I Luva My Wife

In a swanky, downtown restaurant, a tall, grey-haired figured approaches a makeshift stage. The room, previously filled with the usual din of a dinner where drinks are complimentary, quickly goes quiet.

The speaker is the long-time senior vice president of Subaru Canada. He has an easy, affable manner but his long features also hint at a professional seriousness.

His role today is to congratulate the assembled dealer body for their achievements in the past year. It’s a role he relishes, for not only is he a shrewd businessman, he is also a born showman.

After an uptempo recitation of sales figures, he begins to work the crowd.

“What do you guys think of those numbers?” he asks to a chorus of applause.

He then scans the crowd with a hand cupped over his eyes.

“Where’s Carmen? I want to hear what Carmen thinks.”

When he finally locates his target, his face beams and he leans back happily.

“Let’s hear from Carmen Vigliatore of Scarboro and Markham Subaru…”

Here he switches from his normal, reedy voice to a very exaggerated and extremely WASPY version of an Italian accent.

“Eh, I luva my wife.”

Although surely strange to novice ears, this introduction has become a type of shtick between the pair. It plays a bit like the Odd Couple, the polished and highly educated VP and the brutally honest, heavily accented immigrant who speaks with fiery passion.

“Yes, that’s true,” my father shoots back. “I do love my wife.”

He waits a beat for the giggles to subside.

“You know why?” He asks rhetorically.

“Without her, I would never be here today.”

It may be a bit rehearsed but there is no doubt to anybody listening that my father sincerely means what he says.

My parents celebrated 41 years of marriage in January. Here they pose after visiting my wife (seen creeping in the background) and I at our cottage.

I don’t know if there is a higher rate of divorce among automotive professionals but anecdotally, I know a lot of dealers, managers and executives who are on their second or third marriage.

That should be no surprise to anybody with even a casual knowledge of the car industry. It’s just not conducive to a normal home life. Automotive retailers need to be available when their clients want them to be. Our office is open until 9:00 pm weekdays and every Saturday until 6:00 pm for the convenience of our clients.

Although all of our commissioned salespeople have regular shifts in which they theoretically work no more than 40 hours a week, the fear of losing a deal is too great to ignore. On top of their unconventional office hours, they also routinely sacrifice portions of their precious off days on the whims of their clients.

I’ve written in the past about how difficult it was to have a father trying to establish himself in the industry. The only day my family really had him to ourselves was when the store was closed on Sundays. Even then, those days were often split checking in on the dealership in the morning (while my brother and I tagged along) and then visiting extended family in the afternoon.

I don’t think my mother had any illusions about what she was getting into when she married my father. He had just started the business when they met and was already working around the clock. But it still must have been hard.

My mother is quiet and reserved (the exact opposite of my father) but is by far the strongest person I know. She raised my brother and me virtually single-handedly.

I grew up in a time of traditional gender roles. It was assumed that mothers would do the majority of the heavy lifting in their households. That was true for most of my friends, but their mothers at least had a father to call upon when needed.

I was always amazed to see these men emerge from their dens or basements like a relief pitcher from the bullpen. My mother just didn’t have that option. She was pitching a complete game whether she liked it or not.

After more than 40 years of marriage, my parents bicker with the best of them but I’ve never doubted their devotion to one another. My father in particular, is not ashamed to admit that his successes are in direct correlation to the work she did at home.

Now that my cousins and I are managing the dealerships, we’ve found that, despite all of the sociological progress around us, we are fundamentally the same as our fathers.

Enjoying a laugh with my wife on our wedding day. Thirteen years later and we’re still laughing together.

I recently celebrated 13 years of marriage to my wife. She is wonderful for a host of reasons but one of her greatest attributes is her selflessness.

When we met, I lived in Markham and she was in Brampton, nearly 60 km away.

When we married, I was already working at Markham Subaru, so there was no debate about where we would live. She knew that if she ever wanted to see me, it would be best if we lived nearby, even if it meant she had to drive 45 minutes to get to work or to see her family.

I never fully appreciated the depth of her sacrifices until COVID-19 came along.

Although the dealership never fully closed, our hours were drastically reduced. The work was never easy, but it was completed much earlier in the day.

COVID even wiped out my only regular social outing outside of work, Thursday night beer-league hockey.

Suddenly I was home every night for dinner with my family (including the inevitable cleanup afterwards).

For the first time in their lives, my children enjoyed unfettered access to me daily. I played board games, worked on elaborate puzzles and read to them every night.

We blew through classics such as The Secret Garden, The Wizard of Oz and a whole host of books by Roald Dahl. We read so much that one of my first stops when stores re-opened was to a local thrift shop to find more chapter books to read.

Even as we gradually re-opened our sales department, our business model changed. We booked appointments rather than relying on walk-in traffic. Our days looked and felt drastically different. The normal chaos of the sales floor was replaced with predictability, allowing me to adjust my schedule and experience something I never thought possible — a two-day weekend.

Before COVID, I took a day off during the week, during which I usually mowed the lawn or handled other household chores. Our weekends typically began Saturday night at about 7:30 pm and were split between visiting relatives (Italian parents are very demanding) and trying to squeeze in private family time.

A few years back, my wife and I invested in a cottage. It is a great escape and I am thankful for it but visiting it required both creative scheduling and heaps of understanding from my family.

When we visited, I would often still work my full Saturday shift. My wife would give my kids a late snack and then load both them and all of our supplies into her car. In theory, she would pick me up at the store at closing and together we’d drive up north. Of course, that almost never worked perfectly because car buyers have been conditioned to arrive at dealerships late in hopes of negotiating slightly better deals from exasperated sales staff.

If the kids weren’t too irritable or hungry by the time we reached our place, we would watch a bit of TV over a quick dinner and maybe go for a walk. The next day would consist of squeezing in a quick (but always enjoyable) day at the beach before packing everything in by sunset in preparation for yet another work day.

Now we drive up Friday night, spend a blissful Saturday doing whatever we want at whatever speed we want and leave whenever we feel like it on Sunday.

Although these changes arose from dire circumstances, they are still luxuries I never dreamed possible.

I recently asked my kids how they would feel if I returned to my pre-COVID schedule. They reacted as if I was a vilified sports figure returning to a scene of infamy. I was cascaded with boos, taunted with emphatic thumbs downs and not allowed to speak or even eat until they had calmed down.

Although my wife has joked once or twice about having to cook for me every night (I am many things but a chef is not one of them), I know she’s enjoying the reduced dealership hours as well.

If life feels easier for me, I can only imagine how different it must be for her. She who has eaten alone, changed diapers alone, helped with homework alone and goodness how much else.

I don’t think you can be married to anyone for a significant length of time without loving them for the right reasons. My wife is kind, funny, caring and supportive. She is an exceptional person and I love her for all of that.

In addition, much like my mother and aunt a generation before, she is the most important person in our business. She provides the structural support needed to keep our family afloat while simultaneously providing the emotional strength to talk me off the ledge when I rant and rave about a job that takes me away from her for so long. That is true grace.

So yes, I do love my wife. And if proclaiming it means being the butt of some cheesy jokes, so be it. I wouldn’t trade her for anything.

