Category Archives: Personal History

Warm at heart on a dark winter’s night

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In my backyard, where the columbine grows bushy and fat in June, now sits a solid cone of snow as tall as an apple sapling. It’s not yet mid-January, and the top of my neighbor’s five-foot-high fence has already begun to submerge under white.

What’s going on here?

Those who dismiss global warming as a scientific hoax are having the time of their lives issuing their standard “gotchas” and “I-told-you-sos”. Meteorologists, of course, remind them that climate change manifests itself in extreme weather over time – not in the occurrence of a single hard winter.

But is this shaping up to be a particularly hard winter for this corner of Canada? It sure feels that way.

The season roared in well before Christmas with successive storms, each dumping at least 20 centimeters of snow on southeastern New Brunswick. By January 1, there was at least 120 cms of the stuff on the ground. Then came the freezing rain, followed by the tooth-snapping cold.

All of which made mincemeat of the official forecasts issued by Environment Canada, which had predicted a far less eventful holiday season. Curiously enough, the Old Farmer’s Almanac came closer to the mark with its declaration that “temperatures, precipitation, and snowfall will all be above normal this winter” and the “the coldest periods will occur in early and late December.”

Despite the snow, cold, rain and power outages in the eastern part of the country, however, those who actually follow the weather for a living insist that, so far, there’s nothing particularly unusual – longitudinally speaking – about this start to winter in the Great White North. It’s just that in recent years, especially mild conditions have pampered us into forgetting our own history, and not for the fist time.

Consider a few excerpts from David Phillips’ Canadian Weather Trivia Calendar.

On January 7, 1911, “A dispatch from central New Brunswick said ‘Raining again today, our fields are as bare as mid-summer, cattle are not grazing.’ Owing to the absence of snow, lumbermen complained that yarded lumber could not be hauled out. In Fredericton, the opening hockey game featuring arch rival Marysville had to be rescheduled because the balmy weather made it impossible for the teams to get into shape.”

In the other extreme, on January 13, 1975, “a major storm in Atlantic Canada, with winds gusting to 130 km/h, snapped ice-laden power lines, leaving hundreds without warmth in -30 celsius weather. In New Brunswick, a utility lineman was killed when winds upended the bucket on his cherry picker and he fell 10 meters.”

Then, there was the infamous gale of January 31, 1992, which covered the Moncton area in snow that was literally yards deep (so deep, in fact, that my sister, who was living in the city at the time, entered and exited her second-floor apartment through a window under which a drift had conveniently formed).

In fact, though, as I grow older I mind harsh (or even normal) winters far less than I once did. As a younger man, visions of warm beaches in tropical locales and golf courses in desert resorts of the American southwest, kept my cabin fever at bay.

Now, I’m inclined to perceive our winter for what it is: a months-long opportunity to reacquaint myself with the inexorable cycle of life, which, to my four-year-old grandson simply means building a snow fort.

And so, with his dad, that’s what we did on the night before New Years Eve, after dark, with flashlights and sturdy garden spades in hand. The youngster and his grandmother crafted a cardboard sign, which read “Sno Mou” (that would have been “Snow Mountain”, but they ran out of room), and affixed it to the fort’s roof.

As every architect who works in snow knows, the fate of every fort is assured by the builder’s obsessive need to tweak and carve and dig until the thing possesses the structural integrity of a wad of tissue paper.

Still, my grandson seemed eminently pleased with himself, post collapse. And as he headed into the house, he grinned at the solid cone of snow as tall as an apple sapling that was, only minutes before, “Sno Mou”.

Maybe, I thought, we’d build another some time this winter before the columbine grows bushy and fat in June.

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Home alone for the holidays

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They rolled over the central Maritimes, one after another, each a vast, white steamroller, each inevitable, inexorable, remorseless; and at some point on the day after my holiday haircut and before the last bag was packed, I knew the adventure was over before it had begun.

“We’re not going to make this happen, are we?” I quizzed my wife, already certain of her answer. She remained silent, but the look on her face said everything that needed to be said.

We had started planning the trip to New York City – a short, Christmastime sojourn in the Big Apple – last winter. It had made terrific sense. Our adult daughters would be gone with their families, enjoying the seasonal cheer this year with their husbands’ relations. We, in turn, would escape to Manhattan’s jazz clubs and Central Park and the Museum of Modern Art.

By early November we were ready: tickets bought, various admissions arranged, hotel reservations confirmed. Nothing would stop us. Nothing could go wrong. After all, we’d orchestrated a similar jaunt to London, England, only two Christmases ago, and it went off without a hitch.

