Savouring a glass half empty

This appears in today’s Sault Star.

“She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.” – Hey Nineteen, Steely Dan

I was feeling a little glass-half-empty a few days ago, because it was my birthday.

Mind you, if you’re in your sixties, sliding so swiftly toward seventy, it’s probably a good thing if only half of your glass is empty.

A half-empty glass suggests that in another 60-plus years from now I could find myself interviewed by whatever passes for media, asked for the secret to my longevity.

I’ll tell them it was a dissipated lifestyle, that immorality fosters immortality.

Still, from the moment I woke up that birthday morning it seemed I would confront reminders that, mercy me, things ain’t what they used to be.

For one thing, it was about 6:30 a.m. That meant that for the 10,000th or so day straight I had been unable to sleep in past noon, a feat I could accomplish without batting an eyelash when I was in my teens and twenties.

In my youth, sleeping in was as easy as failing to activate an alarm clock. Now it’s as difficult as tricking my bladder and intestines into hibernating.

When nature’s calls could no longer be ignored and I stepped out of bed, my wonky knee collapsed just enough to remind me that it would dictate what I could and could not do for the rest of the day.

About half of my right knee’s cartilage has been replaced by arthritis, like a once-ritzy neighbourhood now populated by the unsavoury and occasionally violent imaginary aliens Trump likes to rant about.

Some days I’d never know it. Other days, knee pain and weakness dictates that my goaltending strategy in oldtimer hockey is go down and stay down. Sadly, I can’t even fall as fast as I used to. 

Limp-shuffling to the kitchen, I began to salivate about the oatmeal I was about to enjoy.




More like drool, I thought. But when you’re in your sixties, porridge is the equivalent of a young man’s greasy-fried eggs with a beer-and-tomato-juice chaser.

Chock full of fibre, I felt ready to begin that birthday business of taking stock of your life’s accomplishments and wondering how you’re going to become insanely rich and famous in the few years that remain.

A senior’s memory and life expectancy being what they are, the looking ahead part of taking stock is much less taxing than the looking back. There’s a lot more to regret (or celebrate, if you have a good imagination) than there is to anticipate.

But first, I had to check the obits, otherwise known as my social calendar.

At some point in my dotage it dawned on me that almost all funeral home staff were greeting me by my first name. Thankfully they are too professional to rub their hands together when they see me coming.

On a bad week I might find myself lined up three or four times to pay my respects to the families of former colleagues, teammates or, sadly, close friends. That’s demographics for you.

And because I’m not a Horton’s habitué, a funeral home might be the only place I run into a lot of longtime cronies.

We’ll say each other’s names, or at least what we think they might be, then exclaim over how well each other looks. Moments later I’ll remark to a companion that our friend looks like he’ll be residing in an urn before long, just loudly enough to drown out the sound of our friend confiding to a companion that I resemble a discarded bag of doggie droppings.

Still, someone else’s wake offers the reassurance that you are still on the sunny side of the sod. Moreover, every member of your age cohort who shuffles off to the hereafter boosts the life expectancy of those left behind, pushing us toward the right-hand extreme of the chart.

My obit check showed there were no birthday bereavements (I held a mirror under my own nose to make sure) so I was free to pursue my usual business: becoming exhausted after an hour or so of manly chores like carpentry, firewood hauling, snow shovelling and housecleaning. 

Those are things I used to be able to do all day, as long as I was sensible enough to take frequent beer breaks.

Overdo it now and my afternoon nap might make me late for the weekly meeting of the I’ll Email You Later club.

This happy hour/dinner gathering of friends earned that label because of our growing failure to be able to recall important stuff, such as what colour the team’s jerseys were when the centreman got in a fistfight with his own defenceman (no, not that centreman; the one who was having the affair with the left-winger’s girlfriend) or which prominent business owner is the illegitimate nephew twice removed of the woman he believes is his mother.