Breaking Quarantine

Monday is not a day I will likely forget. It is the day Markham Subaru broke out of our COVID-19 induced semi-quarantine and officially re-opened.

During the preceding weeks, when we were operating with a skeleton service staff, I spouted the same platitude as many ways as a I could to both clients and employees alike: “We’re taking it day-by-day,” “we’re learning as we go,” and my personal favourite, “these are unprecedented times.”

Now we are finally taking the next step and frankly, it’s scary.

The emergence of this pandemic and the ensuing chaos it wrought on the daily lives of nearly every person in North America is likely to be the story that defines our generation. Next to it, everything seems insignificant.

I had actually finished a rough draft for a new blog just one week before Ontario children were decreed to take an extended March break (which still has not ended) to curtail the spread of this novel coronavirus.

When the threat of rampant community infection and widespread quarantines seemed like something more akin to a cheesy science fiction movie than to real life, I was still embroiled in the minutia of running a business.

One of the nagging loose threads I was trying to tie was an application to increase the height of our street-facing pole sign. Due to the staggered nature of development on our road, our dealership was further recessed from the street front than the new buildings sprouting like tomato plants on Miracle Grow around us. With two new condos planned directly beside us and our city mandated trees growing taller and bushier by the year, I thought it would be reasonable to add a few feet to our sign.

The city, as they are want to do, disagreed. I was invited to a city planning meeting to present my case. Having never formally addressed our municipal government before, I was woefully unprepared.

The case before mine was an application for a huge development from a local, well-respected builder. They came with a team, including their lawyer, who seemed to have a cordial (nothing inappropriate, just familiar) relationship with the city’s chief planner. They also had access to the city’s A/V equipment and put on a hell of slideshow.

In contrast, for Markham Subaru, there was just me. I had no idea what the proper procedure was or even who I should be addressing. My application for a bylaw variance was quickly and summarily dismissed, but not before I was scolded for even bringing it for consideration.

The blog I wrote about this meeting (tentatively titled, Mr. Vigliatore Goes to Markham after the old Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart movie) was witty and funny and focused on how intimidating and, frankly, inaccessible, the political machine can be. It was also completely irrelevant the moment after I finished it.

That same week, NBA players in Oklahoma were abruptly rushed off the court during the warm-up because Utah Jazz star, Rudy Golbert, had tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, all sports were indefinitely suspended and Ontario Premier, Doug Ford, was announcing that all public school classes would be suspended for at least two weeks.

Businesses in the province immediately struggled with what their role should be. I fielded a few calls from fellow Subaru dealers who were hoping to co-ordinate a response.

That didn’t happen because the weekend was unusually busy, especially considering the circumstances. It seems that the initial reaction of most people faced with a growing crisis is to pretend it does not exist.

The next Monday, when I floated the idea of reducing our hours to my cousins, they said I was welcome to do so at Markham Subaru but they didn’t see the need at their stores as business was still robust.

That was a strange week. I felt as if I was standing on a steep hill of loose gravel right before a storm. The news was a constant bleat of bad news, including the Prime Minister going into self-quarantine because his wife was diagnosed with COVID-19. Rumors, half-truths and misinformation flourished among the staff and the greater population. What started as a normal business week ended with a sunny Saturday in early Spring where only a single person entered our showroom.

By the Monday, my family had decided to temporarily shutter all of our stores. We made the announcement to our staff just days before the province ordered all non-essential businesses closed.

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Physical distancing in effect in our customer lounge.

It took just eleven days. In that span we went from a thriving business, a fixture of our local communities for nearly half-a-century, to one that laid off all but three employees. The day I came into our darkened offices to process our final payroll and issue records of employment was one of the hardest of my life.

The only saving grace was that our staff were generally supportive (although I’m sure not unanimously). They were tasked with making an impossible decision. If we stayed open (which as an essential service, we could have) they would be compelled to come to work and potentially risk exposure to the virus. If they refused to work (assuming we were doing everything possible to maintain their safety), they could theoretically risk losing their jobs. I’m glad we made the decision for them.

The day I announced our closing, I asked my service manager if he wanted to close immediately or work to the end of the week. He took a vote in the shop. It wasn’t even close.

The dealership was completely closed for only one week. In that short period of time, I fielded a flurry of calls and e-mails from clients worried about their regular vehicle maintenance. The biggest concern was the need to swap their winter tires for their summer set before the rising temperatures damaged them. To be honest, the volume of these calls struck me as somewhat odd because it was hardly essential, especially considering the vastly diminished driving most people were doing.

Regardless, I thought it prudent to open our service department on reduced hours to handle emergencies and essential services. I enlisted the help of one or two mechanics and one service advisor. I even decided to go back to my roots and work our parts desk (which is fodder for a future blog).

If this pandemic has taught me anything, it is that Subaru owners are both extremely loyal and extremely conscientious about their vehicles. There were very few vehicle emergencies in those first few weeks and an increasing demand for regular maintenance.

Those early days also featured a steady barrage of delivery men and tradespeople as we prepared for doing business in a COVID world. Plexiglass shields, face masks and ubiquitous bottles of ridiculously over-priced hand sanitizer became our new normal.

Even with all these measures, when I first tried to expand our operations on a paid volunteer basis, there were precious few takers. Each employee had their reasons, from homeschooling their children to worrying about an elderly relative, and I did not begrudge any of them their decision.

Although their objections were all completely legitimate, I would be lying if I said I ever envisioned a situation where I would call employees back to work and they would politely refuse, preferring to draw a fraction of their salaries on government assistance.

I suspect they weren’t mentally ready to come to work. I never really left so I didn’t need to prepare myself for the new reality. I had slowly acclimatized to it in a trickle of small but constant daily changes. They would be walking into a workplace with a vastly different look and with completely different rules. This is not an easy task for anyone so it is my firm belief that it shouldn’t be forced.

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The COVID-19 prevention kit I presented to one technician upon his return to work.

Sure enough, about two weeks later, when I once again announced we hoped to open our service department more fully, there were only one or two people who asked if they could be excluded.

I am seeing the same phenomenon now with our sales staff.

We are now allowed to re-open our showrooms on an appointment only basis. Again, the landscape is completely different. Take for example the test drive, a staple of the vehicle purchase process. No longer can we simply take a client out in the car of their choosing. Due to physical distancing requirements, the salespeople must now trail the client in a separate vehicle like some low-level P.I. while maintaining a Bluetooth link to the test vehicle.

Not surprisingly, after I asked my staff who was willing to return to work, half agreed and half declined.

So that brings us up-to-date. It is hard to describe how you feel when you’re getting ready for a normal day of work that is nowhere near normal. Mostly it’s unease because you’re unsure of what comes next. All I can hope for is that the doors to our business will continue to open daily and that we will never have to shut them again.

Thicker Than Water

Across the crowded banquet hall, my father and uncle totter to the fringes of the dance floor. My mother and aunt follow close behind. As an accordion-led version of Dean Martin’s That’s Amore pipes through the speakers, my cousins and I crane our necks to watch them dance a gentle tarantella, just like they have at countless weddings before, albeit this time a touch more gingerly.

