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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Mr. Willis - May 2009 to Present

So far, I have told stories about two of my mentors and both have been employers. However, the people who have had a profound influence on my life are not just limited to people I have worked for. Teachers, clients and other people have all, collectively had a significant impact on me. This story is about one of my clients who has, over the years, become one of my mentors. His name is John Willis, and he used to run one of the largest trucking companies in Southern Ontario. He is retired now, but when I met him, he was still very much in charge.

In May 2009, I left the accounting firm that I had worked for nearly 5 years since moving to Toronto, EvansMartin. It doesn’t even exist anymore, having been bought up by one of the expanding regional firms in this country. However, at the time I left, I was on the quest to make it to Partner: “the Brass Ring” as it were.  I joined a firm called Sloan Partners, who were looking for someone to come in and manage their team.  The prospects for upward mobility were excellent, and one of the first clients that I was given responsibility for was John’s group of companies.

The first time I met John was at the meeting to deliver the financial statements. I was with my partner, who at the time was one of my bosses, and we were waiting in the company’s meeting room, discussing what we were going to review and who was going to talk about what, when the door opens and in comes John. He was deeply tanned, with dark brown hair that was brushed neatly back into a perfect coif. He wore one of those patterned, 1960’s knitted polyester shirts – the kind with the buttons down the front, and the short sleeves.  It was a very distinct look, one I had not actually ever seen in living memory, and had only seen in old TV shows and movies. He shook my hand and said “where did you go to school?”. Then, before I could answer, he looked at my partner Jerry and I and said “I just need to establish that Mr. McFetridge has the right credentials to be discussing such complicated financial matters”. He then winked and flashed a smile that let Jerry and I know that he was just kidding.  The meeting went well, and I didn’t think much of it, but not long after that, I had to deal with a difficult accounting issue and had to call him with some rather bad news. I was terrified, as he was an important client, and I was so new in my role.  After much thought, I decided that being completely honest and upfront with him about what the problem was and how it came about was the best policy. He took it very well, but asked some tough questions, which I answered without wavering.

A day or two later, the managing partner Allen, called me into his office. I was pleasantly surprised when he told me that John had called him and told him that he wanted me assigned to all his accounts, as he admired my honesty. My relief was palpable, and I remember mentioning it to a headhunter friend of mine that I meet for drinks every few months or so.

John and I had a very good working relationship over the ensuing years and although I didn’t see him often, he would always take a personal interest in how things were going for me when I did. For the next three years, I managed the financial reviews of his corporate trucking group and his personal income tax affairs. But then in my fourth year of managing the financial review, I got into a major argument with his CFO. For some reason, she decided that she did not like my approach to the work and took me to task on it when we had the year end review meeting. I mean, I got my ass handed to me in front of John and his main operations guy, Walt.

The next year, I was anxious to avoid a repeat of what had happened a year before. So, I contacted his CFO well in advance and told her that I wanted to do the work more efficiently this year and could I please send her many of our review questions in advance so we would be as well prepared as possible when the time came to commence the review. She agreed, but then when I sent her the questions, she only answered half of them. I should digress briefly and explain that this a common problem when you perform year end reviews or audits as an accountant. The main problem is that the client has usually known you for years and expects you to bring your intimate knowledge of their business and its history to bear on your approach to audits and reviews. What they often do not appreciate, or adequately understand is that your requirement to remain objective and skeptical means that you must purposely disregard your past knowledge and ask the same questions every year. It’s like the insurance salesman that asks you “so you held a policy with us last year?” when they clearly know you did. Clients can become quite annoyed by this and many of them respond by simply ignoring the questions they feel you already know the answers to. This effectively becomes a cat and mouse game that often ends with a higher than necessary bill, though most often, as the accountants we are forced to “eat” the extra time we have incurred on a job because of having to approach the client multiple times for answers to the questions we should only have to ask once.

So, this year, things went even worse than they did the year before, with the CFO telling me that we were fired in the middle of the job. I went to her office to try and talk her down, but the whole thing degenerated into a shouting match. John heard the whole thing from his office, which was next door. He called me into speak with him. He explained that although he liked me very much, he trusted his CFO, and was not going to intervene. He urged me not to take what was happening personally, and suggested that with time, I might see things from his CFO’s perspective. In my mind, I was so completely 100% right, and she was 100% wrong that I pounded his desk with my fist and said something to the effect that I would never see it her way. I was that comfortable with John that I did that, as I would never have expressed myself that way otherwise.  But 30 seconds later, I regretted it and was waiting for John to tell me to leave. He didn’t. He just calmly said that he was sorry that I felt that way, and hoped I would reconsider and said he had to go outside for a cigarette and invited me to join him.

As we stood outside he asked me how things were at home and what my plans were for the summer. I talked about the renovations on the house I owned with Kay. It was a nice conversation amidst a very unpleasant situation.  At the end of it, we shook hands and he told me that he was going to continue to have me work on his personal work. This had a huge impact on me. The situation must have been awful for him as he liked us both. But his integrity and sense of loyalty to his CFO was such that he could not override her decision to replace us. He managed to maintain his frame and sense of integrity, while doing as much as he could to soften the blow on me. This was the first time I had seen anyone handle a situation like this.

We continued to enjoy a very warm and cordial working relationship for the next three years. John was the first to console me when was going through my divorce with Kay, and he was genuinely excited for me when I told him that I would be leaving to start my stamp business. He completely surprised me by offering to lend me money if I needed additional capital. So now, along with Mr. Willoughby, and my former Partner, Allen, he is one of my major investors.

We have since developed a closer relationship, with me meeting his wife Linda and both of them meeting Steph and coming for dinner. I sometimes can’t help but think it would have been nicer to have developed this relationship earlier, now that we are having to leave for New Brunswick. However, I try to simply appreciate the fact that we have this relationship with them now, and hope very much to maintain it, even though we are far away. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Mr. Willoughby Part 3 - 2002 to Date

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Don Willoughby. I’m from the west coast, so hopefully you can understand me.” said Don with a wink as he looked out into room of faces. “I came to know Chris when he came to work for me as a junior accountant in 1994. I don’t understand why everyone is giving him a hard time about getting old, but one thing about getting old is that you dwell less and less on it as time goes on. He was a strange fellow back then. Worked very hard and even though he was in his 20’s, he came across as a man in his late 30’s. He had a hard time relating to people at the office. But because of this we became friends and have remained so since. It gives me pleasure to wish both him and his lovely bride many years of happiness together.”

It was October 1, 2016 – over 22 years after he and I first met. Here he was, with his wife Bernice at my third wedding, wishing us well. Although he and Bernice had met and gotten to know all three of my wives, my wedding to Steph was the only one that they attended. As I sat there during his brief speech I was awaiting some embarrassing tale about my time working for him. However, it never came. He later said to me that “what happened in Vancouver should stay in Vancouver.”. I was really touched that he and Bernice came, because for the 10 months leading up to the wedding, I was fairly certain that they would not be able to. It turned out that Don’s nephew had a wedding in Austin Texas that week and in order to make it to ours, they would have to have taken an extra trip up here. But they did make the extra trip and it is a testament to a friendship brought back from the brink of destruction. As I sat at the dinner table listening, my mind wandered off and began to remember how this all came about.

Back in 2007, after my infidelity to Kay came to light, I almost immediately joined a 12-step program for sex addiction. I worked the program hard – attending meetings nearly every night for a month, and then every week for nearly three years; worked all the steps; performed service for the group and so on. The success rate of most 12-step programs is low only because the steps after step three are hard and require a lot of discipline. I’m not sure now that I was ever a sex addict. I do think, as I have alluded to in my other stories, that I was someone who handled my marital problems very badly and engaged in behavior that was clearly wrong. However, my involvement with the program would be responsible for some of the most profound personal growth that I have experienced as an adult.

One of the key steps in the program is step 8, and in this step you are encouraged, with the help of your sponsor, to contact those you have wronged, that you identified in step 4, and to attempt to make amends. Of course, some of the people on your list may no longer be reachable, or may be further harmed by contact. This is why you work this step with the involvement of your sponsor: to help you judge who should be and who should not be contacted.

Anyway, Don was on my list because of the way in which I ended my employment with him all those years ago. He and I had not spoken for nearly 5 years when I e-mailed him in 2008. I can’t quite remember the exact wording of my e-mail, but I remember I was no-holds-barred contrite and apologetic for the way I acted. I did tell him about the addiction and my involvement in the program, but only as information and not to elicit any sympathy. I may even have said so explicitly – I don’t quite remember.  His response was classic Don. He brushed it off, said that he recognized my potential as someone who worked very hard, told me not to worry about what had happened and wished me well. But you could tell that he was happy to have had the acknowledgement. We had no further contact until 2009, when a trip to Vancouver brought us back together.

In 2009 Kay and I decided to start taking separate vacations. The reason was mainly that we both liked different places and different kinds of travel experiences, though in retrospect, this was perhaps the first indication that we were not compatible over the long term.  My destination of choice was Vancouver, where my one of my oldest friends Nicole lives with her husband and two children. With my very busy lifestyle, I never really got a whole week to myself unless I was on vacation, and I was working on a comprehensive study of Nigerian postage stamps at the time. So I came up with the idea to spend one of my four weeks vacation in Vancouver working on my stamps and visiting Nicole and her family. That year, I stayed with my mother out in Mission, which was about an hour outside Vancouver.  I was still actively involved in program at this time, so I decided to contact Don while I was out there and take him out to dinner. I e-mailed Don before I came and said I was coming to town and offered to take him out. He graciously accepted, and while I was there he made the reservations at Gotham Steakhouse in Vancouver.

