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Sunday, 21 August 2011

A Simple Answer to the World's Financial Woes

All over Europe countries who have overspent and have no money to pay are standing around with their empty pockets hanging out going, "Psst ….Hey Germany, can you spare a euro?" In America, the perhaps formerly most powerful country in the world, has just been put on official notice that they are being lumped into the same financial group as drunken sailors. One could almost be smug except that as as group, Canada's baby boomers have saved no money for retirement and pay out to debt nearly $150. for every $100. that they bring in. Simply put, the world has lost the plot financially.
Most of us knew the answer to these problems way back when we were kids. The problem is that like the children who came back from Never Never Land we forgot about it as we got older. The answer – cue the pixie dust - was the weekly allowance.
I have been informally surveying my friends for about a month now and have come up with a few trends
which transcend age variation and amount of allowance paid. Here in my own business report are the results of this survey along with a bit of financial commentary. 
  Allowances generally were given on a weekend after the wage earner got paid. The fact that we had to wait until the designated day taught you that money didn't arrive in a constant stream. For most people it arrived as a fixed amount on a fixed day and there were no exceptions, Friday didn't mean Thursday and this week's allowance didn't include next week's There were no pay day loans. You began to internalize budgeting.
Most allowances came with strings attached, some with strings of gossamer and some with tow ropes. In my case there was nothing really spelled out but I wouldn't dare be putting my hand out before the lawn was cut. My allowance was also mine – a totally disposable income, no strings attached - full tilt mad money - all twenty–five cents of it.
Many of my peers were not so lucky. Some were expected to save a certain portion while others were expected to donate to the church. None the less you were left with a weekly something in hand and this is where the bulk of your early financial training began.
That twenty five cents had buying power. For me the heft and sway of my financial clout rarely lasted longer than that Saturday afternoon, and I was forced to coast for the rest of the week, but it was a heady experience while it lasted. We didn't have malls back then and there were no department stores within walking distance. We had the drug store on the corner and that was all the shopping mecca that we needed. It had comic books, candy, ice cream and pop. It had nothing we really needed but pretty much everything that we wanted.
We had the whole inventory memorized and parsed out into categories of equivalent value.  The bigger ticket items cost ten cents each. Pop, a comic book, a bag of chips, cheezies, flavoured pop corn, a drumstick ice cream, a large chocolate bar all were going to cost you a dime. Items within this list could be further subdivided into what would last longer. An Arrow bar was delicious but all of those holes made it seem less substantial a purchase than an O Henry bar. Crème Soda was wonderful but way too tempting to shake up and see it go in an instant. Chips had the crunch but you could still eat Cheezies when they got stale.
Comic books taught us about group purchasing and sharing. Everyone in the group would get a different comic and then trade them around as we sat reading and munching. Comics were pretty much the mandatory purchase. Everything else went with the book.
 Nickels presented a new set of problems. You could always go for the large size Peppermint Patties or the sponge taffy, or the smaller sized chocolate bars but then that would be it for your allowance if you had already gone the Cheezies and comic book route.
That last nickel was usually saved for the penny candy section. Two for a penny and three for a penny gave you a pretty good bag stuffed with the likes of licorice-sticks, pipes, and nibs,or black balls or black babies(no that's not a misprint), packets of licamaid, wax shapes filled with coloured sugar water, caramel squares in cellophane, a strip of candy buttons (sugar dots on wax paper) and of course a few candy cigarettes just to get in training for the future. The important thing here was to stretch that last bit of money into items that you could, if you had the will power, make last over a bit more of the week. This need to stretch your allowance was the corollary to the general rule of consumer economics 101- first you have to get money and then you have to make it last.
  No matter how hard you tried, the allowance was never enough to fulfill all of your wants. Then again I don't think it was ever meant to, and therein lay another lesson. If you wanted more, you were going to have to earn it. As a group we caught on quickly. At two cents a bottle our generation pretty much had the lock on the invention of recycling. A morning spent scouring ditches by the the side of the road instilled  values of hard work and entrepreneurship which could be reinforced immediately with a bike ride to the store for instant reward/gratification.