These lapses used to distress us. But now, when we return home after our gatherings our email boxes contain the forgotten information, remembered by one or more of us during the drive home.

So when something eludes us we just say “I’ll email you later” and move on to the next piece of fiction.

It strikes me that our table consumes incrementally less beer with each passing year. Perhaps that’s because most of us are pensioners and can misallocate only so much of the week’s grocery budget without becoming emaciated.

More likely it’s because we no longer need to drink to forget.

Blackout binging certainly is beyond us; it’s a younger man’s game.

As Canadian folk singer Garnet Rogers sang in Ease Into It, “It takes me all night to do what I used to do all night.”

He was talking about drinking, right, not about another glass-half-empty aging symptom?

I’ll email you later.


Don’t quote me, especially if I didn’t say it

As a  freelance newspaper columnist I shouldn’t be surprised that one of the municipal election candidates in Sault Ste. Marie quoted me in his election pamphlet.

But I was shocked to discover that the quote was something I had never said or written, and that it insulted another candidate.

Just before the end of the recent campaign someone told me I was being quoted by a candidate. But it wasn’t until election night that I saw the quote.

It read:

Tom Mills said it best: “Turco is a blowhard, a waste of space likely to be re-elected as a reality personality.”

The Turco in question is Lou Turco, longtime city councillor running in Ward 2. He lost, placing third to Luke Dufour and Lisa Vezeau Allen.

The candidate who used the pseudo-quote in his pamphlet, Ted Hallin, got considerably fewer votes than Turco. But a major thrust of his campaign was to unseat the veteran councillor, so in that sense he tasted victory. One page from his pamphlet was  headed: “Reject Lou Turco. Vote for two, not for Lou.”

And no, Tom Mills didn’t say it best, or even worst: He didn’t say it at all.

How did the mistake happen?

My best guess is that it started with a Facebook post I made criticizing Turco for failing to attend a televised Ward 2 candidates debate.

Someone else commented on that post, using more immoderate language. Those seem to have been the words picked up by Hallin and used in his pamphlet, with my name attached to them. (Words may live forever on social media, but for some reason I can’t track these down.)

Ted Hallin, candidate for Ward 2 city council

When I contacted Ted Hallin, via messenger and email, he confirmed he had copied it from Facebook, thinking “It was probably a quote from one of your interesting articles.”

I told him that believing something is “probably” a quote is not an acceptabe standard for attribution and he should probably make a public apology to both Turco and me.

To his credit, Hallin issued an apology within a few hours, addressing it to several news media as well as to Turco and me.

I’ve since reached out to Lou Turco by email to reiterate that those words are not mine. I would not have called him “a blowhard, a waste of space,” both because I would consider it rude and because that’s not my opinion of him.

Still, this apology, which is unlikely to get much if any news play, probably doesn’t make everything all better again for either Mr. Turco or me.

I do appreciate the irony. As an editor at a newspaper, occasionally I had to explain to aggrieved story subjects why their correction would appear in body type on Page 2 when the error might have been committed under a large headline on a more-prominent page. (There are many practical reasons for newspaper correction policies, which I won’t get in to.) And now I fall victim to the inadequacy of corrections.

But it’s a characteristic of society beyond newspapers that people usually pay more attention to, and remember better, the erroneous information that first circulates than the correct information that follows.

Especially on social media.

So I write this, and hope it is widely circulated, to correct the record and to defend my reputation as a columnist and writer.

Tom Mills said it best: Hope this works.








The lily pad finally croaked

A version of this appeared recently as a column in The Sault Star

It’s not often I get choked up when I’m tearing down an old deck.

Unless, perhaps, there’s a lot of dirt and dust trapped between the boards.

But taking apart the Lily Pad the other day was poignant for a few reasons.

The Lily Pad wasn’t just any old deck. The fact that is had a distinctive name, other than “front deck” or “side deck,” might be your first clue.

It sprawled beside my dock, irregular-shaped and green, roughly following the curves of the shoreline. 