I remember being very nervous in the bar at Gotham, not quite knowing what to expect as I waited for Don. I hadn’t physically seen him in eight years and I just wasn’t sure what to expect. Eventually he came and greeted me with a handshake and a “Hi old man.”. The dinner was awkward though as one would expect after so many years. We ate the meal, had a quick dessert and parted ways after not having spent much more than an hour and a half together. During the meal I had told Don that I wouldn’t give up on our friendship and had hoped that this could be a new beginning for us. He seemed about as enthusiastic as lieutenant Dan on Forrest Gump, the first time that he saw Forrest after the Vietnam War.  I was glad to have seen him again though, and felt that with persistence on my part, we could form a solid friendship.

We didn’t really have any contact until the next year when I went back to Vancouver for my annual trip. This time I was staying in a hotel downtown. I had again suggested that we do dinner while I was there and he said that this time it was his turn to take me. We met in English Bay at the Fish House and had a lovely meal. This time he was more relaxed and we spoke about the book I was working on for Nigerian stamps and the business that I had started on the side selling stamps. We spent much longer together this time, enjoying wine with dinner and coffee with dessert. He gladly paid the bill and I went on my way feeling like our relationship was definitely on the mend.

The following year in 2011, it was my turn to take him out and he did not hesitate to accept my invitation when I contacted him. By now our two dinners had now morphed into a ritual. This time he suggested we meet in Yaletown at a very upscale oyster bar, whose name escapes me at the moment. The final game of the Stanley Cup was underway between the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins and Vancouver was down, but showed some promise.  Dinner was even more relaxed this time, with us ordering and finishing a bottle of wine. The conversation was more personal as well, with me telling Don about Lea’s death just a few months before. The game was on in the restaurant, so we followed it as we ate and we watched as the situation went from bad to worse, and were just finishing dinner and getting ready to have dessert when Vancouver lost the game. As we headed out, Don remarked “I hope people behave themselves this time.”. He was of course referring to the 1994 Stanley Cup riot in which businesses were looted and there was widespread unrest after Vancouver lost to the New York Rangers. I told him that I was sure we wouldn’t see a repeat of 1994.

As we walked up Seymour St. towards Georgia St., we noticed people being rowdy and chanting things like “Burn that truck!” and “Let’s go riot!”. I looked at Don as we walked up and said “I may have spoken too soon”. “Yeah I think so” he said. As we approached Georgia St., we saw an overturned car on fire, right in front of the main post office. There was a group of people surrounding it cheering and clapping. We both knew that we had to get out of there fast. So we sped up and headed over to the Skytrain station where Don shook my hand before descending the stairs. I continued north down to Hastings St. where I waited over an hour for a bus to get back to Nicole’s place in Burnaby where I was staying. I will never forget the sight that greeted me as I got off the bus in Burnaby: looking west down Hastings St. all you could see were plumes of smoke from the many fires that were now burning downtown.

The next year, 2012 was the second last year I would be able to make the annual trip to Vancouver as my marriage to Kay would implode in only a few months time. I was completely unware of this at the time and I booked the trip with great excitement and Don and I decided this time to meet at Bridges restaurant on Granville Island. Again, I stayed with Nicole and toward the end of the week, I made my way down to the restaurant. This time Don suggested we have cocktails as our table wasn’t ready when we got there. My father had passed away a few months before and we talked about that over cocktails and about the troubled relationship I’d had with him, as well as how I had only heard about his death two months after it happened from his oldest friend.  Over dinner he talked about his challenges with the sale of his practice. I talked about my stamp business and how well it was going. He asked me if I could use an investment of $5,000. I was very honoured that he believed in me enough to invest his money in the business. I accepted and immediately began to go to work trying to grow his investment. I was successful, but found that with my work in public accounting I had very little time to devote to the business, so growing Don’s investment was challenging. I saw this quite rightly though as a real turning point in our relationship.

Less than six months after that meeting, my marriage lay in ruins and I was moving out of my family home and focused 100% on rebuilding my life. Soon after I moved out, I met Steph, and we very quickly fell in love. That is the subject of another story for another time though. That summer, my mom was anxious to meet Steph, and her best friend Beth, who was dying wanted to meet her too. So Steph and I took a series of two trips out to Vancouver to meet mom and also my friend Nicole. We went at the same time of year that I would normally have gone on my trips out west. So I contacted Don after we decided to go and made arrangements to see him again for dinner. We decided to meet at Bridges again, but this time I brought Steph with me. He was a little less comfortable given that he was meeting Steph for the first time, but he did manage to crack a few jokes and overall the dinner went well. We did discuss his investment and how I had managed to do with it, and he asked Steph a few questions about where she was from and what she did.  Steph held her own and I was very glad to have introduced her, though she always made a great impression on anyone that I introduced her to.

It was after this dinner that I saw the greatest change in our relationship. Don began to call me every few months to check on me and see how things were going. One night while driving home after a particularly difficult day at the office I got a call from Don. He had caught me on a day when I was really tired of public accounting. I told him how I felt and then he completely shocked me with what he said next. He asked me if I wanted to leave public accounting to become a full time stamp dealer. I told him that I was actually thinking of doing so and would have to prepare a business plan, but figured that with $200,000 of additional funding, I would have more than enough to become full time. He said that he would be willing to increase his investment to $50,000 and thought he could find 2 or 3 more people who would do the same thing. I was completely speechless. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. For the next few nights I couldn’t sleep as I pondered what he had said. He actually believed that I could do it - enough to put his own money on the line and enough to try and convince others to do the same. How could I not accept his offer?

Not long after that I started earnestly preparing a business plan for a full time stamp business.  I began working on it in the summer of 2014 and by November, it was complete. My analysis indicated that my plan was not only viable, but that such a business could be very successful. Now I had a very difficult decision to make: do I buy into the partnership? Or do I leave and accept Don’s offer and pursue my dream? After much discussion, Steph and I decided that pursuing my dream was more important, and since July 2015, I have been pursuing the dream. I couldn’t have done it without the help and assistance of this man who saw the potential I had when I was a young, awkward man of 22, and decided to give me a chance when no one else would.  He and I now talk every few months and after 22 years, have a really genuine friendship. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Mr. Willoughby Part Two - July 5, 1994 to 2002

My relationship with the man who would become by longest and most trusted mentor was complicated and not without its ups and downs. Don’s demeanor when I worked with him all those years ago was stern, and yet gentle. His presence could be intimidating, but then at a moment when you least expected it, he could surprise you with a humerous quip. He was a lot like Colin Firth’s character in Bridget Jones’s diary (the first one) in that he has that stiff upper lip quality to him. It threw me off for a while after I started working with him, until I remembered that he is of the “silent generation” and came from very humble roots in British Columbia. I can well remember the first time I walked into his office to ask him a question. On his wall was a large framed soliloquy titled “Commitment” in large black letters. It went on to describe why commitment was so important to success – not in a cheesy, contrived way, but in a very real way. I knew instantly that this was a man I could identify with, who would understand and respect my work ethic.

A good way to illustrate his personality and the relationship that we had is for me to give examples of some of his funnier moments in the office:

