Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Magical Moments During Alberta Culture Days

It was another lovely weekend in Fort McMurray, made all the more special by the events during Alberta Culture Days. I had the opportunity to paint a silk scarf at Silk Caravanna at MacDonald Island Park, but that wasn't my last, or only, Alberta Culture Days event.

You see over the weekend our community was vibrant with arts and culture, and while I could only participate in a couple of events I would like to share what those events meant to me, and what I think they mean to our community.

Some time ago I became aware of a little magazine in our region, published by a dedicated group of individuals who have poured their heart and soul into a small publication devoted to the written word. I submitted a piece, and when it was selected for publication I was absolutely delighted, because it was one of the first pieces of writing I have ever had published. It was with a great deal of trepidation that I submitted to the following issue, but only because I submitted a poem. For the record I do not consider myself a poet, as my poems never rhyme and probably seem amateurish - and yet the poem I submitted was selected for publication in a blind process where your submission is sent to the guest editor anonymously and thus chosen on merit alone and no other factor. And when I submitted to this most recent issue I did so with even greater hesitation, as the poem I shared is deeply personal and reflects on some of the darkest days of my life when my mother lay unresponsive in an ICU in Saskatoon. I have found, despite my lack of poetic skill, that some of the feelings closest to me, the ones hardest to release, seem to flow easier through poetry, and so I submitted a poem.

When I got the email saying the poem had been selected for publication I was pleased, of course. And when I was asked to read it at the launch of Northword Magazine Issue 9 I was honoured to do so, although I did it with tears in my eyes as this poem is probably the closest I've ever come to seeing my heart laid open on paper. And that is perhaps why I am so deeply grateful for Northword Magazine, because without it I don't know if I would have ever had the courage to submit that poem. You see I know them, the people behind this magazine, and their kindness and dedication and devotion has made me comfortable with them. Their support of my poetry and writing has given me the confidence to submit to other publications and explore the world of poetry, and so it has truly fostered my writing in ways they may not even realize.

On Sunday, the morning after the launch of Northword Magazine, I was at MacDonald Island Park for a different kind of launch. Around 10:30 am, likely to the surprise of the usual weekend traffic there, a baby grand piano was rolled out into the main concourse. This is not just any baby grand, though, as it has been painted by a local artist, and it has been installed for all to play. It is music and art without barriers, and it is, in my mind, incredible.

You see the Intrepid Junior Blogger began taking piano lessons almost 8 years ago. When we travel and find pianos in hotel lobbies she is always so deeply frustrated that they are almost invariably locked. Once she looked at me with sad eyes and asked how it was that people didn't understand that pianos are meant to be played, and so those pianos, likely used once or twice a year, gathered dust while budding musicians like my own could do nothing other than run their fingers across the locked surface. I remember once at one hotel she found one that was unlocked, and she played for over half an hour, attracting an appreciative audience of wedding guests who applauded and praised her skills. The next time we returned to that hotel she ran up to the piano in a rush of excitement, only to find it locked and her enthusiasm crushed. I will never forget the look on her face, her youthful exuberance fading first into disbelief, and then sadness.

On Sunday, though, some of the bitterness I have had over the experience of the IJB was lifted when a young girl, not that many years younger than the IJB, stepped up and pulled out the piano bench at the new baby grand at Mac Island. She plopped down some sheet music, and then, with some encouragement from her parents, began to play.

There are moments in time that are magical, you see. That moment, the soft notes of piano keys against the background thump of a basketball on a nearby field house floor, is one of them for me. When the young girl finished she smiled, and her parents beamed with pride, just as they should. And very quickly up stepped a young man, and he too played, beautifully and again evoking smiles of pride.

So you see this is what I think art and culture mean in our community. It means an adult like me sharing a poem that was written through a veil of tears, delivered to an audience with a catch in the throat, and followed by a quiet cry in the car. It means a gorgeous painted piano, not locked but free and open to all to play and enjoy, right in the middle of a recreation centre. It means all the things I didn't get to this past weekend but wish I could have, like art exhibitions of local artists and a dance party and a multi-cultural dance event and a live music cafe and so very much more. It means magic moments in time that you will never forget, like your shaking hands holding a poem that you are both proud of and which you wish you had never felt the need to write, and listening as the notes of a piano echo off the walls of recreation centre and against a backdrop of a central pillar draped in a massive painted silk lantern. Arts and culture are about so much more than we sometimes think they are. They are about moments you will always remember - and this past weekend it was my distinct honour to experience several of those unforgettable moments.

