasure that’s been. I’m only seven books into my journey of rediscovery and I’m loving every minute. I could probably knock off each one in an evening but, instead, I’ll usually take at least a week to pore over every page, savouring the dialogue, reintroducing myself to Scudder and all his acquaintances, and learning to love this amazing, twisted, tormented character all over again.

I’ve never written to an author before, but I’ve often considered dropping Block a note, just to thank him for creating these mini-masterpieces. Maybe he’d appreciate it, as he’s hardly a household name and has never become anything close to being wealthy for his efforts. Or maybe he’s a snooty snob who would be too good to care what others think of him.

I’ll never find out because I never want to spoil the enchantment and the mystery behind both Block and his wondrous creation. Like discovering the secret behind a magic trick or the recipe for a perfect dish, sometimes, it’s just better not knowing.

Approaching the age of 80, it’s hard to know how many years Block still has with us or how many more Scudder novels he has in him. The last one came out in 2011 and he’s only written three in the past 13 years, so the end of the line could be near. That would be heartbreaking news for a devoted fan like me, but all good things end someday.

In the meantime, I intend to savour every moment of this guilty pleasure, taking snack-size pieces of Block’s delectable goodies whenever I hunger for the unmistakable taste of Scudder.             Whatever your guilty pleasure, I hope you get to enjoy it for many years to come, as well. Life’s too serious not to take a few moments every once in awhile just to enjoy it. Grab a piece and take a giant bite whenever you can. Delicious!

 

 

 

 

How Slow Can You Go?

When you’re out for a typical drive, how fast do you travel? Under the speed limit? At the speed limit? Or over the speed limit? I’d venture to guess that most Ontarians would choose the latter, especially for those who drive on the provincial and 400 series highways.

So, if most of us are already driving over the speed limit, why doesn’t the government recognize that fact and increase the maximums? Crazy talk, you say? Not at all.

According to an editorial in the July 21st edition of Maclean’s magazine, that’s exactly what’s happening in British Columbia. The story explains that the province’s Transportation and Infrastructure Minister recently announced a wide range of changes to B.C.’s highways, including raising the speed limit on dozens of them.

Maximums are being bumped up by as much as 20 km/h on certain highways, with some limits jumping to 120 km/h, the highest in Canada. The article notes that the increases have been opposed by several groups, including the RCMP, the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and environmental agencies. Their reasons include everything from safety issues to environmental concerns.

However, according to the article, “In truth, there should be no appreciable impact on safety or the environment. The changes will simply allow people to get where they’re going in a lawful and timely manner.”

Maclean’s says there is plenty of evidence showing that most people’s speed is a reflection of driving conditions and road characteristics, not posted limits. As well, contrary to what you might think, “Raising limits doesn’t produce faster average speeds; it merely makes lawful what is already common behaviour.”

The article goes on to say that it isn’t the speed itself that causes accidents – it’s the difference between the fastest and slowest drivers. “A large gap between drivers’ speeds is most often found in situations with artificially low speed limits and this can lead to dangerous passing attempts, unpredictable behaviour and driver frustration: all of which most certainly cause collisions.”

As proof, the story notes that the last time B.C. raised its speed limits in 1997 serious collisions dropped by 18 percent over the next five years, despite traffic volumes increasing by about one-third during the same period.

In deciding to raise the limits again this year, the B.C. government used a background report that states, “Speed limits should be set so that they include the behaviour of the majority of drivers and provide an appropriate maximum speed.”

The guideline used to determine the new limits is the typical speed travelled by 85% of those using the highway. By that measure, it’s pretty obvious that speed limits in Ontario are completely out of whack.

In fact, transport trucks in this province are mechanically limited to a maximum speed of 110 km/h – ten clicks over the actual speed limit on the 400 series highways. And, unless I’m totally oblivious to everyone around me on the 401 or 402, most of the passenger vehicles are already driving faster than those transports.        So, what is the province accomplishing by keeping the limits artificially low?

The Maclean’s article says the changes in B.C. will allow law enforcers to put their efforts into combatting the truly reckless drivers amongst us and, thereby, making the roads safer for everyone: “The moves should free police to focus their efforts on stopping the 15 percent of drivers who exceed accepted norms and behave in ways that are obviously dangerous to themselves and others: driving drunk, distracted driving, racing, etc.”