  • People did not have their own computer at their desks because at that time they were too expensive. So the firm had a bank of about a dozen computers. The idea was that we did most of our work at our desks and then when we needed to do something on the computer, we would go use one of the computers. In practice, some of us would go straight to the computers and work there all day. Of course, when you have six accounting students sitting in an open concept space, you get to talking and pretty soon nobody is doing any work. This goofing off could go on for a while if the partners were too busy to come walking by the computer area. Anyway one day we are all talking when I notice Don come around the corner toward the computer area. He just stops and stands there listening while nobody except me notices him. After about a minute everybody turns around and looks at Don, who smiles his mischievous smile and says “I want some of the puppies from the litter when you are done. Okay?” before turning around and walking away.
  • One day I am standing in his office discussing his review notes on one of my files and at some point he starts frantically looking for one of the working papers that was I the file. He can’t find it, no matter how hard he looks and finally in frustration he exclaims “It’ a good thing my dick is attached, otherwise I’d lose it too!”.
  • We had a lunch room in the office and a lot of people liked to read books as they ate lunch. One of the guys was reading a book titled “The book of Questions”. Don walks in to get a cup of coffee and as he is walking out with it, he notices the title of the book, stops and with his usual mischievous smirk he says “The book of questions eh? You should get the book of answers!” before walking away.
5    Many nights when I would be working very late to finish a file, Don would come and chat with me at my desk. The chats would not be long, and there would not be a lot of personal information exchanged, but they would be long enough that I felt respected and that my efforts were acknowledged. As an aspie, I was fully aware of the fact that my behavior was quirky, but Don tried very hard to steer me in the right direction and help me, while respecting my dignity:
  • There was a time when my first wife Lea went to Hong Kong for 2 months after the death of her father and left me with very little money to pay the bills. She ran up a $2,000 American Express bill and it needed to be paid, as Amex did not allow cardholders to carry balances back then. I had no way to pay it. All this came to light when Don noticed that my shoes were worn right through and he summoned me to his office to tell me that I needed to buy a new pair. I explained that I couldn’t because of what was happening. Without skipping a beat, he told me to bring in the Amex bill and give it to him. He arranged for it to be paid and as far as I an recall, DID NOT take it off my pay. He also told me to buy a new pair of shoes and bring the bill to him. He reimbursed me for my new dress shoes. Although Doug Frew, the personnel partner did tell me about a note in my file to that effect, Don never did bring it up again.
  • Another time I had run out of black socks and decided to try getting away with a pair of my white socks. Don noticed and told me “You know, you really shouldn’t wear white socks with a suit. It just isn’t done.”. Embarrassed, I replied “Yeah I know Don.”, to which he said “Well if you know, why are you doing it?” as he smiled. I told him I had run out of black socks. But I made sure that I never ran out again.
  • Another time, I’m not sure how or why, I had a B.O problem.  I think it was the polyester dress shirts I was wearing. But Don gently let me know one day that I “wasn’t smelling too good”, and asked me if I drycleaned my suits regularly. Shortly after that conversation I went out and spent the last of my money on a good supply of cotton dress shirts and undershirts. I never went without an undershirt for the rest of my professional career and never wore cheap dress shirts again. Consequently though, I never had a B.O. problem again. It was an invaluable lesson that was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to me over the course of my career.
  •  At the company Christmas Party in 1996 after I had written the UFE (Uniform Final Examination) and failed, Lea was talking to Don and some of the other partners. I was in the smoking lounge enjoying a few smokes with the smokers contingent of the office, when Don approached and said: “come dance with your wife Chris”. I waived him off and he left after some mild persistence. Lea later told me that she had been telling Don and several of the partners about the fact that I’d been having nightmares about being fired for failing the exam. It was then that I realized that what he was really saying was “come dance with your wife Chris. Get her away from the other partners”.
  • Don counselled me in the difficult period following the end of my first marriage, and subsequent bankruptcy.
  • When he could see I was working extra hard he invited me and Lea out for dinner with his wife.
  • He and his wife attended Lea’s grand opening of her business in the house the two of us bought just about a year before we split.
I worked for Don for just over 7 years, which for an accounting student is an eternity, given that most students put in their three years and then quit to go into industry. I wanted to become partner there and felt that the best way to do that was to stay and work with Don. Don and I even discussed the prospect and he let me know that while I had a long way to go, he would help me get there. But it was not to be. Six months after Lea and I split, I met and started dating Kay. For some reason that was unclear to me at the time, Kay felt that my relationship with Don wasn’t healthy. She would often tell me that he was using me and would never make me partner, despite what he said. I now know that this was a ploy to isolate me from all the people who mattered to me at the time. But unfortunately for me, as an aspie in love I was highly impressionable. In time, I began to feel that what she was saying was true and I resolved myself to finding a different job in Vancouver.

I’ll never forget the look of hurt, betrayal and anger on Don’s face when I walked into his office to hand him my resignation letter. He was polite after that, but had all the distance of a person deeply betrayed. He never did find anyone else to take over his practice.

He and I didn’t really keep in touch much for the year that I was in Vancouver after that, but when things went bad with my next firm, he did agree to meet me over breakfast to discuss what was happening to me. He didn’t offer to hire me back though and I could tell that he was still very hurt. However, within a few months of that meeting I had left Collins Barrow and was moving to New Brunswick to start a job with a stamp auction house. About four months after I arrived there, I received my copy of “CA Magazine” in the mail. In there was an announcement that Don had been made an FCA, which is the highest honour a CA can receive from his or her professional body. It is not something that you apply for – you have to be nominated by your peers. This year, after some 35 years of service to the profession it was Don’s turn. I decided to call Don to congratulate him even though he and I hadn’t spoken in several months. He sounded surprised to hear from me and accepted my congratulations, although his tone suggested to me that he didn’t really believe I was being sincere and wondered why I was bothering to call. It was then that I realized the gravity of my mistake in how I handled my relationship with the man to whom I owed so much. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Likely Hiatus in New Posts

This is just a quick note to my faithful readers to let you know that I may not have time to write and post new stories for the next month or so. If nothing new appears here it is not that I have quit writing and given up. Rather, it is because I have my hands rather full with:

  • My wedding to my lovely partner Steph, which takes place in just over two weeks from now on October 1. Although nearly everything is ready for the big day, there are still quite a few things that need to get done and require my assistance. 
  • We are in the process of trying to move to New Brunswick, as Toronto has become way too expensive for two self-employed people who are trying to get a business that sells stamps to collectors off the ground. 
This move is an absolutely huge killer of time. Anyone who has ever tried to obtain a mortgage as a self-employed person knows how difficult it is. Two self employed people? Forget it - unless you can put down 25-30% of the purchase price, it is damn near impossible. Fortunately for Steph and I, the company owes us a lot of money, and I have relationships with several of my old clients and mentors that are such that they are prepared to lend money to my company, which can then pay us back, so that we will have the down-payment that we need to qualify. However, securing those funds requires life insurance policies to be in place, corporate resolutions directing what will happen in the event of my demise, loan agreements to be drawn up, wills to be drawn up and so forth. All of this will require time and then Steph and I are going to New Brunswick this weekend to look at properties and make our offers. Finally, we are headed off to New York for our honeymoon on October 3 for a week. So it would seem that I likely won't get anything new written until mid-October at the earliest. 

However, as soon as I can write and post a new story, I will do so. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Mr. Willoughby - July 2, 1994 to Present Part 1

After my graduation from SFU in April of 1994, I began the brutal search for employment in my field. Articling positions were extremely hard to get in 1994 due to a glut of graduates at that time and the fact that the big firms were laying off large numbers of staff. It was the exact opposite environment to the one that the Enron scandal created in the early 2000’s and the one that exits today, where university graduates make good starting salaries right out of university. Back in 1994 you were lucky to make just enough to pay food, rent, transportation and have just a bit left over.  One of my first stories, “The Fart”, gives a humorous account of how I managed to blow my first job interview of that summer. I sent out over 100 resumes in May and June of 1994, and I can remember that at a cost of 63 cents each to mail, it cost me the last of my spare cash just to send out my applications. This is why being poor really sucks: you notice the cost of ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, and even the smallest unforeseen expense can cause the whole house of cards to come crashing down. Most of these were met with no response at all, and maybe about 10 or so sent rejection letters, which felt like torture: I’d see the envelope in the mail, get my hopes up, only to open it and be disappointed – again.

When I was sending out these resumes, at Lea’s boutique on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, I was working at her front counter and going down the list of accredited firms to ensure that I hadn’t missed anyone on the list. My finger stopped at a name that elicited derisive laughter from me: “Cinnamon, Jang, Willoughby”. I said to Lea “What kind of a name is Cinnamon, Jang, Willoughby? Like I’m going to tell people, I articled at Cinnamon Jang Willoughby! They’re probably going to ask me if I worked for Mr. Bunn or something.” Lea was not impressed by my making fun of the name. “Chris, you haven’t gotten a job yet have you? For all you know they might be the only firm who will offer you one. What then? Will you turn them down because of their name?”

About two weeks after I sent out my last round of resumes, and we were almost completely out of money, the Vancouver Canucks played the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup and lost to them in game 7, after which we had the famous riot on Robson St, downtown. It was the biggest riot the city had seen and would not be equalled until the 2012 riot, 18 years later. I remember watching the game at my best friend Nicole’s place and being totally despondent because I had no money to pay for my own food when we all went out after the game. The entire time I was a wet blanket, moping about how badly I needed a job and how tired I was of being rejected. Sometimes I don’t know how my friends put up with me, but they did.

With just about a week to go before our utility bills were due again, a letter arrived in the mail from none other than Cinnamon, Jang Willoughby. With the now familiar sense of dread that I felt every time I saw a letter from an accounting firm, I opened it and unfolded it and began to read:

“Dear Mr. McFetridge,

We thank you for sending us your resume for our consideration. Our personnel partner, Mr. Doug Frew would be pleased to arrange an interview with you. Please give us a call at 604-435-4317.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Could this be? Could I actually be getting a second chance? Without wasting any time, I called the next day, while I was tutoring an SFU student in one of the courses I had taken. I was doing this as a way to make ends meet while I looked for work in accounting. I spoke to Mr. Frew, who sounded very upbeat and told me that my GPA was what caught his eye. "We like bright students" he said.  I came in for an interview and met with him the next day or the day after. He was an athletic looking middle aged man, about 6 feet tall with grey curly hair and wore a grey double-breasted suit. He was very friendly and spoke excitedly of the opportunity that working for the firm would afford me. He did not seem at all fazed by my lack of volunteer experience and the interview seemed to go very well.