 Having a bicycle had given me the freedom to travel with my buddies as I pleased. That freedom eventually led us to the fairly distant Stoney Creek Dairy. The dairy gave me a craving for quality ice cream that my budget couldn't afford. The budget constraint led to my constant nagging for jobs. The nagging led to a job that Dad figured would keep me quiet for a bit, while on my part I could dream about dairy delights as I toiled. 
  The job was about as "make work" a project as you could imagine. Dad hauled an ancient wooden  extension ladder out of the garage and set the two pieces up on saw horses in the backyard. My job was to scrape and sand all of the paint right down to the bare wood and then stain and then seal and then put on two coats of spar varnish. I'm pretty sure that in the realm of Dad Jobs this one has to be considered top shelf in the "keep em busy category". Dad jobs, of course, were always menial, hard, boring work for low pay and came with a heavy handed subtext of "and this is what you'll be doing for the rest of your life if you don't do better in school."
 I immediately hired a helper and promised to share the reward,although it was never stated exactly what the reward was to be because nobody really expected that I would stick to any project of that length. As we worked along we of course speculated on the possibilities of how our payment could be spent. My buddy had heard that they had a new dish at the dairy that was going to be this summer's rage. So huge and wonderful was it that it would put any sort of double decker or banana split to shame. This was it. This was to be my new focus. 
"What do they call it?" 
"Well my dad saw it and he says that it's some kind of an idiot's delight."  Idiot's Delight - now my dairy fantasy had a name.
  Neither sun, sweat, nor sandpaper were a match for my frozen goal and as the days passed there was no flagging from the cause. At some point Dad gave his nod of approval and handed over some cash to my friend and me. He even went so far as to suggest a treat as a bonus for a job well done. I knew what I wanted.
  Dad even volunteered to go in and get our treats as we sat on the bench. Awhile later he emerged empty handed but with his face contorted and glowing crimson red . This was not the portrait of a happy man.  As he told it, he had walked up to the counter and ordered a banana split and an Idiot's Delight. The man behind the counter seemed confused by the order. The banana split was no problem but he said that he didn't think that the other item existed.  Dad went on the offensive and said that it did and was very popular and that he wanted his request for an Idiot's Delight filled. Apparently there was a bit of a pause followed by, "Well sir what exactly would make you happy?"
  I was pointed in the direction of the door and told to order my own delight. Turns out it was called a Super Duper. 
   After this I pretty much looked for jobs that didn't have to be invented and supervised by Dad. My first job was to picket around a car lot with a sign that said, "These low prices are unfair!" A sweet deal at fifty cents an hour. After that came a job as a drug store delivery boy which was a bit of a challenge because I didn't know the names of any of the streets and didn't carry a map because I thought that my lack of knowledge might be found out. I'd just take the package and hop on my bike and start asking the first people that I saw for directions. If I didn't see anybody for awhile I'd just start knocking on doors for help. 
  By the time I got to high school I was still getting an allowance but it had slipped far below the needs of my current   life.  Only a better job, in this case loading trucks and box cars for the Canadian National Railroad  could cover gas, girls,dances and movies.
  I can't help but wonder if world leaders and finance ministers didn't grow up with allowances and how that has effected their thinking. Did they not learn that you can only spend as much as you have and that there are no extensions and that you have to make your money last?  Did they forget that things like houses are only worth so much in proportion to everything else? Did we all forget that for most people most successful money management comes from hard work and harder budgeting, not from lightning strikes like the lottery tickets or this week's hot stock or race horse tip. 
  I recently read that most people become happier once they reach their senior citizen years. I wonder if it's because at a certain age you go back on allowance.  Ken
    ( a special thanks to Art Vernon for the photo of his allowance saved in a coin collection)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

