Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ring-What?

There are a number of games played on the Canadian winter season ice.

There is ice skating on frozen ponds.

There is hockey.

There is curling – which if you don't know – is a shuffle board like game where each team tries to slide large heavy polished rocks into a target on the other side of the ice, and the team with the most rocks near the target wins. It's a great game of skill, accuracy and strategy.

And then there is ringette.

"Ring-what?"

Ringette. It's a game very similar to hockey. But very different in several key ways:

The players use a hockey stick – with the blade cut off – so they only use the shaft. The butt of the stick is taped.

The puck is replaced by a heavy rubber ring – like the one you probably played ring toss with when you were young.

The players pass the ring to each other much like hockey players passing the puck, but the skill in ringette is in receiving – catching the pass – because instead of just letting the puck hit the blade of your stick as in hockey, the ringette player has to lift their stick and try to put the end down in the middle of the ring as it slides by.

There are also some other significant rules that distinguish it from hockey – like the one that states that no offensive player can put a skate or a blade in the goalie crease, and no offensive player can play defense behind a line on their own side.

You know – rules.

But the key to ringette is trapping that ring on the end of your stick – and then slinging it off the end for a pass or a shot on net.

Oh, and ringette – at this point anyways – is pretty much played by the female gender.

So as the father of a seven and six year old girls, I was very interested to see ringette again.

The ringette I saw played this year was pretty elite. While visiting my cousin Sarah's family at their log cabin outside of Cambridge, Ontario – Sarah insisted that we attend a special game being played that day. The game was between two elite teams: The Paris Ontario Ringette Association's under 20 girls playing two Team Canada Squads representing those on or trying out for Canada's national team.

And this game was played the day before Team Canada made its final cuts.

To make it even more interesting, there were two girls from the Paris Ringette association trying out for Team Canada this day. And the crowd was torn between rooting for the Team Canada rookies, and their hometown squad.

I sat and watched this game. I was not new to ringette. Sarah has been involved with this sport with her Dad (my Uncle Fred) since she was little and living in London, Ontario. Together they started and founded the Ringette association in Mitchell, Ontario. And now Sarah is continuing the tradition for her two daughters Justine and Paige – to carry Ringette into the next generation. She is proud of the exceptional executive committee she is a part of.

When I was young and living in Minnesota, I played a little hockey. Very little – and probably very poorly. When we visited my Uncle Fred's one Christmas, he and Sarah invited my brother Paul and I out to skate a practice with them.

I still remember that day – and how incredibly fun it was. And how difficult it was to catch that stupid ring on the end of my stick. And how humbling it was to have younger girls skating circles around me.

As I sat and watched the warm ups for the game, Sarah explained to me why the older girls were skating with the younger girls from the younger teams.

"This is a very important part of ringette", explained Sarah. "Part of this games culture is to expose the younger players to the older players, on and off the ice, to help them learn and grow quicker".

So ringette also teaches team members to also be role models.

And as I looked around the ice at both the Paris and Team Canada skaters, they were each doing their part to help and inspire the younger Parisian skaters. The Team Canada goalie was talking to the younger Parisian goalie about how to get down quicker to the ice to block low shots.

As the game began, I was blown away by the skating skills of both sides. Better than the best boys I have seen. Faster and quicker spins and turns than I have seen at the AAA OHL level. It was an incredible vision of players weaving so quickly through each other that it almost seemed like positions were only a formality for score cards.

The skill and accuracy of the pass making – moving the ring to open ice and watching the team mate sling over to pick it on the end of her stick up the middle of the ice, whip it outside to the wing, and receive it back on the end of her stick and in the same motion fling it powerfully at the net for a shot – only to have the sprawling keeper block it away.

It was at least as exciting as hockey. And because the player has the ring on the end of their stick – the skating they can do – the spins and cuts and twists are so much more exciting.

It is really something to see.

If you were to ask a hockey player about ringette, he would likely tell you it's for girls.