About half way into the interview, a tall man with short, dark brown hair and glasses knocks on the glass door to Mr. Frew’s office. “Come in Dave” Says Mr. Frew. In walks Dave Harlos, a manager at the firm that I would eventually learn much from in the brief time we worked together. He saw me sitting in the chair and briefly introduced himself, before turning to Mr. Frew to discuss the issue at hand. I couldn’t really follow everything they were talking about, but at one point, I heard Dave say: “Doug this number in the shareholder loan account sticks out like a dog’s balls.”. They continued to discuss this file that Dave is clearly working on, before he finally tells Mr. Frew: “There is just no other way to put it Doug. When a set of books is fucked, it’s fucked.” I remember well the feeling of shock that I felt at hearing two senior members of a firm talking about their work this way. It completely flew in the face of everything the firms recruiting on campus had portrayed about themselves. However, I could tell that if I was hired, this was a firm I would enjoy working in, and I could tell, just from a few minutes in that room, that I would like working for Dave.  The interview continued more or less uneventfully and ended with Mr. Frew saying “It was a pleasure meeting you Chris. We have a few other applicants to see, but we should be in touch within a week or so.”

Three days later, I returned home from tutoring another student to find a message on our answering machine from Doug Frew. He had called to say that the partners had decided to select me for a second interview with the managing partner, Mr. Don Willoughby. I didn’t own a computer, and the internet was a very new thing at this time, so I could not just hop on a website to see what Mr. Willoughby looked like, or read about his background. So I just waited patiently for the day to arrive when we would meet. It came soon enough and before I knew it I was back in the elevator at tower 2 in Metrotown centre, heading up to their 9th floor office. I greeted the receptionist, Elaine and asked to see Mr. Willoughby. I was asked to sit and told that he would be with me in a few moments. After about 10 minutes or so, while I attempted to calm my nerves, a short, bespectacled, pigeon-toed man of what appeared to be Chinese descent appeared in the waiting room wearing a bright blue and white striped dress shirt and a lavender and blue checkered tie. I was impressed. I knew little about fashion, but from what Lea had taught me about fabrics, I could tell that this man’s shirt and tie probably cost more than most of us rookies would spend on an entire suit. “Mr. McFetridge?” said the man.” Yes?” I said. “Come this way please. I’m Peter Cha, the office partner.” “Pleased to meet you”, I said shaking his hand.

He immediately led me into the main boardroom, which was a somewhat dark room that faced the eastern part of Burnaby and had a large solid wood boardroom table. Seated at one end of the table was Mr. Willoughby. He was an older man, maybe in his late 40’s or early 50’s, who also appeared very fit and athletic, with perfectly coiffed dark brown hair, that betrayed just the smallest hints of grey. He wore glasses and no suit jacket. The cuffs of his dress shirt were rolled up slightly and what was striking was his watch, which he wore backwards, with the face on the inside of his forearm rather than on the outside. I would later learn that wearing a watch this way made it easier to see, at all times, what the time was. It would be years before I would realize how a person could be so busy as to require that level of time management. Mr. Willoughby, got up and introduced himself with a wry little smile and motioned me to sit. He was very imposing and at first intimidating, but almost immediately, I could sense a mischievous gleam in his eye and his smile. I didn’t know whether to trust my perception or not though, and I had no intention of blowing this interview, as it was now my only chance to literally keep a roof over our heads and the lights on. “Michael Ashby asked me to send you his regards.” I said as I sat down. Mr Willoughby acknowledged with "How is Mr. Ashby?" "Fine" I said. Michael Ashby was a customer of Weeda Stamps where I had worked a few years before. He had helped me get my resumes together and assisted with other aspects of my job search. When I told him I would be seeing Don Willoughby, he said he knew him and told me to send his regards.

I sat down and the interview started. Mr. Willoughby cut straight to the chase.

Mr. Willoughby: “I see here on your academic record there is a semester where you had all “WE’s”. Can you tell me what happened?”

Me: “I started university at 17, which in hindsight was way too young. As you will see there, I went through three semesters without a break and by the fourth, I struggled. I got sick and fell behind. I had tried to finish my courses, but I knew that the impact on my GPA would be disastrous, so I decided that it would be better for me to withdraw and come back when I knew I could finish my courses to the best of my ability”

Mr. Willoughby: “I see. What about your social skills? You don’t seem to have a lot of experience in clubs or other extracurricular activities.”

Me: “I am different from other people. I have always struggled with that. But I have worked hard to be able to fit in with normal people. I usually do OK, once people get to know me.” He didn’t look so convinced or impressed.

Mr. Willoughby: “So why did you choose our firm.?”

Me: “I wanted to be in an environment that values one-on-one working relationships. I have always had a close working relationship with all my instructors in university and I just don’t think I would be able to have that at the big firms. However, I think in a smaller firm like this that might be possible.”

Mr Willoughby, winking as he spoke: “We’ll offer you $15,000 a year and great relationships.”

Me: “Ok, that sounds terrific”.

With that he indicated it was time to go and we both got up. I had completely failed to see that Mr. Willoughby was kidding with that last remark and in true Aspie fashion, I took it literally and responded accordingly. He was completely unfazed by my reaction and never let on that I had just missed his joke. I shook his hand and left the office, with much anticipation. I really could not tell how I did, and therefore had no idea what to expect. Within two days I had received a call from Doug Frew that they would be making me an offer and could I come in to sign my acceptance. The relief and excitement I felt was indescribable, as I realized that our power wouldn’t be cut off again and as I realized that we would be able to afford our rent, no matter how badly Lea’s boutique was doing.
I went in the next day and signed my acceptance of the firm’s offer and was scheduled to start the day after Canada Day – July 2. Lea was right: this was the firm that offered me the job. I worked on Don Willoughby’s team of accountants, and occasionally did work for other partners, but not often. I loved this structure, as opposed to a pooled staff structure, because it meant that I was able to develop a close working relationship with Don.

My relationship with Don was complex. At first, I did not work very closely with him at all. He gave out the work and I sat at my desk doing it and only responding to him when he came by my desk to check on things. Unlike other people I had worked for before, Don was very good at giving feedback that had exactly the motivational effect he was looking for, but not in a way that made you feel he was being a jerk. About 2-3 months into the job, I had a file I was working on that he told me should take 2-3 days to complete. I was still working on it at the end of the week. On the Friday, Don called me into his office, shut the door and sat behind his desk and said: ”McFetridge, you have been working on that file I gave you all week. I’m just not sure that you are cut out for accounting unless you can complete that file soon. And, you may want to do something about that fuzzy hairdo.” Of course, I thought he was basically threatening to fire me. So I stayed late that night and came in the following day, on Saturday to finish the file and turn it in. He seemed genuinely surprised when I appeared at his office door on the Saturday afternoon and handed him the the completed file.  His review notes on the work I did were extensive and written in the most exquisite cursive I had ever seen. Here was somebody who learned how to write at a time when schools tested you on your handwriting – the slant, the style and clarity of the letters. It was, and still is the most incredibly distinct handwriting I have ever seen.

After that file, Don began to notice how hard I was working and he responded well to my work ethic. He was very receptive to discussing his review notes with me and slowly, but surely he started making small talk with me near my desk and in the lunchroom. This was the beginning of a long and close working relationship that would last the better part of seven years. 

Commentary on the Last Few Stories

It has been a while since my last post. With my wedding to Steph coming up in less than a month, things are getting pretty busy around here. So I have found it to be a challenge sticking to my writing schedule.

The latest story, "Lou the Butcher" is the first in a series of several stories detailing my experiences with the men who collectively taught me most of what I needed to know to function in the world of work. These stories are less about life on the spectrum and more about coming of age, through my interactions with them, my perceptions of them and their reactions to me are all illustrative of certain aspects to being on the Autistic spectrum.

In this story, one aspect that comes to light was my inability to respond to constructive criticism of my work in a socially appropriate manner. It would be many years and many jobs before I would master this important skill. The reasons for not being able to handle it were about ego, but not in exactly the same way as a Neurotypical, I suspect.

One of the pervasive feelings that I had growing up was the desire to "do the right thing". I wanted to be good and I wanted other people to recognize my goodness. This would often result in me agonizing over decisions that other people could make with relative ease. For example, my toughest situations would be those where I found someone else annoying, but my empathy for them and understanding of how much it hurt to be treated badly because I was different would prevent me from simply distancing myself from them. As I became aware of the fact that I was different and the fact that so many people around me took offense at my behaviors, which in a sense was taking offense at my very existence, I realized that I needed to excel at something in order to be merely just as good as everyone else. But I couldn't just be good at what I did, I had to be the best.

This meant that in this job I tried to be the best I could be: on-time, focused and I worked hard. But it also meant that I was extremely invested in what Lou thought of me. When he praised my work I was happy, but if he criticized it, I felt like the criticism somehow negated all the praise that came before it. It was as if I built my identity around my work, or more specifically, my performance. I saw any criticism as an attack on my identity, rather than seeing it as simple feedback and information. My reaction to this perceived threat was to defend myself and argue. Unfortunately for me, as someone on the spectrum, I couldn't see the look on my face, or hear my tone of voice when I responded. Thus, I was often perplexed as to why adults like Lou thought I was being rude and as he put it "giving him lip.". This story illustrates this well and shows that as the negative reactions began to accumulate to my defensiveness, that I began to withdraw and tried to avoid getting into trouble, even if it meant lying about dropping the pate.