The wedding is the first formal outing for the brothers since my uncle had knee replacement surgery late last year and my father followed with a triple bypass surgery a few weeks later.

As the dance progressed, my dad’s cousin, the grandfather of the groom, circled the dance floor with his iPhone, sneaking secret photos and videos of them.

It was a touching scene but not one that would make you immediately think about selling cars. But inspiration is a fickle thing and it was at that moment I realized that my self-imposed ban from blogging was at least temporarily over.

Although my supply of dealership anecdotes remains abundant (take, for example, the client who recently complained they had never heard so much sneezing in a showroom before), I didn’t think I had anything new to say about the industry or my family’s place in it.

It took my father’s cousin, a successful businessman in his own right, circling the dance floor like a second-rate paparazzo to change my mind.

It was his earnestness, his simple joy in their presence, that did it. His show of love for my father and uncle (and by extension, my cousins and I) was completely without pretense. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at them that way before.

To me, my father and uncle were never just that. They were also a car salesman and a mechanic respectively. By virtue of how much time they spent at work, their professional titles took on at least equal importance to my familial ties to them.

Only now, while they are both on medically imposed exiles from the office, do I see them for what they really are. They are brothers first and foremost. Every success in their life, every relationship, including my own with my father, has flowed from that simple fact.

My understanding about the strength of their relationship began to deepen as my father’s bypass surgery neared. Obviously, my mother, my brother and I planned to spend the day at the hospital. What was unexpected was the impassioned plea my uncle made (on one good leg to boot) to come as well. He felt he should be there to both keep my mother company and to see my father the moment he awoke.

He was eventually dissuaded but only with the understanding that my mother call him the moment the surgery was complete.

I was next to my mother when she made that call. Even though the surgeon assured us that everything had went well, tears automatically came to her eyes as soon my uncle began talking.

“He was so agitated,” she said to me later. “He wanted to be here.”

The next day, despite our protestations that nobody need visit until my father was moved from ICU, my uncle demanded that one of his sons drive him to the hospital.

“There was nothing that was going to keep him away,” my cousin later told me.

I experienced an echo of that visit only two weeks later, on Christmas Eve. My father, still weak and only able to sleep for minutes at a time due to irritation from his freshly stitched sternum, insisted on going to his bother’s house for our traditional Christmas dinner.

“We’ve been doing this for forty years,” he told me. “I’m alive so I’m not going to stop now.”

I don’t want to make it seem that nobody else showed concern for my father. We had wonderful support from all of my extended family. But there was an urgency to my uncle’s actions that struck me as particularly poignant.

I always viewed the two of them as business partners who happened to be brothers. I thought the reason they spent so much time together (even when the store was closed) was incidental to the all-consuming needs of the dealership. I certainly didn’t make much of the fact that they never seemed to argue with one another (even though my own brother and I constantly butted heads at  home).

Maybe it was because I was always so busy worrying about my own responsibilities that I never took a moment to step back and realize what they actually had together.

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(From Left to Right) Carmen, Frank and my cousin, Guy, during a company Christmas party. The brothers are true partners. Neither of them is allowed to shoulder more of the responsibility than the other.

Some of my clearest teenage memories from Scarboro Subaru are sitting with my uncle and cousins in the few loose chairs that passed as our customer lounge at the end of the day, waiting for my father to close the sales office.

My uncle never had any interest in the front end of the dealership. He preferred to stay behind the scenes, running the shop and maintaining the equipment.

Other than his obsessive desire to check (multiple times) that each door to our dealership was locked, he didn’t have any real reason to stay behind after the shop closed for the night. But my uncle always found something to tinker with for a few hours and stayed until it was only family left.

As a teen, I thought the sight of two grown men taking turns manically tugging on doors that they themselves had just locked bordered on the absurd. Now my perspective has changed. They were true partners and neither of them was going to allow the other to shoulder more of the burden than the other.

Similarly, no task in the business was ever undertaken nor any decision made without consent from both brothers. Even if I asked my father for something innocuous, like whether I could fix the tape player in my car, he always told me I had to check with my uncle first.

As far as I can remember, my uncle never said no to anything I ever asked. Most requests were met with a good-natured chuckle and a response of, “Sure, no problem,” but I had to ask all the same.

Every minute detail regarding family privileges was informally codified amongst the brothers. Whether it was company vehicle entitlement or what vehicle repair costs the business would cover, they had an agreement for everything.

When it came time to formalize a business succession plan, their biggest concern was mot minimizing taxes or how best to defer their salaries like average business owners. Rather, it was attempting to guarantee my cousins and I could continue the business as harmoniously as the two of them had for 45 years

That was always going to be a difficult task, only because it’s impossible to convert to legalese the scores of tacit agreements they formed over the years.

For example, although we are an above-board business, we do occasionally earn small amounts of cash from non-inventory items (scrap metal being the best example). It’s never a lot but my father and uncle have a long-standing agreement that everything in the business, no matter how small, is split 50/50.

If I give my father $100 from a set of used tires I sold on Kijiji, he puts $50 into his pocket. The other fifty goes through a ritualistic origami procedure where it is first folded in half and then creased sharply in one corner before being placed in his wallet.

“That way I remember this money belongs to Zio Franchino,” he says with a laugh, even though it’s probably the hundredth time he’s explained it to me.

It is a testament to the resolve of both men that their respective surgeries did nothing to dampen their personalities. My father spent his recovery time shifting furniture around the house, searching for greater living efficiencies. My uncle sifted the depths of his basement to find gadgets to fix. He was working on a spring-loaded ballpoint pen when I called him one afternoon.

It is because of these dominant personalities that their presence is still felt in every corner of our office, despite this being the longest period both of them have ever been away from work.

So, as I watched my father and uncle carefully traverse the dance floor, smiling and filled with the same hope they had for future generations of Vigliatores as when they first came to Canada, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I am.

I have been blessed to be able to work both for and with my idols, but I never quite realized it until just now.

Markham Subaru Goes Green With Bullfrog Power

At Markham Subaru, we recognize the importance of addressing our environmental impact. We are excited to announce we’re taking a big step to reduce the carbon emissions footprint of our business by choosing green natural gas for our company with Bullfrog Power.

“Markham Subaru is proud to be supporting clean, renewable energy with Bullfrog Power,” said Carlo Vigliatore, general manager of Markham Subaru. “By bullfrogpowering our dealership with green natural gas, Markham Subaru is helping transition Canada to a renewably powered future.”

Bullfrog Power’s producers put renewable green natural gas onto the grid and pipeline to match the amount of conventional natural gas used annually by our dealership. Bullfrog’s green natural gas is sourced from methane-capture projects situated at various Canadian landfills, waste water treatment facilities and anaerobic digestion sites.  Through innovative technology, biogas is captured, cleaned up, and injected onto the national natural gas pipeline.

We are proud to be choosing green energy with Bullfrog Power! To learn more about Bullfrog Power, visit their website at bullfrogpower.com.

Goodbye…For Now

Saying goodbye is never easy.

Over the past three years, I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun writing about my family, our business and the car industry.

I am immensely proud of what my father and uncle were able to achieve with virtually no education and only a tenuous initial grasp of the English language. Their story has always been an inspiration to me and it was an honour to be able to share that.

