The Folio years were thirteen collercoaster years of creativity and adventures in marketing and advertising. When my business partner Joe Hatt-Cook reflected on the "ride" during an ill-fated business trip to Alberta and British Columbia, he penned a special quote in a beautiful book with thrilling text and spectacular photographs of Canada's mountains. Shortly after the trip he gave me the book. It belongs to my treasure of fine books.
He wrote: "To a loved and respected friend and partner in celebration of a happily recalled adventure," - Joe. The year was 1978. Joe died ten years later in 1988.
The adventure was ill-fated because it was cut short by a sudden wildcat strike by airline personnel. I have mentioned this adventure earlier in this account, but there are more details worth sharing. We had finished our business in Alberta and rented a car to drive through the Rockies. We had planned to reach Vancouver in a day or so. Vancouver was Joe's birthplace. He had always wanted to show me his spectacular home province. From Vancouver we would eventually fly home. Because CBC Radio was a client of ours, we drove through the awesome Rockies with the car radio tuned to a local CBC frequency. It was my first-ever trip through the Rockies. Needless to say, the experience was breathtaking. Somewhere on the Columbia Icefields Highway between Jasper and Banff, we heard about the sudden wildcat strike at the airlines. We had a major contract waiting as soon as we got back to Toronto and time was of essence. Joe and I decided to cut our trip to Vancouver short to try and catch one of the last flight from Calgary back to Toronto, but we missed the Air Canada flight by twenty minutes. Within hours the only eastbound trains were full as well. Not quite sure about what to do next, we booked a suite in the Calgary Inn to ponder our predicament. To help our thoughts, we dined sumptuously on lobster, steak, and fine wine. The next day we decided to take a bus back to Toronto. It was the only mode of public transportation left to serve the hundreds who were stranded in Calgary.
I did not welcome the thought of traveling home on a bus. Who was to know what sort of people would choose to sit right next to me? I could not fathom forty hours on a bus with a family of screaming kids or some hapless soul for whom deoderant was against his or her religion. Every available bus was conscripted. The terminal in downtown Calgary was a mass of people jostling in line to get a ticket and a seat.
When there were only twenty of us left in the bus depot, management announced they had run out of buses. Joe and I had only one choice left. Somehow the choice stirred every driving nerve in me. Therefore, not to be daunted by the setback, we took a cab to Hertz car rentals and booked a big Chrysler Imperial for the journey home. With a series of one-way, "drop-off" cars between Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, and Toronto, we drove over three thousand kilometres home. All our "one-way" rental cars turned out to be big V8 cruisers. Sometime during a starry night somewhere on the vast prairies between Medicine Hat, Alberta and Swift Current, Saskatchewan, I stopped the car to catch a little shuteye. I loved long distance driving but traveling through the night was a new adventure. Joe had fallen asleep long before, as he lay comfortably stradled over a big front passenger seat. I pulled the car over on the shoulder of the road and turned the engine off. I was asleep within seconds. I cannot remember how long I dozed but the sun had risen over the horizon. It was the distant rumbling of a freight train that woke me. I sat up and peered into the early morning. In the distance, a long train of grain cars snaked lazily through the early morning prairie.
In addition to prairie trains and starry nights, the drive also offered another "first."
For the first time in my life I saw the incredible and fabled spectacle of northern lights, the aurora borealis of Canada’s north, when we entered Ontario sometime into yet another night when we crossed "north of Superior," near Thunder Bay and Nippigon. The entire trip became our "happily recalled adventure," as Joe had said, and my first of many drives across this great land called Canada. The passion to drive has never left me and to this day I dream of "going across" one more time. The next time will be my tenth trip. I have wondered if I my real calling was to be a truck driver or some cross-Canada courier, and that somehow I have missed it by being and artist and embassador for the Kingdom of God. Not really, but it made for some wild fantasies.