My sincere thanks to ALL
who participated in
Alberta Culture Days,
who organized events, 
and who attended them.
I suspect it was a weekend of many
magical moments.

The following poem, published in Issue 9 of Northword Magazine,
 is about my mother.
Her name was Elizabeth, 
but everyone called her Betty,
and while the title of the Poem is "Alabaster"
it is really
For Betty.


I watch through clouded vision
As her skin once pink changes to alabaster
The machines show numbers dropping rapidly
Then nothing

It began when she arrived at the hospital
Brain death they said
Too long without oxygen they said
Unlikely to survive they said

I watched as her hands
That cradled five babies
Held grandbabies
Loved my father as he died
Went from pink to white

In the waiting room just before
I overhear someone say
Where there is life there is hope
This is not a universal truth I know
Maybe in their case, maybe,
But not in ours
In our case there is life, but no hope

The neurologist was kind
Still of a world where perhaps he thinks he can save them all
If she improves maybe we will operate he says
If she shows signs of breathing on her own maybe we can fix her he says
Maybe he says but
He cannot save them all
And he knows this
His eyes betray his knowledge

I have not told my sisters
I could not bear to tell them
That there is no hope
And that I know this in my heart

I watch them in the ICU waiting room
As they watch other families
Still with hope
Disappearing one by one as their loved ones leave
One way
Or another

I know ours will leave

And so she does
Surrounded by us all
As I hold her hand
Watching the numbers fall
Watching her skin fade
Watching her leave this world
But not alone

I do not understand how something once alive
Can now be dead
It makes no sense to me
This change of being
But this change of colour
From pink to alabaster
This makes sense
In some strange fashion
Because it seems that such a change
Should be painted in colours
In shades as subtle
As pink
And alabaster

Friday, September 27, 2013

Exploring Art and Culture in Fort McMurray

When someone from outside hears about Fort McMurray I suspect they don’t often hear about the arts and culture scene in our community. I think that is so disappointing, as we have a vibrant arts and culture scene here, and this weekend in celebration of Alberta Culture Days I am planning on participating in a few events.

Yesterday I had the honour of taking part in a silk painting workshop at MacDonald Island Park. Titled “The Silk Caravanna” it has brought a Yellowknife textile artist to our community, and I had the opportunity to create a small silk panel that will be on display, as well as create a scarf for me to keep. I was actually stunned at how simple the process is, and the incredibly beautiful result, a scarf in shades of teal and turquoise and cobalt that I am proudly wearing today. I happened to wander by when some local high school students were creating scarves, and I was delighted with the incredible variety of patterns and colours and the pure sense of creative joy happening in the main concourse. I am taking the Intrepid Junior Blogger back this weekend to try it out, as when I got home and showed her my scarf she would not believe I had done it (she knows my artistic abilities to be less than stellar – and incidentally if you want to keep your ego in check I highly recommend teen girls who say things like “there is no way you made that – no way”).

On Saturday I will be headed to Holy Trinity High School for the launch of Issue #9 of Northword Magazine. I have become incredibly fond of this lovely little magazine, and have had the honour of being published in it. In this most recent issue I submitted a poem of a very personal nature, and on Saturday I will read it at the launch event. I don’t really consider myself a poet, but I have learned over the last year that on occasion the emotions I find most difficult to express flow much easier in poems. The poem I will read on Saturday is one that has great significance, and was quite truly the beginning of a journey that has seen me exploring a difficult time through poetry, and it will be a pleasure to share it with others.

And you see these events are just two of the many happening in our region to celebrate arts and culture. There are several others, including the opening weekend of the new play “Boeing Boeing” at Keyano Theatre, and “The World Meets in Wood Buffalo”, a celebration of a variety of cultures and traditional dances. So much is happening, in fact, that I think one would be hard-pressed to attend everything, but I know there are those who will try.
I am very excited about the events I will attend,  particularly experimenting in silk painting with the Intrepid Junior Blogger and exploring literature with all those others in this community who love the written word as I do. And the funny thing is these things, these celebrations of arts and culture, don’t just happen in Fort McMurray on Alberta Culture Days. These events happen year round, with so many groups and individuals dedicated to enriching our lives through an exploration of creativity and culture. We have so many options here, such a rich and vibrant tapestry of individuals and experiences, and it is a genuine honour to witness it, and even more of one to participate in it. I encourage everyone to get out and attend at least one event this weekend, if not more, and celebrate art and culture in our community. You see the secret about art and culture is that it isn’t something we create – it is something we are, all of us bringing our ideas and thoughts and skills and talents and creativity and enthusiasm together. We might officially celebrate it on one weekend a year – but in my mind it is always “culture days” in Fort McMurray, because we have such an amazing culture to share.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

