Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

I try to offer a positive response when I receive good service. It’s funny how sometimes even a complement can be misconstrued.

A couple of years ago, my daughter’s laptop developed an issue and had to be sent away for a warranty repair. The computer company (starts with H, ends with P) was very accommodating. There was no argument about the issue. They sent us a prepaid box to pack the laptop in and gave us instructions on mailing through UPS. I took the box to our nearest UPS depot around noon on a Monday. The repair shop was in North Bay, Ontario (pretty well across the country) and I expected to see the computer back in a week or so.

Much to our surprise, the repaired computer arrived back at the house on Wednesday morning – it hadn’t been gone more than 48 hours! I was impressed with the level of service so I went on to the company website to look for a feedback form. I found something that said, “Talk to the President”, so I filled out the form and thanked them for the great service.

A couple of days later I got a phone call from HP Customer Service. They were following up on my feedback – the first thing the person on the phone asked; “was your concern dealt with appropriately?” I told the person that I didn’t have a problem – I just wanted to tell them that I really appreciated the prompt service and they should be congratulated. There was a silence and then the person said, “Oh sorry, we don’t get many complements – we just wanted to be sure there wasn’t a problem”. Hmmm.

Last month, we went out to a family restaurant for breakfast since we had managed to get some of the far flung members of the family together. The food was good and when the server came by to remove the plates, she asked how everything was.  I replied that I thought the meal was great and the omelette was particularly good. She looked at me and in a surprised voice said “Really!?!”

This was not exactly the response I had anticipated and I said that she sounded surprised. She replied that she had never had an omelette and then went about packing up the rest of our dishes. After she left, that was worthy of a face palm. She should probably never consider a career in marketing.

Maybe this world would be a little better off if people showed appreciation for the extraordinary instead of expecting that as the norm.


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When I think back about Christmas in my past, I find it interesting that I don’t particularly remember what I got as presents, as much as the people and the moments we shared. My memories are about playing with my cousins when I was young – enjoying the Christmas dinner – and after I left home, coming back to be with family and friends. And as I grew older with my own family, there were the rituals that evolved.

For the last few years, board games have been a part of Christmas Day. Being called upon to be an arbitrator in Scrabble disputes or participating in a cut-throat game of Monopoly, it is fun to watch the family dynamics take place. It has become clear that despite the commercial pressures and build-up to the day, the important thing is not the what, but the who.

Penny waiting for her turn at Monopoly.

Penny waiting for her turn at Monopoly.

And this year, not wanting to be left out, our old lab/border collie cross decided she was going to play with us. In the middle of the game, she came downstairs and plopped herself between two of the kids and waited for her turn. Another Christmas memory for us all.

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At one point in our existence, we had four kids eight and under. Interesting times indeed!

When new parents find out that I have four (the youngest is now almost 20), they almost always ask if I have any advice to share. The first piece of wisdom I give is; “never let them out number you” (we lost that battle pretty early on). The next is that after a certain age (usually around two or so), you have to treat them as little tape recorders that are constantly at your feet and you never know when they are on!

My favourite memory of the second piece of advice was in the family van on the way to the grandparents. We had stopped at a light and in the pause while we waited there was a faint but distinct voice from the back of the van singing “a friend of the devil is a friend of mine”.

Sure enough, as I turned around, there was Ian (our number 2 son) in his car seat happily singing the Grateful Dead song. Now his melody wasn’t spot on, but I was impressed that my three year old had such great taste in music. After everyone shared a big laugh, we did suggest to Ian that he might not want to share the song with his grandparents. Yes, out of the mouth of babes …

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Upon reflection, yesterday was a pretty good day. Notwithstanding that I have felt like crap for over a week, yesterday was therapeutic.

After taking my daughter to work, I tided up around the house in anticipation of a musical afternoon. The boys came over and we rehearsed for about four hours in preparation for our gig coming up in a couple of weeks. It was the usual suspects as well as our friend Kyle, who plays a mean fiddle and mandolin. My throat feels like it is lined with sandpaper but being able to play with such good musicians makes everything seem good. Kyle, in particular, rounds out our sound with his bluegrass and country experiences. It is such a pleasure to be able play and get more out of each song than we had before – every time we run through a song, some other opportunity presents itself and we get better. Salon.com ran an article this week on how music positively affects blood pressure and one’s mental state. I can’t vouch for the blood pressure, but playing always puts me in a better mood.

I was just about to go and pick up my daughter from her work, when my number two son dropped in. He was over to watch some hockey and catch up on family business. Ian (#2) and Andrew (#3) settled in for a game of Trivial Pursuit on the computer and roped me in for a game later in the evening. It was fun. I really enjoy the company of my kids – not a steady diet mind you – but it is great to share some time with them. I am still Dad, but there is a nice relaxed feel to getting together. They are smart, funny, respectful, well-spoken and I am proud of all of them. There were no formal activities – just a good day with good people. Can’t ask much more than that.

