Category Archives: General

Dave O’Connor gets the party started

It’s not that he’s perfectly fine with a global shortage of helium. In fact, his voice actually seems to rise at the mere mention.

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It’s just that Dave O’Connor, president of, arguably, Nova Scotia’s leading party-supply outfit, doesn’t let much get him down – something about tears of a clown, which would be bad for business.

In fact, over at Dartmouth-based Glow – where 35,000square feet of tables, chairs, tents, tablecloths, glasses, ribbons, streamers, signs, placards, and, when the season requires, costumes, beckon to celebrants of every disposition – business couldn’t be better.

That might be partly due to the worldwide growth over the past five years of the ‘instant party’, a social-media-driven phenomenon that now recognizes World Goth Day and International Talk Like Pirate Day alongside Christmas and Easter.

But O’Connor, who started the business 23 years ago and now employs as many as 150 people at various times of the year, prefers to explain his success as a combination of good, old-fashioned customer service and a buoyant, anything-goes attitude.

“We are a one-stop shop with five divisions,” says the Halifax Chamber of Commerce business leader award-winner (2018). “We do signs, games, parties, events, and Halloween. Hey, we’re on the cutting edge of bounce castles.”

Says one of the store’s Facebook friends: “Glow is the best place to go for balloon bouquets. We release balloons every year (into the air) and they are biodegradable.”

Until, of course, the helium runs out. Still, says O’Connor with typical élan: “If we have to, we’ll fix ‘em to sticks.”

For: Halifax Magazine, July 2019

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A walk to remember

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The day began, a year ago today, under the hard light of an uncertain spring. That day was not for strolling or cavorting in the newly opened playgrounds and parks of downtown Moncton. The mercury barely touched 12 degrees, and the sky, thick with cloud, lingered and loomed like a certain threat.

Still, my wife and I, in our early 50s and determined to amplify our expectations of a happy life together, set out as usual on our fast walk around Jones Lake in the west end of the city. As we did, we spoke of many things.

We spoke of our children, and how lucky we were to still have them in our orbit. Our Melinda in faraway Toronto was thriving as a professional practice analyst at the Ontario College of Early Childhood Educators. Our Jessica was less than a year away from completing her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree at the University of Prince Edward Island.

What’s more, our sons-in-law (Richard Whittall to Lindy; Myles Thompson to Jess) actually seemed to like us, as did their kids (Lindy’s and Rich’s James and Isla; Jess’s and Myles’ Euan and Ruby).

We were fortunate, indeed, we agreed, as we turned the corner where the late, great Reuben Cohen still lived.

How many more blessings, we wondered, could we count on our way around and past the coffee shop that used to be a liquor outlet, not far from the paint store where we once bought buckets of latex to coat our walls, right next to the kid’s emporium of puzzles and games and books where we once spent happy hours pretending to be grown-ups on behalf of our grandchildren?

We had arrived in this town on a wink and a prayer in 1996. And from the moment we landed on a hot, thundery May afternoon, we knew we had found the home, the community, we had always wanted together – not the cold, grey doom of Toronto where we had spent five, penurious years; not the fatuous, underwhelming promise of Halifax where we had spent far too much time fruitlessly chipping away at the fossils of calcified privilege and money.

No, Moncton – with all its gloriously openhanded enterprise and entrepreneurial vigour – hit us like a lightening strike. This absurdly ugly, magnificently beauteous burg was where we belonged. We would always own its Petticodiac, its struggling downtown, its bewildering ex-urban ribbons of big-box stores, its mysteriously neglected riverside parkways and byways.

When my wife and I finished our walk around the neighborhood we call home, the word came down through local, national and international media, through Google alerts and Facebook, through Twitter and Instagram that the unthinkable had happened in the northwestern part of Moncton. A maniac had killed, in cold blood, three officers of the law.

We shed tears for the RCMP who had lost their lives as they had executed their duties – for their parents and wives and children. We mourned the passing of time in the brevity of life.

We grieved for those who must endure the unendurable: The sudden loss of the cherished; the abrupt absence of the beloved.

As we counted our blessings, we considered those of others in this fine town of a city; and then we went for another long walk. We walked in memory of those who sacrificed their lives for the rest of us.

The day ended, a year ago today, when the sun finally began to shine softly – the pain still daggered, the shock still stunning – and we held onto each other, speaking of many things.

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The quiet joy of a smart summer read

 

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I approach The Atlantic magazine’s annual “Ideas Issue” the way a fan of Beatles’ music approaches a vintage vinyl of the “White Album”, which is to say: reverentially, lovingly and oh so carefully. 

After all, in both, there’s so much to appreciate, comprehend and, of course, misapprehend. 

