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The greatest invention, ever.

When you search “soap” using Google, you get a result for a computer messaging protocol, followed by a Wikipedia page for the groundbreaking 1977 TV sitcom, followed by the website for the Society for Obstetric Anesthesia and Perinatology.

Such is the unsung nature of the greatest invention in human history. 

Estimates of the number of lives saved by soap run into the hundreds of millions. Even today, the World Health Organization ballparks that more handwashing could save a million lives annually. 

According to scientists, your skin can host 622 different types of bacteria. A few of these (bacteria, not scientists) are tiny assassins, just trying to break into a place they shouldn’t be. And soap is the main reason they fail.

Soap created by Keli Pollock early in the coronavirus pandemic.

The Center for Disease Control says that better hand-washing in health care would save hundreds of thousands of lives every year. This revelation has an inauspicious origin. In Hungary in the mid-1800s, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis noted that when physicians washed their hands prior to delivering babies, fewer women died after giving birth. His colleagues were aghast at this finding, however, and angry at the insinuation that they were harming their patients. Dr. Semmelweis was ostracized, eventually institutionalized, and died after being beaten by guards.

The good doctor lost the battle, but won the war. Today, handwashing is unequivocally embraced by doctors. And Dr. Semmelweis has more hospitals named after him than any of his detractors.

Whenever “the greatest ever” is thrown around, there is bound to be debate. Some people say the invention of the wheel is more important. But the wheel has also resulted in millions of deaths. Granted, the inventor of the wheel could never have foreseen humans riding on four wheels taking one hand off the steering wheel to text message. 

Soap never does anything bad to you, unless you get it in your eye while showering, or grew up in the 1950s and your mother washed your mouth out with soap for swearing.

Some say the computer is the world’s greatest invention. Or the internet. But between them, they’ve given rise to more viruses than nature. Soap kills viruses! Including the one that has been hogging all the headlines for the past two years.  

And it doesn’t kill them by just washing them away. When you finally do arrive at the Wikipedia page for actual soap, you find that “… soap kills microorganisms by disorganizing their membrane lipid bilayer and denaturing their proteins.”

All this time, you thought you were just washing up before dinner. In reality, you’ve been wreaking havoc with germs’ lipid layers and laying a beatdown on their proteins.

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If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

I love it when people bring a little extra creativity and pride to their work, particularly when it’s in an unexpected context. 

One day in the grocery store I saw some people taking photos in the vegetable section. Had they found a likeness of Jesus or Elvis among the rutabagas?

Nope. Someone had created this amazing piece of broccoli art.

Humble florets, elevated to a thing of beauty. First and last time I’ve ever taken a photo in a grocery store.

Years ago we stayed at Carmel Valley Ranch in California, an amazing 500-acre resort with innumerable photo ops. The resort’s logo is a tree with a rope-and-board swing hanging from it. They even used it in the golf course’s tee markers. It wouldn’t have been cheap. But it’s memorable and they will last forever.

From resort ranch to working ranch… I noticed this sign one day while driving across Saskatchewan. If you look closely you can see that each of the metal silhouettes is different. It would have been easier to cut corners and make some of them the same. But someone took the time and care to make each one unique. That kind of attention to detail is a rapidly fading art.

And finally, I used to work at a not-for-profit that helped people with disabilities overcome obstacles and get jobs – an incredible organization doing fantastic work. We replaced the traditional reserved parking graphics with something more powerful, to exemplify the organization’s “break barriers” philosophy.

Kudos to anyone who puts that little extra bit of effort into their work, especially when it’s not expected.

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Sometimes you have to go for it.

When I started writing my novel series, I knew I was going to intertwine crime, the ad business, and golf. 

To be authentic about the ad business, I think you have to strike a balance between stereotypes and reality. Yes, there are martini-swilling, ego-centric reprobates. But they are more than offset by creative, curious, problem-solving professionals. 

For the creative professionals, it’s a never-ending battle to convince clients to take risks. If I had a buck for every time a client said “We want a campaign just like X,” I would’ve retired twenty years ago.

The paradox is that clients are paying for originality, but asking for sameness. It’s understandable: humans are hard-wired for comfort.

One of my favorite instances of getting a client to take a risk was in a campaign for the Canadian Museum of Civilization. They had the world’s first IMAX/OMNIMAX theatre and wanted to promote the Rolling Stones’ concert film, “At the Max”, filmed during the Stones’ Steel Wheels tour. 

For me, the Rolling Stones coupled with the giant IMAX screen made the ad headline obvious:  

Keith Richards has never been this high.

At the museum, it set client nerves jangling.

“It’s promoting drug use.”

No, it’s not.

“The Rolling Stones will sue us.”

For what? Accuracy?

In an admirable leap of faith, the museum’s director decided to run the ad. She braced herself for a barrage of phone calls. 