I also enjoyed pulling the curtain back so that you could meet the people you probably only saw briefly when you either purchased or serviced your vehicle.

We tend to view retail experiences (especially ones where negotiating is involved) as combative affairs. By telling you a bit about myself and the people I work with, I hope that you got a better sense of what goes into the (sometimes infuriating I’m sure) decisions we make.

When I first started writing this blog, I had a vast library of anecdotes to share. Most illustrated the best part of the automotive world, the people. Each day in our industry is different because each client is vastly different from the one we served a moment before. There is a type of magic in that revelation.

In my earliest posts, I felt that magic was on full display. I had many years to consider some of the peaks and valleys of our industry and to put them into a proper perspective. But as time went on, that store of anecdotes eventually dried up. Increasingly, I had to rely on things that were happening in real time to meet my self-imposed monthly deadline.

Last month, I sat down to write a new blog. A former GM at another Subaru store told me something that I found extremely prescient. He believed that you could Google any part for any car and find someone online complaining that it was a problem.

Sure enough, I had recently had a few run-ins with clients who had done their own online research and were sure that our service department was either lying to them or misrepresenting the true problem with their vehicle.

Since almost everyone has had an experience of Googling some health-related symptom and jumping to the conclusion that they have six months to live, I thought this would be an interesting topic to explore from the automotive side.

I wrote the blog and was generally satisfied with the end result. Luckily, I have the best editor a self-published blogger can ask for, my wife. I gave her my new 1,500 word masterpiece and she was noticeably unenthused.

“It’s not one of your best,” she told me matter-of-factly. “It sounds like you’re complaining about your customers.”

She was right. I always knew I was putting a dealer-centric spin on my writing, but without the benefit of time to help me separate myself from my topic, my writing was becoming too frustrated and (dare I say it) condescending.

This obviously wouldn’t benefit anybody but me, who would get some short-term relief by airing my grievances. That’s the one thing I promised myself at the outset that I would not let this blog devolve into. As soon as my wife called me out on it, I knew my time was up.

As a result, I have decided to temporarily pause my blog. Ideally this break won’t be too long, just long enough to get a better perspective on what I’ve done over the last year or so. There is already too much negativity in the world. The next time you hear from me, it will be to say something great about the truly wonderful people I get the pleasure to deal with day in and day out.

Until then, thanks for reading.

Carlo Vigliatore

Trolls – A Practical Guide

As an eight-year-old, I was an avid reader of Spider-Man comics.

One day, I picked up a particularly dark-looking book with three skeletons rising from their graves on the front cover.

In the story (which is much too convoluted to explain) a member of the undead terrorizes a supporting character over nine gruelling panels by tapping relentlessly at a locked bedroom door.

As a child, I could almost hear the incessant tapping reverberating through the page.

I would probably have had trouble sleeping under the best of circumstances but my terror was made infinitely worse when a dull but intense tapping sound began to waft up through the vents in my room late that night.

The next day I told my parents about my nightmarish evening and they laughed. Inexplicably, my father had picked that exact evening to fiddle with something on the furnace.

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Spectacular Spider-Man #148, “Night of the Living Ned!” from 1989. I had trouble sleeping for a few nights after reading this issue.

My mother reassured me there was no such thing as ghosts or goblins.

Now, as an adult, I realize that she was only partially right.

Although I have never crossed paths with any phantoms or apparitions, I have met my fair share of trolls and they are out for blood.

These are not the trolls of fairy tales such as Rumpelstiltskin or the greedy monster under the billy goat’s bridge. Modern trolls have “handles” such as Rocket Puppy, who gave us a one-star Google review with the simple description, “bad dealer.”

Then there is the DealerRater review signed by “potential customer,” which states:

“Come here if you wish to get ignored. They are excellent at it.”

I am not writing anything revolutionary when I say the anonymity of the Internet empowers people to say things they never would to someone’s face.

Just check the comments section of any internet article (if the provider even allows comments anymore) and you’ll understand immediately what I mean.

There is a subset of people who seem to get their kicks by writing outlandish things just to see if anybody will take their bait and react.

If you are foolish enough to engage you will quickly find yourself sucked into a vortex of ugliness so vile it often threatens to corrupt your entire outlook of humanity.

Trolls have no definitive characteristics. They span generations, sexes, income levels and all other forms of classification.

Take, for example, the case of a Facebook promotion I ran a few months back. It promised 500 Airmiles with the purchase of any Subaru Outback.

I thought it was a decent incentive but Jenny Jones, a 50ish realtor from Stouffville whom I’ve never met, disagreed. She commented:

“Whoop de doo, what an inticement (sic) !?!? They need to get real. It is rubbish. Makes Subaru look real cheap.”

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A Facebook ad I ran last year. The text promised 500 Airmiles to anybody who purchased a Subaru Outback. The ad was criticized by two random people.

This comment was utterly bizarre. I would never think of publicly shaming Mrs. Jones for her selling tactics, which, if history is any guide, probably consists of mailers or bus shelter ads promising quick sales at top dollar for low commissions.

To be clear, I have no problem with people who thoughtfully review services and products online. I even accept that we will receive bad reviews from time to time. After all, nobody’s perfect. That said, I think the rhetoric and conjecture needs to be toned down.

I have lost count of how many negative reviews describe our services as the “worst ever,” or “a joke” and our employees as “not caring about customers at all.”

How can anyone make such blanket statements on the basis of one interaction, sometimes not even in person.

I reach out to every negative reviewer in the naïve hope of perhaps rectifying their concerns. It seldom works.

On the rare occasions I get a response, the results are unexpected to say the least.

One client recently complained that she bought a vehicle at a different dealership because she felt more comfortable with their sales people. She believed they had more “passion for their job” and “always try their best to get the deal done.”

She signed off with:

“I believe there is a lot to be improved in your store as I am in customer service area for many years (sic).”

I was startled by the sharp rebuke but even more curious by the vagueness of her complaints.

I e-mailed back, thanking her for her response, apologizing for not meeting her needs and asking if she could please provide suggestions on how we can improve.

Instead of sincere feedback, I received a ransom request.

Her response, only slightly edited for length, was as follows:

“Honestly, it is really not my interest to further share the experience with your company…However, your team just let an eager buyer fly away so easily. I can imagine how many deals you have missed so far.

“I am wondering if you are willing to trade a one-time oil change service for me if I tell you exactly the area your team needs to improve…It is not difficult for me to get you this useful information.”

It’s responses such as these that make me question why I bother taking any initiatives.

Why spend any money on a promotion if it is going to be mocked publicly by non-customers?

Why reach out to potential clients if they’re only going to respond with the equivalent of a drive-by flogging?

My wife, a former psychology major, tells me this is a normal defence mechanism.

Humans are programmed to hone in and remember negative interactions above positive ones so that similar stimulus can be avoided in the future.

If only it were so easy.

My job precludes me from ignoring potentially troublesome people, especially when it is nearly impossible to discern legitimate concerns from petty ones.

As a coping mechanism, I have adopted the philosophy of killing with kindness.