In All Sirus-ness - Welcoming A New Family Member

To be very honest he wasn’t even our first choice. We had our eye on a flashy orange and white one, with long fur and a motorboat-purr. The flashy one had caught our eye, but this other one – a rather non-descript black cat with a couple small patches of white fur – didn’t seem all that unusual. He had made himself known when the Intrepid Junior Blogger felt a small nose poke her in the leg, and when she bent down he had crept into her lap and curled up, batting away other cats with his paw when they got too close. We decided, though, to apply to adopt the other one, the flashy cat, but when our application was submitted it turned out someone else had already asked for him – and so we had a heart to heart about our second choice, a small black cat.
And this is how our new feline, formerly a resident at the Fort McMurray SPCA, joined our house two weeks ago. It has in fact been exactly two weeks since we brought home our “second choice”, and we quickly learned that he was instead clearly Number One, not only in his own little feline mind but in our hearts as he has moved in and taken over.

The IJB has always loved cats, but until this year she could not have one. When we moved recently into a new home I promised her a cat (this in addition to a resident dog and three ferrets), and she made the decision that we would adopt a cat. And we wanted a cat, not a kitten, as while kittens are sweet and adorable we truly thought an adult would fit into our house better, and we were right. I don’t think we fully anticipated, though, how this cat would come in and quickly establish rulership of our house.

When we went to the SPCA to pick him up we realized that he is a remarkably handsome cat, with plush black fur and a jet black nose. He is on the small side, but solid (with a tendency towards chubby, we can already tell). And he is an incredibly placid animal, as we brought him home and opened his carrier, expecting an explosion of frantic cat or hiding in a corner. This cat, though? No, he strolled out, and within minutes he had used his litterbox, found his food and water bowls, and laid down on the floor in contentment. He purred nonstop for the first couple of days, I think working to endear himself to us before the real antics began and we wondered about our sanity for adopting this little black ball of fur that seems to create an amazing amount of trouble.
The cat settled in quickly, and has established a relationship with the ferrets. This relationship consists of the ferrets chasing him (it appears they think he is a large ferret) and him running away, returning quickly as he finds them absolutely fascinating. They seem to get along, although the cat seems to find the ferrets a bit freaky, and I suspect he thinks they are overgrown mice with large teeth they use to nip his paws when he walks on top of their cage.

His relationship with the dog, however, is a bit more tenuous, and seems to be based on tormenting the dog at every opportunity. The dog, who is a friendly sort but not all that clever, is stunned there is a cat in the house, and will bark whenever she sees the cat (she seems to forget from time to time that he has moved in – as I said she isn’t all that clever). The cat seems to enjoy this and will place himself just out of reach of the dog – on a counter, perhaps, or behind a gate we use to keep them apart – and taunt the dog. And when the dog is safely secured in her crate for the night the cat enjoys lying on top of the crate, draped across it while the dog whines, and eating the leftovers from the dog food bowl, which is in full view of said poor canine, who watches in horror as her leftover supper disappears into her nemesis.

The IJB and the cat have bonded in a way that can only be described as spectacular. For the first few days he followed her around the house, and even now they are usually together. He is a companionable sort, hanging out on the side of the tub when we dyed her hair (blue again, of course), and sleeping with her at night, curled up at the foot of the bed and purring like mad. Last night we had some frantic moments when we could not find him, as he did not come running when we shook the kitty treat bag (I don’t know what is in those things but normally if you shake the bag he comes running and if you don’t cough up a treat he will mug you like a crack addict looking for a fix – both the IJB and I have some small bite wounds from when we didn’t pony up with the kitty treat quickly enough). We searched high and low, the IJB almost in tears as she was convinced I had accidentally let him outside (he is an indoor cat but is convinced he should be an outdoor cat, hence his shiny silver tag and handsome collar as he also fancies himself Houdini and plots his escape). Finally I opened a closet door and out strolled a very sleepy black cat, who was quickly scooped up by the IJB as she flounced away decrying my failures as a responsible cat owner (well, really, how was I to know he would disappear into the closet like that?!?).