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My maternal grandmother lived to be 100. We were chatting recently about what she must have seen introduced in her lifetime. She told me she remembered seeing the first car in the small town where she grew up and the introduction of electric lights. Since I am getting more advanced in age, someone asked what I had seen new in my six decades. Upon giving it some thought, I was a little surprised at some of the big and small innovations that had I experienced. In no particular order:

Jet Airplanes – A neighbour of ours in Toronto worked for American Airlines and when I was around 7 or 8, I was invited to go with their family to see the first American Airlines Boeing 707 land at Malton (now Pearson International). In what may have been a taste of the future, the plane was late and I never did get to see it. But, I remember the huge hanger and all the free food that was set out for the dignitaries.

Push-Button Phones – You had two choices for phones when I was young – a wall or desk phone. And they were rotary dial phones. Push button phones became popular in the early 1960s. I recall going to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto and seeing the Bell exhibit where two people could “race” to see who could dial faster – the rotary or the push-button phone. Of course, the push-button phone won every time and this was touted as a big marketing feature. In an early adaptation of the portable phone, Dad installed a 10 foot long coil cord on the kitchen wall phone – so you could walk around the kitchen and talk at the same time. It was the future!

On a side note, my father and I sounded very much alike on the phone. My Dad had the habit of answering the phone, talking to my girlfriend at the time and then exclaiming “Oh, you want my son”. My Dad had an interesting sense of humour.

Colour Television – As I mentioned in an earlier post, we always had a television in the house from the time I can remember. But in 1968, I went on a 10 day canoe trip with some buddies and came home to find a colour television in the front room. We had made the big time. Of course there was no cable at that time so you were at the mercy of the weather gods to how good a signal you would get, but colour television was a big deal – no matter that the colours weren’t always the greatest or the most accurate.

Records to Cassettes to CDs – I wish I had a picture of my first record player. It was from Eaton’s Department Store and the turntable sat vertically and folded down when you wanted to play a record. My parents were really quite understanding (that may be the wrong term) in that I could ‘customize’ my stuff. I installed jacks off the speakers so I could hook up a set of headphones. Hi-fidelity it wasn’t but it was mine. My first album was a Hard Day’s Night by the Beatles, which I won in a contest on CHUM-AM (I was in the CHUM Bug Club). After working at my first few part-time jobs, I purchased a proper stereo set. It was a Telefunken and I still have the speakers – they have stood up that well.

The Telefunken had a cassette deck which was huge because the next purchase was a cassette deck for the car. Now we could have our music on the road. I recently went through the cassette tapes made during the 70s and most are unplayable due to the tape deteriorating. I had some good music on those tapes. My first CD player was a Sony that I bought in 1985 for $500. It had no remote and had a single drawer for discs. Finding CDs at that time was a real challenge and whenever I went away, I was on the hunt. Sam the Record Man in downtown Toronto was a favourite haunt. And at that time, CDs went for around $20 where an album would cost around $8. But the sound was worth it! And the CDs were indestructible (or so we thought – there were some painful lessons learned around that point).

Computers – Probably the biggest changes over my lifetime have been in computers. I first started using mainframes in university in the early 1970s. My undergraduate thesis in 1975 was a computer dispersion model of pollutants from a point source on the Lake Ontario water front. The program was painstakingly typed on punch cards and then submitted to the computer centre to run. The output was on huge reams of paper. I made a mistake on one run and was greeted by a stack of printout over three feet tall and a note saying to “see the operator”. That run alone cost over $600 in computer time but the strange thing was that the geography department wasn’t on a budget for computer time that year so really no one cared. In fact, they asked me to run the program again with the same mistake (I had left out a period on one of the cards) so they could run up the numbers for the following year when they were to go on a budget.

I got my first computer in 1979. It was essentially a rack with electronic cards placed inside. The CPU, the video, the RAM memory was all on separate cards. The output was a monochrome CRT monitor and the operating system was CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers – a forerunner of DOS). I still remember getting very excited when I upgraded the RAM from 32K (yes K) to 64K. I went to an electronics supply store, bought the memory chips and installed them myself. Those days are long gone.

My first store-bought computer was the Commodore VIC-20. The programs were loaded by using cassette tapes. By this time I had moved to Edmonton, but every time I went back to Toronto, I would hit the computer stores to find programs that just weren’t available out west. It was an interesting culture back then – it was a very small group of people that were into computers at first and there was a do-it-yourself mentality around your equipment.

These were a few of things that I recall changing over my lifetime. So as I sit writing this on a quad core desktop with a 21 inch LCD monitor and Office 2010, I can’t but smile over what I have seen and wonder what my kids will experience during their lives.