That’s the tact I took when I noticed the same person engage my sales staff in four separate online chats about pricing on a black, fully-loaded STI with wing spoiler.

I looked through the transcripts and noticed that, although each conversation started cordially enough, by the end, there always seemed to be a healthy sprinkling of snarky comments.

Chattranscript

A snippet of a chat transcript from someone I suspect is a serial internet troll.

In one conversation, he declared, “Yes, I know math brother. Think only you know numbers?”

In another, when a salesperson gave him a price he disagreed with, he questioned whether the salesperson wanted to sell a car and wrote several different variations of, “have a good day buddy,” while the salesperson attempted in vain to recover.

During the final conversation, when our salesperson, Ollie, attempted to break down pricing for him, he instigated an argument about what promotions were available to him and why (which of course he already knew).

“LMFAO you are so funny dude that you don’t wanna even say you’re wrong,” he wrote.

“Wow that’s sad.

“Sorry, you suck at what you do Oliver.”

I reached out to the client via e-mail, telling him I noticed several of his conversations with our staff had ended less than amicably.

I admitted that there were instances where we were less direct than we should have been but that there were also times where it seemed he was deliberately antagonizing the salesperson.

I offered him to contact me directly if he was still interested in pursuing an STI purchase. However, if he wasn’t truly interested, I asked him to respect the time of our salespeople and refrain from contacting us again.

His response, which I present below verbatim, was the most vile I have ever received.

“Hey my friend I appreciate your opinion now go f*ck yourself you clown and talk to your sl@t wife with that tone. I asked nobody took me serious enough so go f*ck off you incompetent moron.

“You make me laugh wiring me such a nice email well you saw my nice side on chat and here’s my better side. If you need clarification on person or over phone call me please.”

I debated for a long time on how I should respond. My gut begged me to lash out with every foul word I could think of but my mind pleaded for restraint.

In the end I replied with an apology. I said I was sorry we cold not help him and wished him best of luck with the rest of his purchase.

Again, he responded.

“Thanks Carlo. Like I said, if you would like me to clarify call me I would be more than glad to set the record straight.

“Cheers you f*ck.”

I let that final epithet slide and thought the matter dead.

To my surprise, within a week, the contacts started again.

First, it was an online chat request, asking for the exact same information he always did, as if he had never contacted us before. I jumped on the chat right away, innocently introducing myself. I got no response.

Then, two days later, one of our salespeople received an e-mail from him within minutes of him making yet another online chat request.

Both of us thanked him for his time but said that, in light of our previous interactions, we didn’t think it was beneficial to pursue the matter further.

He politely accepted our reasoning and signed off.

Now we wait, never sure which bridge we cross has an ornery troll just like the STI client lying hidden underneath.

Kids Art

Tucked away in my filing cabinet, next to folders with serious sounding names such as “financial statements” and “retail sales performance,” is a folder stuffed to the brim with content completely incongruous to the material surrounding it.

The file is labeled “Kids Art,” and that is exactly what it contains, a random sampling of artistic creations made by my three children.

I am under no illusions about the level of talent displayed in any of the pieces. They look exactly like what you would expect nine, seven and four-year-olds to produce. But they are magnificent all the same because each piece was created with a specific muse in mind, me.

I know that sounds vain but let’s face it, it feels great to be loved. And no one gives love more freely than a child.

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Although my wife receives her fair share of accolades from the children at home, there is something special about visiting a parent at his or her place of work.

I can speak from experience on this topic. When I was a child, visiting my father at the dealership was an event.

It wasn’t even the inevitable visit to McDonalds (and its exquisite outdoor playland featuring obscure characters such as Mayor McCheese and Officer Big Mac) that excited my brother and I so much. It was because visiting the dealership was like making a pilgrimage to a strange land.

First, there was my father. At home, his outfit of choice was a t-shirt and sweat pants, perfect attire for working in the backyard. But at the dealership he was always immaculately dressed in a suit and tie.

Then there was the location of the store itself. There was a vast, block-long strip plaza across the street, which incidentally, spanned six lanes of traffic. It was a far cry from the quiet sub-division we lived in.

Finally, there were the treasures awaiting us in my father’s office.

My father always felt guilty about how much he had to work, so he was anxious to find something from his desk for us to play with or take home.

The items were mostly office knickknacks (a euphemism for junk) but my brother and I pored over them like archeologists at a dig site in the Holy Land.

There was the odd-looking lease calculator whose functions nobody seemed to understand, a pop-up address book with a sliding letter selector and a gimmicky desktop wheel, finished in gold, which you could spin for various motivational phrases.

Once I almost convinced my father to give me his copy of the Canadian Black Book, a pocket-sized flip book which listed thousands of different cars and their values in tiny font. To this day, I have no idea why I wanted it but I was crushed when my father decided it was too important to be without.

Years later, certain artifacts have still survived from those exploratory missions.

I recently stumbled upon a nub-like pencil in my desk drawer.  What was once a pristine white finish had been chipped, cracked and dulled from years of storage. The metal eraser holder, without the benefit of an eraser to hold it in place, was bent into a series of sharp edges, making it treacherous to hold.

The pencil was more useful as a makeshift shiv than as a writing instrument. But clearly legible in thick (although faded) red italic letters was the reason I kept it for more than 30 years — Lada, the Russian vehicles we sold before Subarus.

It was a memory from one of my earliest dealership visits and needed to be preserved.

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Despite the treasure trove my father’s office represented, it was otherwise unremarkable and actually quite sterile.

Above his desk was a large, artist’s rendition of a dealership that looked nothing like ours, despite promising in bold letters that it was, “The Future Carmen and Frank’s Garage.”

It always struck me as strange because the picture was littered with families seemingly cut and paste from other forms of media. One of the kids in it was holding a balloon and laughing while motioning for his parents to follow him inside, a distinctly different experience from anything I had ever witnessed.

For a personal touch, my father always kept our most recent school pictures on his shelf in carboard frames. But that was it.

There was nothing to even remotely imply my father had any type of personality (which he most definitely does).

In retrospect, I blame myself. To be brutally honest, my brother and I were takers. We were always looking for what we could bring home with us and never thought about what we could contribute back.

Apart from the odd father’s day activity we were forced to do in school, it never crossed my mind that my father might want some creation of mine.

Now that I’m a dad, I know differently. But even that realization came slowly.

Like my father, I always had pictures of my children close by but I was not what you would call a aficionado of pre-school art.

In fact, if you witness me at home, you may even get the erroneous impression that I hate children.

Unlike my wife, who treasures everything our children make and is not overly particular about organization, I am a neat freak. I break out in hives when dozens of multi-coloured magnets, each holding multiple doodles on irregular scraps of paper, cover every square inch of our refrigerator.

I love that all my children have fertile imaginations but their output rivals that of a roomful of renaissance masters at the zenith of their creativity.

I secretly (and somewhat shamefully) wait for my children to go to bed so that I can scoop up collections of forgotten objets d’art and throw them in recycling.

Little did I know that children are not as receptive to the environmental benefits of recycling as I am.

Before I learned to hide my purloined piles under bulkier cardboard items in the blue bin, I suffered more than a few confrontations with indignant and often, tearful, children.

Then one day, everything changed.

