Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Bear and the Backscratcher

Back scratchers do not have video screens, so I was surprised when my 10-year-old grandson Anderson asked me to make him a wooden back scratcher.

Kids do make odd requests so I agreed to carve a back scratcher with his name on it. My only concern, besides my dubious woodworking ability, was that when other grandchildren saw or heard of this, they too would ask for one. I could see myself trapped in a crowded workshop for months, patiently carving back scratchers.

So I decided to invent a story about how I got the back scratcher; a story that would explain why it would be impossible to get another. The story went like this:

I was walking the woods at Shaman’s Rock when I came across an old guy sitting outside the entrance to a cave. He had silver hair grown well below his shoulders and a silver beard that touched his belly button. The patch of face not concealed by hair was wrinkled and tanned brown by the sun.

He was carving a piece of birch branch and paid little attention to my approach.

“I’ve never seen you out here before,” I said to him.

“There are many things out here that you do not see, nor hear,” he replied, raising his head and revealing a pair of dazzling blue eyes that illuminated the darkness of his face.

“So what are you carving?” I asked.

“Back scratchers. For the bears.”

“Back scratchers!. Bears don’t use back scratchers.”

Those bright blue eyes locked me in a look that said “you have much to learn and much to understand,” then he told me a story.

He was walking the woods when he saw a bear rubbing his back against the rough bark of an ancient oak tree. The bear spotted him and summoned him to come and talk.

“Do me a favour old man,” said the bear. “Scratch my back. The itch is driving me crazy.”

The old guy knew that it was important never to upset a bear, or any of the forest animals. So he scratched the bear’s back as it sighed contentedly. Scratching through that thick fur coat was tiring work.  

Back at his cave the old guy realized the bear likely would come looking for him to scratch its back again. And, it would tell other bears who would line up to have their backs scratched.

Then he was struck by an idea: He would make the bear a personalized back scratcher and show it how to use it.

The bear loved the back scratcher and as word spread, other bears came to the cave to place their orders. The old guy was happy because carving back scratchers was much more enjoyable and less tiring than scratching a bear’s back.

“So the bears are happy,” said the old guy. “And when the bears are happy, everyone is happy.”

I gave the old guy a skeptical look and was about to tell him how ridiculous I thought his story was when he stared into my eyes and said:

“When you help and respect nature and all its inhabitants, it will help and respect you.”

Then the old guy simply vanished and I found myself standing in the woods with a freshly whittled and decorated back scratcher. Carved into its middle was the name Anderson.

I’m sure Anderson will enjoy his back scratcher. When the other grandkids see it and ask for their own, I’ll tell them the story of the old guy and the bears and how I keep looking for him in the woods to ask him for more back scratchers.

The story might keep me off the back scratcher assembly line. Yeah, good luck with that.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

My First 100 Days

Judging the first 100 days in office is ridiculous, artificial and something invented by the news media.

That’s how U.S. President Forrest Trump sees it. I feel it is important however, as president of my family, to review my performance for the first 100 days of each year.

Trump’s first 100 days have been fantastic, spectacular, unbelievably good, the best of any president ever and best of any to come. He instantly achieved his prediction of being “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”

My 100 days report card is not nearly that effusive because I don’t have his vast store of superlatives. But I can report some modest successes, and some failures.

First, in the area of foreign affairs, I had none. In fact I didn’t even have any domestic affairs.

I did travel abroad for consultations. I went to California to ask my granddog Rusty to join my cabinet of advisors. When it comes to cabinet advisors, I pick only the best of the best.

Rusty is a pretty smart cookie with ideas on how to make life even better for the family pets. He is thrilled to be in my inner circle because the publicity will boost sales of a new dog food that he is promoting.

I also travelled to Hamilton for talks with Louie, my first great-granddog. He is a chocolate brown lab and advised me that more money must be spent to ensure a constant supply of tennis balls are available at the cottage shoreline.

Over in Mississauga I met with Georgia, my Great Dane granddog and senior special advisor. She told me that our family congress would vote for a budget that includes money for a new, larger and more comfortable couch. Grandcat Rainbow agreed wholeheartedly.

Money has been a problem during the first 100 days. The nine-year-old presidential pickup truck needed major repairs. So did two of the presidential teeth.