British Columbia and Maclean’s magazine are certainly not the only two proponents of an increased speed limit. A website called http://www.stop100.ca advocates increasing maximums to between 120 and 130 km/h on Ontario’s 400 series highways. More than 28,000 people have signed a petition on the website supporting the increase.

The Stop100 site includes editorials from several sources to back up their fight, including The Globe and Mail and The National Post, along with lots of information on various studies that support an increase in speed limits.

The website also notes that 120-130 km/h speed limits exist in more than 60 countries and states worldwide – and that many countries with higher speed limits have lower or similar fatality rates to Ontario.

What are your thoughts? Do you routinely exceed the speed limit, especially on 400 series highways? If so, do you believe you’re guilty of breaking the law and should be punished for doing so – along with the large percentage of other drivers who also typically exceed the maximum? Or do you think it’s time Ontario re-examines a policy that is constantly ignored by most of its drivers? Equally important, how do we drive home that point with our provincial government?

Deep, Dark Secrets From Advertising Land

In one of my life’s previous incarnations, I worked for many long years in the field of advertising or, as news people like to refer to it, “the dark side.”

Unlike news, which is supposed to be factual, balanced and neutral, advertising is often pretty much the exact opposite. In general, marketing is frequently built on a foundation of hyperbole, half-truths, exaggeration, dubious claims and a host of other not particularly savoury building blocks.

Need proof? Do what I do every month and check out the ‘Selling It’ section of Consumer Reports. You’ll find a showcase of the most devious and deceptive advertisements submitted by readers. Nothing brings a smile to my face like the blatantly absurd marketing methods used by some businesses.

Of course, the smile fades when you realize those same ads are also directed at you, me and hundreds of millions of other North American consumers and that, no doubt, some of us have already been wooed by their outrageous ploys.

After originally being trained as a journalist, I crossed over to the dark side almost three decades ago and discovered, instantly, the fine line that exists being truth and whatever the heck you call some forms of advertising.

Early in my career, I remember talking to a client who sold major appliances. He showed me two refrigerators, a bland white one and another one that was some kind of off-white colour. The price tags on both were the same, but the off-white model had a large sign indicating it was $100 off. Wow!

The retailer asked me which one I’d buy and, being the rookie advertising clown that I was, I pointed to the model that was “on sale.” He laughed at my ignorance, saying they were the same model, but that no one would buy the off-white version, so he had slapped the $100 enticement on it and, voila, naïve consumers were jumping at the chance to pick up the “sale” model. Ka-ching.

Oh, the lessons I learned over the next several decades. Although the idea of “bait and switch” was outlawed years ago in Canada, it still exists to this day. The idea is to advertise a low-priced model of – let’s say – electric cat polishers. Kitty lovers will swamp your store looking for the bargain polisher, only to be told that the retailer is sold out, but that he’ll give you a sweet deal on the “super deluxe” cat polisher. You know, the one that has the bonus bottle of fur enhancer or three extra speeds (fluffy, super fluffy and ultra meow). Ka-ching.

When the government tried to clamp down on the practice by saying you had to have at least one working model of something in stock in order to advertise it, one of my clients actually put locks and chains on their “working models” and, when customers asked for one, they’d claim it would take them at least an hour to find the key to unlock it.

In the meantime, Sammy Sleazeball, their top salesman, would spend the intervening time trying to upsell the customer on the features of the top-of-the-line – let’s say – cordless sandwich assembler. Ka-ching.

And it’s not just local retailers who try pulling the industrial-sized ball of wool over your eyes. It’s the national manufacturers, as well. Recently, I was in a grocery store looking at the tempting selection of bacon (mmmmmm, bacon).

At the same time, another intrepid shopper was loading his cart with $4.00 packages of smoked pork fat (aka bacon), which were “on sale.” Awesome. And not a bad price, right?

So wrong. In case you haven’t noticed, two of the major manufacturers of sizzling breakfast meat (aka bacon) have recently reduced the size of their products from 500 grams to a mere 375, roughly one third less than the original portion. I believe it’s called the ‘new convenient size’ or some such bogusness. I guess it’s convenient because everyone likes to go to the store more often to stock up on stuff, right?

Anyway, do the math. A $4.00 price on the smaller size was exactly the same as the $6.00 price on the standard size sitting next to it in the cooler. So, my bargain-hunting fellow shopper saved himself exactly – let me figure this out – nothing (didn’t even need a calculator to do the math). Ka-ching.