It happened sometime in 2013, just before my eldest daughter, Emma, turned four.

She had graduated from smearing colours on a page to drawing crude stick figures, little more than blobs with arms growing out of them.

She drew these blobs prodigiously, honing and perfecting her technique until magic happened.

With no direction, she drew a picture of me and her holding hands. My wife, ever the teacher, even helped her sign and label her portrait.

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Much like Dr. Seuss’ infamous Grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day.

I never doubted my children loved me but to know they were thinking about me even when I wasn’t around melted my heart.

I told Emma that I loved her picture and would hang it above my desk.

Little did I know that this gesture would start a chain reaction leading me to need a whole filing system for the creations of my children.

My middle child, Chiara, has always been eager to please. Even though she had just learned to talk, she saw how happy Emma’s picture made me and immediately set to work.

Even though it was just random brush strokes on paper, I could see she was very proud of herself, so that came to my office too.

When my youngest child was born, she became the most determined of them all.

As soon as she could grasp a pen, she was writing and drawing items for me to bring to work because that’s what her sisters were doing.

Now it is a (mostly) friendly competition between them.

If they draw something they are particularly proud of at home, they immediately set it aside and tell my wife it’s for papa to bring to work.

On those cherished occasions they visit the office, they barely say hello to me before ripping out sticky notes from my desktop dispenser and drawing or writing something for me to hang up.

As the kids have aged, their creations have become more abstract. I have one picture from Emma that conceptualizes me as a “cute daddy bear” and a poem from Chiara entitled, “You Are My Golden Dad.”

I don’t mind. As long as there is room to stick or store their work, I welcome everything.

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I’m reminded of an episode of The Simpsons from back in its early years. In it, an unexpected pregnancy forces Homer to leave his dream job at a bowling alley and return to work for the odious Mr. Burns at the Springfield Power Plant.

To commemorate the occasion, Mr. Burns hangs a plaque above Homer’s desk announcing, “Don’t forget: You’re here forever.”

When Homer’s other children ask him why he doesn’t have any pictures of his newest daughter, Maggie, he answers:

“Oh there are pictures. I keep them where I need the most cheering up.”

The camera then fades to a shot of his workstation, with pictures of Maggie obscuring the plaque so it now reads, “Do it for her.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Office Fruitcake

As you walk through the aisles of your local grocery store this holiday season, you are sure to see that old mainstay of Anglo-Saxon Christmas cheer, the fruitcake, somewhere near the checkout aisles.

If you are in an Italian neighbourhood, you will also likely find or own treasured version, the panettone, next to them.

A panettone is a tall, dome-shaped, sweet bread cake whose fluffy innards are usually augmented with flavourful chunks of candied fruit, raisins or chocolate.

Although panettones are actually quite tasty, I hated them as a child. In retrospect, this had nothing to do with an immature palette.

Panettones are a notoriously recycled gift among Italian-Canadians. The joke is that you can tell how important you are to any given relation by checking the best before date on the panettone they gave you.

In the heyday of my youth, my parents used to receive an obscenely vast assortment of panettones for Christmas. It was like obtaining a year-long supply in the same tight, three-week period annually.

By the time we actually got around to eating any of these presumably fresh (and that’s a big presumption) panettones, they had acquired the approximate taste and texture of a Brillo pad.

No matter how delicious I know a panettone with globs of creamy chocolate oozing through its innards tastes, I cannot shake those formative memories of being forced to eat dry, tasteless cakes to please whoever it was we were visiting that weekend.

panettone-cioccolato

You always knew when someone brought you a panettone as a gift. No matter how they were wrapped, their distinctively shaped boxes were a dead giveaway.

Much like the recycling of unwanted gifts as Christmastime, a different sort of regifting occurs in office settings. It happens when items with obvious value and practical use are shuffled from cubicle to cubicle until you can’t help but hate them.

For me, there is one piece of stationary that towers above all others in this dubious distinction — the common paperclip, the panettone of the office world.

I know this sounds ridiculous but I believe that the inventor of the paperclip was a truly magnanimous person.

A paperclip, properly affixed, is a gesture of noble consideration, a way to express your respect for the time and responsibilities of your co-workers.

But, much like the once-proud panettone, the end user of the paperclip is rarely the person it was originally intended for. Instead, they are re-gifted to the point of worthlessness, replacing real consideration with laziness.

If I had to estimate, I believe Markham Subaru is the owner of about 10 million paperclips. Some are collected neatly in boxes or containers but the majority are strewn about carelessly in the dark and forgotten crevices of every desk, credenza and cupboard we own.

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One of Markham Subaru’s many stashes of paperclips.

Like any surplus item, their value has sunk so low that employees are desperate to deplete their supply by any means necessary.

It is not uncommon for me to open a file and find three or four paperclips inside, only one of those serving any discernible purpose.

As a hater of waste, I grit my teeth when I see two clips inexplicably used within the same bundle of papers or a clip affixed to the side of a folder holding nothing at all.

I also shed a tear for the atrocities performed on paperclips in the name of expediency. Some poor clips are twisted beyond recognition to form makeshift keychains, while others are stretched to the point of uselessness by a stack of papers much too thick for their size.

I always wonder what the point was when I receive these sorry-looking clips. Why didn’t the previous user find a more suitable tool for the job? Clipping the entire contents of a file together doesn’t save anybody time and nobody’s idea of an ideal key chain is a pointy piece of steel bent at irregular angles.

And yet, incomprehensibly, these durable pieces of corrugated steel are the number one requested item by my employees on supply orders.

It almost seems like my entire staff has some kind of sadistic fascination with accumulating boundless supplies of paperclips solely for the purpose of throwing them away as quickly as possible.

It got so bad at one point that I banned my former office manager from ordering any more. I insisted that everybody role up their sleeves and make do with the millions we owned somewhere in our building.

But even she was not above the obsession of collecting shiny new clips. In an effort to subvert my wishes and keep our collection growing, she would stealthily add a single box, valued at little more than a dollar, to each supply order, hoping it would escape my steely gaze.

In the end, I caved. You can only ignore the wishes of the people for so long. So the paperclips flowed freely once more.

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My personal stash of paperclips. I have to be extra cautious not to make any sort of contact with my organizer tray for fear of sending paperclips flying everywhere.

When I receive a file folder replete with superfluous paperclips, I now simply grumble good-naturedly under my breath and pour the excess clips into the designated well of my top desk drawer.

Even outside companies have caught onto my willingness to recycle their unwanted pieces of low-grade metal.

I have actually witnessed our local licensing office use a paperclip to hold a sticky note (which as the name implies, is sticky) to a single returned form.

I just brush it off. Let them clip papers I say!

It no longer bothers me that for every paperclip I use, two more are added to my storage tray.

Slowly my stash pulses and grows but I pay it no mind.

I don’t notice them until, much like an engorged pimple on the face of a hormone-rich teenager, the bundle bursts at the slightest incidental contact, spraying forth its contents in a concentrated blast of energy.

Even the ensuing mess fails to draw my ire. I imagine I am a marine biologist, attending to beloved animals trapped in an oil spill. I carefully collect my stray paperclips, untangle them one-by-one and ensure they can be clipped safely once again.