Of course, December 2011 was not, as things transpired, December 2013.

The Canadian winter dominates the nation’s literary canon as Professor Moriarty did the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: capricious, diabolical, confounding. And so it was in the days before our scheduled great escape. Storm upon storm upon storm descended, bringing with them all the attending power outages and, more relevantly for us, flight delays and cancellations.

We had planned for every contingency except, naturally, the one for which there is none. Now, the battle turned indoors.

How exactly does one enjoy a merry Christmas when no halls had been decked, no mistletoe had been strung, no presents had been wrapped? Hell, no tree had been raised. Is any scene more pathetic than that of two 50-somethings huddled around the fireplace channel, crackling away on the tube? The packet of American bucks rested, inert, in the living room bureau drawer, feeling very sorry for itself, indeed.

Fortunately, my wife possesses a streak of resourcefulness wide enough to inspire a planeload of stranded passengers. With cheerful fortitude, she determined that if we could no longer go to New York then New York would come to us, and began to organize our leisure time accordingly.

Back issues of the New Yorker magazine were rescued from the recycle and placed prominently on the coffee table. Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, and Bullets Over Broadway were stacked neatly beside the CD player, waiting only for the bagels and lox to be served.

In no time, quotes from the iconic New Yorker – Woody Allen, himself – danced through our heads. . .

This: “I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.”

And this: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

And this: “The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.”

And this: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

When we’d had our fill of that sort of wit, we turned to another, in form of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 miles in the City by William B. Helmreich. The book, a gift from our daughter, fairly brims with a native’s good-natured observations about his home town:

“The conclusions drawn. . .are based. . .on the more than six thousand miles I walked through the streets and parks of New York City over a four-year period,” he writes. “I hung out on street corners, attended community meetings, sat in parks, went to concerts, danced in nightclubs, and spoke with hundreds of people from every walk of life. In truth, I’ve actually been walking this city since I was a young child, having been raised here.”

Meanwhile, storms continued on their punishing course and the planes stayed grounded, as did we – but in a good way, as we gorged on the promise of spring.

“What about New York in May,” I quipped. “Winter should be over by then.”

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There’s still life in the old folks home

 

Leaves of grass for NB's labour market

The day passed like any other at this time of the year: under a darkening gloom that  heralds the inevitable arrival of the great, white death that is the Maritime winter.

If genies were real, and I employed one, I would move my birthday (yesterday), to a more cheerful month, such as May, which Milton observed lyrically “doth inspire mirth, and youth, and warm desire.”

There’s nothing especially youthful, mirthful or warm about November. And as the days get shorter, it so happens so do the years in this corner of the country.

A piece in the Telegraph-Journal yesterday suggests that New Brunswick is aging more rapidly than just about everywhere else in the nation. By Statistics Canada’s reckoning, 17.6 per cent of this province’s 750,000-strong population is age 65 or older. Nova Scotia’s populace is just fractionally more geriatric: 17.7 per cent of people there are upper sexagenarians.

Under the circumstances, If you came from Nova Scotia to live in New Brunswick (as I did) you now can’t help feeling as if you’ve merely switched rooms in the old folks home. “The four Atlantic provinces round out the top four spots in the country in terms of having the most seniors – all more than 17 per cent,” the T-J reports. “Alberta and the territories have the lowest percentages of seniors – all less than 12 per cent.”

Meanwhile, “New Brunswick also has the second highest median age in Canada at just under 44 years of age. Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest median age at just over 44 years.”

Such news, like the weather and the time of the year, naturally evokes situational unease, a sort of contact dermatitis of the soul. Indeed, it has become customary for political leaders from all parties to decry the demographic shift underway in New Brunswick and elsewhere in Atlantic Canada.

But fellows like Michael Haan, the Canada research chair in population and social policy at the University of New Brunswick, thinks we’re missing point. We should stop complaining – something we’ve been doing almost reflexively for years – and embrace our wizening profile. After all, what else do you do with lemons but make lemonade?

Actually, his argument is a little less flippant than that as he tells the T-J, “I think young, entrepreneurial people should see opportunity here. You have a large population of aging baby boomers who are wealthy and have time on their hands. . .These are interesting people who have lived full lives.”

Well, I know I have. In fact, despite Mr. Haan’s unfortunate use of the past tense, I still am living a full life. I belong to the largest cohort of the boom – those who turn 53 this year – and when I amble down history lane, I am frequently astonished by a half-century of change.