On the bright side, he now has a freezer full of very convenient sized packages of strips-o-piggy (aka bacon), so there’s that.

I could go on all day with dozens and dozens of similar examples. Marketing experts have a million ways to extract hard-earned dollars from your wallet and, at the same time, make you think you just acquired the bargain of the century.

Back in 1958, a fellow by the name of Sy Syms (born Seymour Merinsky) started a discount clothing chain called SYMS Corp in the United States and coined the brilliant phrase, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Although Syms passed away in 2009, that time-tested piece of advice lives on today.

Along with the phrase, “If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is,” it shows that you really need to work hard, be skeptical, educate yourself, comparison shop and don’t believe everything you hear before you blindly purchase your next – let’s say – automatic lint baller.

Buyer beware. The dark side awaits.

Have A Great Weekend!

You don’t have to go back too many years to remember when the majority of workers had weekends off. Search your memory banks and you can probably recall sitting on the back deck with your feet up, enjoying a refreshing beverage, putting the work week behind you and letting your mind drift off to Never Never Land. Zzzzzz.

Where was I? Oh, right – weekends. Well, unless you’re one of the few fortunate souls who still works Monday to Friday from 9-5, those days are long past. In addition to the normal busy parts of life (family functions, charitable endeavours, kids’ sports activities, etc.), most of the world is now burdened with a variety of tethers that tie them to their jobs 24/7, even if they’re far away from their physical workplaces.

In the “old days,” they used to say certain types of work required people to be “on-call.” What an antiquated term that seems today. Now we’re all on-call, around the clock, wherever we are, even if we’re, technically, on vacation.

Some of that may be a requirement of our employment, but much of it is self-inflicted. It’s our choice to carry our smartphones or other technological umbilical cords with us at all times, glancing at them like Pavlovian dogs every time we’re summoned, whoever is beckoning us. We can’t seem to turn them off – and most of us wouldn’t be inclined to do so whether or not we had the choice.

It’s bad enough that most of the non-stop interruptions that keep us from doing something useful with our lives involve Facebook updates (“I just bought a hat!”), tweets (#cleaningthesink), selfies (me and a lint ball), YouTube videos (Cat licks paw!!!), or whatever.

It really starts to get sad, though, when all roads inevitably lead back to our jobs: checking our emails, making notes to ourselves, calling the office, dealing with customer concerns and, of course, actually working from home for 10, 20, 30 or more additional hours a week.

At some point, we all need to shut it down and give our weary brains a much-needed snooze. In a Scientific American article from last fall entitled Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, author Ferris Jabr says, “Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy.”

Instead, we should be searching for ways to disengage ourselves from work, rather than trying to perpetually add more to our overflowing plates. Quoting an essay from The New York Times by essayist Tim Kreider, Jabr says: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.

“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

How very true. Jabr adds, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

As well, just what are we doing with all that additional “work time?” Not much of any true value, to be honest. Quoting a 2010 study of 1,700 white collar workers from the U.S., China, South Africa, the U.K. and Australia, Jabr says, “On average employees spend more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs.”

It’s easy to offer advice on how to consolidate or eliminate much of our “busywork” but, in the long-term, how effective will those efforts be if we don’t make our own commitment to downsizing our lives, resisting the temptation to peek at our electronic devices whenever they call out to us, choosing not to spend that extra hour or ten at our workplaces, deciding not to sacrifice our nights and weekends to “catch up” on our mountain of neglected employment spewage and, generally, making a choice to put leisure time ahead of our jobs.

Or maybe all of that is some unrealistic, out-of-date fantasy. Have we come so far in our evolution that we’re ready to give up all the things we’ve always cherished and that have provided us with an antidote to our jobs?

If so, perhaps it’s time we rewrote that 1981 Loverboy classic, Working for the Weekend. In today’s frenzied world, maybe it’s time to come up with some lyrics that truly reflect where we’re at today. In that case, we’ll just retitle the song, Working on the Weekend and be done with it.

Happy Birthday, Little Pony

April 17, 1964. For most of us, that date probably means nothing. But, for lovers of the iconic Ford Mustang, it’s one that’s etched forever in their collective memories. Fifty years ago this Thursday, the automobile that started the so-called “pony car” craze arrived in showrooms across North America and, as the cliché goes, the rest is history.

