Lady Luck 450

Funny how little triggers can bring back memories.

I was just painting my toenails red tonight when I remembered buying the nail polish at the Shoppers Drug Mart in downtown Yellowknife a little more than two years ago.

I wanted to have nice toes and fingers for my first appearance at the Ontario Newspaper Awards, but I was very broke and couldn’t afford a mani/pedi. I think the cheapest one I could find in Yk was around $80.

Part of the reason why I was broke is I had decided to leave my job in the North for a summer internship at the Telegraph-Journal in New Brunswick. It was a risky move, but I felt terribly homesick and I knew Yellowknife wasn’t for me.

I would take a pay cut to roughly half of what I was making at Northern News Services, plus I had to cover my flight back to Ontario. I booked the flight only to find out a couple days later that I could make it to the ONAs if I changed the date to a couple days sooner. So I bought another ticket and kept a credit for the other flight cost.

I also needed to save enough money to cover the costs of emptying my apartment in Waterloo, finding a new place in Saint John, and waiting the obligatory month for my first paycheque.

Looking back, this was probably the most chaotic week of my life, full of changes, risks and a new beginning.

Thing is, I really wanted to make it to the ONAs because I was up for a novice reporting award and I was also the student of the year, picked from all the journalism students in Ontario, which was a humbling honour. I was eager to make it to the awards in person, and see all my old colleagues from the Waterloo Region Record. I had been laid off from that paper in February of that year (2009).

But after a day of flying across the country, I would arrive in Toronto about two hours before the event started. After driving to Waterloo, I wouldn’t even have time to shower before the awards. So it was Yellowknife where I primped for an evening in Waterloo, if you follow.

My ex, of all people, picked me up at the airport in Toronto that day (what was I thinking?) and got me to Waterloo, where I quickly changed into a red dress, and, toes painted red the night before, slipped out the door.

The evening was a blast. I attended solo, but I didn’t care. I saw all my old colleagues and my old editors. I didn’t win the novice award, but as the student of the year, I said a little impromptu speech thanking my editors at the Waterloo Region Record and at the London Free Press for their support. Then, we danced the night away, my toes painted in L’Oreal Lady Luck 450.

About 48 hours later, I filled my 1997 Volkswagen Jetta with everything that would fit, including two cats, and drove 1,600 km to Saint John, New Brunswick.


First harvest

It has not been a good growing season for me at the Saint John Community Garden. I planted basil, thyme, radishes, carrots, lettuce and peas. And so far, only a few peas and radishes have sprung up. When I checked on my little garden last week, it was surrounded by pooled water. It was basically like a mud puddle.

Optimistic that the rest of the summer will be hot and dry, I have tried planting more. Yellow and green beans, more peas and lettuce. If all goes well, I could have batch of fresh veggies by the middle to late August.

Till then, the hearty radishes have reigned supreme, and are they ever tasty. Zesty, peppery and crunchy, these guys are great in salads or just on their own. A taste of summer. Yum!

Four national parks in three weeks

If I close my eyes, I can almost feel it: the pure serenity of a national park. The wind rustling tree leaves, waves lapping on a shore, and the scents of blossoms on a hard-packed trail. Waterfalls, ancient rock formations, breathtaking views.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to see it all, in four of Canada’s national parks: Fundy, Prince Edward Island, Bruce Peninsula and Fathom Five National Marine Park.

For me, enjoying Canada’s natural beauty is such a huge part of my national identity – that elusive thing we hear so much about through Canada Day. Province to province, we have so many natural treasures, whether it’s the amazing sand dunes on the north shores of PEI, or the ancient cedars that survive along the rugged cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment in Ontario.

Parks Canada, celebrating its 100th year,  recently received the Gift to the Earth Award from the World Wildlife Fund. What a gift these parks truly are.

PEI National Park
Fundy National Park
Bruce Peninsula National Park

It’s how I learned to write

Writer’s Craft was hands-down my favourite class in high school. The class taught me what English didn’t: how to write, and how to put heart into it. But now, it seems the popular course has come under “a bit of an attack,” as my beloved teacher has said. She asked for letters explaining how the class has helped former students in real life. This was my response.

I’m sorry to hear that Writer’s Craft is coming under fire. There are so many practical ways that class has helped me in my career. As a reporter, I write every day. Writer’s Craft was my first introduction to writing daily. It encouraged me to write often – creatively or otherwise – as a way to practice and improve. Writing and sharing creatively also boosted my confidence. This is integral for a reporter whose work is read every day by thousands of people. Learning to take feedback and criticism is also important.