The curvy lines of the Lily Pad took some imagination and a lot of wasted lumber to make

You could call The Lily Pad the signature piece of my oeuvre as an amateur public artist. But that would imply that it was a) art and b) that I had other artsy stuff in my construction portfolio.

However, like genuine public art, that deck proved to be ephemeral.

The Lily Pad endured but 11 years of Northern Ontario summers and winters before falling to the wrecking ball.

(Technically, to an old guy with a crowbar and a power-screwdriver.)

Had to be done. The Lily Pad was rotting and someone might well plunge through it to the ground below. Odds are it would be me, and the putative artist would have to be hoist in his own petard up to a more solid piece of deck.

I didn’t set out to build a lily pad 11 years ago. But the shape of the building site was irregular. The foundation beams were irregular too, having been recycled from an iced damaged dock. The builder certainly was irregular.

So the deck became irregular, a free-flowing structure that came to resemble something a frog might sit upon on calm, sunny day, which is exactly what I planned to do as often as possible.

Presciently, I already had decided to stain it green.

The Lily Pad prepares to meet its maker, at the hands of its maker

Once it became apparent that rectangles would be as rare as sobriety on The Lily Pad, I herringboned the two-by-six floorboards, as was a fashion at the time.

I rounded off every corner with a jigsaw, carving a wavy front into the part that faced the lake. Then I cut railings out of 2 by 6 boards to match those curves. Apparently what sets a would-be artist apart from a carpenter is the amount of lumber he wastes.

People travelled from far and wide, or as far and wide as you can travel in a pontoon boat, to marvel or smirk at my creation.

And though my first impulse was to name it Turtle Island, gradually it became known as the Lily Pad.

It was a darned useful structure for 11 years. And as I tore it down the other day some of its functions flickered through my mind like a clumsy flashback in a second-rate vintage movie.

The Lily Pad provided stubbed-toe-free passage to a shallow swimming spot, a place to sit, sun, even sleep (if memory serves me well), eat, drink, snack, store water toys, play tag, shuck t-shirts and towels, lose fishing gear between the cracks, play in the sand. (I attached a sandbox to the back of it) and step on broken plastic sand toys with a bare foot.

Plastic furniture blew off it with distressing frequency, sometimes into the deep water beside the dock. 

Patio umbrellas sometimes soared through the air as if in search of Mary Poppins. If I fastened them more firmly, a mocking wind would just snap their poles. (I live on a breezy point.)

Smaller dogs loved the cool and shady refuge they found under the Lily Pad so much that more than once I had to slither under it to haul one out by the collar, trying not to snag myself on a fish hook that a grandkid had dropped between the floorboards.

But I had a special attachment to The Lily Pad because I built it while my No. 2 grandson (in age, not merit) was being born.

I remember plunking a portable phone beside me while I sawed and screw-drove and swore, measuring six times and cutting once, waiting for news of his arrival. That phone had to be recharged a few times, because he was as casual about deadlines as I was about completing construction projects.

The good news arrived about the same time it was becoming clear that what was emerging from the swamp of my artisanship was something strangely shaped.

I drove to the hospital to cradle that newborn, then rushed back to complete the product of my own act of conception.

When I told Grandson No. 2 that story the other day, he didn’t beg me to restore the Lily Pad. Kids accept change better than old fogeys do. But I doubt it I could replicate even if I had blueprints.

What moved me even more about tearing down the Lily Pad, and replacing it, if my body ever recovers, is that this might well be the last deck I build. And I’ve built scads of them.

A deck was my first substantial construction project, back when I was about 14, probably motivate by a misplaced belief that it would impress 14-year-old girls. I’ve built dozens and dozens of decks since, each greeted by almost universal yawning from the gentler gender.

Even if I set folly aside this time and focus on function, I figure that deck’s going to need replacing in about 11 years.

Odds are there will be other things needing replacement before then. Knees. Hips. The homeowner himself.

Coming soon to this site, a new but less interesting deck