And the cat and I? Well, I’d forgotten how I love cats. You see I grew up with them, always owning a cat until I left home and married someone with a serious cat allergy. I hadn’t owned one as an adult, and I hadn’t realized how I missed them. I love the dog, despite her lack of smarts, and I adore the ferrets as they are amusing and clever. The cat, though, has stolen my heart with his sense of humour and penchant for naughty behaviour. I am both appalled and amused at his jerky attitude (or “catitude”) with the dog, and every morning when I wake up, far earlier than the IJB, a small black cat now appears to keep me company. He doesn’t really like to sit on laps, but he will curl up next to me or on a chair close to me, and when I leave the room he will follow behind me, with a soft meow and an insistence on knowing what I am up to.

So you see our second choice cat has become first in our hearts. He is clearly not perfect, and his antics have caused some loss of sleep when he decides to play until midnight and then meow us awake at 5 am, and his brief disappearance last night shaved a year off my life span. But it is in his imperfection that we find his true joy, because the IJB and the dog and the ferrets and I? We are far from perfect, but we are, I would say, interesting, and the cat fits right into our somewhat crazy household of personalities. This little kitty, adopted from the Fort McMurray SPCA and now ours forever, has quite clearly established himself as ruler of the house, and of our hearts (well, the dog isn’t won over yet, but I think even she will eventually cave when she realizes the cat can open cupboards and get into treats). Oh, and his name? Well, we named him after a favourite character in a book and movie series, and his seriously black fur – and so he became Sirius Black. Our little Sirius Black, in all his catitude and independence and antics, is now one of us, and I think in a way has always been, from the moment he climbed into the IJB’s lap at the SPCA. He always knew it – it just took us a little longer to figure it out, but I will be forever grateful we did.

You can follow the antics of Sirius Black
 on Twitter @sirblacktweets -
And please, please, please
if you are considering a pet
 I implore you to visit the Fort McMurray SPCA
and adopt, don’t shop –
you never know what you will find –
or, even better, what will find you,
 curl up in your lap,
and claim your heart forever.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Democracy, Politics, and the Intrepid Junior Blogger

You can tell election season is now in full swing. Just driving down Thickwood Boulevard on the way to the Intrepid Junior Blogger’s school this morning we counted signs, and the signs prompted the kind of political discussion we often have.

The IJB, you see, has a keen interest in politics. She worked on the last provincial election campaign, going door to door to drop off leaflets and brochures. She even took a stab at writing a press release, and while the “zombie apocalypse provisional plan” press release may have never been actually released I think it was quite likely the best press release from any candidate in the entire campaign (and the detail was impressive – our candidate was well prepared to meet an impending zombie invasion). She learned a great deal, and while she had always been interested in politics I think it truly cemented her desire to be involved. And so this past week, when signs went up and candidates were announced, we began discussing politics with more intensity again.
On the way to school this morning she pointed out signs, ones with large Canadian flags (which she declared were very cleverly “playing the patriotism card”), and ones with a vertical orientation so they rose above the more standard horizontal signs (again, she was impressed). She commented on some signs that were unique, and she commented on the colour schemes of others. We talked about the vital emphasis on last names, as that last name is the first one you see on the ballot on voting day, and we talked about those who didn’t seem to have signs out yet, and what that might mean. We talked about credible candidates, those who put in the time and work and effort and long days and hard nights to mount a campaign, and those who just put their name in but don’t seem to realize the incredible amount of work a successful campaign involves. And we recalled my exhaustion after the provincial campaign, feeling like I’d run a month-long marathon, and I hadn’t even been the candidate but just a volunteer on his campaign.

The IJB told me about how at the beginning of this year, when her social sciences teacher announced they would study Canadian politics, she raised both her arms in triumphant victory, as they were heading into territory she already knows well and hungers to know more about. Her teacher, knowing her well too, commented that they were all aware of her interest in politics, and while the students around her likely groaned she was gleeful about a year studying a subject that has captured her.
I believe one day the IJB will run for political office. She has already run for student council, and been successful last year, and this year she plans to run again. I think, though, that this young woman, who can tell you all the details of the robocall scandal and who knows the parties and their platforms like she knows the world of Minecraft, will one day seek office a bit higher than student council. I think she has political aspirations based on a desire to change the world, and to lead.