Despite these financial setbacks I remain steadfast in my promise to build a wall to keep the red squirrels out of our great cottage land. They are aggressive, noisy good-for-nothings. Bad, bad. Totally destructive.

Nobody builds walls better than me because I have fantastic ability and I am really smart. Squirrels are dumb and actually I would like to see them ride the MOAB into squirrel heaven.

Unfortunately the courts stupidly have ruled that red squirrels are a protected species and must be treated nicely. Dumb. Really dumb. Judges need their heads examined.

Meanwhile, the first 100 days infrastructure program is running a bit behind. The new back window project and some other stuff are not  completed yet.

These projects and the squirrel wall are making it difficult to bring in a balanced budget, which is a must because I am not allowed to increase our debt.

Ontario Premier Kathy says she is going to balance her budget despite millions of dollars of new vote-getting spending. She can do that because when she wants to spend more, she borrows more.

Her debt, now more than $300 billion, equals the debt of all the other nine provinces combined. Interest charges on that debt are $12 billion a year.

If I run up too much debt, a guy with a head bandana and tattoos arrives in a tow truck and takes away my pickup. And the bank kicks me out of my house. Then there’s nothing to do except wander into the woods, sit on a tree stump and listen to the birds.

I can report that I did file my income tax return ahead of this week’s deadline. I am willing to make my returns public in case anyone out there needs a really good laugh.

Overall, it’s been a pretty good first 100 days. However, I didn’t realize that being president of the family was so complicated. Hockey tournaments to drive to, baseball practices to attend. School concerts. Easter gatherings. Helping to pick out birthday and anniversary cards.

The media doesn’t understand all the complications I must deal with. Reporters  are meanies who say everything I do is wrong. I’d like to hit them so hard their heads spin. But then my editor might not let me write this column anymore.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Stale Pretzels and Soda Water

The cattle are prowlin', the coyotes are howlin'
Way out where the doggies bawl
Woo - hoo - woo - ooo - ti - de
Woo - hoo - ooo - oop - i - de - de
Woo - hoo - woo - ooo - ti - de
Yodel - odel - lo - ti – de
Singin’ his cattle call

Anyone remember that catchy but smooth yodellin’ tune? Tex Owens wrote it way back in 1934, but it has jumped out of the past and taken over my head. I’ve been humming it ever since David Dao boarded a United Airlines flight a doctor and got off a patient.

Video clips of Dr. Dao being dragged off the flight by the feet, screaming and bleeding, showed the entire world just how far the airline industry has descended into passenger Hell.

Round ‘em up, stuff ‘em in and ship ‘em out. Rawhide! Keep ‘em movin’, movin’, movin’, there’s a  bigger bottom line at the end of this ride.

Commercial airline travel these days is about being shoehorned into an increasingly crammed seating area and fed tiny packages of stale pretzels with half-filled plastic cups of soda water. Set up a compact laptop on your fold-down seatback tray and it gut punches you when the guy in front tilts his seat back one inch.

All that after being pushed through the airport check-in obstacle course, and the unpacking and undressing at security. Then after being vacuum-packed into your seat comes the anxiety of wondering whether a computer will bump you from the overbooked flight.

It didn’t used to be this way. Back in the days before airline CEOs became bean counters, passenger comfort and satisfaction were important. Claude Taylor, who ran Air Canada roughly 30 years ago, personally replied to passengers who complained about service or offered suggestions.

Then there was Max Ward, the bush pilot who built a world-class airline with a passion to make flying an enjoyable experience. And it was, until the Transport Canada  bureaucracy drove Wardair out of the business.

Wardair gave passengers first-class treatment for economy fares. Cabins were decorated in bright holiday colours. Dinners featured filet mignon cooked on board to the passenger’s preference. It was served on Royal Doulton china, with stainless steel cutlery and linen napkins. Flight attendants hand delivered individual food trays to each seat.

Drinks were free and coffee was fresh percolated. Then there was that fabulous dessert trolley.

Max Ward has been quoted as saying: “In the airline business, it’s about the journey, not the destination. It’s much more than merely getting our valued customer from A to B, and the level of service a passenger receives is indicative of exactly how the airline values the customer.”

Airline passengers today know how the carriers value them. Maybe you get to your destination, maybe you don’t. If you don’t get bumped from a flight, you arrive at your destination burping up stale pretzels.