To chronicle the impressionable Folio years might risk boredom and the wrath of my family, yet the years constituted one of the most productive seasons of my life, a season of creativity in design, writing, and fine arts. It was a season of which I am proud and a season of invaluable sowing of "good seed," despite the “tares” that threatened my growth as husband, father, young artist, and member of the business community. For that reason I think it is OK to include a number of memorable highlites from those proud Folio years. These are the highlites that still bring back many memories of events that somehow contributed to the life and times of a man named Gerrit Verstraete, who along with his wife Alice and six children, hopefully have made some impact on Canada, an impact without vain imaginations as to whether this impact was large or small, profound or obscure. At best the impact has become the lives of many special people we have been privileged to touch. We have touched them with our commitment to sound values of marriage and family, a sorely-tested faith, and a contribution to Canada's art history. At worst the impact has been the mistakes we have made, complete with wrong choices, not-so-noble ambitions, and misguided attitudes. It is my belief that by the grace of God, somehow the best has swallowed the worst, and what remains is a glimpse of our abundant lives as a family, an abundance to which the Folio years added richly.
The chronicle begins with a recollection of the day I made the president of that multi-national giant, General Motors cry.
During the years I owned this national advertising agency called Folio, I received one of my most memorable projects ever. General Motors Canada asked if we would create and produce a special retirement celebration for their outgoing president. We were asked to do this special project, because we had gained quite a national reputation for what Joe and I had aptly named "business theatre". Business theatre were full-length theatrical productions mixed with marketing presentations to introduce new products and services. The biggest corporations employed our "business theatre" creative services. Chrysler, Dupont, Toyota, Mazda, Imperial Oil, General Motors, Campbell's Soup, Molson Breweries, Air Canada, Canadian National Railways, just to name a few, were clients who used our business theatre. This special retirement celebration for General Motors of Canada promised to be very special indeed.
We planned a big party with a star-studded cast of Canadian entertainers and actors, complete with an original script and music score for the occasion. The president was kept informed about every step in the process. What he did not know, however, was that after some careful sleuthing we discovered that this powerful business executive had a very private secret. The secret was his passion for greasy-spoon burger and fries. Frequently he left GM’s offices to venture incognito into downtown Oshawa where he spent lunch at a local family restaurant that happened to make the best burgers and fries in town. He always sat at the end of the counter and on the same barstool. Far from the maddening crowds of fancy business lunches, he enjoyed his secret burger and fries. After lunch he quietly slipped back into his spaceous executive office to resume the day's business affairs. Nobody, not even the restaurant's owner, knew who this special lunch-hour visitor was, but the president's executive secretary did know. It was she who had to cover for the covert lunches of her boss. When Joe and I continued to press for personal stories that would help make the celebration special, it was she who confessed the secret of the president's whereabouts during those mysterious and solitary lunches..
As soon as we discovered this secret we went to work on a special mission. With a little help from some generous cash, we managed to persuade the restaurant owner to agree to "retire" the infamous barstool. We bought him a brandnew replacement. During one special moment in the evening's celebration, and with great pomp and pageantry, a beautiful actress and singer named Dina Christie walked on stage. The president was asked to join her. He joined her on stage feeling somewhat flattered by the presence of the tall blond woman at his side. She left him centrestage wondering what would happen next. Then she took the barstool from the wings. It had been covered in gold and red ribbons. Slowly she walked towards the president, as she told his story in a tender love song. With great ceremony she presented him the barstool. He just stood there and cried.
We had made the president of General Motors of Canada cry. He was overwhelmed by the fact we had taken such special and meticulous interest in him that even the smallest detail did not go unnoticed.
The invoice for our business theatre presentation was paid immediately. It pays to make the president of General Motors of Canada cry.
Between the years 1968 and 1982, and despite a busy career and growing family, I did manage to create somewhat of a body of artwork as well. This was in addition to thousands of layouts for magazines and newspapers, and endless paragraphs of advertising copy. This body of artwork consisted primarily of oil and watercolour paintings along with a number of acrylics. Most of the work I have given away. Twice, during my student years, I paid for my apartment rent with a small painting. Although I have managed to keep a record of most of the paintings, I did not follow up on any of them, and as a result I have lost complete contact with the whereabouts of each individual piece. For that reason I do not know where these paintings and drawings are today. My business partner Joe, had a substantial collection of my work totalling about fifteen pieces. However, after his death in 1988, the works disappeared, or at least were divided among family and friends. A number of paintings were also part of the corporate collection of Folio Advertising Agency Limited. When, after my departure from the business world in 1982, and Joe's death in 1988, the advertising agency was terminated, whatever paintings of mine were still around, they seemed to have suffered the same fate as Joe's personal collection. Let me be quick to add however, that some of the work I created during all those years, perhaps some dozen works, I am not too proud of. It's probably a good thing that they have disappeared. Not that these works were controversial or adversarial, instead they were simply of poor quality. Nevertheless, a body of work it was, and a body comprising forty-seven acrylic paintings, thirty-two oil paintings, fifty-three watercolour paintings, and twenty-six finished drawings. In addition there were five hardbound volumes of sketches. My studio was a spare bedroom in our family home. When our small family continued to grow that spare bedroom became a child's room, resigning me to the basement along with my carpentry tools and extensive wine collection. As I mentioned before, these were also the years during which I got to know Canadian drawing master David Owen Campbell, whose weekly evening drawing sessions at the Ontario College of Art & Design I attended. All in all, creatively speaking, they were good years. At times I miss them.