But if you asked a hockey player to go play ringette with these girls, he would likely decline the offer.

Because hockey players do not want to be shown up by a bunch of girls.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Believe and He Is Real

I'm probably kind of weird this way.

But I still believe in Santa Claus.

That is why Christmas this year is becoming more difficult for me. Not because my faith is eroding, or even slightly fading. Not because so many things in the world are not going as I wish they could. Not because people have become so shallow about wealth, status, popularity and appearance that important concepts like health, family, and friendship are too corny to hold our attention.

This year my eldest daughter Alannah has informed me that she does not believe in Santa Claus.

"He's just a guy with a fake beard and a red suit, Dad", she stated so matter-of-factly. "Gimme a break, ok?"

Alannah is seven. She will be eight in February. Alannah is just beginning that nightmare period of her young life where she actually believes she knows everything.

She informed me of this last week as I was out sitting in the garage having a smoke.

For as beautiful as my lovely wife Darlene has decorated our house this year, the garage is still my sanctuary. I can still sit on the old couch in the garage after work and have a smoke with a drink and listen to Pat Caputo talk about sports on the radio.

And the radio talk has been depressing with the Detroit Lions in the process of achieving the first 16 game winless season in the NFL history. And the Big Three automakers – all based of course in Detroit – hoping for assistance from the American federal government. And knowing that the fall-out of a collapse in Detroit will have exponentially dire consequences here in Windsor.

It's a depressing environment this year.

But this year, my Mom is up visiting for her first Christmas with my daughters. Up from the sunny southern gulf coast – where it snowed the day before mom arrived in the Great White North.

That is why we are so beautifully decorated this year.

And Grandma Brill still believes in Santa Claus.

So when Alannah came out to inform me of her newly-found wisdom, she and I sat in the garage – smoky and cold – full of empty decoration boxes and other holiday containers waiting to be discarded or re-used when the holidays are over – and we talked.

"Is that all you think Santa Claus is, Alannah?", I started very carefully. "Just a fat guy with a fake beard in a rented red suit?"

"Pretty much, yup.", she smiled at me, proud of her own adult-like cognitive processing skills.

"Why so?"

"Anytime you see Santa Claus at Christmas – he looks like a different person."

"Yes".

"And it's never the real Santa Claus."

"Yes".

"Nobody can fly around the world in a night and deliver toys to all the kids in the world", Alannah stated as if this were some type of proof. Her closing argument, if you will, to a jury that would have no option but to agree with her.

"Right?" she asked in her appeal to confirm her winning such an important argument as the dismissal of Santa.

"I don't think you quite get it, Alannah", I prepared my next comments very carefully, but quickly in my own mind before continuing.

"Huh?"

"Who else do you see at Christmas time?", I asked.

"Frosty, Rudolph, baby Jesus …", she started listing the icons of the holiday.

"Baby Jesus". I said. "Is baby Jesus fake?"

"No, Daddy – baby Jesus is real and you should be ashamed to ask me that!"

"Is Jesus still a baby?", I continued.

"I don't know?", she replied.

"Is Jesus with us always?"

"Yes, Daddy he lives in our heart".

"Is God with us always?"

"Yes, he is all around us Daddy, he makes the trees and birds and everything."

"And you know this to be true, like I do?"

"uh huh", she nodded.

"Well, so is Santa Claus", I stated. "Santa is not a guy in a rented suit with a fake beard. Those are men. But they are very special men, because they help us keep the spirit of Santa Claus alive and with us at Christmas time."

"The spirit of Santa Claus?".

"Yes, the spirit of giving. Of giving equally to everyone".

"Everyone who is good." Corrected Alannah.

"Have you been good every year? Have you been good every day of the year?", I asked.

"Well, no, nobody can be good every day of every year".

"But you still get presents from Santa Claus on Christmas morning, though. Have you ever received a lump of coal?"

"No".

"Santa is also the spirit of forgiveness, like baby Jesus."