Truly, consider the fun that can be had by all in the breaking nights of a martini-soaked summer by arguing the significance of Helter Skelter’s lyrics (“When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide/ Where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride/Till I get to the bottom and I see you again”) and the fact that this year’s “Ideas” edition of The Atlantic features line drawings of both John Lennon and Paul McCartney on its front cover. 

It’s kismit, baby. 

And so, apparently, is innovation, even in magazines these days.

Explaining why he chose not one but three covers to grace his publication this month (one after another), The Atlantic’s creative director, Darhil Crooks, writes, “The theme of The Atlantic’s annual Ideas Issue this year is creativity – which is a hard concept to define, let alone to illustrate. We could have gone with an illuminated lightbulb, or photographed Brad Pitt painting at an easel, but those options didn’t seem very. . .creative. Most of the time, we derive our cover image from one specific story. But this time we thought, why not produce a collection of covers, using each one to showcase a different approach to examining and conveying creativity?”

Why not, indeed? 

Cover Number One features the iconic songwriting duo from the sixties and asks whether genius is a solitary encumbrance, or a shared misery. Cover Number Two examines the science of creativity and whether mental illness and IQ are inextricably linked (something I’ve wondered for just about my entire life). Cover Number Three recounts “tales of creativity”, the “breakthroughs, borrowings, revisions, and bold decisions behind the work of highly creative people, from Beyonce to the lead designer of Google Glass.” 

In a monolithic media industry that believes it enhances itself by repeating itself (think Toronto Star and Rob Ford), The Atlantic manages its originality almost defiantly.

Here, there’s James Parker on “The Twee Revolution. . .a terrifying aesthetic” that is “taking over America.” thanks to the likes of filmmaker Wes Anderson, actress Zooey Deschanel and “Brooklynites on bicycles”.

Here, there’s a piece by Joe Pinsker on “punctuated equilibrium” in which he asks whether “autocorrect” will “save the apostrophe, and slow language’s evolution. . .(because) our brains seem to become less vigilant when we know a grammatical safety net will catch us.”

A somewhat more sober article by Gordon Goldstein, a former member of the U.S. delegation to the World Conference on International Telecommunications, asks whether the Internet, as we know it, is fated to go the way of the dinosaur. 

“The World Wide Web celebrated its 25th birthday recently,” he writes. “Today, the global network serves almost three billion people, and hundreds of thousands more join each day. If the Internet were a country, its economy would be among the five largest in the world.”

On the other hand, he notes, “fierce and rising geopolitical conflict over control of the global network threatens to create a balkanized system – what some technorati, including Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, have called “the splinternet.’”

That would be a shame. Without the free research and weird facts and figures literally at my fingertips, I’d probably have to stop scribbling for a living and do something honest if as equally unremunerative, such as farming.

Still, The Atlantic always manages to put me in touch with my inner reader, the one I knew well as a kid growing up without the benefits ample screen time. 

The Internet has taught us how to scan for information quickly. We’ve forgotten how to drink deeply from the well spring of ideas that a good, slow summer read offers. Thank God, we still have a few old-fashioned, paper-bound magazines like The Atlantic to remind us. 

 

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A city begins to breathe again

 

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It took some time for the awful realization to dawn on the outside world, but when it did, the tweets, text messages and emails poured in from all over the country and beyond. Good friends and relatives and even a few people I haven’t seen or spoken to in years all wanted to know: How was I holding up?

A darn sight better, I would say, than residents of a triangle of Moncton’s northwest end, apocalyptically dubbed “the red zone”. That’s where Codiac RCMP had a heavily armed Justin Bourque – the alleged killer of three of their fellow officers last week – holed up for 30 hours. Their message for that neighbourhood: Lock your doors, head for the basement, stay away from the windows and, of course, try not to worry.

It was good advice for anyone, a somber yet determined Mayor George LeBlanc, declared. The important thing now was to do what we were told and let the police do the job for which they were trained. But, really, I wondered, can anyone ever be fully trained to handle the scope of tragedy that transpired in the evening hours of June 4?

I covered the cops as a general assignment reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail in the 1980s. In those days, shootings (often fatal) were an almost daily occurrence, but they were usually drug or gang related. Even so, those peace officers knew that when they put on their uniforms in the morning, they were also, to some extent, painting bulls eyes on their backs.

In interviews (or just over a few beers after work) they would tell me that the worst type of call they had to make in the course of their duties was in response to report about a lone gunman. Fortunately, it didn’t happen often. Still, they would say, drug lords are predictable. Their violence was calculated; just business. A crazy with a semi-automatic is a whole different animal.

Under those circumstances, then, when cops tell you to stay put and keep your head down, it makes sense to heed them. And, fortunately, thousands in Moncton did just that last week. But, for some of us who were not near or in the quarantined area, the temptation to answer the question the world was posing was irresistible.

How, indeed, were we holding up?