The story also illustrates two other aspects of life on the spectrum: dislike of change and a skepticism towards Neurotypical standards of hygiene. This second of these is illustrated by my response to dropping the pate on the floor. Most Neurotypicals would immediately inform the boss and throw it out because they would assume that it was covered in germs and couldn't be eaten. My experience throughout my life, at least for me, is that I tend to be, well, a bit gross. Not totally, mind you, but let's just say that my hygienic standards have been "a work in progress". I'm basically very close to Neurotypical in this regard now, but in my teenage years, I had a very hard time understanding what I saw as an "obsession" with hygiene. I understood that things need to be clean and it is certainly not that I thought it was OK to be dirty, but I think my standards were just different. For instance, in the case of the pate, I would have reasoned that the floor was not dirty enough to contaminate the food. Why? Because of where it was - underneath the shelves where we didn't step, and because, as I said earlier, we scrubbed the floors down every night and hosed them down. In my mind, if I picked it up quickly and wiped it off, it might be a bit misshapen, but otherwise it was fine. I think my issue was that if I couldn't see it, touch it, taste it or smell it, I had a hard time accepting that it was there. I don't know for sure if this is an Aspie thing, but I suspect very strongly that it is. Actually, I think that those of us on the spectrum probably fall into two groups with respect to hygiene: those of us who are obsessive about it, even more so than Neurotypicals and those of us who are a bit more lax.

The dislike of change is another, very core aspect to life on the spectrum. Because we have so little control over how we are perceived and how we come across to other people, we tend to seek out order in other areas of our lives. We work very hard to create that order and it is very upsetting to us when something comes along to disrupt that order and we are forced to start all over again. In this case, it had taken several months for me to figure out what made Lou happy and what didn't, and to incorporate that into a routine that I could follow. Then, without any warning, he goes and brings in Adrian, Reg and Warwick and all of the sudden, I have to figure out what works for four different guys, at the same time. Later, in my professional career, I specifically chose one of my firms because I would work for four different partners and I relished the challenge. But that was in my 30's, when I had a lot more confidence. At 13, when I didn't have any confidence in myself, this working arrangement would prove to be unmanageable to me.

The previous two stories describe the early concerns that Steph had as we were just starting to date. It is here that I reveal for the first time, my single largest regret: having been unfaithful to Kay in the early years of our relationship. I was very upfront with Steph about this, as well as the process that I went through to attempt to rebuild the trust that I destroyed through my actions. In the first of these, Steph echos a perception that I have heard from many over the years: that of being a sociopath. I explain to her that for those of us on the spectrum, body language is more or less meaningless to us, and that we do not generally possess the innate ability to control our own body language. Consequently, most of the time when Neurotypicals react to us based on what they see, rather than what we tell them verbally, they get it 100% wrong.

The implications of this for us are incredible:

  • most relationships rely on non-verbal communication, so that many of us on the spectrum have a hard time maintaining relationships unless we are fortunate enough to be with someone who understands us well enough to know that they have to talk to us rather than simply relying on their perceptions. I am very lucky that Steph is one of those people, as was Lea. Kay unfortunately was not, and nearly all of our problems could be traced back to the fact that she felt that her perceptions trumped what I actually told her. 
  • success in most office jobs, from the interview, through to day to day office life is dictated by one's ability to master non-verbal communication. I had a very hard time with interviews until I was well into my 30's. Eventually with lots of practice, I was able to do very well in them. However, even with my confidence and all the practice that I had, being successful in the small firm in which I worked, meant that I had "to be on" all the time. I couldn't just relax and be myself. For me this pretty much ruled out a career in the big accounting firms like KPMG, PWC or Deloitte & Touche, and meant that I had to opt for smaller firms where the people in charge could get to know me personally and see what I brought to the table. That was my insurance policy: my performance. This is the reality that is shared by many who are on the spectrum. 
The next few stories will be about the other mentors that I have had over the years and my experiences with them. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Lou The Butcher – November 1983-December 1984

One topic, which several of my stories will address is that of mentorship. I have been fortunate to have worked for, or studied under many fine men and women who were instrumental in helping me develop my values and work ethic. While I did not fully appreciate the efforts of some at the time, I have come to regard several of these people with fondness over the past several years. Some I have managed to maintain relationships with, while others have faded into obscurity, and I often find myself wondering what has become of them, and indeed whether some of them are still alive. This story is about one such man, Lou, who ran a gourmet butcher shop in my local shopping mall in Subiaco, which was a suburb of Perth, Australia, where I lived from January 1983 until we moved to City Beach, another suburb of Perth in December 1984.

The school year in Australia runs from January to December, rather than September to June, as it does in North America. Summer holidays down there coincide with Christmas and with school almost out, I was hungry for a way to make more money to supplement my $5 weekly allowance, which was enough to go see a movie and eat a meal at McDonalds, or Hungry Jacks, which was the Australian name for Burger King (the exact same food and logos as Burger King). But it was not quite enough to do this and have money left over for stamps or anything else I might want. One lucrative source of money came from birthdays and Christmas gifts, with my relatives giving me $25 each usually, so that I could usually save $100 or so per year, which was a lot of money back in 1983.

I’d had a job before, back in 1981-1982, when my family lived in Kelowna, BC. Located there was a prominent 1930’s resort called the Eldorado Arms. It was a beautiful Tudor style beige and dark brown stucco building on several acres of waterfront by Okanagan Lake, and surrounded by a number of smaller Tudor style cottages. I worked for the manager there, Kirk who was a tall man who looked a lot like Tom Selleck in the early 80’s with his dark brown mustache, 70’s 3-piece suit and gold rimmed dark sunglasses. I did odd jobs like rake the leaves that accumulated on the 3-acre lawn. I made $2 per hour, plus I was allowed to go into the bar and order a free Shirley Temple and come for the Sunday brunch. It doesn’t sound like much now, but I would earn two or three weeks allowance in one day. So from my perspective at 11, I was “rolling in it”.

I hadn’t really started looking seriously, but one hot Friday afternoon, just about a week or so before the end of the school year, I was wandering through my local shopping mall, which was called Crossways. It was an open air mall, at the corner of Rokeby Rd. and Bagot Rd,  in which all the shops were located around the perimeter of the centre, which was a large white stucco building, and they all looked out into a central common area with benches and garbage cans. There was no roof covering this area, and only a partial roof covering the walkways on the inside perimeter, just outside the store entrances. It was a small mall with about a dozen shops including the large grocery store, a newsagent/tobacconist, a few clothing stores, a record store and a butcher shop. As I approached the butcher shop, I saw a large sign taped to the front sliding door that read “Help Wanted”. So I figured, “Hey, what have I got to lose?”.

I walked in and a tall, olive skinned man with black hair and a black goatee beard appeared behind the counter. “Yes?” he asked, as he surveyed my adolescent frame with his dark brown eyes. I immediately noticed his olive forearms, covered in wispy black hair. He was just a dark, but well groomed man. “I saw your sign on the window.” I said. “Do you still need someone?” I asked. “Yes, we need someone to sweep the floors, clean the counters and keep the saws and mincers clean. Does that sound like something you’d be able to give a go?” he asked. “I think so” I said. “I’ve had cleaning jobs back in Canada when I lived there.”. “Ah, yes, I thought you sounded like a Yank.” He said. “Have you ever worked in a butcher shop before?” he asked, in a somewhat stern voice. “No, never. But I’m sure I can learn.” I said. “Fair enough” he said. “When can you start?”. “Now, if you like.” I said eagerly. “Why don’t you start tomorrow after school? I will pay you $2.50 per hour.” He said. “I’ll be here.” I replied, barely able to contain my excitement. “I’m Chris” I said. “Hi Chris, I’m Lou.” said the man. Ah, if only all my job interviews as an adult were this easy!

And so I showed up the next day, and every week day after school except Thursday, I went to the shop and worked for 1 hour, as well on Saturday from 8 o’clock in the morning until they closed at noon. Most stores in Australia closed at noon on Saturday. On Thursdays stores would stay open until 9 o’clock at night, so I would work 2 hours on Thursdays. On a good week, I would make $25-$30, which as alluded to before was a shit-ton of money back then. My job was generally to clean the meat cutting equipment, which included a large bandsaw, the mincers, the meat trays and dividers, and the sausage filler. As Australia is a very warm country, large blowflies are a major problem and it was especially critical for food safety to keep every nook and cranny of these machines clean and free from rotting meat.

I was a fairly typical 12-year-old though. I was very defensive, and while I was open to criticism, I took it all to heart and got very upset when criticized.  I was always on time though, and I worked very hard. It wasn’t long before Lou began to get annoyed with my “sass” and my “lip”. A typical scenario would go something like this: I’d be scrubbing the inside of the bandsaw with a large scrub brush and a 5-gallon bucket of very hot, soapy water. Lou would say “Chris! Get over here!”, beckoning me over to the mincer, the tenderizer, or the sausage filler. I would immediately drop the scrub brush into the bucket and think to myself “What is it this time?”, as I headed over to where I was being called. “What is this?” Lou would ask sternly as he plucked a bit of meat out of some recess of the machine. He would shove his hand up towards my face. “See this? Do you want to eat that? Look at that! I don’t want to see this again!”. “But Lou, I checked it carefully and thought I got it all” I would say. “Don’t answer back!” he would usually bellow.