Other practical ways: learning to write concisely, descriptively, actively are all so important in journalism. “Show, don’t tell” echos in my head almost every time I sit down to write. Better grammar and vocabulary are givens.

But most of all, writer’s craft taught me to feel what I write – to look deeply inside and write from the heart. That may sound cheesy but whenever I feel passionate about what I am writing, that feeling seeps into the words on the page. This has practical ramifications for anyone who needs to reach and resonate with their audience.

And I must say, writing is a skill that not just a journalist must master. Language and text and information are ubiquitous. Effective communication is a must in our digital world.

Please feel free to use my name or submit any of this if it helps keep Writer’s Craft around! That course gave me such a love of writing that has never gone away. I think I have the best job in the world. Writing is such a gift.

I could go on….


Graceful Germain

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With tree-lined, quiet streets, brownstone buildings and ornate details, I live on one of the best streets in the world. Germain Street emerged in the 1880s as Saint John’s residential area for the upper class, and now I’m lucky enough to live  here today. It’s a five minute walk to anywhere uptown, and the Saint John Harbour is within sight. In no other city could I afford to live in such a beautiful, historic neighbourhood.

This week I wrote about the possible demise of the Gothic Arches, a late 19th century church which once held 1,500 people for Sunday services. Since 1999, it’s been a performing arts venue, but it has fallen in disrepair, and the business isn’t profitable. The private owner of the church now says he may have to tear the building down if it isn’t soon sold.

Living in a city as old as Saint John – 226 years – you’re surrounded by heritage. So much so, that I think residents here sometimes take it for granted.

There is a constant struggle here to modernize while preserving the city’s historic character. Tourists and cruise ship passengers travel from all over to “see what we have left,” as one heritage official told me this week. But as the buildings age, the price tag of repairs go up, leaving mounting bills for owners. To live in a heritage building, it seems you need to value history a bit more than cheap convenience, or you’d be better off building a cookie-cutter sub-division in the suburbs. The challenge is to find these investors, especially in a city and a province more depressed than many other places in Canada.

My apartment is located in the R. B. Emerson residence, built in 1883 and named after the manufacturing businessman who lived here in the 1890s. While most of Germain Street was constructed in brick after the Great Fire of 1877, my house was built with stone, giving it the distinctive, almost spooky look from the outside. Inside, we have high ceilings and windows, big rooms, and a marble fireplace. We only live on half of the second floor. Hard to imagine this was once a single family home.

Maybe it’s because I’m still pretty fresh in Saint John – I just passed the two-year mark of N.B. residence status – but I still find the heritage here fascinating and beautiful. It would be a shame to lose such historic character to the wrecking ball. Because as one historian said this week, once it’s gone, it’s far too easy to forget.

In their pain, they find a way

Kylee Wallace

Can you imagine the utter pain of losing a loved one to a senseless act? I often struggle to wrap my head around this when writing about victims of crime, or loved ones of people who die in car crashes.

Most recently, I sat down with Raylene Wallace, the impassioned mother of Kylee, a 15-year-old who died in a crash on June 26, 2010. I’ve written many stories about Kylee, but yesterday I was writing about Raylene’s plan to offer a safe ride home program in her daughter’s memory. Volunteers will drive to parties in the Saint John area and make sure kids get a safe ride home for free.

Raylene has been through hell and back. She’s still going through hell as she wades through the court process, awaiting the fate of the 20-year-old driver who crashed the car Kylee was riding in when she died.

But in all her pain, she wants to do something good. She wants to stop another parent from losing a child.

It amazes me when I think about it. I don’t have kids so I could never understand the depth of her loss. But I have, unfortunately, written about quite a few people who have died before their time, and I’ve spoken to a lot of bereaved families. The loss is horrible, the pain indescribable, and the only way to keep living, as Raylene told me, is to imagine Kylee is just in the other room.

So how does she find the strength to organize a ride home program? In her grief, she is making a difference.

It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this.

Take the Higgins family. When 46-year-old Caroline Higgins died after being struck by an inexperienced motorcyclist while jogging near the Reversing Falls bridge, her brother and sisters – smart and practical as they are – starting researching the laws. They found that New Brunswick is utterly behind the times. We’re one of the only provinces to not have a graduated licensing system for new motorcycle drivers. There is also no mandatory inspection program for motorcycles. Both rules, they believe, would reduce another senseless death from happening.

Now, the provincial chief coroner has made recommendations to this effect, and New Brunswick politicians have promised to run public consultations on changing the rules.

Instead of wallowing in misery, as I believe I would do, they are acting, and making the world safer for the rest of us.

For families who have been needlessly victimized by tragedy, the public benefits. How selfless of them, and how grateful we should be.