CAA Magazine features the latest version of the Mustang on its current Spring 2014 cover with an in-depth story on this remarkable car’s popularity. They’re not the only lovers. Articles in numerous publications have appeared over the last month as admirers worldwide celebrate the history of this legendary vehicle.

In its first year, Ford had hoped to sell 100,000 Mustangs. During its launch week, CAA says four million people visited Ford showrooms and 22,000 placed their orders.

One year later, over 400,000 had been shipped and that number would swell to a million within 18 months of its introduction. To put that in context, CAA quotes Time Magazine, which said later, “By Detroit’s favourite yardstick – sales – the Ford Mustang is the most successful car ever introduced.”

When it was unveiled at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, advertisements heralded, “Unexpected look – unexpected choice – unexpected low price.” That price was just $2,985, a bargain even in 1964 terms.

Compared to similarly priced vehicles, the Mustang, with its European sports car-style long hood and short back end, was a beauty. CAA quotes former Autoweek magazine editor John Clor: “Economy cars of the day had nothing on them – rubber floor mats, Spartan interiors, dog-dish hubcaps,” he says. “The Mustang touched all the right buttons. Inside it was refined, and outside it looked special.”

Although the car is about as American as apple pie, CAA reports that it also has a unique Canadian connection, with the first two Mustangs ending up in our showrooms. Airline pilot Stanley Tucker of St. John’s, Newfoundland bought the very first unit.

The second Mustang that was shipped, a base six-cylinder model with just 110-horsepower, ended up going to Whitehorse. Ironically, despite the wild popularity of the car across North America, that unit sat unsold in the dealer’s showroom for a year before it was let go on a trade for a ’57 Plymouth. Apparently, Yukoners missed the memo on the pony car craze.

And a craze it was. The car appeared in the James Bond film Goldfinger in its first year and, along with numerous other movie, television and videogame appearances, will probably be best remembered in Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, which CAA says, “was, is and will always be the coolest Mustang ever.”

Like all great things, however, the car also had its ups and downs. It became big and bloated – and sales started to dip. Eventually, it was redesigned and reintroduced as the Mustang II in 1974, with mixed reviews.

Five years later, a European-styled model based on what was called the “Fox platform” was introduced, one that managed to hang on for 15 years.

In 1994, a fourth-generation model hit the streets sharing a design that attempted to recreate the vehicle’s pony car roots. Eleven years later, CAA says, it “went even further in that direction, embodying flamboyantly retro styling inside and out.”

Which brings us to the 2015 model, scheduled to arrive later this year as a perfect 50th birthday present for Mustang lovers everywhere. And I do mean everywhere, as it will be sold in parts of Asia and Europe for the first time, spreading the worldwide phenomenon even further.

CAA swoons: “The newest iteration of the pony car has a lower profile than its predecessor but still maintains an athletic stance. A shorter roof height and sculpted hood and door panels (for greater aerodynamics) add up to an overall taut sleeker design.” Three engine choices will be available, including a mind-blowing 5.0-litre V8 cranking out 420 horsepower.

In many ways, this iconic car has now come full circle, returning to its roots while looking forward to the future. “We crafted this car with the goal of creating a contemporary interpretation of Mustang – an American automotive icon that symbolizes optimism and freedom for millions of people around the world,” says Jim Farley, a Ford executive vice president.

Most certainly, there is some irony in those remarks. When it was introduced 50 years ago, the Ford Mustang was seen as a revolutionary sports car that would shake the rust off the boring, bland 1950’s and herald in a new generation. And it did. The 1960’s changed the world like no other decade in recent memory, setting us on a turbulent, uncharted course that has yet to be fully resolved.

For all of Ford’s hopefulness, when you look in the rearview mirror of a new Mustang, 1964 appears completely askew and further away than ever before. In rekindling memories of “optimism and freedom,” we’re conveniently forgetting about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy less than six months before the Mustang’s introduction, the escalation of the Vietnam War, race riots, and a rainbow of other world-changing events.

You can probably pick any point in history and fantasize about how it was a “better time.” In reality, the so-called “good old days,” were rarely particularly good and usually carried with them their own chorus of challenges and worries.