"So Santa Claus is not real then?".

"Santa is real in your heart, where it matters the very most. Just like you keep baby Jesus in your heart all year long, you should also keep Santa Clause in your heart."

Alannah sat there and she fumbled this over and over again in her mind.

"So if I don't believe in Santa Claus, then he won't be real".

"To you, that's right. Santa can't exist unless you believe in him." I said. "Pretty magic, huh?"

Alannah hugged me and went back into the house.

I sat there for a few minutes playing that conversation over and over again in my mind. I do not know if what I said was right. But it was honest and therefore it must be right. But I was not sure what was going through her mind as she left. I think she was confused.

But Alannah is a pretty smart little girl.

Sunday was our company children's Christmas party. As you may remember from last year's entry entitled "Don't be scared of a little snow", we had to cancel last year's party due to inclement weather.

It snowed.

So the girls did not visit this Santa and Mrs. Claus last year. I was interested to see how this year's visit would go, given the talk Alannah and I had in the garage.

When their time came, Ashley-Rae sat on Santa's lap, and Alannah sat on Mrs. Claus'. Ashley-Rae whispered a joke into Santa's ear, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and waved bye. Santa laughed because I don't think many kids tell Santa a joke. But Ashley-Rae does. "Did you get that?" Santa yelled down to me.

I gave him the thumbs up. I was taking video on our little Kodak digital camera.

Alannah stood up and turned to Santa. She held both his hands as she stood there and talked to him. Her back was turned to me, so I tried to read in Santa's eyes what Alannah was saying. He answered her very nicely. And she leaned in and gave him a great big hug. And she whispered in his ear. And he gave her a great big hug. And she kissed him on his cheek and turned and jumped down.

"We'll see what we can do", he shouted to her as she departed.

Alannah hopped down off the stage as I stopped recording the event.

After we got home, I loaded the pictures from the digital camera to our PC – and I also downloaded the video of Alannah talking with Santa. It was a little darker than I wanted, but I tried to make out what was said.

It appeared that Alannah was explaining to Santa that she knew he was a man in a red suit with a fake beard. And Santa's face dropped slightly. So Alannah hugged him and thanked him for being Santa because men who play Santa are special too. Then she told Santa that she understands that because Santa is like baby Jesus and lives in your heart. And then Santa hugged her.

Then she asked for a present by whispering in his ear. I do not know what that present was. But I suspect it was that she gets a part in a play at a theatre she likes. And that's when I heard Santa say "We will see what we can do..".

I'm not sure, but I think she understands.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Bad Phone Call From The Good Doctor

Most of the people I know that are my age are grandparents.

Some have grandchildren older than my two daughters, seven and six.

It's hard being a parent when you are no longer a spring chicken.

I don't really think of myself as being old. Although the gray in my hair has now conquered most of my temples, and my longish goatee is pretty much white.

So I don't exactly resemble a spring chicken. Except in my own mind. That seems to be where my ego lives.

But this weekend's little incident actually brought the matter of my advancing age poignantly home.

I have had a complete physical scheduled with my family doctor for some time. And so Friday morning, I stopped on the way to work to get the lab portions of my tests done. In the span of eight minutes I filled four vials of blood and a little cup. I said my goodbyes as I handed my little yellow cup to the lab attendant and headed to the office for the daily series of battles.

That night, I came home to find lovely smells in the kitchen and the house decorations more nearer completion for the holidays. As I was talking of the day's events with my lovely wife Darlene, the phone rang. It was our family doctor.

He had just gotten my lab results.

"Fred, have you been doing any type of heavy exertion – you know, exercise or sports lately?"

"No, I haven't", I answered – what an odd question? "Why do you ask?"

"The muscle enzymes in your blood test were four times what they should be", answered the good doctor.

"Is that good?"

"No, it isn't. It is an early warning sign that you are about to have a heart attack."

"Huh", I said in my normal articulate manner.