On November 7, 1969, our firstborn, a son, Jeffrey Lyon was born. Three years later, on a wintry February 6, 1972, a second child, Wendy Carolyn was born.
One of the more prestigious assignments during the Folio years was an invitation to redesign Performing Arts In Canada, a Canadian arts magazine, whose founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief was George Hencz. From 1973 to 1977, I not only redesigned the magazine, but designed many of its colourful arts covers. Nearly twenty years later, in 1994, during my brief, two-and-a-half year tenure as Executive Director of the Chemainus Theatre on Vancouver Island, I met up again with George Hencz. He was still publisher of Performing Arts & Entertainment Magazine, its new name. Too many years had passed to connect again with George, but we did share some wonderful stories and memories of those years. We wished each other well to part once more for an undisclosed season. My memory is flooded with dinners at The Hunter's Horn restaurant on Avenue Road in Toronto, a restaurant owned by George, where we spent all our executive meetings to discuss the next issue of the magazine. Despite some initial inhibitions towards this whole new world of performing arts, which had become a major source of income for the agency, I welcomed the attention I received for my work. I met some incredible performers along the way, from principal dancers of our national ballet to internationally acclaimed actors, movie and television stars, and the business and political elite of Toronto and canada. They were heady days to say the least. It was at this time I also began writing poetry.
In addition to painting, commercial art, and business management, I relished the times I could withdraw into my head and write poetry.
In 1976, one of my poems, "The Argument," was published by the renowned Coach House Press in an anthology titled, "This is my best." 1976 was also the year our third child, when Angela Myriam was born on July 8.
That same year three poems were selected by the Yearbook of Modern Poetry, published by Young Publications in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. The selections were three untitled short poems. Then in the summer of 1977, Quarry Magazine published "the Groundhog and the Eagle," a poem I had written about my philosophy of management.Not until three years later did I venture again into publishing poetry. The publication was a series of thirty poems I had written during the eight years after my nervous breakdown in 1972. The collection was published by Admiral Press, a company my father owned. I gave my poetry book the title of "Mid-Seventies Crisis," and deposited copies of this very personal collection of thirty poems in the National Library of Canada. Except for an occasional poem that appeared in a newspaper or magazine, I did not publish any further work until 1998, when the Poetry Institute of Canada published "Island Impressions," an anthology of Canadian verse. My poem "the city of tomorrow," appears on page 126. In addition, I am listed in the 2000 Millennium edition of "Who's Who in Canadian Grass Roots Poetry," also published by the Poetry Institute of Canada.
On August 8, 1998, I began writing "The City," as an epic poem about my personal search for the city of God. It is a poem, which at the time of writing this account, comprises over twenty-three stanzas written over a period of four years. I do not know when I will finish writing "The City," because my spiritual journey in search of this elusive city continues to this day.
Staying with the topic of publishing, I will never forget another milestone of the Folio years. It was a personal achievement as well. I was asked to become involved in the publishing of "35 Years - A Tribute to Canada." The tribute included an impressive catalogue to accompany the exhibition of Canadian art of Dutch heritage, sponsored by the Canadian Netherlands Business & Professional Association. The exhibition was held in late summer of 1980, at the Harbourfront Gallery in Toronto. Opening night was a gala event officiated by P.W.Jalink, embassador of the Netherlands, with a reception hosted by E.Van Kessenich, Consul General of the Netherlands. Not only did I design the entire catalogue, which was printed by Baker Gurney and McLaren Press Ltd., the exhibition featured two of my early paintings, one a large oil painting titled, "Rolling Laker," and the other a large acrylic canvas titled, "Puzzled Woman." It was the first public showing of my artwork.