On this, the occasion of the Mustang’s 50th anniversary, perhaps our best bet is to use the nostalgia it creates to rekindle our own excitement about what’s important in our lives.

For auto lovers and the more than nine million people who’ve bought one, the original pony car may be just the ticket to help reignite their fire. “Ford Mustang inspires passion like no other car,” says Raj Nair, a Ford group vice president. “The visceral look, sound and performance of Mustang resonates with people, even if they’ve never driven one. Mustang is definitely more than just a car – it is the heart and soul of Ford.”

What fuels your heart and soul? What does it take to re-fire your passion? And how will you celebrate that re-ignition? Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

 

An Unfortunate Love Affair

Hockey. Maple syrup. Freedom. Nature’s beauty. Whining about the weather. There are so many things Canadians love. And then there’s the thing we love the most. It’s a little something called debt. We’re positively enamoured of the stuff, just can’t get enough and savour it so much we just keep adding more.

According to a recent Maclean’s magazine article by columnist Jason Kirby entitled Canada’s Fatal Attraction to Debt, our total household debt jumped from $360 billion in 1990 to over $1.7 trillion last year, a staggering increase.

What’s causing our insatiable passion for credit? It’s easy to point the finger in several directions but, honestly, there’s one overwhelming cause: low interest rates. Looking at a graph accompanying Kirby’s article, it’s amazing how closely a rise in household debt to disposable income has mirrored a similar decrease in five-year mortgage rates since 1990.

It’s absolutely undeniable that low interest rates have led to a feeding frenzy of increased debt. Kirby says it’s like watching a movie called How Canadians stopped worrying and learned to love the debt bomb.

Despite warning after warning that interest rates are bound to rise sometime soon, most of us have grown immune to such predictions. After all, the rates have been virtually locked at historic lows for so many years, anyone who forecasts an increase is generally dismissed. As Kirby says, “We’re pretty much at the point now where it’s just accepted interest rates will stay low.”

But, betting that will happen and, consequently, that we’ll all be enjoying what Kirby calls “essentially free money” for years to come is a dangerous risk.

The columnist gives a generic example of a young couple earning $100,000 and wanting to purchase a home with a 25-year mortgage. Using the accepted guideline of not devoting more than 32 percent of your income to housing costs, the couple would have been eligible to borrow $200,000 in the days of 10 percent mortgage rates, which, although it may seem hard to imagine for some, was roughly the average rate over the last 40 years.

Instead, with rates today hovering around three percent, that same couple would now be able to borrow $300,000, 50% more than in the past. If they did, they’d be paying roughly $1,420 a month. However, should rates increase to that historic 10 percent mark, their monthly payments would balloon to something like $2,700. If you’re a new homeowner, try to imagine how that would affect your life.

And, of course, the same holds true for everything we buy. As Kirby points out, “An era of low rates has desensitized borrowers to the risks inherent in carrying too much debt. A whole generation of young Canadians has come of age in an era when no bungalow, renovated kitchen cabinets or TV is ever truly out of reach.”

There’s little doubt that the entire world’s economy is one giant house of cards. It wasn’t too long before the recession hit in late 2007 that many countries, including the U.S. and most of Europe, were considered to have booming economies that, ostensibly, showed no signs of collapse. Then BOOM!

For a few short years, there were some tough reality checks where credit dried up, houses were repossessed and much of Europe was revealed to be a virtual economic sinkhole. Then things started turning around again and – voila – people returned to their same old ways.

In Canada, due to a highly regulated banking industry and some relatively prudent government schemes, we were spared the worst of the recession’s woes and some people took a small breather from spending like drunken, financially-lobotomized sailors. But, that tendency was short-lived and now we’re pretty much back to where we started pre-recession.

The one saving mercy for all of us is that interest rates continue to hold steady, long after it was predicted over and over and over by economists and other financial geniuses that they would rise. Now, even the most rabid predictors of interest rate increases are hedging their bets, saying it could happen in 2015 or the next year or the year after that.

It doesn’t much matter. As Kirby concludes so eloquently: “Central banks have consistently proven themselves incapable of spotting bubbles. It happened in the U.S. It will happen here. And when the consensus among economists, and more importantly, borrowers, is for rates to stay low, it’s a safe bet they’ll be proven wrong. The story of Canada’s love affair with debt has all the makings of a cliffhanger, and those who’ve overextended themselves are standing at the precipice.”

