The gift of space

I was at the Creston Museum last week, checking on a few things from past editions of the Advance, which are stored in the museum’s archives. Thinking I should check to see when in 1989 This is the Life first appeared, I was surprised to find that it actually started on February 8, 1988, 31 years ago this Friday.

I should have remembered that from a presentation I did at the library several years ago. Having missed the column’s 30th birthday isn’t a big deal, but it did get me to thinking back over the years, during which I have written nearly 1,500 columns under that title, which would run in the neighborhood of a million words.

In my early years at the Advance I wrote a number of different columns. The first one was Sport Talk, or maybe Sportalk, at the request of then editor and co-owner Sue Betcher. The first incarnation of This is the Life was My Say, also an opinion column. I wrote an entertainment column, Reviews, Previews and My Views, and later did one devoted to video rentals called The Illage Videot (my favourite name for a column, ever).

It was probably late in January of 1988 when I approached publisher and co-owner Helena White about starting another opinion column, one with no theme other than things that captured my interest that week. She readily consented. I had been the Advance advertising manager for about eight years by then, selling and creating ads for what was then a twice-weekly paper. The writer in me kept alive, and I often wrote news and business stories, too.

The inspiration for the first This is the Life came from a routine visit to a men’s wear store to check on the owner’s plan for advertising. Norm MacDonald had been a fixture on the Creston business scene for a number of years, first opening his menswear store in the Creston Valley Mall and then later adding Busy Bee Dry Cleaners to his workload. He eventually moved MacDonald’s Menwear downtown. I don’t think we ever went for coffee or lunch together, and I don’t think I actually knew where he lived, but Norm and I had developed a friendship over the years, and I had become increasingly concerned about his penchant for alcohol, which had grown over the years. I’ll let that first column tell the rest of that story. With Norm’s blessing, I ran it under the title A testament to faith:

He dropped to his knees and said, “Lord, I believe I’m an alcoholic. Please take this desire away.”

He was a man who might offer you a beer if you dropped into his store at ten in the morning. Rail thin, grey of complexion and often abusive, his unhappiness was more apparent to those around him than to himself.

Norm MacDonald’s drinking problem started after the death of his wife Adeline in the Cranbrook airplane disaster of 1978. “I was lonely,” Norm admits now. “And I think I had the right to be.”

Time, says Norm, was suddenly abundant in quantity, if not quality. Alone and without direction, he gradually began to drink—a few beers after work, one or two while he cooked dinner for one, and then rye and water in front of the television until bedtime.

The ‘eighties were years that blended into each other. With one fairly successful business and another a failure, a series of women drifted in and out of his life. If it can be said that the bottle is an alcoholic’s best friend and worst enemy, then Norm MacDonald was indeed an alcoholic.

“I only drank on two occasions. When I was alone and when I was with company,” Norm once explained at his now regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

When his second marriage began to break down, Norm was enticed to a doctor in Cranbrook, who challenged him to quit drinking for three months. “To prove I was not an alcoholic.”

Several days later, he was back into the beer, and several months later his second marriage fell apart.

It was on the third day after his wife left him that his faith came to the forefront. Norm finally dropped to his knees and said, “Lord, I believe I’m an alcoholic. Please take this desire away.”

He tested his Lord’s response by trying a rye and water, which he couldn’t drink. He went through a series of emotions, from fear to anger to humiliation in a matter of moments.

I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I kept repeating, ‘I’m an alcoholic? Me? An alcoholic?”

The next night he tried another drink, and again it repulsed him.

On New Year’s Eve, 1987, he dumped the contents of eleven bottles of beer onto the grass outside his house.

Today, maybe 100 meetings later, and countless hours of praying to his God, with not a single drink, Norm MacDonald has the look of a new man. His complexion has coloured, his eyes glitter when he smiles and his once bitten to the quick fingernails are healthy and untorn.

“Alcohol,” according to one of the tenets of AA, is cunning, baffling and powerful.”

“I still have problems,” Norm says. “I used to be afraid of everything. Now I feel I can handle almost anything.”

When I read those words written 31 years ago they gave me great pleasure. I still like how I told the story (although I am not sure how Norm might have got to more than 100 AA meetings in just over a month). Memories flooded back to the positive response the column got, and then to Norm telling me weeks later that he had received flak from some AA members for talking about meetings and my mentioning one of the AA tenets. I still don’t like the idea that Norm was criticized when all he wanted to do was share his story in the hope that someone else might be inspired by his story, but I’m glad the experience didn’t push him away from AA. He never did return to drinking, as far as I know, and he could always tell me years later how long he had been sober.

The next two columns had a humorous slant, when I did a parody on the Winter Olympics that were being held in Calgary at the time, setting an imaginary local event, the Winter Hillympics, on the Riverview hillside we lived on, which I renamed Lower Goat River Heights.

Readers who comment to me about a column will confirm that I usually don’t remember what I wrote last week. But a few do stick in my mind, like the one I wrote on January 25, 2005. I had completed a one-year term as a reporter a couple of months early, and was back to working at our group home, caring for three developmentally challenged older men. On a wet, snowy day I was working on our basement kitchen and had gone out into the carport to cut a piece of pine on my table saw. A split second of inattention later my hand was kicked back to my waist and I saw blood pouring down.

The next morning I awoke in Calgary’s Foothills Hospital, where I had had a couple of hours of surgery after being ambulanced to Cranbrook and flown out from there the previous evening. I managed to feed and dress myself, left arm in a cast, cheerfully refusing help from a nurse. A topic for next week’s column had fallen into my lap (unlike my ring finger, which was flung some distance from me and the table saw) and I started to compose it in my mind.

That column, with the title Can I take a mulligan?, would tell the story of my accident and subsequent trip for surgery. It would not contain the letter S, because the finger I lost rests on that letter on a keyboard. The following day, a Friday, I was still in the hospital when I got a call from home. The Advance publisher had called, asking if I could come back to work again, this time in a permanent position. “Tell her I’ll be in on Monday,” I said. And I was. Voice recognition software was ordered and quickly abandoned. Typing and talking are vastly different, and I managed for the next few months, typing with one hand.

Writing an opinion column, especially one as long-lived as this one, has its rewards—many of them—and its drawbacks. There have been many of those, too, not least among them the anonymous threats I got last fall from some rabid opponent to the fire hall borrowing referendum (I assume, based on the timing and message). But it often comes with surprises of another sort, too. It is not unusual for a column I really liked to get little response, and for one that felt inconsequential to generate tons of feedback.

I like to write about public affairs and economics, local and around the world. I have written and sent columns from all over Canada, the US and numerous places in Europe. Sometimes I have several topics bubbling away in the back of my mind and at other times my deadline nears and I have to start typing away on the flimsiest of subjects, hoping it will coalesce into something that feels whole and worthy of the space. I have often said, jokingly, that I have to keep writing until I find out how the column ends. There is a large chunk of truth in that statement.

Part of the privilege of having this weekly space is to write about local people who have died, friends and acquaintances who have touched my life, and the lives of readers, in some way. They are easy, and invariably sad, columns to write, but it is an honour to use the space in that way.

I don’t know how long this column will continue into the future. It can’t end soon enough for some people and others insist it should continue indefinitely. What I can say for now is that it continues to be a privilege to share my thoughts with an audience, and the act of writing has, as I have often said, served as therapy over the years. I am grateful for Helena White’s encouragement 31 years ago, and for the subsequent editors and publishers who have continued to allow me this space.

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