Just one year before this unique exhibition, I was appointed to design the official coat of arms for the municipality of Point Edward, Ontario, to commemorate the municipality's centennial. My father was one of Point Edward's celebrated residents who so generously volunteered my name when the matter of the municipality's coat of arms was discussed in a town council meeting. My design remains Point Edward's official coat of arms to this day.
That same year, on the nineteenth day of September, in nineteen-hundred and seventy nine, during the ninth hour, our fourth child, Karen Elizabeth was born, weighing nine pounds and nine ounces.
Oh, those Folio years!
There's still so much to remember, the tears and the laughter, the victories and disappointments, and the times of personal and family growth that have made these years unforgettable. I regret not being able to share the fruit of those years with Joe. What a "happily recalled adventure," it would have been. Perhaps heaven will allot us time to recall the times we had together and the business partners and friends we shared.
1971, was the year in which I experienced one of my most memorable, although not most pleasant, highlites of the Folio years.
It was the year I suffered a major nervous breakdown.
The breakdown happened in the spring of that year as we geared the agency up for another episode of business theatre, specifically the annual Molson Brewery sales show. It promised to be an extravagant production that would take months to create and yet only one day to perform. Joe had pioneered the concept of theatrical business meetings, during the mid-sixties while writing television commercials and sales promotion films at a large advertising agency. When I joined Folio in 1969, we were able to add an even greater dimension to our business theatre, in the form of multi-media presentations on slides, video, and film. Huddled in our modest space on 61 Nicholas Street in Toronto, we began the seemingly endless process of writing scripts and drawing storyboards. Scripts and storyboards were our first steps in creating a business theatre presentation for Molson Breweries, an annual sales meeting that was turned into a professional production complete with musicians, a cast of dancers, actors, comedians, and a miriad of audio-visual technical support, stage and set design, and all sorts of displays, sometimes spilling over right into the lobby of major hotels where each show was held. The entire show was carefully integrated into the management and corporate presentations of each client. CEO's, presidents, marketing and sales managers, interacted with cast and crew to create a vibrant and novel way to present next year's corporate marketing and sales plans. Because our advertising agency was deeply involved in Toronto's traditional performing arts world, we were able to create business theatre productions that rivaled some of the biggest stage shows in Toronto. Whenever we were asked to "put on the Ritz," we did it with small and large productions. I have mentioned before that our clients were the biggest names in Corporate Canada. Spring of 1971, dawned with the hustle and bustle of the annual Molson show. There was excitement in the air because it was a big budget production. It meant a handsome profit for the agency.
Already my studio space at the agency was beginning to look like a war zone.
Judy Hodgkinson was my faithful and trusted assistant who spent many hours at her drafting table managing the production details of a slide show that accompanied the Molson sales meeting. Some of the more “exotic” locations for our business theatre included major Toronto and Montreal hotels, exclusive locations such as Chateau Montebello just east of Ottawa, the Brock Hotel in Niagara Falls, as well as a one-of-a-kind show at a sprawling beef-barbeque ranch complex in Red Deer, Alberta. In addition, we created traveling versions of business theatre that toured Canada on converted trains and semi-trailers. The audio-visual portion of this year’s Molson sales meeting numbered somewhere in the neighbourhood of three-hundred slides, of which at least one-hundred were original cartoons. My cartoons had become a favourite of corporate management as I created these drawings in a bright and colourful technique using felt design-markers. I had developed my design-marker techniques at art college, where I learned to handle these small stubby markers quite effectively to create large and small magazine and newspaper ad layouts. These markers, known as "magic markers," were filled with pigment and a pungent ether, which I inevitably inhaled as I worked long hours over layout pads of large white paper. It made my head throb. Some thought I had dropped into the world of post-sixties psychedelic drugs, getting "high" on a daily basis, when in fact I was only "doing my job" creating endless felt-marker cartoons for business theatre and layouts for our other clients. But the "high’s" did not last long. Within minutes of stepping into my car to drive home and rolling down the windows, the high’s vanished. Nevertheless, the Molson show had many such high’s.
Pressure to complete the show was beginning to mount. I dealt with the pressure in my usual fashion through the art of making many things-to-do lists and non-stop hard work.
Deadlines were coming faster and faster.
Another ten full-colour cartoons done. Ninety to go.
