The punch line was hard: “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.” It was a spoof radio ad making fun of telephone service decades ago. If you live where I live, in Canada, not much has changed.
Then, the phone company was a monopoly. It charged what it wanted because there was nowhere else to go. Now you can go somewhere else but you’re still getting stiffed. And don’t take my word for it. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has studies showing Canadians pay among the highest rates in the developed world for some of the worst service. Other studies say the same.
A small example: In New Zealand the three major phone providers all offer pre-paid monthly smartphone deals for $19, (slightly less for a Canadian with the currency difference), 15 per cent tax included. A user gets 100 calling minutes, unlimited texting and 500 megabits of data usage. I used one of these deals on a recent visit and as a very casual user I could get by with such an arrangement full-time. For slightly more cash, my current phone plan gives 50 minutes, no text, no data and I can live with that.
Only one provider in Canada, which happens to be a chain of gas stations and not even a phone company, offers the same package as the NZ firms for $35. Plus 12 per cent tax. Plus $1.25 for an emergency service access fee. Nearly $41 added up. More than twice the price a New Zealander pays for the identical service!
Take any package from any provider and a Canadian pays more than anyone else for the same thing. The phone companies have their excuses but as the OECD studies say, those are just excuses. It’s not the government’s fault - it’s deregulated the market, allowed more competition, tried to level the field. It’s our fault. We know we’re getting stiffed; we let them do it. We don’t demand better. We’ll pay anything for that phone package. Even if we don’t need it.
This is what they call a "long" weekend in North America, three days off rather than the usual two.
It's the beginning of a new season when students return to school, holidays normally end and most people contemplate "getting back to business."
When making plans for the fall season, which begins in a mere three weeks, why not include a plan to tell your story? As we say so often in this space, you can write it yourself, you can get help. The best help is a personal historian who has experience in drawing out your details.
A personal historian can help you write it down or help you fix it up if you've done it yourself. There's no better time to start planning than when starting a new season.
I have the privilege of having two new grandchildren and have just spent some well rewarded time with them.
The time spent reinforces what this space has been saying all along, that our personal stories are really meant for the following generations. One grandchild loves stories. She doesn't like to be read stories, she likes to be told stories - you have to make them up. Some day, presumably, she will like "real" stories.
So it's for people like her that our "real" stories are told so that, among other things, they will have a legacy to fall back on.
And as we say here constantly, everyone has a story and everyone has an audience to hear it. Tell it for them.
Some interesting thoughts to start a new month, from Diane Setterfield in The Thirteenth Tale, by Atria books, 2006. And thanks to Association of Personal Historians colleague John Hawkins for passing these on:
"People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath ... All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods.
Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead ... that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic."
Start with your earliest memory - or at least a very early memory.
Experts say people can remember back to about age three. My father, for example, says he remembers saying good bye to his aunt as she left on a trip to New York. He says he was about three years old. I remember being in a large crowd of people and lifted up on someone's shoulders to see what was going on. I was about three years old!
Neither of these events are history-making but they do show how far back our memories take us. We may not recall every detail of what happened or in what order but we do remember the significant parts and those bits, even if they're just flashes of memory, become part of our story.
If you're stuck with where to start your personal history story, try thinking back to an early memory. And take it from there.
It has been said that all good stories begin with "Once upon a time." All good fairy tales certainly do.
But someone's life story, a person's memoir, is not a fairy tale, and while they could start with "Once upon a time ..." personal histories usually begin with events. The usual method is a chronological telling of a person's life, so it begins in childhood. The person telling the story recalls a hometown or neighbourhood, parents, upbringing, playmates or activities and leads on to school days.
Another way is to recall an early memory, where the person was, what was happening, who else was there, why that person remembers the event and so on.
It helps, too, to think about the events before telling. That helps clear the mind and prevents skipping important bits that might otherwise slip by. It helps, too, to tell the story to someone else who can help jog the memory with a few gentle questions. Personal historians are trained to do that. In fact, contacting one is a really good place to start.