"You need to grab a good book and prepare to spend the evening at the Emergency room".

"I see".

"I'm not kidding, this needs to be looked at", said the good doctor. "I want you to get an EKG and a four panel C-ray."

"Okay".

I had no intention of going that night. It was a Friday night, and not a good place to be on a Friday night. I would get up early Saturday morning and head in to the hospital.

I slept very poorly that night. I tossed and turned and thought a lot about what state I would leave my little family in if I should kick off in my sleep. I added up all my benefits and insurance – and I came to the startling conclusion that they would very well off should I have the big-one before dawn.

Sobering thoughts they were.

Into the hospital I drove the next morning. Windsor was being hit with it's biggest snow dump yet in the season. And the roads were slick, and people were driving cautiously. And when I arrived in the ER, amazingly enough it was almost empty.

I first explained my reason for visiting to the triage nurse, who put me immediately into a room where I would be placed on a heart monitor. I then explained my situation to the tending nurse, the cardiac technician, and then both a cardiac and pulmonary specialist.

They ran all the same blood tests as in the lab the day before. They also made me fill yet another little yellow cup. And then they strapped me to a heart monitor for several hours.

And in the end, they told me my blood work was fine. I did have some breathing difficulties they diagnosed to be bronchitis, and they scheduled me for a complete pulmonary exam.

But my heart was fine.

I arrived home with a big box of donuts for the girls and a Tim Horton's double-double coffee for me and Darlene. And I went to work on the lights in the front yard. And putting together the stand for a new TV we had just bought. I was up until 5:00 in the morning putting everything together.

I have spent every morning since coming home from the hospital considering where we stand should I decide to croak early. I have decided that I would really like to stay around a bit longer. See how my girls turn out, what happens at work, and well, I just got this new TV.

But I do not understand how my blood test could show such a dire condition one day, and be absolutely clear of the condition the next? And I will admit that I am worried.

Because I have two little girls to raise. And parenthood isn't easy at my age.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Coming and Going

I have been very fortunate in my career.

The last twenty years I have worked for companies that I totally believe in. And for companies that have totally believed in me.

It has always been a mutual relationship.

I currently work for a non-profit health benefits company. The only one in Canada. The model of this company so unique that a bill was introduced and passed by the Canadian federal Parliament to allow the company to exist. It's called the Green Shield Canada Act.

And our mission statement's prime directive is to "Enhance the common good".

I have been with Green Shield Canada now for eight years. The projects have been high profile. The mission to enhance the common good most often achieved.

But it seems like only yesterday that I was working for my previous employer, PFW Systems in London, Ontario.

When I started, there were fifteen of us. Enough to form a softball team. And we were a pretty close group of employees. When I left, there were nearly a hundred employees. And I would like to think I helped achieve that growth.

My first boss at PFW was a fellow named Ross Atkinson. My assignment was to develop a suite of software to quote, order, and submit warranty claims for all Bobcat skid steer loader dealerships. Ross was a pretty great boss. He gave me a pretty free hand to architect, design, and construct this suite of PC programs called PC Dealer.

The very first version pre-dated Microsoft Windows. The program was launched by simply typing 'PCDEALER' at a DOS prompt. If you remember DOS, it looked something like this:

C:\> PCDEALER

Future versions were written to run in Windows, then use the Internet. Then at the prompting of our CEO – Bob Morton – we adapted the program to use the internet not only to submit orders and warranty claims for Bobcat skid steer loaders, but also to sell and support the program, but also to sell and distribute the software around the world.

The project was such a success that the Bobcat Company mandated all its sales locations around the world to use our software. I still remember midnight ICQ chat sessions with a Bobcat regional manager in Malaysia and another in Hong Kong – helping them set up the software suite to work in their region of the world.

Back then I lived to work. My job was my life. It was my sole identity. I would take my laptop on vacation and log into the office from the patio of a golf course in Florida. I loved that job.