In the Arms of a Man from Tuk

 He said that he was originally from Tuk or Tuktoyaktuk if you like, a small Inuvialuit community way up there on the shores of the Arctic Ocean on Mackenzie Bay. He described going on a whale hunt when he was about five. The hunt was not just about the searching for food, it was about the gathering of a community and the sharing of food even to other communities far flung across the Arctic. Roger had grown up in a boat and as our guide we would put his skills to the test.
 Louis and I had waited about three years to return to Frontier Fishing Lodge on Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories. The trip isn't cheap (you could go on a cruise) but you get what you pay for in terms of good service, good food, fresh air, clean water and abundant large fish. Planning involves a number of trips to the tackle store and stocking up on things that you already have three of and things that you will never use but seemed to fit into the maybe, just in case, I've heard this colour is really hot this year, scenario that the salesman has woven for you.
  After the tackle store comes at least two weeks of packing and repacking the main bag plus the knapsack  carry on, plus the rod case. You have a 50lb max flight limit on the bush type planes so every piece of clothing gets double thought. You also, of course, have the dilemma of the fact that a bottle of scotch weighs more than a couple of long sleeve shirts so you are constantly checking the Internet weather channel to see if you can predict your needs.
  On Thursday morning I lugged my gear down to the foot of the stairs, set it on the floor, and as I stood up, my L4 disc herniated and I went into a spasm that twisted me into the letter C. I had no illusions of what this meant. Mr L4 has been the ruin of many a holiday over the years, but I knew I couldn't cancel out on my good buddy. And, if we didn't go this week we wouldn't be going this season. What if I cancelled and then felt better the next day? What if the chiropractor could put me back together? Maybe this wasn't going to be as bad as usual. I had two appointments with the chiropractor that day and at 3 am Friday morning we were headed to the airport. I was visibly in trouble way before we saw the sign that said Terminal 3. 
 An airport worker quickly sized me up and I found myself being pushed around in a wheelchair. Louis, meanwhile, had to do all of the check in stuff and somehow juggle the two main bags, the carry-ons and the over sized awkward to handle rod cases.
  Plastic bags leak. At least they do when you fill them with ice and then shove them down your back.  By the time we got from Toronto to Edmonton to Yellowknife my jeans were light blue on the front and a very suspicious dark blue on the back.
  In Yellowknife, we quickly arranged for whatever chiropractor would see me that day. He was less than enthusiastic about my prognosis. "I know that plane that you are going on. You won't be able to get in it. And if you do, how do you think you are going to be able to handle being in a boat?"
 The small plane was a bit of a stretch, but many patient people helped me on and off. The boat proved a bit more challenging. If you are sitting in a boat, every wave delivers a bolt of pain. One day the wind came up and we pounded through the waves to get back to the lodge for over and hour and a half. I nicknamed that trip "The Spine in a Blender Tour."
  Louis had spent some time as a grade one teacher and the he skills learned there came into play on a daily basis. He can tie your shoes in a jiff and they won't be coming off until he unties them, I tell you. He is equally good at socks and if it had been colder, I'll bet that he is a master at snowsuit management. As it was, due to just over freezing water conditions and highs of 15C, each day started with jeans, wind pants, short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, sweater, jacket, a baseball cap covered with a toque and a pair of gloves. I would lie on the floor as Louis found what I needed and threw it at me.
 As I couldn't sit for long, we kept trying to come up with different solutions that would allow me to take part in some fishing. One of the best I dubbed, "The Captain Ahab". From our cabin, we took a wooden chair which had a high straight back and high arm rests and placed it in front of the regular boat seat. I also had a wooden staff. Thus, with my left hand on the staff, I could push myself up to a more comfortable standing position and fish with my right hand holding the rod. I couldn't help but feel that I cut a rather commanding figure. I was clearly looking like the master of what the Australians call "the tinnie."
 We were in the river mouth right in front of the lodge because there was no wind/waves there. Everyone else had departed for larger adventures. I was doing the Captain Ahab and decided that I could handle a cup of coffee as well. Cue Louis. Before getting the coffee, I managed to get a few useless pain pills into my mouth. Now with coffee cup and staff in the same hand, I was intent on a bit of maneuvering in order to swallow the pills. Just as the cup reached my mouth the fish hit. The rod in my right hand snapped down violently causing me to lose balance and go into a painful spasm which sent me backwards, setting the hook as the next spasm came along, causing me to spit out the pills and throw the coffee at Louis. Fish on! I was oddly supported by the resistance of the fish, but by the time it was done, I was done. It was too big for me to stand up and hold so they just put it on my lap where it bounced and squirmed around like an over sized Labrador puppy while it got its picture taken. Next came the official measurements handled deftly by Roger, followed by a proper release that ensured that the fish had all of its energy back. Barbless hooks, handling by the guides, minimal time out of the water,catch and release policies all ensure a thriving industry. It was a bit humbling to think that if these lake trout only grow one half pound per year, that that 32 and a quarter pound fish was probably as old as I am. It was also the biggest fish caught that week.