Personal historians are often asked how people should organize a life story. Should they do it chronologically, from birth onward, or should they highlight various themes in their lives. Or should they pick certain important or influentual events?
Any of these are fine. It depends on what they want to tell. Some people like the traditional "I was born" format - or as Dickens put it with the fictional but possibly autobiographical David Copperfield "I am born." Others have particular parts of their lives, say an event or a meeting that led to an important decision.
Stream of consciousness might even work for some. Mark Twain's autobiography, as published so far, jumps about with what seems like no particular plan. He covers many pages describing a house his family rented in Italy, generally fewer on the critical issues and leaders of his day. There is little to nothing on his early career.
There is no formal pattern to personal histories or memoirs. The important thing is to tell the story. And personal historians can help do that.
How do people writing their memoirs collect their material? Good question, because few people these days keep diaries or records of what they do on any regular basis. That takes work, too, and who has time?
Some people actually do have records to remind themselves of incidents and events being recalled. There are family photographs, school books, perhaps old newspaper stories, letters and other useful documents. But more often people have to rely on their memory, as elusive and inaccurate as that may be.
Sometimes, too, friends and acquaintances can help with reminders. A personal example: at a high school reunion a year ago I reconnected with some folks I had not seen in decades. We exchanged stories and tales, some of things I had not remembered until mention of them brought them back. Some of us got together again months later and continued the reminiscing, bringing back yet more memories of people, events and details long forgotten.
So a hint. If you're stuck, call an old friend or a relative. They might help kickstart the memory process and, who knows, supply a few missing bits as well.
The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic has taken over news pages lately as the centennial date looms only days away. So why should this space be any different?
The April 1912 disaster was labelled "the story of the century" within months. There are "stories of the century" all the time, of course, but this one lives the part, still prompting headlines, comments, analyses, books and movies, and all kinds of media wallowing, after all this time. The two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the atomic age, the space age and even 9-11 that have all happened since the sinking don't generate the ink and talk the Titanic does.
The British version of the genealogy website, ancestry.co.uk, has just released 200,000 documents relating to the ship in time for the centenary, one for every rusted rivet left in the Atlantic seabed hulk. But it's the April 2012 National Geographic magazine that notes the forgotten personal angle in the too-familiar saga - the stories, not of the survivors, but of those who went down with the ship. What were the stories of the captain, the band members who kept playing or zillionaire John Jacob Astor who put his pregnant wife in a lifeboat and then walked away?
Writer Hampton Sides: "What happened to the people still on board as she sank? Hundreds of people may have still been alive inside, most of them immigrant families in steerage class, looking forward to a new life in America. How did they, during their last moments, experience these colossal wrenchings and shudderings of metal? What would they have heard and felt? It was, even a hundred years ago, too awful to contemplate." Those are the personal stories we will never know.
Full disclosure here. The author of the book being promoted in this space happens to be my wife. That said, the historical novel A Garden in the Wilderness by Edeana Malcolm is a must-read by anyone interested in pioneer history. The scene is set in 1790s Canada, Nova Scotia, in fact, but the struggles and challenges of carving out an existence under primeval conditions apply anywhere immigrants went seeking new lives.
This is the "riches to rags" tale of the well-born daughter of an English gentleman who fell in love and eloped with the head gardener of her father's estate, felt the sting of being disowned for her scandalous behaviour, finally ending up in a log cabin in the New World with eight children and the man for whom she gave up her life of ease. It's a lot more than a love story - it's also the story of how ill-equipped settlers faced the challenge of survival in hostile new lands.
The story has a personal connection. The main characters are Edeana's great-great-great-great grandparents - seven generations back. For anyone of immigrant background whose ancestors struggled with new lands, this could be their story, too.
A Garden In the Wilderness is published by Borealis Press in Ottawa, Canada. It is available online at: www.borealispress.com
To read Edeana's blog, My Writing Eden: www.edeana.com