(And the ironic part is that as I am writing this, I am listening to Jefferson Airplane from 1967 – some things just don’t get old.) 🙂

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The Road

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I just returned from a trip to visit my sister in Ontario. Since we, as in the Big Sky Gliders, had accepted an invitation to play in Bethune Saskatchewan on Canada Day, I thought that since I am already one day closer to the East, I might as well keep going. It is about a 3½ to 4 day drive from Edmonton. I travel through the States along U.S. Route 2 for the most part. Passing through Duluth Minnesota, I continue over to the Mackinac Bridge and then south to the Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia Ontario. On the way back I took a slightly different route through International Falls and crossing back into Canada just north of Warroad Minnesota.

This is not the first time I have done this drive. I first moved to Alberta in the fall of 1975. I never had any intention of staying, just go to school and then head back east. Of course, life has other ideas and I have been in Alberta since then. As a grad student, flying back to visit was expensive and besides I like long road trips. There is something that I can’t really describe about being on the road. Unlike flying where you just get there, driving let’s you absorb the country in between your home and your destination. I did the trip a few times with other people, but the majority of trips have been solo. Unlike some people I know, I am comfortable with being with myself – the long days give you time to think, reflect and contemplate life.

Prairie scenery

The long road trip is about scale. Time is stretched as mile after mile pass by. You have a final destination, but for today it is as far as you can go. You stop where you want to – whether it be the end of a long day or somewhere that looks interesting. If there is a scenic lookout that looks interesting, you stop. If you are not hungry, you keep going. If there is another way of getting there, you can go that way. One of the criteria for selecting a route on some trips is how winding the road is. All this is up to you – it is a sense of freedom that we don’t get a chance to experience often in our day to day lives. And I like the drive.

It might be in my genes as well. My dad was a long-distance truck driver. It was a not an easy life, but I went with him a couple of times on his trips and I really got the sense he liked what he did. Must have trickled down 🙂

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan

It isn’t always pleasant. Winter trips can be difficult and downright dangerous. One trip in my 1978 Honda Civic hatchback, I was driving after dark in North Dakota. The snow and wind were getting more intense and it became hard to even see the road. North of Minot, I hit a snow drift that had started to come across the road – pretty well stopped the car. That was the sign I needed – I turned around and headed for the the nearest town. Driving south on Highway 69 in Ontario, I was driving in a blizzard in my Toyota Tercel wagon. I must have been driving through a rock cut and as I passed out of the cut the full force of the wind hit the car from the side. I caught the car but not before I was in the oncoming lane – luckily no one was in the lane or I wouldn’t have been writing this.

Upcoming weather

And there is the weather you encounter. For a cloud junkie such as myself, it is an opportunity to see all manner of weather. I think sometimes people insulate themselves from the world around us. Yes, there are risks in being out there but there are risks in not venturing out. It would seem that we are more divorced from our natural world, especially younger folks. It makes it difficult to make informed decisions about the world around you when you have little experience in that environment. I have a healthy respect for all manner of the outdoors – but it doesn’t stop me in venturing forth. Maybe we need to replace ‘virtual’ with ‘real’.

Care to see what is on the other side?

How could you not want to travel this road? Highway 501 in southern Alberta

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For Dad

When I was younger I remember hearing that children grow up to be their parents. Of course, when you are young, that is the last thing you want, or expect, to happen. But it does.

I remember using Dad’s repertoire of sayings when the kids were growing up. Occasionally I would catch myself – thinking “I remember Dad using that one”. It is almost like that little tape recorder in your head just goes back to the last appropriate time and you get back what works in that situation.

This Father’s Day was another reminder. My kids asked what I would like for Father’s Day and at first, I truthfully said I really didn’t want anything – exactly what Dad would say. (I later relented and asked for a gift card from our local hat shop.) I had struggled with this with my Dad until – and I don’t remember whether he suggested this or I thought it up on my own – I figured out something that he would like.

Dad had always supported my interest in photography and as I got better at taking pictures, it occurred to me that prints of my best shots might be a good option. So Dad started getting prints. I never was quite sure that it was the right thing to do until I didn’t give him one for Christmas and was asked, “where’s my print?”. When Dad passed in 1994, I inherited the album that he had put together. The gift prints can be found on my Flickr account in a set called ‘Dad’s Shots’.

Here are a few from the set:

North Channel – Georgian Bay – This was near Thessalon Ontario where Dad had spent time after coming back from WW2. I took this in 1975 when I was moving to Alberta

A sunrise captured at Rocky Mountain House, Alberta in 1987

A lightning strike taken from my apartment balcony in Edmonton, Alberta in 1980.

And a little bit of advice for new Dad’s – don’t worry about the “what” they get you or whether you even need or want it. Just let them give you something back as their thanks to you.

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