She got one. It was from the Director of the National Gallery of Canada. “God, I wish we had the guts to run something like that.”

In this age of social media mobs and spontaneous boycotts, clients have to be even more courageous. Which is why memorable ads are as rare as conch pearls.

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A Conundrum

The other day I was elbows deep in the latest instalment of my new Mitchell Mysteries and found myself written into a corner.

I was reviewing some chapters and came across the following paragraph:

He turned his attention to the fairway in front of him, a par four, slight dogleg left. It was a beautiful hole, but fraught with danger. Besides the water hazard, there were four large sand traps around the green, which had more curves than a Hollywood starlet from the fifties.

Was this sexist? Or mysogynist? Or any of the other “ists” in the linguistic minefield that writers have to traverse these days?

I couldn’t decide. It was accurate. But would readers think it was some sort of retroactive body-shaming? Did it evoke the abuses that movie studios and executives inflicted upon actresses of the era? (Check out what Alfred Hitchcock reportedly did to Tippi Hedren.)

When a sentence inspires this much hesitation, I usually try to come up with something else. Maybe it’s my nod to the saying originated by Arthur Quiller-Couch but attributed to everyone from Oscar Wilde to William Faulkner to Stephen King:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

So I did. And I think the revision is better:

He turned his attention to the fairway in front of him, a par four, slight dogleg left. It was a beautiful hole, but fraught with danger. Besides the water hazard, there were four large sand traps around the green, which had more curves than a python trying to digest a capybara.

On the other hand, maybe this revision is a sign I’m watching too much Richard Attenborough on BBC Earth.

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What the hell is a mangosteen?

When my son was a toddler and still able to be held captive in the seat of the grocery cart, he developed an appetite for exotic fruits and vegetables. 

“Dad, what’s THAT? LET’S GET IT!!!”

The weirder the better. Dragon fruit… casaba melon… You name it, he’d go for it. 

This open-mindedness influenced me the other day when I spied “mangosteen” in our local produce section. Never heard of it. Had to try it.

Turns out the mangosteen is considered “the queen of fruits”. It’s a bit weird to cut open the purple rind and see bright white fruit. The taste is a little sweet, a little sour. Very interesting.

It contains all kinds of good things, from antioxidants to fibre to xanthones. 

Mangosteen also gives you 100% of your recommended daily intake of mays. It “may” reduce your risk of cancer; may have anti-inflammatory properties; may promote weight loss; may have anti-aging properties; and may counteract some symptoms of depression. But at this price, an apple may be a better option.

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My Cliff Clavin reputation and lemmings

My mind is like a Swiffer for weird facts. When I occasionally spout one, my close friends will give me a “thanks, Cliff Clavin”. 

Yesterday I gained some insight into how those facts accumulate. I was writing my latest “Mitchell Mystery” and in reference to a scandal, a character mentions that a politician’s supporters would desert him “like lemmings off a cliff.”

Which got me thinking, do herds of lemmings really plunge off cliffs?

Supposedly, lemmings have an instinct to control their own population. When their numbers get too large, they allegedly herd up, head off, and plunge off a cliff.

This is false. 

But one of the main reasons the myth has endured is that an Oscar-winning documentary by Disney in 1958 faked the phenomenon. 

The film-makers trucked large numbers of lemmings to a site in Alberta, and cajoled them off the banks of the Bow River, near my home in Calgary. Tight camera angles and clever editing made it look like the lemmings’ natural habitat in the arctic, and made the Bow River look like an arctic sea. 

Of course, the fortunate part for Disney is that this all took place in 1958. Had it occurred today, Twitter would have lit up like a California wildfire, Disney would have been forced to return the Oscar, their stock price would plunge like the box office of their 2011 film “Mars Needs Moms”, and they’d be pressured to endow a Lemmings Restitution Fund to safeguard the world’s lemming population and keep the furry rodents from, as the documentary solemnly intones, “A final rendezvous with destiny, and with death.”

Snopes fact check

(Shout out to snopes.com You are the sheriffs in the world wide web of misinformation. Outgunned, but undaunted.)

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Why golf is the best pastime ever…

Fresh air, walking, blah blah blah. 

Now that we’ve checked off the obvious, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Golf is the best pastime ever because it is the most challenging and rewarding thing you can play. 

Not only are you up against the golf course, you’re up against Mother Nature:

Fortunately I was hitting with the wind.

I’ve played in wind, rain, hail, and snow. I’ve seen a hawk dive-bomb a golf ball. A goose deflect a ball off target. A coyote stalk one of my playing partners. 

Fortunately I never hit it in the middle of the fairway.
Ever try to putt with one of these watching?
The more trees the beavers take down, the better I play.

It’s wild out there. And this was just last year at my course.