One evening and one of many more such evenings to come, everyone decided to stay late in order to work on the show. Joe wrote page after page of script re-writes. I cartooned my way through hundreds of slides and Judy planned all the photography of my cartoons as well as other product and stock photo slides. The night was getting long. Somewhere around ten o'clock we called it quits. It was time for a big dinner at Le Baron's Steak House on Yonge Street, just a few steps around the corner from our offices.
Dinner with Joe and Judy was always a pleasant affair. Joe made great dinner conversation as he seemed an inexhaustible reservoir of juicy advertising agency stories. He knew every copywriter and creative director in town. Judy talked about Michael. She had become terribly fascinated by this young man who claimed to be an artist. He lived a few hours northeast of Toronto in the small village of Havelock. Her fascination with this young artist was more the result of his rather Bohemian existence in an old cabin in the woods. I contributed to our dinner conversation with my usual menu of topics such as fine arts, my growing family, and a slow adjustment to living in suburbia.
Sometime during the course of dinner I began to feel faint. I only had a single beer or wine, so I knew it was not the alcohol. The food was of highest reputation. Le Baron Steak House was an excellent, five-star, restaurant.
Not knowing what to do, and fearing a need to vomit, I excused myself to go to the washroom. The washrooms were situated in a small foyer at the bottom of a staircase one floor down. These were classy bathrooms. Everything, including the decor, was the best. As I made my way down the stairs, I knew I wouldn't make it to the washrooms. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by a terrible sense of panic. It was an attack I could not stop. I did not vomit. Instead everything froze. I managed to collapse in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. I remember laying there for a long time. Wave after wave of frozen terror tore through my body. It was as if an electric current was out of control and I couldn't find the "off" switch. I panicked but I could not move. I was unable to speak. Needless to say not only did I feel horrible, I was a bizarre sight lying at the bottom of the stairs.
A number of people came down the stairs to use the washrooms. In what seemed like a typical noir scene from an old black and white B movie, they stepped over me to attend to their private needs. No one offered help. No one notified the restaurant owner or the police. If I had looked like a common drunk, passed out in a stairway, it would have been completely out of character for this upscale restaurant, and sufficient reason to call management. But no one did.
An eternity passed before the attack subsided long enough to go to the washroom. I looked in the mirror to see an ashen-grey face. After I splashed some water on my face I joined Joe and Judy upstairs. They asked if I was OK. I said yes. Needless to say, my appetite was gone. I tried to explain what had happened, but failed. It must have been all that tension of creating yet another business theatre show, I concluded. Pressure of this kind was quite new to me and somehow I had not yet learned to adjust, I thought. Bidding my farewell, I excused myself and went home. It was about a forty minute drive and for a while the cool night air made me feel a lot better. Without warning the attack struck again somewhere along Bloor Street West. I pulled the car over to the side of the road. Near home it happened again. Terrified, I arrived home at last. I was in a cold sweat. Bed or sleep was no comfort. Throughout the night, wave after wave of electric terror kept me awake. In the morning I thought the drive into work would help. I made it to the office, but by mid-morning I couldn't take it anymore. I just sat at my desk shaking all over and terribly afraid. Was this a heart attack? I was only twenty-six years old.
I phoned my family doctor to make an appointment and asked Judy to drive me there and home. My doctor lived in Mississauga, less than a hour's drive from my office. Judy took one of our yellow cab slips to cover the ride back into Toronto. Our agency had an open charge account with Toronto’s Yellow Cabs. It was a whole lot more convenient that trying to find a parking spot in downtown Toronto where many of our business appointments were. Once Joe took a Yellow Cab all the way from Toronto to Windsor and back, a four hour drive one-way, giving him enough time to write an incredible script in the back of the cab with a manual typewriter on his lap, just in time for a major presentation to Ford Motor Company. We got the contract. The resulting business theatre production went on to become a real success.
I made it to our family doctor and he saw me right away. No waiting this time. No reading of ancient National Geographic magazines and old copies of Reader's Digest.
He was very frank.
"You are suffering a nervous breakdown," he said.
"It appears to be a big one.” He added, “for this is not just some isolated anxiety attack."
With the verdict fresh from his lips, he prescribed tranquilizers, a major dose of 10 milligram tablets of Valium, with instructions to take three a day - one in the morning, one at noon, and one just before bedtime. I had never had a tranquilizer before and the experience was rather euphoric. I felt instantly healed, except for that nagging fear in my head.