This one time, a similar situation was unfolding. By now, Lou had gotten frustrated with me enough times, that he really did not have a whole lot of patience with me, so it really did not take much to make him frustrated with me. On this particular day, I was sweeping the floors. Now in that environment, where you have blood, entrails and bits of meat ending up on the floor that can stick, you didn’t just grab a broom and start sweeping. You would take scoops of coarse sawdust, spread them on the floor and then sweep that up. This would prevent meat from sticking to the floor and drying in place. At the end of the evening, you would then spray the concrete floor with water, spread caustic soda all over and scrub the whole thing with a stiff broom and hose it all down afterwards. I knew that even if I missed something on the sweep, I would likely catch it on the final scrub at the end of the evening, so occasionally I got sloppy with the sweeping. This was one of those times.

“Chris! Get over here!” shouted Lou pointing at a spot on the floor near the main butchering table. “What’s this? How many times do I have to tell you to be more thorough in your sweeping? I had had enough, so I said “Look! Even if I miss it, I’m still going to get it when I scrub, so what is your problem?”. He looked at me for a second like I had just shot his pet dog. “Right!” he said as he came towards me. He grabbed my ear and pulled on it – hard. “March!” he said as he led me toward the meat locker. He marched me inside and stopped at the large plastic tub that held the brine in which the brisket and corned beef was kept. This tub was about 40 or 50 gallons at least – probably the size of a small hot tub. Brine is highly salted water, and the ambient temperature of a meat locker is between 1 and 3 degrees Celsius. So the brine was well below zero degrees. “Put both hands in there until I tell you to take them out!” Lou ordered. Not knowing what to expect, I complied. Within seconds, both my hands felt like they were going to snap off at my wrists. “This hurts!” I cried. “Please!”. “Are you going to give me any more lip again?” he asked. “No! No! I promise!” I pleaded. “Take your hands out and when the feeling returns, go back and do a proper job. I’m sorry about this, but you will learn that can’t talk to your elders this way.” He said as he walked away. I just stood there for few minutes with my hands throbbing with pain, before I got back to work.

Naturally, after this I really didn’t want to get into trouble. I started being really, really careful and fastidious with my sweeping and scrubbing. Things started to get better and I was going for several days at a time with my work passing inspection, without a single problem. However, all good things must always come to an end eventually.

One of the things that Lou sold was liver pate. It came on these large plastic plates and would be a large circular wheel about 8 inches wide and 6 inches tall, and would be topped with a layer of gelatine. Lou would sell a whole wheel for $30 or a small wedge slice from the wheel for $2. Most people bought the slices of course, because a whole wheel would probably not keep for the amount of time it would take to consume it. He would display it on the metal trays that he kept in his refrigerated display cabinet at the main counter. At closing time, I would cover the pate with plastic and carry it into the meat locker, placing it carefully on the shelf.

This one Saturday, I was clearing away the pate and walking towards the meat locker. I got in there and started looking for a shelf on which to place the pate. It was a brand new wheel. Just as I spotted an empty slot on which to place the tray, the plate on which the pate was sitting slid forward, off the tray an onto the floor, landing with the gelatin side on the floor and a resounding “Plop!”. “Oh no!” I thought. I can’t afford to pay my whole week’s wages to replace this. So I carefully picked it up, cleaned off the gelatin and tried to smooth it out, so it wouldn’t look like I dropped it, and placed it back on the shelf. I collected my $26 pay that day and through nothing further of it. However, on Monday, when I came back to the shop after school. Lou took me into the meat locker and pointed to the pate on the shelf. “I found this today. You dropped this on the floor didn’t you? Please don’t lie to me.” He said. I thought for a moment and my heart sank. Defeated, I said “Yes sir. I didn’t want to tell you because I was doing so well lately and I really didn’t want to lose a whole week’s pay.”. He looked at me for a second leaned down to my level and put his arm across my shoulder. “Chris, accidents happen. I would never make you pay for dropping this. But I need you to tell me because I cannot sell this to people once it has fallen on the floor because it is not safe. Do you understand?”. He said this in an uncharacteristically soft tone – not the usual harsh tone. I remember being completely stunned with surprise. “Yes.” I said, “I do”.

Lou and I continued to work together for a few more months and we had a very good understanding and working relationship. I got used to his working style and I was on time, honest and very careful. However, after a few months, he went into partnership with three other butchers: Adrian, Reg and Warwick. This completely changed the dynamics, and would eventually make the job intolerable for me for a while; so much so that I would quit once, before returning for the last few months of 1984. Adrian, was a tall, lanky dark haired guy, who often had a cigarette dangling from his lips as he worked in the back. He was much harder on me than Lou was, even though he was just an apprentice butcher. Reg and Warwick were both very lecherous men, often rushing to the painted window that hid the carving room from the public and peering through small car-key-etched spots in the paint looking at the women passing by if Adrian gave the signal that an attractive woman was passing by. It was only a matter of a few weeks before the entire back wall of the carving room was plastered with Playboy centrefold pictures. Both men must have been in their late 40’s at the time, and were both married, which makes their behavior all the more surprising. But this is how it was back then.

Both men were also hard on me – in many ways much harder than Lou and much less sensitive to my feelings. Warwick was a silver haired balding guy that would say things like “If you don’t clean this better, it retains meat bits and it stinks. Clean it again”.  Reg was this reddish brown haired buy with a mustache. He’d come up to my back sink where I was washing the trays, put his hand in, pull it out and say “That water won’t wash my dick. Fill the sink with hotter water and start again.” Working for four bosses was very hard, and it wasn’t long before my defensiveness returned. Again, it didn’t go over well at all, though I must say that I never got my hands shoved into the brine tub again.

Despite the difficulties, I had fun most of the time and made good money for the better part of a year. I learned a lot of very important lessons in that year and came to regard Lou as an important figure in my development. So important was he to me, that I visited him when I came back to Perth from Hong Kong in 1988 for a holiday, just before I was due to head to Vancouver for my studies. Even though it had been over three years since I had worked with him, he remembered me vividly and invited me in the back to hang out. By then Warwick and Reg were long gone, but Adrian was now Lou’s full business partner. We just hung out and chatted until closing time, for a few hours before I shook their hands and bid them both farewell. I see that as I write this today, the store is still there in the same little shopping centre, though it is now called “The Meat Safe” rather than “The Gourmet Butcher” as I knew it. Lou must be long retired now, but I wonder what happened to him. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

One More Concern - April 2013

Our next date came within a week and we decided to go for sushi, which is Steph’s favourite food. I like it as well, but I am not quite as adventurous as Steph is with the sashimi. However, we are pretty compatible in terms of our tastes in food, which makes eating out a very enjoyable experience for both of us.

After work, I drove east across town to the office where she worked as a coordinator, scheduling patient visits for home health care, and waited outside in my car. After a few minutes, she came sauntering out, with a big smile on her face and her long, brown curls flowing in the light spring breeze. She got in and directed me to drive downtown to the same restaurant where we had our first date, which had become somewhat of a favourite for us, Sushi Time on Queen Street.

We arrived a short while later, sat down at our table and were served our green tea almost immediately. We already knew what we wanted, so we ordered right away. I then broke the ice to continue our conversation from the previous date. “So you said that you had other concerns that we had not discussed last time, right?”. Steph smiled with relief at the fact that I brought it up before she had to.

“Yes,” she said, “I really, really like you Chris and I want to date you as more than just friends, but I’m really worried about getting hurt. You have only been out of your marriage for a few months and then there is this whole business of you having been unfaithful in your marriage. I appreciate you being honest and upfront about it with me, but how do I know you won’t do it again?”

I had been expecting this question for a long time. Indeed, I had spent the last several years, even while I was married thinking about how to reassure my ex. So I was fully ready for it now. “I completely understand your concern Steph. The truth is you will never really know. I can explain to you why I went down that path. I can explain to you why I know it was wrong and the work that I did to fully internalize that life lesson. But in the end, you have to listen and decide whether or not you believe that I learned from what I did.” I said.

Steph looked impressed with my answer, but then her expression got serious again. “So why did you cheat?” Steph asked.

Again, I knew this was a question I would have to answer eventually, so I had an answer that I had thought very carefully about:

“A lot of reasons, none of them good. For starters, my sexuality was seriously fucked up from a very young age. I lost my virginity at 14 to a prostitute in Hong Kong. Sex for me became an instant stress release rather than an intimate experience that I shared with another person. For me sex was a largely disconnected, solo activity that I did by myself with someone. My first wife, Lea was one of the few exceptions to this. I had tried to form this same connection with Kay, but our problems very early in our relationship prevented this from happening. In choosing to be with Kay, I alienated my entire family to the point that by the time we lived in New Brunswick, I was completely cut off from all of them. So I had no support network. Then Kay lost her job and got depressed. For almost six years, all of the responsibility of supporting the family fell to me alone. I was lonely, scared and stressed all the time, and I hated my chosen career. So eventually after about three or four months of this, Kay and I had a huge fight in the middle of the night and she went off to Victoria to see her friend. I really thought she was breaking up with me and so the night she was gone, I got drunk and later went out to an escort service. I had this defiant “I’ll show her” attitude when I did it in my drunken state. Then she got back from Victoria bearing flowers and my heart sank. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her what I did, especially when I knew for a fact how she would react. It was extremely selfish and wrong of me to keep it from her. Because I got away with it and the problems continued, my journey down the rabbit hole began.” I explained.