And the people I worked with.

Ross and Bob and I had some very fun business trips. Only fun to me because of their company. Most often we travelled to Rochester Minnesota - home of the group that manufactured the AS/400, or to Fargo North Dakota - the head office of the then Bobcat company.

On one occasion I remember sitting in the lobby of the Bobcat head office with Ross and we coded and tested last minute ideas before walking into their boardroom minutes later to demonstrate them to the executives of the day. We would take their feedback and go back to the hotel and rewrite the code to meet their new needs. And we would demonstrate it the next day.

We were a pretty good team. And I learned a lot from them. They allowed me to grow to be the engineer and architect I am today. And I don't know if I ever really thanked them.

When I met my lovely wife Darlene, she was living in resort community south of Windsor in a little town called Amherstburg. As I spent more and more time with Darlene, it became clear that she was destined to be the new central focus of my life. I spent the next six months extracting myself from the responsibilities I had assumed at PFW.

And I started looking for a job in Windsor. That's where I learned about Green Shield Canada.

In October of 2000, I moved to Amherstburg. But I still worked for PFW in London. It was about a two hour drive every day to work. And another two hours home at night. As the winter descended on southwest Ontario that year, driving was treacherous on the 401 highway. There were many white-knuckled trips driving through blinding snow with tractor trailers surrounding me and slipping and sliding in the lanes on both sides of me.

With two days to go before Christmas, I made my final drive to London as a PFW employee. Halfway to London, two semi s jackknifed and blocked the entire northbound side of the expressway.

And I was about three hours late to work.

Almost as soon as I got to my desk, Bob called me into his office.

He was not happy.

I explained about the jackknifed trucks.

"Why didn't you call?" asked Bob.

"I was stuck in the middle of the highway!"

"Why don't you have a cell phone?"

"I never needed one before".

"That's no excuse", Bob continued. "You could have borrowed one from a car behind you."

"Yeah, I guess I could have – the thought didn't occur to me."

"That's irresponsible", said Bob. "You have a pregnant wife at home, you drive 4 hours a day to and from work, and you don't have a phone".

"Yes, I can't argue since you put it that way. You're right". And he was.

One thing about Bob Morton. The bugger was always right.

Bob's manner changed. He leaned forward to me and said, "You don't need to be here, Fred".

I looked at him.

"Go back to Amherstburg. Hold on to the laptop. I will keep paying you until you find a job in Windsor".

I had a secret. I was on the verge of signing a letter of hire with Green Shield Canada. I was supposed to close the deal and land the job the next day.

"You don't have to do that, Bob", I said. "I am going to sign on with Green Shield Canada tomorrow."

But I don't think Bob believed me.

"Just do it."

And I left Bob's office.

I packed up my desk, and I went around saying goodbye to everyone. With only minutes notice I was out the door and on my way home. After nine years of hard work, it ended in nine minutes. No long goodbyes. No farewell lunches or last few beers with the boys. Just a quick "It's been great…", and I was gone.

When I got back home, I explained what happened to Darlene. She started to cry. A happy cry.

The next day I signed the letter of hire with Green Shield Canada. I did it by email. I used the very laptop that Bob had told me to find work with before returning it to him.

And I started work with Green Shield Canada on January 2nd, 2001.

Bob paid me through February. This was a godsend, because Darlene gave birth to our eldest daughter Alannah only six weeks after I walked out of Bob's office.

In March, Darlene and I packed up our baby girl, and we drove to London. It was a Saturday. And Bob was at home on his farm in Ilderton, just north of London. He welcomed us in as friendly as could be. And we sat and we talked, and I gave him back the laptop he let me use. And Alannah lay sleeping in her bassinet.

I will always know the great debt of gratitude I owe Bob. For the opportunities he gave me. For the challenges he tasked me with. For the wonderful mentorship he provided. And for his sense of humor, which I have somewhat adopted as my own.

And for just being the best boss I ever worked for.



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