My other business partner, Fiona McCall, introduced me to Dr.Mary McEwan, one of Toronto's most fashionable psychiatrists. Dr.McEwan had become a favourite of the business community because of her matronly and laid-back style of psychotherapy. When the attacks continued, my family doctor approved an increase of Valium dosage to four tablets a day. In addition, he prescribed a heavy-duty sleeping pill named Dalmane 30, also a tranquilizer and especially usefull for those times when I needed to travel for business. Many days I ended up with a dosage of 40 milligrams of Valium and 30 milligrams of Dalmane. In between tranquilizers, I continued to consume reasonable amounts of Scotch liquor and wine. After a long day at work, I looked forward to a strong drink and a number of glasses of wine with dinner. My reaction to alcohol was always a mellow one. I had no idea of the risks involved in swallowing this dangerous mix of alcohol and tranquilizers. I just sat and read, or watched late-night television until I was relaxed enough to sleep. I saw Dr.McEwan every Thursday morning. With the help of medicine and therapy I managed to complete all the work for the upcoming Molson show. The show was a success.
After a week or so of recurring and frequent anxiety attackes, the nervous breakdown seemed to have stabilized. My anxiety attacks, although regular and at least once a week, were under control. I truly believed all would pass within a short period of time. Yet, I did remember my mother who had a nervous breakdown that kept her bedridden for a year. I was just ten years old when that happened. She was thirty-seven. I can still remember how her nervous breakdown affected my young life. While she lay in bed, my household duties during her illness were suddenly increased to include cooking family meals and ironing my dad's white dress shirts. But that was over sixteen years ago. Despite my nervous breakdown, I was not bedridden. I could still work and manage my share of family duties as well. With a "little help of my friends," as the Beatles once sang, I was comforted to know my little friends' presence was carefully assured with a plenty supply in little pill bottles in my attaché case, in my desk, in the glove compartment of my car, in the medicine cabinet of my home, and in a small crush-proof pillbox in my pocket. I truly believed I could manage the pressures of a growing business, a growing family, and a growing passion for life. But, this was one time I was very wrong.
Instead, however, I became imprisoned in a long and terribly dark nightmare that lasted ten years. Six of those years were spent in therapy with regular visits to Dr.McEwan. All ten of those years were filled with forty to seventy milligrams of transquilizers each day. My family doctor and Dr.McEwan had assured me these tranquilizers were non-habit forming. I proved them all wrong. I was hooked.
Yet, despite this long and terrifying nightmare there were moments of peace.
One of the few moments of peace during those terrible years, were my frequent visits to Toronto's waterfront. Whenever I could manage to steal away from my office, I took a bag-lunch and twisted my way through Toronto's downtown streets to end up at the waterfront. There I sat watching seagulls, small craft, sail boats, and Centre Island ferries, while I wrote my thoughts in an endless stream of poetry. Eight years later, I threw most of the poems out. I kept thirty poems and published them in my first collection, titled, "Mid-Seventies Crisis."
It was also a time when I developed a chronic fear flying.
Somehow, I don't think this is the time to recall too many tales of anxiety-ridden days and the terror that reigned at night. Too many were an embarrassment, others the actions of a fool. However, I shall confess three such tales to emphasize the severity of my depressed state.
The first tale took place in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Our advertising agency had been invited to pitch GWG Jeans, a major account and national brand-name bluejean manufacturer, whose Canadian headquarters were in Winnipeg. These were the days of bell-bottom pants, denim jackets, brightly-coloured shirts, and long hair. The account would make us one of the hippest agencies in town. Together with one of our account executives, I was scheduled to make a major presentation on a Monday morning in Winnipeg. We had worked hard on the creative and media presentation, and it was good. I booked an Air Canada flight for Sunday afternoon. The flight was estimated to last three hours. I was terrified the whole trip. Flying had become the ultimate anxiety attack, the ultimate panic. Although I had managed to avoid all accounts in our agency that required flying to meetings, the Winnipeg meeting I could not avoid. Not to sidetrack from this story, but as a result of my fear of flying I missed out on one of the most lucrative deals we ever did get. We had been asked to create a major political media campaign for the government of Bermuda. Instead, Joe went to that fabled island paradise of Bermuda to sit on a resort beach with his notes, his typewriter and a phone, to map out a strategy for the government's upcoming election. It was a rich contract and Joe, needless to say, "suffered" the luxury of being waited on hand and foot, all at government expense. I could have gone, but I was afraid to fly. My solace was my new Camaro, which I chose to drive in order to serve accounts as far away as New York city.