I will never forget during a trying time in the provincial campaign when she wearily asked me what politics was really all about. I had been talking about some of the antics, fake Twitter accounts and mudslinging and posturing, and I think she was becoming a bit jaded. She looked at me with those trusting eyes and said, “Isn’t politics about making things better? It isn’t really just some big game, is it?” – and her question made me pause, because too often we treat the political process as a big game. We act like it is some high school drama, and often we behave in ways that are less than becoming. We exchange heated words and engage in behaviour that is beneath us, as the real goal is to elect those who will best represent us, and make our community a better place. And I suppose what hurts me is that young people, just like the IJB, are watching all this and it is changing the way they view politics. They are forming their opinions of the political process not from their social science classes discussing leadership and policy and democracy but rather on fake Twitter accounts and verbal “gun fights” between those who seem to have lost view of the real end goal.
There are those who would say this is just the way politics is – often dirty, and far too often about personalities rather than policies. And yet as the IJB often reminds me things are only the way they are because we make them so, or allow them to be that way. We have the power to control these things, and they are not runaway trains with no brakes. We can engage in healthy democracy, free of mudslinging and fake Twitter accounts and vandalized signs – but only if we choose to.

Last year when I told the IJB about the voting statistics for our region she was aghast. She would do anything to be able to vote, to cast her ballot for those who she feels represent us – and her future – best. She is so envious of those who can vote, and today as she left the car in front of her school she turned to me and said, “I wish I could vote. I really do”. And I wish she could, too, because this is about her life, and her future. Since she cannot vote, though, I will, and my choices will be guided by what is best for her.
And to all those brave candidates running in this election I say this: you are being watched. Not just by voters, though, but by young people like the Intrepid Junior Blogger who are forming their opinions on politics by watching your every move. You are the leaders, and I hope you will show her and other future voters what democracy is really about. You see she might not be able to vote right now – but one day she will, and her vote will be deciding your future, too. You are her role models – and I hope you will be ones of which she can be proud, and perhaps one day when she runs for office she will look back at you as her mentors, and the ones who taught her the beauty of democracy. This is my hope for this election, and for the Intrepid Junior Blogger, who will watch it unfold. This will be an election she remembers - and I hope she will recall it as the time when she learned about the real purpose of elections, politics, and democracy. But that isn't up to me - it's up to you. I trust you are up to the challenge, and I wish you luck as you embark on a month-long journey of democracy in action. The IJB is watching.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The True Heartbeat of A Community

When I chose to auction my 25,000 tweet to benefit two local social profit organizations I anticipated the successful bidder would want me to promote their business, or perhaps their political aspirations. When I added a blog post of their choice to the deal I thought they might lay out their election platform, or the reason you should support their business. What I didn’t expect was that the winning bidder would be an anonymous philanthropist who would not only refuse to use the tweet or the post to further their own interests but who would turn the entire thing back on me with a request that I write not about politics or business but about the social profit sector. And so here I am today, with that obligatory blog post, but I do not feel writing about our local social profit sector is an obligation. It is, instead, a joy.

If someone stumbled upon this blog they might wonder about the term social profit. It refers, of course, to the non-profit organizations in our community, but I am an “early adopter” of the term social profit because I think it captures what they do with such accuracy. The term “social profit” indicates that the profit derived from these groups is not financial, but rather social. These groups don’t generate cash – they generate community, and social profits for the lives of all they touch.

When my adventure in blogging began I truly began to see the benefits of the social profit sector. I had always known about them, of course, but I hadn’t had a real sense of the importance of what they do in terms of our community. Industry and business are important, but the thread that weaves the social fabric of our community lies not with them but with the social profit organizations. They are the ones who bring together all the threads, tying them together in ways that create community and build strength. They are our warm blankets, our safety net, and our light in the dark. They are the ribbons that tie this community together.
Recently I was at the launch of the annual United Way fundraising campaign. I stood and looked around at all the faces, those who work in our social profit sector and the volunteers who support them. I looked around at a room bathed in a sea of United Way red and I saw community strength, commitment, and resolve. I saw a desire to make the world a better place. I saw, in fact, the incredible beauty of all of that, and more. I saw our community’s heart.