Steph didn’t seem entirely satisfied with my answer. “Well that explains the first time, but you said you went on to cheat another nine or ten times over the next six years. How do you explain that if you knew it was wrong after the first time?” Steph asked.

I wasn’t ready this time. I paused for what felt like several minutes and then finally spoke.

“You have to remember that six years is a long time. It is long enough for there to have been months, and sometimes almost a full year between the incidences. I tried very hard to stop doing it, and when we lived in New Brunswick, I was completely successful. The problem with the city is that there were just too many outlets close at hand and too much opportunity to cheat. Mind you, these weren’t premeditated, long-term affairs, but were usually spur-of-the-moment stops at massage parlours. I know I won’t do it again for several reasons. For one, I spent almost three years in a 12-step program and I worked all the steps including making amends to those I harmed over the course of my life. You don’t go through a program like that, and complete all the steps without coming to some real, life-changing realizations about yourself. You develop better living habits. When I was cheating, I really believed that what Kay didn’t know couldn’t hurt her. But by the time I was done with Program, I could see that I was hurting her, myself, my son, the prostitutes, and a lot of other people. Once I saw this clearly I just made a decision that while this is who I was, it didn’t have to be me going forward and that I just wouldn't do that anymore. It has been over 7 years now, so I’m pretty confident that I won’t even be tempted ever again. “I said.

Steph looked at me for a minute and finally she spoke. “Ok, you sound pretty sure. But what about your relationship and your readiness to date again? Are you sure you are ready?”

This was another question that I knew was coming eventually, and I had also thought about it quite a bit:

“Again, that is a very understandable and reasonable question Steph. Although my marriage ended only a few months ago, there were many points in the last few years where I knew it might not be working, and I was forced to think about what I would do if it didn’t. One of those moments was back in May 2012, when Kay got physically violent with me while we were on holiday in Mexico. It wasn’t the first time that she hit me. She did this”. I held up my left hand and showed her the two-inch gash that runs across the width of my left palm. I continued:

“After a number of years of marriage and my work in Program, I came to realize that marital fidelity – honouring those vows, has many facets. Sexual fidelity, while very important is only one of those facets. I failed to be faithful, but I tried very hard to make amends to Kay and I kept all my other promises as well as being faithful once I had started Program. A much more important aspect of marital fidelity to me is honouring and loving your spouse. If you are constantly criticizing or belittling your spouse and comparing them to others, you are breaking that vow. You can’t love and honour what you don’t understand – at least not easily. Thus, in my view we had a duty to one another to understand each other’s limitations; to accept them and work with them. It was Kay who pointed out the fact that I have Aspergers. She had read it in a newspaper article. She had lots of opportunity to educate herself about it: I bought many books home about neurotypical-AS marriages, but she refused to read every last one. On the other hand, I read many books about depression, which she hated by the way, because she thought I was doing it to invalidate what she was telling me about it.  Kay did not understand my limitations from being on the autistic spectrum and because of that she broke every single vow she made except for the one about sexual fidelity, and she did so for most of our marriage. I was hopeful that she might approach me in these past few months with some contrition in her heart, but she has been utterly unrepentant. So I know it is over.” I looked at Steph very intently. I felt like a tennis pro at Wimbledon after delivering a serve, just waiting for the person on the other side of the net to hit it back over.

Steph smiled. “Ok, well you have definitely given this a lot more than just a few months thought. But if at any point, you start to feel like you aren’t ready, all I ask is that you please don’t be a dick about it.”

“I won’t. I said.

We enjoyed another plate of chicken Karaage, and after we were done I signaled the waitress for the bill, which I paid promptly when it came.  I drove Steph to her place, dropped her off with a kiss goodnight and headed up to my place in the northern part of the city. I would normally have felt very apprehensive, but this time I felt completely sure that Steph and I understood one another and this was the beginning of a fantastic relationship. Little did I know that three and a half years after this, we would be getting married.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Re-Working The Stories Posted So Far

Steph and I had a lengthy discussion yesterday about my writing and the stories I have posted so far. I have always known that my writing is far from perfect. It isn't horrible, but I am under no illusions about being the next Hunter S. Thompson or anything like that. One thing that Steph has pointed out is that I mix tenses all the time and that my writing can be a bit dry, as I am most comfortable with technical, non-fiction writing.

So we decided that in addition to posting one new story every week or so, we will go back and re-work the old stories and try to improve the way in which the stories are told. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

I Have Some Concerns and I Wrote Them Down – March 2013

“Chris?” Steph was starring at me intently as we strolled past the priceless Krieghoff paintings through the Art Gallery of Ontario. “What’s on your mind?” I asked as I stopped us in a quiet corner of the room.

“I have some concerns and I wrote them down,” she said calmly as she looked at me with her lovely brown eyes.

I felt a little twinge of apprehension fearing the worst. “Ok, please tell me what they are.”

“I’ve noticed that you seem a little…well, off and I can’t put my finger on it.” She paused for a second as if deciding whether to continue then blurted out, “are you a sociopath?”

I threw my head back and howled with laughter. “No, darling! No. I can most definitely assure you that I am not a sociopath. I can spell sociopath, but that is about it. I think that we should go somewhere where we can talk and I will explain everything.” 

She suggested a pub across the street and we headed in that direction. It was a small gastro-pub that was open on the two sides that faced out toward the sidewalk, as it was on the corner of the building that it occupied. It had a nice old-English feel with small tables and plenty of dark wood that surrounded us. I ordered my favourite strawberry-cherry beer and our conversation resumed.

I decided to get straight to the point and asked “so why do you think I am a sociopath?”

Steph flashed me a little embarrassed smile and said “well, I’m usually pretty good at reading a person’s emotions from their body language, and I find that nearly every time I think I know what you are feeling I’m wrong. Remember the other day when I thought you were mad at me and you said that you weren’t even feeling mad at all?” I nodded remembering that I was confused when she asked me about it at the time. “Well, that’s what I’m talking about,” she said.

“Have you ever heard of Asperger’s?” I asked. It was like a light went off in her head as her eyes grew larger.

“Yes, I met a guy with Asperger’s recently but, he doesn’t seem…” She stopped and appeared to be struggling with how to word the next sentence.

“He doesn’t seem to function as well as I do in society?” I asked as if anticipating her thought. She nodded and explained that although he was a lovely person he just seemed to need a lot more help and didn’t seem as well adjusted. I thought for a moment about everything my mother had done to help me function on my own and I silently thanked her.

I went on to say, “You know Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory? She nodded with a laugh, “he is an extreme example of someone with Asperger’s. I’m nowhere near that extreme, and in fact Asperger’s and autism are on a continuum. Some of us can almost pass for ‘normal ‘with an awful lot of hard work. My parents spent years training me on how to behave in most ordinary social situations, and I had to work very, very hard.” She put her hand on mine and gave me a reassuring look. “I have managed to get to the point where I can hold my own in social situations for at least a few hours. But after that I start to shut down, and the abnormalities begin to appear. Another huge aspect to being on the spectrum is that most of the time my facial expressions do not match my emotions. I’ve been told more times than I can count that I usually appear pissed-off and serious and I can tell you that I seldom feel this way. So you see, you and other people that are not on the Autistic spectrum cannot read me accurately by looking at my body language. If you want to know how I am actually feeling or what I am actually thinking, you have to ask me and trust that I am telling you the truth.”

She sat back in her chair and nodded as if to confirm that asking me “what was up” was the right choice and asked “did this impact your second marriage to Kay?”

I thought about it for a moment and said, “Kay didn’t understand this in all the years we were married. I’m sure this was the reason for 90% of our problems. Of course, my infidelity destroyed the trust that was between us, and I don’t believe that the hard work I did in trying to rebuild it was very successful.”

We sat in silence for a time thinking about everything that was said both looking and feeling a little relived. I finally broke the silence, “you said you had more than one concern, right?”

She smiled at me in that way that always melts my heart, “Yes, but perhaps that is a conversation for another date. Want to get another beer?” I laughed and called the waiter over thinking I could spend the rest of my life with this woman and I smiled back.


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Slowdown in Posts

I have seen a lot of traffic on this blog since I started it just under a month ago - almost 1,600 visits! I am very thankful for the interest shown by all of you so far. I don't want to let you down in terms of content, so I should let all of you know that I have posted my entire backlog of written stories and am now having to write new stories, which as you can probably appreciate takes a fair amount of time to do. So I will probably only post one story a week, and it will probably come on Saturdays or Sundays now. I may post occasionally during the week, but it won't be anywhere near as frequent as it has been during these past few weeks.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Unpacking These Last Three Stories

Except for the story about getting drunk, these last three stories are both very personal and very heavy. One of the difficult questions I have had to wrestle as a writer is deciding how open I want to be about the personal details of my life. In my view, openness is absolutely essential to deliver the message that I want to convey. I want to:

  • Let neurotypicals know that there is a lot more to people on the spectrum than they realize and that they are potentially missing out by not including these people in their lives because they do not understand they way in which the think and behave.
  • Tell those who are on the spectrum that their lives need not be anything less than successful in the way that they choose. You can be on the spectrum, but this need not define you. 
With most self-help books, the #1 question that I have as a reader is:

"Why should I spend my time reading what you have to say? Who are you? What do you know of what you speak?"