After the meticulous process is complete, I am filled with great sadness because I realize I can no longer provide a good home for this particular flock of paperclips.

I scoop up my dense collection and add them to the equally voluminous clump of assorted clips at our receptionist’s desk.

Where they go from there is anybody’s guess. But they are free.

What I do know is that within a month, I’ll be doing the same thing all over again.

And that is why I’m giving all my distant relations a box of paperclips for Christmas this year.

Nobody Said It Was Easy

My father is nothing if not consistent.

When I vent to him about the stresses of running a dealership, I know his response will always be the same.

He will shake his head while clucking his tongue and rolling his eyes subtly towards the heavens. After a moment of measured reflection, he will then say the same thing:

“Well, if running a business was easy, everyone would do it.”

The meaning of this adage is two-fold. First, it validates the difficulties I am going through. Secondly, it offers a form of gentle encouragement, calling to mind the perseverance that he believes is innate in our bloodline.

This year, I have heard that phrase more than in any time of my life.

Despite a host of achievements, 2018 has not been kind to the HR department of Markham Subaru (namely, me).

Dealing with the variety of people that life offers is the most difficult part of any business. If you are lucky enough to find the right mix to fill your staff, work can be a joy. But that mix is a notoriously fickle chemical equation whose proper reactants constantly shift for reasons poorly understood.

Take Markham Subaru as a case study in this axiom. At year’s end, this will be our most successful year in every aspect. Ergo, one would think we would have no trouble recruiting and retaining staff to share in our successes.

Not true.

On average, we employ about 30 full-time employees and one part-time employee.

Last year, we needed only 39 different people to meet that need.

So far in 2018, we have employed 52 (and counting) employees and that doesn’t include at least another two people who accepted a job but never showed up.

This tidal wave of turnovers started innocently enough, with a young apprentice leaving to join his father’s family business.

It was impossible to know at the time but this one, innocuous decision was the opening verse of an epic history worthy of biblical times, where one resignation begat another.

In short order, we lost two more apprentices. One because the drive was too far and the other after a disagreement with our service manager.

It was no easy feat to replace these defections due to the general shortage of tradespeople in the workforce.

When one strong applicant asked permission to take a month off shortly after his proposed start date to get married, I really had no choice but to accept.

Our strength during this difficult transition was our front-facing service staff. But that was short-lived.

In April, while on a two-month parental  leave, one of our advisors accepted a position at a rival Subaru store.

Luckily, I had time to fill this sudden vacancy as I had hired a retired ex-employee on contract to cover the planned leave.

I promoted from within, elevating a friendly and well-spoken lot attendant to the position despite his relatively short tenure.

He seemed enthusiastic and willing to learn. With our contract advisor still in place for another month, the timing seemed perfect.

Again, fate had other plans. The young man left work early one day complaining of leg pain. A few days later, a friend dropped off a vaguely worded resignation letter citing medical reasons. Despite attempting to contact him, I never heard from him again.

Although our contract advisor graciously agreed to stay on for a few extra weeks, my remaining staff was being stretched to their limits. And the hits kept coming.

While picking up a customer, our shuttle driver developed a sudden medical emergency. He was rushed to hospital and missed more than a month of work.

With our driver’s status up in the air, I hastily hired a relative of our contract advisor to take over the shift. The catch was that he had no car of his own so he could only work the same hours and duration as his relative.

But thanks to the Shakespearean capriciousness of cruel fate, this desperate maneuver ended up buying me very little time.

Late one Sunday evening, I received an e-mail informing me that another of our advisors was taking an unexpected and indeterminate leave of absence to care for a sick relative.

Of course I sympathized, but that didn’t change the fact that I was now left with no driver and a single experienced service adviser, plus our service manager, to handle the service desk.

With our ability to meet the needs of our customers already in serious jeopardy, the ripples of employee defection continued to spread to other departments like a malignant tumor.

Our long-time (and excellent detailer) decided to surreptitiously retire, giving us one-and-a-half week’s notice.

This announcement came on the heels of a carousel of resignations and hires in the related lot attendant position, forcing me to go against my usual policy and hire a student temporarily for the summer months.

I was now faced with a lot/detailing department that consisted of one young man with exactly zero experience and a sales department that was expected to deliver more vehicles than it ever had before.

The best candidate to fill the detailer role was a young man who just happened to drive a Subaru. He accepted my offer (going so far to buy a cap from us to wear to work) but he called shortly after with a caveat.

He had planned a week-long camping trip more than a year ago. Despite this, he wasn’t exactly sure when the trip was. He would be willing to cancel it if it jeopardized the job but would prefer not to.

Not wanting our (hopefully long-term) relationship to start on a sour note and facing a time crunch with a business trip to Quebec City upcoming, I allowed him to go.

Predictably, that turned out to be a mistake.

As it turned out, the camping trip was scheduled for one week after his start date.

He worked the first week, took the next off and by the end of the third had resigned to pursue a “dream” opportunity.

I next hired two new employees to start simultaneously: a detailer who had previous experience at an RV dealership and a full-time lot attendant who also had shop experience.

I had a great feeling about both of them.

The detailer was the first to disappoint, resigning via e-mail late one night after four days on the job.

Luckily, the lot attendant was a revelation. Not only did he paper over the loss, he turned out to be quite a skilled detailer in his own right.

Unfortunately, in the five weeks he worked for us, he was absent five separate times.

Believing this was a bad portent of things to come, I let him go.

His successor came for one day then disappeared without a trace. He didn’t even leave his personal information, so I couldn’t pay him for the one day he did work.

My next hire worked out a bit better. He lasted three-and-a-half days.

In the meantime, I hired two more detailers, making it four in as many months.

To add a half-eaten cherry to this mouldy cake, I received an unusual e-mail from an important member of my admin staff during Thanksgiving dinner.

Although it was still mid-afternoon, he claimed he was sick with a high fever and chills and could not come to work the following day.

I suspected he might have partied too hard on the weekend and accepted it as the type of thing one has to contend with when dealing with people.

As the “sickness” stretched into a second work day, I received another e-mail proclaiming he would miss the rest of the week. More than a few of my staff were skeptical, so I decided to do a cursory social media search.

It is possible that this employee was under the weather, but if he was, it was clearly some ailment particular only to people vacationing in the Caribbean.

I consider myself a very reasonable boss. Although this employee had many absences throughout the year, he still had all of his vacation time remaining. If he had asked me if he could take a last minute trip, I am sure I would have agreed.

Although I was furious, I attempted to salvage something from the relationship, suggesting via e-mail that he use his vacation days to cover his week-long absence. To my surprise, he refused, claiming that since he was actually sick, he did not want to waste his days.

I had no choice but to call out his lie, sending a few of his publicly available social media posts as proof. Although I offered him the chance to discuss the matter further, he declined, quitting with a nine word e-mail after three plus years on the job.

It is entirely possible that some of these changes will be beneficial in the long term. After all, sometimes change forces a company to re-evaluate how they do business and find new opportunities. But those benefits require the benefits of hindsight to see.

Until then, I guess I’ll have to cling to every hollow platitude my father gives me and try to enjoy (or at least survive) the ride.