  Catching Le Grand Guy did me in for the rest of the day. I took the next day off to lie on the cabin floor as well. My staff met its end that day for as I lay there enjoying some reading I noticed a bit of movement in the corner near the Coleman stove. The mouse was on tour and with some difficulty I was somewhat right behind it. It seemed to enjoy investigating the tops of the beds and when I thought I had myself secured at the proper angle I swung.  Unfortunately the staff was too long and broke against the cabin wall. This left me with seriously diminished weaponry and not much to balance with. The mouse was unfazed, he hopped onto Louis' pillow and tried to stare me down or win me over with its big brown eyes. Apparently half a staff works quite well when aimed properly at the top of the rodent's skull. Sorry about the pillow, Louis.
 Roger works so calmly that you might miss some of what he is handling. First is basic navigation. This is a huge convoluted lake. You can't afford to get lost and you can't afford to have an accident. There will be no one around to hear you, communication devices tend not to work, and the water is deadly cold. He is constantly checking for depth and changes in water temperature as well as wind and cloud conditions. He is also helping with lure selection, untangling a bird's nest in a reel, lighting his smoke, lighting your smoke, maneuvering to keep lines from being tangled on turns, netting and unhooking fish. He is also busy watching and pointing out the eagles.
 We were in a section that seemed to have no shoal or point or anything that would attract fish but we were catching them one after another, so I asked him what made him think that there were going to be fish here. "The eagle told me." My skeptical metre jumped to high.
"So just how does that work?" I asked.
"Well you see that eagle in the tree?" We did."It's there because the seagulls are here. The seagulls are here because the cisco are jumping at the surface of the water. The cisco are jumping because they are being chased by lake trout. That's how the eagle tells me."

  Roger also gathers the wood, makes the fire, fillets a freshly caught small lake trout and cooks up a fine shore lunch complete with mushrooms, onions, beans, and hash browns.
 Unfortunately I gave Roger one other task to take on that wasn't part of his usual agenda. At the end of each day of fishing I had to be gotten out of the boat. The dock is higher than the floor of the boat but there is a steel ladder to guide you up. All well and good if you can stand and put a minor degree of weight on your legs without having a screaming spasm. So the end of the day ritual became one of Louis pushing while Roger tried to block out what he was hearing as he lifted. Roger is a man whose size and strength are of a certain importance but as a dead weight to be lifted at an awkward angle, I am of no small measure. Perhaps the Kenny Lift will become an Olympic Event one day and Roger will get the Gold.
  The last day of fishing found me in a boat that had a deck at the front where I could lie down and fish on my back. This worked well except that Roger had to keep holding the fish up over the gunnels so that I could see what I had caught. By this time I could no longer sit and took my meals either lying on the floor or the deck of the boat or on the ground.
  The trip back was another study in wheelchairs and Louis balancing luggage. As the small plane landed in Yellowknife, the woman acting as an assistant announced, "Wow was that ever a bad landing!" I could have told her that. While at the Edmonton airport Louis found a helium balloon with a happy face on it and attached it to me as I slept on the floor. He said that he didn't want me to get lost. 
  I have been back for about a week and have regained some mobility and am looking into an MRI, but I still have a lot of floor time where I can think about my next trip back to the Northwest Territories where maybe next time the man from Tuk can just drive the boat and not worry about holding me.