Winnipeg, Manitoba, however, was too far to drive and would prove to be a sore test of my frayed nerves. Dr.McEwan, my psychiatrist, had given me her home number just in case I needed help. With the support of extra tranquilizers and a number of stiff whiskeys, I landed in the windy city, white-knuckled, sweating, and in pain. We took a cab to our hotel at Portage & Main, in downtown Winnipeg. Norman, my account executive who accompanied me on this business trip, decided to go to his room and get an early night's sleep to be fresh for the following morning's meeting. I was wound up tighter than a snaredrum. I took a Dalmane 30 tablet to sleep. To no avail. I was determined not to phone Dr.Mary McEwen. Instead, I paced the hotel room floor. By midnight I could stand it no longer. I got dressed, put on my winter coat, and left the hotel to go for a long walk. It was cold outside, a notorious characteristic of Winnipeg early in any year. Spring was still a long way off. The wind at Portage & Main was biting and frigid. This was my first visit to Winnipeg and I was not familiar with my surroundings. I walked all night. By six o'clock in the morning I stumbled back through the hotel door and into my room. I took a quick shower and swallowed a shot of whiskey. Norman was up by this time and he came to my room. Together we went downstairs for breakfast. He ordered eggs and smoked kippers. I managed bacon, eggs, and lots of strong coffee. At precisely nine o'clock we were facing an expectant group of managers and VIP's in GWG's generous boardroom. I was not nervous about the presentation. In fact, I felt very confident as years of experience had proven Joe and I were creatively "right on the mark" virtually every time. It was a good feeling. I opened the meeting with some cordial greetings and proceeded with my presentation. About two minutes into my presentation, severe anxiety and panic struck with a vengeange, probably the result of an overdose of tense flying, tranquilizers, alcohol, and lack of sleep. I began to sweat and immediately panic set in. Without hesitating, I did one of the most remarkable things I have ever done - remarkable, yet amusingly tragic. I'll never forget what I said as I turned to the president of GWG.
"Sir," I said in my panic, "I don't feel very well. Could I please borrow your car and get some fresh air? Norman will continue with the meeting."
I must have looked sick enough to shock him, because he gave me the keys to his car. His face was shrouded in absolute bewilderment. I fled the room in panic and found my way to the building's huge parking lot. There, in the VIP section of the parking lot, stood his brandnew Lincoln Continental. The president of GWG had given me the keys to his car, one of the largest and most luxurious cars on the market. Within seconds I collapsed on the rich leather seats. I passed out and when I awoke I was groggy and disoriented. It took a few moments to dawn on me what had happened. I got out of the Lincoln, straightened my shirt and tie, pressed my suit with my hands, and walked back into the boardroom, much to the surprise of everyone. The meeting had started at nine sharp. It was now eleven o'clock. Norman had been brave and he did his absolute best. I acted as if nothing had happened and gave the president his keys. I assured him I had not even left the parking lot. He looked relieved. As impressed as they were with our creative and marketing presentation, we did not get the account. Joe understood. It was a most remarkable quality of his, given he could blow up over the smallest and most insignificant issues like a spelling mistake or a "widow" in typesetting. Widows were stumblingblocks to Joe. These typesetting "widows" occurred when the end of a typeset line formed a white space instead of flush right type. I know, “technicalities,” but it demonstrated how volatile Joe could be over small matters. However, GWG was a big matter, yet he understood. Joe had been and still was in therapy as well, just like me.
The second tale took place on an Air Canada flight.
Once, en route to a number of meetings in Ottawa, I had another anxiety attack as the Air Canada flight began to taxi in preparation for takeoff. Seeing the Toronto International Airport terminal disappear through the window I panicked. I crushed a Valium between my teeth for quick results and swallowed hard. The panic increased. I turned to Joe who was quietly reading the Globe & Mail. He smiled and said nothing. Suddenly I signaled a flight attendant and when she came to my seat she bent over to ask what it was I needed.
"Can you stop the plane?" I gasped with short breaths.
"I am having an anxiety attack!"
The flight attendant remained calm.