United CEO Oscar Munoz presumably has learned a bit about the value of customers since Dr. Dao was beaten up on one of his airplanes. One of his first  statements on the incident called Dr. Dao “disruptive and belligerent” and praised the United crew.

When the incident caused millions of dollars in United stock losses, Munoz threw on the reverse thrusters and has been falling over himself apologizing to Dr. Dao, saying his treatment was horrific and promising that nothing like this ever will happen again.

He certainly hopes not because the United board has decided that his $18-million-a-year pay cheque now will be tied to a new customer satisfaction pay scheme.

Max Ward never made that kind of salary. He paid himself less than his pilots and ploughed the savings back into building a customer friendly airline.

Meanwhile, I just can’t get The Cattle Call song out of my head. Tex Owens said he wrote it after watching the snow fall in Kansas.

“My sympathy went out to cattle everywhere, and I just wished I could call them all around me and break some corn over a wagon wheel and feed them.”
Cracked corn, eh? Sounds a mite more appetizing than stale pretzels.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Maple Syrup Mysteries

Spring is a season of mysteries.

For instance: How do plants know when to start growing? How do hibernators such as bears know when to wake up? Why do mosquitoes and blackflies not move to another planet?

But surely the greatest mystery is about the sweetest of all spring things. How did maple syrup get invented?

We know that indigenous peoples were the first to have it. The mystery is how did they make the jump from bitter tree sap to the sweet golden fluid that makes pancakes and waffles so scrumptious? No one has been able to provide the answer in more than 500 years.

It is easy to speculate how these early peoples discovered sap. Walk through the spring woods and look at woodpecker holes or a broken branch. Or cut a recently blown down tree.

The sap is easy to see, or feel if you are handling wood or touching trees. But how did someone realize that collecting a large quantity of sap, then boiling it down 40 to1, would produce one of the world’s tastiest delights.

There are legends, of course. One of the most common is that a chief stuck his tomahawk into a maple tree one night before going to bed. His wife had left a bark vessel at the base of the tree below the tomahawk.

In the morning the wife found the vessel filled with what appeared to be rain water that had run down the tree. So she decided to boil a piece meat in it and noticed the water turning brown and getting thicker. The meat had a sweet maple flavour.

Not likely. The Indians had maple syrup long before the Europeans arrived and gave them metal hatchets.

More likely, maple syrup resulted from experimentation. Tree saps were used for many purposes. Spruce gum was collected, mixed with animal fat then rendered over fire to make the sticky substance used to seal canoe seams.

Someone likely was doing something similar when they dipped a finger in to test thickness, then licked the finger and Eureka!

The Indians pushed slips of bark into cuts in maple trunks to allow sap to drip into bark buckets set below. When the French arrived, the Indians showed them the process, which the newcomers modified by drilling tap holes and using metal collection and boiling pots.

Maple syrup was a nice treat for personal use but processing did not become an industry until the mid-1800s. Most of the cane sugar consumed in the United States back then came from black slave labour in the southern states and the Caribbean.

As the anti-slavery movement grew and the civil war loomed, many abolitionists urged boycotting cane sugar and use of maple sugar instead.

“Cane sugar is the result of the forced labor of the most wretched slaves, toiling under the cruel lash of a cutting whip,” William Drown wrote in the 1824 Compendium of Agriculture. “While the maple sugar is made by those who are happy and free."

Large flat evaporator pans replaced kettles for processing larger amounts of syrup and maple sugar. The rest, as they say, is history.

The maple syrup industry grew consistently with improved techniques, equipment and marketing of maple products abroad. Canada now produces 80 per cent of the world’s pure maple syrup, the majority of which comes from Quebec’s 7,000 or so producers.

The maple syrup industry generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the Canadian economy. Some estimates put maple syrup at 13 times more costly than crude oil.

It has become so valuable that it was the subject of a mystery five years ago. Someone tapping barrels in a maple syrup storehouse found that some sounded odd, or not completely full.

Further investigation revealed that thieves had stolen $18 million (wholesale price) worth of syrup over 12 months from a stockpile kept by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. Thieves with access to the warehouse drained maple syrup from 9,500 barrels and refilled them with water. They sold the stolen syrup on the black market.

Roughly 225 investigators were used in trying to solve the case. Finally, 26 people were charged in the theft, 17 of whom were eventually convicted.