Don’t miss the surprise ending to this spine-chilling thriller. I hear it’s a real shocker. Or maybe not so shocking at all.

 

 

Breaking The Code

It’s often said that baseball is a metaphor for life. Each spring, as the major league season gets set to begin, I like to read one baseball-related book to set the mood for the next 162 games. And, inevitably, I end up learning a little bit more about baseball – and a whole lot more about life.

This year on the bookshelf, it was the third effort by Dirk Hayhurst, a journeyman pitcher who had a couple of cups of coffee with three major league teams a few years back, but is probably better known for his intelligent, witty writing and his television appearances on Rogers Sportsnet and TBS during last year’s playoffs.

Hayhurst’s books are filled with small moments of triumph surrounded by plenty of self-doubt, deprecation and failure. His first book, The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran, talked about his long career in the minor leagues, trying and hoping for a break that would take him from a life of riding buses and pinching pennies to the big-paying career of a major leaguer. This was a side of baseball rarely written about, which made it refreshing. It also made Hayhurst somewhat of a pariah for breaking an unwritten baseball code: what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room.

In his second effort, Out Of My League: A Rookie’s Survival in the Bigs, Hayhurst finally achieves his dream of playing regularly in the major leagues. Along the way, he meets and marries the woman of his dreams and buys his first house. Still, Hayhurst is hounded by the demons of his own horribly dysfunctional family and finds many bumps in the road.

Which brings us to Bigger Than the Game: Restitching a Major League Life, Hayhurst’s latest effort. The “code” plays a bigger part in this chapter of Hayhurst’s life. The book picks up after his successful season with the Jays when he injures himself in the off-season and spends the better part of the year undergoing surgery, rehabbing and dealing with severe depression.

Hayhurst ends up talking with a sports psychologist via phone for a good portion of this period, trying to sort out why he can’t be happy, even when good things happen to him. He talks often about the nature of the code and how he’s alienated his teammates by breaking one of baseball’s unwritten laws. He worries constantly about how he is perceived by others and struggles with trying to hold himself back and act the way he’s expected to around veteran players, coaches, trainers and his wife.

The psychologist listens patiently for several sessions of Hayhurst’s moaning and whining, leading the player along and pretending to be on his side. Finally, he broadsides Dirk, telling him how incredibly selfish and self-centred he is. Hayhurst is so shocked, he actually makes the doctor repeat himself and asks, “Is this a joke?”

To answer the question, the psychologist explains: “You keep using this language, ‘everyone.’ ‘Everyone hates me. Everyone likes me. They all think I’m nuts.’ It’s a pretty selfish way to think, wouldn’t you say? Believing that at any given time every person you come into contact with hates or likes you, or even cares about you at all?”

Hayhurst tries to reason with the psychologist, talking about how a few of the players have openly criticized him for breaking the code. “I know all about expectations and codes and unwritten rules,” says the doctor. “Most players spend their entire careers subscribing to one form of them or another. Most people, for that matter. You think baseball players are unique in code making?”

Hayhurst says he does. “Please,” the psychologist says. “You’re not as special as you think. People everywhere worry about how the group will see them if they break those codes. Codes they never even had a hand in making but take on as all-encompassing. We all do. And we all project those assumed consequences of breaking those codes onto ourselves or others, to the point that we act on them irrationally.”

It’s at this moment that the door to Hayhurst’s real problems is finally opened wide. The issue is not about others, it’s about Hayhurst himself. Like all of us, to some degree, he’s concerned about what others think about him, rather than trying to live his own life and be true to himself. He can be what he wants to be, but he also has to deal with the consequences when he does so. If he feels there’s a reason for breaking the code and doing what he believes in, he needs to fight for that right.

During this time, Hayhurst also befriends a brilliant physical therapist who helps him battle through his pitching injuries and insecurities while the psychologist continues to work on his mental challenges. With their help and, as the book’s subtitle notes, he’s able to restitch his life. As his psychologist says, “I’m not going to fix you, Dirk, because you’re not broken. I’m just going to help you learn about who you are, underneath the seams.”

There you have it. A metaphor for life masquerading as a book about baseball. It proves that you never know where you’re going to find wisdom or learn more about your own place on this planet. In this case, Hayhurst has provided both. And hit a home run while doing it. How many pitchers can say that?