One of my brothers was playing a course in southern Alberta and he saw a grizzly bear swim across a pond, lumber out onto the putting green, and fall asleep. Then he saw four German tourists hit onto the green and putt.

Most pro sports have playing fields that look the same to the players. Golf courses are all different. With scenery that is mind-blowing, from azaleas at Augusta to lava flows on Lana’i. 

Golf is the only game where an everyday player can hit a shot better than a professional. I’ve had a hole-in-one. I’ve sunk a sixty foot putt. But I’ll never throw a fifty-yard pass with a football. Or hit a baseball 400 feet. Or drive 200 mph (even if I’m late for a tee time).

You can hit shots in golf that make you look like a pro. But you can also hit shots that make it look like you’ve never played the game in your life, when you’ve actually been playing for decades. 

Not much you can do when this happens.

A one-millimetre misalignment of your club at impact can be disastrous. A blade of grass that escaped the mower blade can throw your birdie putt off target. And, as pro golfer Paul Casey found out this past weekend, hitting a perfect shot that then rolls into a pitch mark can (arguably) cost you millions of dollars.

It’s cruel. It’s for resilient people. And that’s another great thing about it – the variety of people you meet. I’ve played with millionaires, welders, stay-at-home dads, teachers, investment bankers, and police officers. 

You can get to know people when you golf with them. Try striking up a conversation with someone on the tennis court, see how it goes.

Golf’s the best. That’s why when I started writing novels, I knew my detectives would be golfers. 

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The world needs readers

According to a recent article in the New York Times, reading skills are another casualty of the pandemic. Lots of kids missed out on crucial early schooling, and it’s going to have a ripple effect for society.

The world needs people who love to read. Who are good at it. Who can ingest large amounts of information and understand the important points. Poor readers are more likely to drop out of high school, earn less as adults and become involved in the criminal justice system.

The day the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon, I read five Hardy Boys books. Mostly because we got to stay up so late, since Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface at 10:56 p.m.

(Sorry Steph Curry, but it happened.)

Who inspired my love of reading? My parents, mostly my mum. That’s why when an amazing library was built in our city, we made a donation in her honour. The inscription reads “For May Williams. She loved a good mystery.”

Like my parents, I did my best to turn our kids into readers. Story time was a given every night. That might be why my son blurted out the word “diplodocus” when he was only two. What kid doesn’t love dinosaurs?

There’s another important by-product of reading. If you’re an avid reader, you are almost always a better-than-average writer.

Reading is a gateway to so much, it’s hard to believe we don’t devote more attention to it. 

Thanks for reading.

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Dinner with a legend

Years ago, when I was working in a smallish advertising market at a great, but smallish agency, an industry peer phoned out of the blue.

“Would you like to have dinner with Bob Levenson?”

My reaction was probably similar to that of a nun being asked if she’d like to wash feet with Mother Teresa; a golfer invited to play 18 with Jack Nicklaus; or a plumber being invited to snake a drain with Thomas Crapper.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, trying to regain some semblance of nonchalance, and failing.

“He’s coming to town on Thursday for a speaking engagement and the dinner is the night before.”

You know how you pencil something in when you might be able to make it? I Sharpie’d that night in my calendar. 

Bob Levenson would be in anyone’s top five of the greatest ad men in history. His boss, Bill Bernbach, changed advertising forever. Mr. Levenson had a bachelor’s and master’s in English. His writing was simple, compelling, and brilliant. 

When I showed up to the restaurant, I was expecting a long table of maybe 20 people. There were six of us, including the guest of honour, and I ended up in the seat directly across from him. He was impeccably dressed: cufflinks, shined shoes, perfectly knotted tie. Madison Avenue, personified.

When I was trying to break into the ad business, I studied Bob Levenson’s work like architects study the Franks (Lloyd Wright and Gehry). I knew all about his work, his agency, and his colleagues. 

He spoke to us like we were valued peers in the industry, when we were more like wanna-be’s. He was gracious, charming, courteous, and a wonderful communicator. Only once in the entire evening did I see a flash of anger, and that was when I asked about a particular former colleague of his. “We won’t mention that name again,” came his calm instruction.

A wonderful talent, great dinner companion, and good human. If one lives their life checking those three boxes, that’s time well spent. And it’s always nice to meet a hero who lives up to your expectations.

Bob Levenson

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Random acts of coffee

Just got back from having some bloodwork done. The lab is in an area where there is a sizeable homeless population and a safe consumption site for addicts.

The security people are abused, spit on, yelled at, and occasionally have to deal with the entire spectrum of bodily fluids from people who are in a bad way.

I’ve never seen anything but professionalism from them. So every time I go, I buy a gift card from the coffee shop in the building and hand it to the people at the security station. 

“I’d like to buy the shift a round of lattes.”

Every time the reaction is the same.

“Really? Thanks!”

Keep up the good work folks.