There is a heartbeat to a community, you see. It is not the occasionally erratic pulse of industry or the frenetic thump of politics. It is instead the steady rhythm of the social profit sector, a constant beating of a heart devoted to changing the world, and our community, for the better. This heartbeat, often soft and subtle and in the background, is much like our own physical hearts, far too often ignored unless it is in trouble and faltering. Only then do we realize the significance of that heartbeat, and our need for it to remain strong and steady. And just like our physical hearts I think we would do well to take the pulse of it on occasion, and ensure that it is beating just as it should, providing the rhythm of our community, and our strength.
When I auctioned off that 25,000 tweet and this blog post I did so to benefit the Fort McMurray SPCA and the Centre of Hope, two local social profit organizations that have touched my heart in so many ways. The SPCA has introduced me to so many wonderful people involved in that organization, and two of the Intrepid Junior Blogger’s much-loved creatures come from them (the second of which, Sirius Black cat, has a blog post devoted to him coming soon). The Centre of Hope introduced me to the amazing staff who work there meeting the needs of the homeless in our community, and through them I met individuals who changed my life – and my heart – with their stories of life on the street. These two groups will be the beneficiary of the winning bid ($425, with $75 added from me for a nice even number of $500), and it is to them and all the other social profit organizations, too numerous to name, that I dedicate this post. They are the heart of our community, and through their strength we find our own as a community. It is their heartbeat that sets the rhythm of this community, and I am profoundly grateful to them not only for the work they do every single day but for allowing people like me to be a part of it.

To the anonymous benefactor I say thank you, and thank you especially for giving me the task – and opportunity – of writing once again about the social profit sector in our community. Once again I have had the chance to touch that heartbeat, and feel the rhythm. Once again I have had the chance to recognize their importance and significance. And once again I have had the chance to acknowledge it here in this blog, which is a genuine joy.
The anonymous benefactor chose as their 25,000 tweet the following quote. I think it sums this all up very nicely, and puts into a few words what I feel, too. You are never alone in this little community of ours. All you have to do is listen closely – and hear the heartbeat.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Baked with Love - Bearstone Bakehouse in Fort McMurray

They had me at the cookies. It was this past spring when I discovered them, as coworkers and I were wandering through the booths at the Fort McMurray Tourism Spring Show and Market. This show attracts vendors from across the province, and when I saw their little booth, loaded with baked goods and granola cereal, I figured it was just another one of those places you see twice a year, bringing their goods to town. I had a bag of cookies in my hand, chocolate chip oatmeal ones, when they revealed they are not from out of town. They are from here in Fort McMurray, and "they" are Bearstone Bakehouse.

I grew up, you see, in a house with a stay at home mom who baked all her own bread and buns, pies and cookies. Store bought baked goods just didn't cut it in my house, and so my mom, who grew up during the depression and had learned a thing or two about baking and cooking in those years, would bake every week. And as I grew older and my friends learned when baking day was it was pretty much guaranteed that every week on that day they would suggest we go study at my house after school, anxious to get their hands on fresh cinnamon buns and cookies. I suppose I am a baking aficionado, and I know good baking when I find it - and I found it with Bearstone.

I took that bag of cookies home, and I showed it to the Intrepid Junior Blogger. Now, she is fairly picky, and often things I love she will disdain, turning up her nose and proclaiming it not to her liking. I left the cookie bag on the counter, told her to help herself - and a couple of hours later went looking for the bag, which had disappeared. I finally tracked it down in the family room, now an empty plastic bag holding nothing but a few crumbs. And the IJB? With a smile she proclaimed them perhaps the best cookies ever, or certainly in recent memory. It was a good thing I had snuck one of the cookies for myself earlier, because I was able to agree with her (although I was chagrined I had missed out by not hiding several cookies for myself).

Then, just a couple of weeks ago at the inaugural City Centre Urban Market, I found them again - the bakery. This time I snatched up a loaf of strawberry crumble, from which I cut thin slices to share with my coworkers (who all announced it marvelous). And once again I took it home and to the IJB, this time fairly certain it would not pass muster as she tends to be quite disinterested in loaves like this. I gave her a tiny taste, a corner of the remaining piece in the bag - and she promptly snatched it out of my hands and disappeared downstairs, where once again I would later find an empty plastic bag.