The city was in lockdown. No schools or government offices were open. Most stores and private businesses were shuttered for the duration. My neighbourhood, which is usually full of old people walking their dogs and young mums pushing their strollers en route to some happy rendezvous, was bizarrely quiet. And, yet, here and there, as we strolled down the leafy streets of the old west end, my wife and I detected small signs of life as usual.

“Oh, look, there’s so-and-so weeding her garden,” one of us would comment.

“Yes, and look, it seems that her neighbour so-and-so is getting ready to mow,” the other would remark.

We felt a little like anthropologists observing the habits and customs of a newly discovered tribe of humans, oblivious to the cargoes of violence just beyond their apprehension. 

On the other hand, we knew that we, too, belonged to that community of vigilant putterers who seemed determined to, as the British foreign ministry commanded at the outbreak of World War II, “keep calm and carry on.”

As we stopped to chat, our conversations seemed almost defiantly cheerful. 

Yes, the current predicament was horrible. Yes, our hearts went out to the poor families of the fallen officers. 

But, also, yes this was an exceedingly rare event in a city that boasts a stellar record of orderliness and bonhomie. Yes, the RCMP will prevail. And, yes, we will pull together and get through this, just as we have other travails in our municipal history.

In fact, the good news for the general state of our shared civilization is that most communities in this country do surmount their tragedies.

That, of course, is the subtext of the question: How were we holding up? 

Last week, we were managing. Now, with faith and an unbridled sense of community, it starts to get better.

 

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Truths my father told me

Penny Bruce and her husband of 59 years, hanging loose at the Atlantic Journalism Awards

Penny Bruce and her husband of 59 years, hanging loose at the 2012 Atlantic Journalism Awards

The document, handsomely framed in some sort of gilded metal, certified that the holder  had received the gold award for “excellence” in the category of “lifetime achievement”. And a thought began to stir.

If one could qualify for a gold in such a competition, then, logically, others could merit a mere silver or bronze. How, I wondered, would it feel to receive an honourable mention for a lifetime of achievement in one’s chosen field of endeavor?

Close but no cigar, pal. You were good, but you weren’t that good. Better luck next time around on this mortal coil.

These are the sort of weighty issues the mind considers when the body is stuck in a chair for three hours watching two dozen people mount a podium to snatch their well-deserved trophies.

Only one, of course, earned the golden lifer’s nod at Saturday’s Atlantic Journalism Awards. And, in my thoroughly biased opinion, it couldn’t have gone to anyone other than my remarkably talented father, Harry Bruce.

Measuring professional achievement is usually a chump’s game, especially for people in our business. We’re not supposed to care about awards, which have a disturbing way of distracting us from tending the noble underpinnings of our craft, which are – for lack of  more original exhortations – to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (courtesy of Finley Peter Dunne, American scribbler, circa 1867).

More recently (just this month in Esquire magazine, in fact), actor-activist Robert Redford mused on the meaning of achievement, telling writer Scott Raab, “We’re all heading to the same station. There’s a great line by T.S. Eliot: ‘There’s only the trying. The rest is not our business.’ Just keep trying. Do what you can, but don’t stop, and particularly don’t stop at that sign that says success. Run that light. Run that light.”

Fair enough. But, sometimes, we may permit ourselves the time to yield just long enough to recognize what true excellence looks like. Call it an exercise in Platonic reasoning: We become what we admire most.

Or, that’s the theory.

Growing up, I was aware that my father’s reputation in Canadian journalism was enormous. He was one of the true heavy-hitters on the field. He could write about anything – politics, business, sports, knot-tying – and make it sing. But if journalists of his calibre were as rare as snow in Hawaii, those of his character, his fundamental decency, were virtually extinct.

More often, those possessing a promethean skill with words had attended the Evelyn Waugh school of social comportment. For most of his working life, that famous, 20th Century, English novelist and essayist travelled through the stratosphere of his profession. And yet his son, Auberon, once wrote that his father was such a bully that, despite his short, physical stature, “generals and chancellors of the exchequer, six foot six and exuding self-importance from every pore, quailed in front of him.” Another contemporary described him as “the nastiest-tempered man in England.”

In contrast, my father was almost absurdly generous with his patience and praise. Perhaps that’s because he realized – as did his own father Charles Bruce, the Canadian Press journalist and Governor General’s-Award winning poet – that life is too damn short for anything else.

During his acceptance speech the other night, he touched on this basic truth when he reflected on his 59-year union with my mother, which, he said had “flashed by like a long weekend on a soft beach by a warm ocean.” (A classic Harryism, which had the predictable effect of animating every married woman in the room as they turned to their hapless husbands: “Why don’t you ever say things like that to me?”)

As he stepped down from the stage with his handsomely framed certificate, I had to smile, thinking about his “achievement” and whether the real gold in his hand had anything to do with his journalism, after all.

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