January 14, 2019

Taking care of ourselves

BY ROD McDONALD

We are caretakers. Some call us managers. Semantics. I won’t argue. We take care of people, we take care of plants, we take care of vehicles, facilities, money and please feel free to add to the list. There is no shortage to the things that we oversee, supervise, manage and take care of. It is in our nature. It is who we are.

If we didn’t take care of things, in a Master of the Universe fashion, we would have an eight-to-five job, hang up our tools at quitting time and walk away until the next morning. That is not the path you and I have chosen. 

We see ourselves as being always on call, available, ready for action. Trades people would phone me later in the evening, and ask if it was okay to be calling? My response was always, “I am not union.” I don’t know if that is humorous or blunt. The line can get blurred. 

My wife, who is definitely not from this trade (she is a nurse), always struggled with how we, from the green trades, conduct ourselves. She took lunch breaks, coffee breaks and holidays. All of the things that normal people do. Her dad was a union man. I share that as it is her frame of reference. 

In May of 1982, at 4 a.m., Paul Fowler from Carrot River phoned me. We were asleep. No surprise there. Paul told me he had just loaded his truck and would be in Regina in four hours at 8 a.m. He said, “I have room for two more racks, do you want anything?”

I sat up in bed and shook the cobwebs from my brain. “Yeah, I do,” and started telling him what I wanted, including the admonishment: “No more cabbage!”

After placing the order, I returned to bed hoping to catch another hour or two of sleep before I had to get to the greenhouse to unload Paul’s carts of bedding plants. 

My wife was furious. She thought Paul had to be the rudest member of our trade to call at that hour. Furthermore, she thought I was insane to give him an order at 4 a.m. I explained Paul was doing me a big favour. He was on his way down and could get me plants I desperately needed that very morning. “What’s your problem?” I asked. It was destined to be a long marriage. 

My readers comprehend that Paul was not out of line and why I appreciated the call. Above all else, you understand. You have answered a phone at 4 a.m., and not just once. 

So, this is the life we have chosen to paraphrase the film. We caretake. We work long and hard. One customer asked my greenhouse manager, Casey Markus, if we ever slept in May. He had a great answer: “Yes, we sleep, but we have learned to sleep quickly.” 

We know we drive ourselves to exhaustion, until we are running on the fumes from the reserve tank. I never understood the concept of burnout, until a counsellor told me, “It is the people who care, who work extra hard, who burn out. What is sad, they are often the last ones to know.” Does that sound familiar? I wished I had paid a bit more attention to my health when I was younger. If I had, I would never have needed my kidney transplant. 

That’s right. Pushing myself non-stop, as many of us do, was not conducive to good health. The reason I am preaching, just a tiny little bit, is because I see so many of you doing exactly what I did. One of the young men I mentor, called me this spring in a state of chaos asking, “How did you get through 42 years of this?” The short answer is, I didn’t do it very well.

I have no soap box. All I can write is that I did it wrong, so wrong. I am not one of these people who has all of the answers. 

I am not alone in my absence of answers. One of my friends is considered to be a top greenhouse grower. He told me, “I was trained to grow healthy plants. I was trained to provide customer service but no one talked to me about looking after myself.” So sad and yet so true.

As we approach another spring, I think it is important that each of us has to find a way of handling stress, to reduce the hours we work and remember we need to enjoy ourselves as well. 

One of my friends asked many years ago, “When was the last time you had fun?” I didn’t like the question. “I have work to do!” was my answer. My Scottish Presbyterian roots were showing. I suspect many of you have been asked the same question.
In this magazine, there has been discussion regarding the not-so-secret use of marijuana by some crews. The discussion centres around responsibility and liability; if an employee drives or operates equipment stoned and injures himself, then who is liable? That is a very serious issue, and with legalization it intensifies. If an employee smokes up the night before, how do we ascertain if he is stoned or impaired the next morning? 

The reason I mention the marijuana issue is that for many of us entrepreneurs, smoking dope is not as much of a problem as is alcohol. With myself, I used alcohol at one time to medicate. I would have a few drinks to celebrate a big day at the garden centre. I would have a few drinks to bury my frustration when I had a bad day. Eventually, I was having a few drinks, and a few more, just because that was what I did. It was my coping mechanism. It was how I handled my emotions — by numbing them.

I was not alone in abusing alcohol. I don’t have statistics for our trade, but most of us know someone who also struggles with this issue. How often do we hear the phrase, “He is such a good man when he is sober”? 

I fully expect that not everyone will appreciate me writing about this subject, but I refuse to be an ostrich. 

All of us have seen once-solvent companies face bankruptcy due to alcohol abuse. In my own community, not only have greenhouses gone kaput, but restaurants, trucking companies and other businesses have as well. Very talented operators have self-destructed when their addictions dominated. 

I am not passing judgment, as I was on the wrong side of an empty bottle for years. I almost lost everything, including my family, house and company. I had to decide what was important to me. I joined a group of men and women who meet in a church basement, each Wednesday evening, to gain my sobriety. It worked. I not only got sober but my career took off. That was in 1986, 33 years ago, and I don’t regret my decision.

It does not matter if it is a bottle of whiskey or a bag of weed or prescription drugs, once those things become an anvil tied to our butt, it is difficult to be the best version of ourselves. Addiction is devastating, but it is highly treatable. It is truly an illness that can be placed into remission.

All of us face obstacles on the road to success, but if we learn to put those obstacles behind us that road is so much easier to travel. Take care of yourself this spring, while you take care of everything else. 

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.

Landscape Trades, January 2019

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