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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. 

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A cut can tell part of the story

A few years ago my wife and I took a walking food tour of NoLita in New York City. At one point our guide, the inimitable Paulette Goto, pointed out an apartment on the top floor of this building. From this perch, a young Martin Scorsese watched the goings-on in his neighborhood. What he saw influenced his films. 

The building where Martin Scorsese grew up.

Editing is probably even more important in film-making than it is in writing (which explains why Scorsese has collaborated with editor Thelma Schoonmaker for more than 50 years). In an interview, Scorsese said something about editing that has stuck with me as a writer:

A cut can tell part of the story.

I think of it as an express bus. You don’t have to go from A to B to C. A good cut can take you from A to C. I use this technique all the time. It’s useful for eliminating a bunch of unnecessary text, as in the cut between the third and fourth paragraphs below, taken from my novella, The Check:

They had met in high school. He was the only boy in the Food Science class. The desks were doubles, so that two students sat beside each other. Her last name was Veraldi; his Zaratti. Thus, their first meeting was alphabetically ordained. 

She was beautiful. He was short. One day as they were leaving class a football player named Sammy Kirkland picked Carlo up by the shirtfront and slammed him against a locker. He taunted Carlo in an effort to impress Mali. “You like wearing an apron, gay boy?” 

Carlo looked at Sammy calmly, even as his feet dangled. “I sit next to Mali in a cooking class with twenty-one girls. You share a sweaty locker room with forty-two naked guys. Which one of us is more likely to be gay?” 

Mali helped him find some ice for his black eye. Then they walked home from school together. Although his family’s apartment was in the other direction, for Carlo there was no turning back. He was determined to win Mali over.

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Art is all around us

Remember that scene in the film American Beauty, where Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) shows Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) the video of a plastic bag blowing in the wind? 

It was mesmerizing. Here’s my version, captured one evening when I was doing the dishes after a delicious stir-fry. 

A random tar stain on the ground, which I thought resembled a Tyrannosaurus
A discarded teddy bear on a dumpster in an alley behind my place
I dropped a latte off for my daughter at work one day. She took this as cosmic proof I love her.
Of course, not all art is incidental. I think this barista might’ve had an ulterior motive when he gave my daughter her latte. Especially since mine was just plain foam.

It’s good that we’re all carrying cameras around in our phones. But sometimes I think we miss a lot when we walk around staring into them instead of paying attention to what’s around us.

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I hate when this happens

Everyone has pet peeves. I like to think I have fewer than most.

Tech is one. Don’t you hate when tech support tells you, “unplug your (whatever) then plug it back in again.” What other appliance gets the benefit of the doubt like that? 

I actually have an excellent toaster. My favorite part is the “A BIT MORE” button.

Can you imagine putting bread in your toaster, pushing it down, and when you come back it has popped up but the bread has vanished. Imagine toaster support saying… “Do you have back-up bread? Okay, unplug the toaster, plug it back in, then re-do the bread. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

No, because my toaster is in the dumpster.

In stores, it drives me nuts when you track down an employee and say something like, “Hey, do you have any Froot Loops. There’s none on the shelf.” What’s the first thing they do? Take you back to the cereal aisle and spend two minutes trying to prove you wrong. Like you’re going to miss a large red box with a toucan on it.

In one especially annoying incident, I was in a big-box hardware store, looking for an odd-sized light bulb in a specific wattage. Couldn’t find one. So I went up and down the aisles looking for someone. The guy I eventually found was wearing glasses with lenses about half an inch thick. 

“Hi, do you have any blah-blah sized light bulbs in yadda-yadda wattage? There aren’t any on the shelf.” 

You guessed it, he takes me back to the lighting aisle. Then, to supplement his thick glasses, he pulls out a magnifier with a light on it and starts inspecting bulbs. I stand there, like a kettle put on to boil, and when I’m just about to say something, he hands me a box. “Here you go.”

I hate when that happens.

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A hole-in-one never gets old

For professional golfers, the odds of getting a hole in one are 3000 to 1. In tournament play, Tiger Woods only has two. Which puts him eight behind Hal Sutton and Robert Allenby, who each have ten in tournament play. Golf legend Tom Watson has two in tournament play, 37 years apart. 

The odds of a hole in one for an average golfer are 12,500 to 1. And according to the PGA of America, the average amount of time that recreational golfers play before making a hole in one is 24 years. Mine took me 40 years. Mind you, some of those years I didn’t play very many rounds. 

It was a perfectly struck 7-iron on a 160-yard par three. Water to the right, sand traps on three sides. Landed about 10 feet left of the pin, curled to the right. My buddy said “get in the hole!”. I turned to him and was about to say “we always say that” when it rolled in. 

In celebration, my 7-iron flew 30 feet in the air. Thankfully it didn’t land in the water. 

My buddy suddenly realized he was three down after only five holes. So on the next hole, he drove the green on a 300+ yard par 4. Lucky for me he missed the eagle putt. Unthinking, I played the rest of the round with the golf ball I used to score my ace. Could’ve easily lost it.

One of my brothers has an even better story. After playing golf for almost 50 years, he finally had a hole in one. Then he had another in the same week. And then he had another later that same summer.
Hat-trick!

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Why an advertising career can be good training for a novelist

Before I wrote my first novel, I had a career as an advertising copywriter/creative director. It was a lot of fun. I never took it as seriously as legendary New York ad man George Lois, who threatened to jump out of a window if a client didn’t buy his campaign for matso crackers. But there were a lot of great debates as we encouraged clients to buy breakthrough work.

Renowned authors James Patterson, Salman Rushdie, Mary Higgins Clark, Clive Cussler, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others all spent time writing advertising copy. 

Writing ads taught me never to take readers’ attention spans for granted. When you only have 30 seconds, or a quarter page, or a banner ad to intrigue people, you can’t write flabby copy.

I used to embrace the challenge of simple, text-only ads. The most austere of these were career ads. 

Before the internet, the newspaper was the go-to place for job ads. And there was no search function. You had to read the classifieds or career pages. Lots of firms were content to simply list the position and prerequisites. But I always took it as a great opportunity to make a company stand out.

I wrote an ad for our ad agency with the headline,

“Once a woman sat in our reception area for 17 months.”

The copy went on to reveal that she was our receptionist. She did a great job, proved herself, got promoted, and now we needed a new receptionist.

I knew I’d written a good ad when we got a ton of responses for the entry level job. 

One was a phone call from a guy in Montreal. He said he wasn’t interested in applying, but he’d read the ad and it made him laugh (LOL hadn’t been invented yet). He was in the midst of an arduous, unsuccessful job search. He’d been unemployed for a while and the ad had put a smile on his face. So he called to say thanks.

Makes your day when that happens.