 

OCD & Me Redux

When my father visits Markham Subaru, I brace myself for the unexpected. The more agitated he is, the more chores I can expect.

I was already anticipating my father to be at the store in fine form the day our back lot was to be gravelled after a three month delay but nothing could prepare me for the site that greeted me as I pulled into the parking lot.

My father was dressed as natty as ever but he was trudging through our flower beds, a heavy-duty pole saw in his hands and another giant branch cutter casually discarded at his feet.

When he saw me, he bounced ebulliently towards me.

“Doesn’t it look great?” he beamed.

I thought it was an odd question considering we were nowhere near where the backhoes were currently breaking ground.

It was then that I noticed my father’s shoes were caked with mud, his golf shirt was uncharacteristically untucked and there were flecks of wood and leaves in his hair. He could have easily been confused for someone freshly rescued from the bush.

As I was still registering this strange image, I noticed piles of branches spread at roughly even intervals across our front lot.

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A street side look at my father’s handiwork. My wife and I joked that it looked as if we were hit by “Hurricane Carmen.”

Markham Subaru has seven trees adorning its entrance. All of them were mandated by the city of Markham. My father has long hated these trees, particularly the four bushy black locusts that stand guard at the far corners.

“You couldn’t see our signs before,” he explained. “Now you can see everything.”

I looked up, somewhat confused, and saw that the spread of each tree was now a fraction of its previous thickness. But he was right, the view of our store from the street was greatly improved and the trees still looked well manicured too.

I was impressed with his handiwork, especially since he’s not always so judicious when he’s in pruning mode. But even before I could finish expressing this to him, he was off, darting towards some small shrubs from the neighbouring property growing through our fence.

This anecdote is by no means meant to be patronizing. Although I often poke fun of my father, I am eternally proud of him. At 71 years old, he is still healthy, humble and determined enough to personally handle almost any challenge he sets for himself.

Although I think his work ethic is an inspiration, there is a dark side to it too, one that seems run through my father’s side of the family tree. When presented with a task, be it from internal or external sources, the males in my family seem to have varying levels of compulsion to complete them immediately.

Before and after

A before and after picture of our frontage. The picture above was taken by Google in 2017. The picture below was taken shortly after my father finished trimming our trees,

If there is anything I have learned since I wrote about my own obsessive tendencies awhile back, it is that nothing happens in a vacuum. I may be different from my father in many ways, but in others, we are slight variations on the same theme.

My father is still actively involved in our businesses. I am sure that he always has more important things to do than landscape maintenance, but I know exactly how he felt. The thought of those heavy, leafy branches, loping lazily toward the ground, was itching his brain in a way that couldn’t be satisfied until they came down.

Likewise, I was not surprised to learn that once unleashed, this particular drive was difficult to extinguish, even when the job seemed satisfactorily completed.

After what would have been mission accomplished for most people, my father ordered some stones and bricks in a remote corner of our lot removed so that he could return on Sunday morning and reach even more shrubbery.

That’s just the way my father operates. As long as I can remember, he was always off on some errand every Sunday morning. More often than not, that errand involved visiting one of our stores.

My brother and I would often tag along on these expeditions (as I wrote about here), but nothing short of a major family function could stop him from going.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised one random Sunday last year when I spotted the beat-up pickup he uses as a weekend runner parked outside the locked gates of Markham Subaru.

My wife and I were taking our kids to the nearby dance studio for their annual pictures and stopped to say hello.

My dad was thrilled to take a break from the nothing he was doing to chat with us. But when it was time for us to go, he stuck around to continue inspecting whatever it was he was inspecting, probably revelling in the peace of the closed building.

Recently, I suggested that his Sunday visits were possibly a form of self-therapy.

“No,” he said resolutely. “That’s just my routine.”

My father is old fashioned in certain ways. He rolls his eyes at anything people do to maintain their mental well-being, be it exercise, meditation or psychoanalysis.

His only accepted form of therapy is work. Quiet, stoic work.

While that might be considered noble, it also means my father (and his brother) always had trouble delegating responsibility.

My cousins and I grew up in an atmosphere where our biggest influences were willing to do anything, no matter how menial. How could it not have rubbed off on us?

The running joke in my family is that the first person people call at Scarboro Subaru if the bathroom runs out of toilet paper is my cousin Guy.

It’s funny because it’s true. It’s true because we allow it to be.

My family has always been nitpickers at the best of times and micro managers at the worst. Age and a condo in Florida has mellowed my father but I still struggle with letting go.

I routinely give other people responsibilities before getting antsy and gradually taking on the work myself.

I can’t handle the fear of a job not being done in a timely fashion or in the exact way I would do it.

In a way, this is nothing surprising. Any person with compulsive tendencies knows that they are almost always rooted in the desire to control the uncontrollable.

As Good as it Gets

Jack Nicholson as obsessive compulsive romance author Melvin Udall, from the 1997 film, As Good As it Gets.

My personality is a far cry from Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets, but I am certainly much more comfortable knowing that all things are in the place I assigned for them.

That’s particularly problematic when I’m not at the store.

On Tuesdays, I begin at noon. I usually spend the extra time in the gym (another one of my compulsive tendencies) but even then, it is hard for me to suppress ever growing feelings of anxiety.

I can’t stop thinking about what might be happening at the dealership, a feeling made infinitely worse by each new beep from my phone, signalling a message I am powerless not to check.

Saturdays are worse. I long ago set Friday as my day off because I play hockey on Thursday nights. Although I check our dealer management systems remotely at least three times every Friday to stay up to date, I still often return to a pile of files on my desk and a slew of e-mails clogging my inbox.

That’s not problematic in itself but Saturday is also the busiest retail day of the week. The combination of a disorganized desk, delinquent work and a parade of people through my office is almost too much for me to bear.

On some days, the stress is almost paralyzing and my usually ordered mind bounces from one incomplete task to another, struggling to find a foothold with any of them.

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This picture was not set up. This is the actual condition of my office as I write this blog. I thrive on order and struggle to concentrate when things are out of place.

This minor disorientation led to one of the most shameful moments of my career. In a private meeting, my father asked a factory rep what he thought of the job I was doing.

After the obligatory kind words, the rep suggested I should focus more during my meetings with him.

My father was supportive when he relayed this information but I was humiliated all the same.

Since that day, I have made a concerted effort during meetings to make more consistent eye contact (which makes me extremely uncomfortable) and fidget less (which is my go-to coping method).

I even changed the settings on my computer so that it would go to sleep quicker, preventing me from making furtive glances when e-mail notifications pop up.

I’ve often wondered if this lack of focus is how my dad feels when he’s racing to some seemingly trivial chore. But that’s the trouble with compulsive behaviour, it’s so blatantly ridiculous that it seems nothing can be gained by speaking about it.

But sometimes we come close.

Recently, my brother shared a story about visiting my parents in Florida. While he was there, he became determined to fix a problem with their TV.

“I looked up at one point and I saw that my kids were down by the pool with my parents having fun,” he said.

“That when I said to myself, ‘What am I doing up here?'”

I also find myself wondering that more often lately. Maybe that’s progress.