I do not have an actual on-paper diagnosis that says I am on the spectrum. But what I do have is:

  • The letters from the BC Children's Hospital in which they stated that I had a schizoid personality and severe social deficits.
  • Results from online tests I have taken that indicate that I am indeed on the spectrum.
  • A lifetime of experiences that I have compared to what I have read (extensively) about the Autistic Spectrum and concluded that there is no way that I couldn't be on the spectrum. 
The only reason why my message would have any value at all is if I have managed to succeed despite being on the spectrum. I have made some very bad choices in my life, as you can see and suffered greatly as a result of those choices. But, as my future stories will show, I have also made some very good choices, and while I may not be rich, I am now doing what I love every day, and I am about to marry a very lovely woman who treats me like gold. 

However, as a reader, I do not believe that my writing will speak to you unless I show you just how far I sank. Somehow, "I had a troubled life." just doesn't quite cut it. My story is a smack-down, no holds barred honest account of my experiences that were pivotal in my life and my development into the person I am today. While I have done a lot of things that I am not individually proud of, I am not ashamed of the overall direction that my life has taken. I might well be making myself unemployable by publishing this stuff. But hopefully that will not be an issue. 

The second two stories illustrate what a mess my life was between late 1990 and 1991. Both of these stories took place within just a couple of months of one another, and in between there were at least 5 or 6 attempted relationships with other people. I was absolutely insecure of my own worth and convinced beyond doubt that I was not worthy unless I could win the love of a woman. And so that was what I set my very mis-guided sights exclusively on at that time. The Near Marriage, illustrates the glaring contradiction that those of us on the spectrum can display on occasion: one the one hand, I was able to show astute judgement when it was clear that the whole thing was a sham, but at the same time I can be naive enough to think that I can meet someone from a different culture at a dating agency and have it end well. 

All of this was taking place while I struggled with an addiction to use of the sex trade. I knew that what I was doing was both wrong and that it was probably hurting my chances of finding a healthy partner. I was gambling with my health, even though I was using protection and I consider it an amazing miracle that I made it through that period of my life without getting AIDS. I have been completely free of that addiction for many, many years now, to the point that it is a distant memory that I can look on with wonder. 

What I have not written about yet is how I went from being the carefree little kid who ate dirt and ran around naked, to being the insecure, depressed addict that I was at 18 and 19. That will come, as will my account of my first marriage, which was really the first time that I turned my life around. It was a period of great progress that lasted for almost a decade, ending with near ruin and resurgence. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Near Marriage - January and February 1991

About a month before the end of the Gulf War in January 1991, I joined an Asian dating agency. Chiho and I had broken up just a few months before, and just after my 19th birthday. In my mind, it was important to get out and meet new prospective dates, if I was ever going to be able to get over her.  My attraction to Chiho was not an anomaly – years of growing up in Hong Kong had contributed to me developing a strong attraction to Asian facial features. For me, the face was always the most important physical characteristic in a person followed by their figure. My attraction at that time was for the most part, to the Asian facial features. Therefore,  if I was going to join a dating agency, it made sense to me that it should be an Asian one. It turned out to be primarily Filipino, and was run by two Filipino women.

I went down to some second floor office at a non-descript building on West Broadway Ave in Vancouver  to apply for membership to this agency. After handing over the $325 joining fee that I raised by selling some of my stamps, I completed a questionnaire about my dating preferences and then one of the women, Rosa interviewed me. She then made three recommendations for prospective dates and proceeded to set up the dates for me. I went on two dates and in both cases, the women involved told me that they had no interest in pursuing things further with me. Naturally, I felt that this was the fault of the agency for setting me up with incompatible dates. My, oh my, how naïve I was – to actually think that these outfits actually did any real screening and matching! This was yet another example of my Asperger’s induced naivete. So I went back and spoke to Rosa, who was visibly annoyed with me. After much discussion, she came back with two more prospects: Perla and Ronalyn.

Perla was a very short and slender Filipina woman who lived up on Main and 22nd, which at the time was a somewhat seedy part of the city. She was all of about 4’10 or maybe 5’, but she was sweet and easy to talk to. We went on several dates and talked on the phone for hours. She really seemed to like me and after having encountered so much rejection to that point, I was hooked. I never really stopped to think about why it was this easy. There were some indications though, that all was not what it seemed even early on. There was this one time, I think it was our third or fourth date, where she would not hold my hand in public because as she put it “People talk and they will see me”. But then when we got into a movie theatre to watch a movie she literally put her hand in my pants and told me that she was “feeling heat”. Talk about a mind fuck.  I knew it wasn’t quite right, but I just couldn’t get away.

After about 2 weeks of dating, she began to invite me into her place, where I was to meet her family -  her sisters, her uncle and other relatives. I would sit and sip tea and chat sometimes for hours. Little did I know that what was really happening was that I was being sized up – evaluated for my suitability as a husband for this girl. Then in the third week of dating we all went out dancing together and to another event together, which was odd to me, because Perla and I were not alone together that week. Then after another week Perla called me and told me to come over because her uncle wanted to talk to me. I got to the house and was told to wait in the living room for her uncle. I should mention at this point, that the entire family lived in a basement suite that had five and a half foot ceilings, so you had to stoop over to avoid banging your head. The rooms were criss-crossed by clothing lines that had clothes hanging up to dry as well. Finally,  there were futon mattresses strewn on the floor in the main living area in front of the TV. So most of the time, when I was asked to wait, I waited on one of these mattresses. This time I waited for about 20 min and then her uncle finally appeared and motioned me over to a small table where he sat and poured himself a drink. He looked at me seriously.

Uncle:  “Chris, I can tell that you are a responsible man. I’ve watched you and how you are with Perla. I am concerned about what your intentions are though. Perla is a nice girl who can have any guy she wants. But she is also naïve and needs to be with someone who can protect her and defend her honour. Do you understand what I am saying?”

Me: ”Yes, I think so.”

Uncle:  “I know you and her have a thing for each other – she tells me everything. Now it’s ok. Don’t worry. I don’t mind, as long as you do right by her. I think that the time has come for you to ask her to marry you. You do want to do the right thing don’t you? Be a real man rather than a boy?”
These were potent words. I did want to do the right thing. But the problem was that I didn’t know what that was. I barely knew this girl, and while she seemed sweet when she wanted to be, I wasn’t sure if she really liked me for me. But what this man was saying had so much power over me I found myself almost in a trance, agreeing with him and saying that I would marry her in a month’s time.  I left the house feeling a mixture of excitement at finally not having to live alone and worry over what my life with Perla would be like. I remember being out at the Mountain Shadow pub in Burnaby on their Karaoke night and calling Chiho to tell her I would be getting married (she and I were still talking as friends). Chiho of course was concerned, but I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I then called Mom to tell her after I went home. Mom was really, really against the idea and told me that I wasn’t allowed to do it, which really made me mad – my parents still trying to control me from Hong Kong! Never mind the fact that I was so lost and pathetic at this point that I really did need to be controlled. So I did what all defiant 19 year olds do: I told my mom that I was going to marry her and that was that. She hung up on me she was so angry.

A couple of more weeks went by, with me seeing very little of Perla, which was odd. Every time I called her she was either too busy with work, or she had prior arrangements to see some other guy who she assured me was just a friend. When I objected to this she asked me if I was always going to be this jealous after we were married. I felt bad, so I sheepishly said “no”. It was pathetic really. Then finally, and I remember this day very clearly, because the U.S had announced that victory over Iraq was at hand and it was all over the newspapers that morning, she told me to come over and meet her at her place. It was a cold, rainy Sunday morning. I headed on the bus up to Main and 22nd and got off. I went over to her place, descended the steps to her basement suite and knocked on the door. One of her cousins answered and ushered me in to the living room. I took a seat and waited. Finally, Perla appeared and seemed really off. She didn’t sit next to me, nor did she hold my hand, or hug me – none of the things you would expect from someone you were about to marry. I asked her what was wrong. She told me that her uncle had “grounded” her. I asked her why and was completely unprepared for what was to follow.

She explained that she had not come home until 5:30 am. She had apparently been out with that other guy on a strictly platonic date. They had been out late, past her 11pm curfew and he had apparently driven her home and stopped right outside the house. She didn’t want to wake anyone in the house up. So rather than do that by knocking at the door, she simply had this guy park the car right in front of the house and went to sleep in the car. “Nothing happened” she said. And then, just for the briefest of seconds, a micro-expression  flashed across her face. You know the kind that flashes across someone’s face when they are lying. It’s impossible to describe, and if you aren’t paying attention, you will miss it because it comes and goes in a flash. However, once you know it, and you see it, it is impossible to miss. In the space of about 30 seconds, I went from concerned, to realizing just how much of a fool I’d been played for. I calmly got up and told her that I didn’t believe her and the wedding was off. I added that I never wanted to see her again. There was a single tear down her cheek, but underneath the feined look of sadness was a sneer. I’ll never forget that look. She just looked up and said. “I never loved you. Goodbye”. And that was that. I left and didn’t look back.