In 1960, the year I was born, for example, the Gross National Product of the United States was $503 billion. Today, it’s closer to $16 trillion. In that year, the median household income in America (not adjusted for inflation) was less than $6,000. Today, it’s more than $50,000.

Also in 1960, according to The People’s Chronology (published in 1979), “The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC meets for the first time September 14 at Baghdad and  forces a retraction of the decrease in oil prices by Standard Oil of New Jersey. . .Some 2,000 electronic computers are delivered to U.S. business offices, universities, laboratories, and other buyers. . .The debate will rage as to whether computers wipe out jobs or create new ones. . .Aluminum cans for food and beverages are used for the first time commercially but 95 per cent of U.S. soft drinks and 50 per cent of beer is sold in returnable bottles that are used 40 to 50 times each.”

It’s easy to forget the “full lives” members of every generation lead. The passing of time, of youth, renders us sentimental codgers and coots in this dangerously sentimental month of the year.

Sure, we’re getting old. It happens to the best of us. But New Brunswick’s economy is not a nursery school with seats saved for precious toddlers.

There’s work to be done, and we’re not dead yet

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Thank God, it’s quitting time

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Having reached an auspicious day, well into the double digits since I began my very own, proprietary smoking-cessation program, I am now prepared to offer the following conclusion regarding the results of my effort: What the hell was I thinking?

Okay, that’s less a conclusion than it is an admission that, under different circumstances, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford – he of crack pipe and empty beer steins – might have been my sympathetic ‘amico’ (to use the common parlance of his alleged associates).

Permit me to elaborate.

Some weeks ago – at about the time of a visit from my Charlottetown-based daughter, her husband, and their two young kids – I began to feel edgier than usual about the fact that, while the rest of the health-conscious, civilized world had ‘butted out‘ long ago, I was still sucking back a regular complement of cigarettes daily.

All of which may have been considered normal behaviour in a 22-year-old college boy, circa 1983. After all, at that time, my father smoked, as did his friends and associates. Hell, from time to time, even my doctor lit up in his own consulting room. “Where’s my manners?” he once chastised himself. “Can I offer you one?”

But, nowadays, it remains pretty much inexcusable conduct, especially for a man (a grandfather of three, with another due in March, no less) approaching his 53 birthday. So, the question, for me, was not if or when to quit, but how.

“Everyone’s different,” a friend who is a former smoker advised.

“You’re not being helpful,” I complained.

“What I’m getting at is that you should expect to fail spectacularly.”

“Did I mention about that whole helpful thing?”

“What you must do is get right back at it. . .Never stop quitting.”

My father, who must have quit a dozen times before he stopped altogether many years ago, says going cold turkey was, in the end, the only way he licked the habit. Others I have known have slapped on the patch or chewed nicotine gum, though with only varying degrees of success.

“Everyone underestimates how insidious this stuff really is,” someone I know once wrote, though I am paraphrasing from memory. “I remember this one time, when you could still smoke on airplanes, I was trying to quit. So, here I was chewing some nic-gum when all of a sudden I was overcome with this horrible feeling of anxiety. I spit out what was in my mouth and whipped out a smoke. It was only later when I realized I had actually developed a momentary fear of flying just so I could have a cigarette.”

Another chum, a fellow journalist (naturally), quit drinking booze in his 40s and once said it was the hardest thing he ever did. Until, that is, he tried quitting smokes. “Wow,” he recanted. “Now, that’s tough.”

Or, as Mark Twain reportedly quipped, “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” Then again, as Brooke Shields once observed with utter seriousness, “Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.”

The physical addiction to nicotine aside, it’s the psychological associations that more often bring down the lonely, sojourning quitter who pines for his best friend, now absent: the first coffee-of-the-day smoke, the pre-work-focus-the-mind smoke, the post-work-pre-dinner-cocktail smoke. The list is endless.

In my case, there was no easy way through it, around it or over it. I would dramatically reduce my daily tobacco consumption by several orders of magnitude. I would smoke only at the very end of the evening, during which I have no previous association with cigarettes.

I’m down to four a day. It’s been that way for weeks. Next week, I’ll be down to two. And, then, the week after that. . .

I’m fine. Really, I am.

I’ve taken up knitting, and needle point, and crocheting. I like to whittle toilet-roll holders from the branches of alder trees. Mostly, though, I like to walk aimlessly, for miles each day, muttering to myself.

Muttering things like, “What the hell was I thinking?”

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