"Sir," she said, "we cannot do that. We are scheduled for takeoff in a minute or so, but rest assured the flight is only twenty minutes."
She was generous. She smiled. The flight was thirty minutes. I closed my eyes and alternated between holding my breath and breathing deeply. When a short while later the captain announced we were preparing to land in Ottawa, I slumped back relieved. Joe had finished reading the Globe & Mail. The meetings went well and we made good money that day. After a big dinner at a downtown restaurant, we flew home. The flight was uneventful. I was too tired to have another anxiety attack.
In addition to a terrible fear of flying, my other phobias included heights, clients on top floors in tall buildings, elevators, rush-hour traffic, hotel rooms higher than the second floor, churches, and meeting rooms with no windows. All of my phobias were control issues. I hated being out of control as well as not being in control of everything and everyone around me.
The third tale took place in the boardroom of the National Ballet of Canada.
During an impressive meeting with the Celia Franca, founder of the National Ballet of Canada, Wallace Russell, the ballet's general manager, a number of board members, and even a principal dancer, I stood up to present the ballet their new campaign for the upcoming Christmas season's Nutcracker production. It was a beautiful presentation with some of the best creative I had ever produced. Short of any manifestation of "ooohs," and "ahhhs," we were successful in selling the entire campaign. Suddenly panic struck in the window-less boardroom. I took a deep breath, excused myself, and left the meeting to Joe. I walked out and went home. They all understood, a most remarkable quality of the entire performing arts marketplace. One of the reasons I loved working on creative projects for performing arts clients was the pleasure of meeting many of Canada's finest performers. A number of them visited my office regularly. Their names don't matter in this story, but suffice it to say they were nationally acclaimed actors of stage and screen. They seemed to have a whole lot less inhibition about confessing their emotional frailties and were willing to share their often anxious professional and personal lives, much more so than the stiff upper lips of Toronto's corporate world.
But I must share a fourth tale that took place en route to Stratford, Ontario.
I took Alice to a première performance at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford. When we got there some two hours later, I realized I had forgotten my tranquilizers. I panicked and we drove home to get them. Alice was very disappointed as we headed home to get the infamous Valium pills. Once the pills were safely in my pocket, I offered to drive back to Stratford to see if we could still make it in time for Act One. Fearing I would be foolish enough to speed, she declined. She did not want to challenge the highways and try to get back to Stratford in time for Act One, Scene One. It would have been a four hour return drive. We missed the entire performance and an opportunity to have an enjoyable, relaxing evening together.
I am by no means proud of these tales. I did not include them in this account to somehow manufacture some bête noir persona for my creative character. I share these accounts because in those days, anxieties and nervous breakdowns, all "head problems" for that matter, were frowned upon and presumed solved, especially for men, by a swift kick in the rear and some honest elbow grease. When a friend of mine broke his leg, he got lots of sympathy as he hobbled around with crutches and a big cast. I had a “broken head” but no cast. Sick in the head meant crazy. Men, who felt as if they were going crazy, and who for fear of being discovered they were vulnerable, would get tranquilizers from the doctor, and yet they let everyone know those pills were not tranquilizers. They were muscle relaxants. After all, tranquilizers were for crazy people and unstable women. I often wondered what would have happened if I had a large cast on my head. People would surely sympathize with my predicament, wouldn’t they?
"What's the matter with you? What happened? Here let me help you. What's wrong?"
"Oh, just head problems……?”
Nevertheless, these anxiety attacks and a nervous breakdown were as real as any flu or other illness. Too many have suffered needlessly because social stigma kept them from getting the help so readily available. I am sounding political so I will quit.
As I recall these events, I am desperately trying to think of more humorous encounters with anxiety and panic. There were none, at least none that I can remember. Suffice it to say, they were ten long and difficult years. Yet, throughout those years I managed to work hard at keeping up a brave front. Alice was a tremendous support. Without her, the journey would have been unimaginably more difficult. I continued to manage the growing agency. We had offices in Toronto and Ottawa and a total staff of over thirty. I loved my wife and children. I kept my fears under control, yet throughout the pain there were also many sublime moments of joy and passion as I watched my children grow up.
There was, however, a special passion that developed during those years, a passion that has remained an integral part of my life to this day. During the early months of my nervous breakdown, I developed a love for the open road. It became the ultimate escape, especially when I took to that road in my new Chevy Camaro.