Since then I have talked to others who have purchased baked goods from Bearstone Bakehouse, and the comments are always the same. The baking is high quality, of the home made kind you rarely see any more and that is often absurdly priced in specialty stores, but that somehow the people behind Bearstone have made affordable. And it is delicious, enough so that the contents of bags disappear rapidly.

Bearstone is now adding to their repertoire by opening a mobile coffee bar, an enterprise that will see them bringing the coffee shop experience of barista-pulled lattes and espressos plus their delectable baking to special events. And some day, hopefully in the near future as the city centre redevelopment ramps up, they hope to open a store front bakery where they can showcase their baked goods, and no doubt create a true coffee house experience of the kind our little city is desperately lacking (and while I love our local chain coffee shops how I hunger for options of this kind).

The two women behind Bearstone Bakehouse are, in my mind, not only geniuses but true artisans. They are practicing an art that has enchanted people for thousands of years, and one I know well from a childhood spent in a kitchen where I watched my mother, with flour on her hands, take simple ingredients and perform a kind of alchemy, turning them into edible gold. That their business will be a success is indisputable, as they have everything in place - passion, business sense, common sense, proper licensing and best practices - they need to succeed. That they will add to this community through this burgeoning enterprise is guaranteed, as they are bringing something here that we desperately need and want. And they bring too their vision and drive, taking a simple idea of a business to make baked goods and turning it into a mobile coffee bar, and eventually a storefront, growing their business in a sustainable way.

Now, where can you find them? I have a secret - they will be at the Fall Show and Market this weekend at MacDonald Island Park. When I began planning a party recently I contacted them and asked if they could provide the baked goods for the party, so I could share with my friends what I had discovered. And you see while my mother is gone and I will never again be able to eat cinnamon buns fresh from the oven while watching her knead bread I can share with my friends one of the things she shared with me as a child - a love of baked goods, created by someone who knows how to make them, and who bakes them with love.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Welcoming Poppy Barley - and Innovation - to Fort McMurray

Sometimes the very first time you meet someone you know there is something special about them. I felt this way when I met my friend Kendall. I was in Edmonton at the invitation of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, who had been kind enough to ask me to come spend a couple of days in Edmonton learning more about our neighbour to the south. One of the things they arranged for my stay was to spend a few hours with a successful Edmonton fashion and lifestyle blogger – and that’s how I met Kendall Barber.
Kendall writes the very popular City and Dale blog, and just as I write about Fort McMurray she writes about Edmonton, with a focus on lifestyle and fashion. She is well known in Edmonton area shops and stores, and so our little whirlwind tour was a pleasure as I got to see her interact with shop owners and employees. And Kendall is an astute businesswoman, too, so when she shared with me the intention to start a custom boot company I was intrigued on several levels, not the least being my love of shoes.

My love of shoes is not only well known but seems to precede me. I have met people I have never encountered before and had them comment on my shoe collection, and recently my love of shoes was even noted by Alberta Venture magazine. Those who have been to my home can attest to this passion, as they have seen the space I have devoted to shoes. The reality is I take a few things seriously – the Intrepid Junior Blogger, writing, my job, and shoes. So, when Kendall began to tell me about this new business venture I was delighted.
You see one of the issues with those of us who love shoes is size. This is particularly an issue if you aren’t the “average” size, having wider than “average” feet or larger than “average” calves. The last issue has been a peeve of mine for some time, as often I will fall in love with a pair of boots, try them on, and find myself unable to close the zipper over calves that, while not huge, appear to be larger than the average. And this is where Poppy Barley, the company Kendall has started with her sister, who actually conceived the idea, comes in.

Poppy Barley is an Edmonton-based startup. They took what is a very common problem and often expressed by women who cannot find boots that fit and turned it into an opportunity. Poppy Barley offers boots, and flats, made to your measurements. You can even have a hand in designing the boots yourself, picking the colour and style, and then you submit your choices with your measurements, pay a remarkably small price (I have paid far more for far less quality, and certainly not custom made, designer shoes), and wait for the boots to be shipped to you.
Poppy Barley makes it easy, too, with quick and responsive customer service, and a keen interest in seeing the customer happy. There are so many things right with this company – the concept, the leadership, the staff, the service, the product, the price, the location – that when they recently wanted to venture into designing and producing custom made boots with heels as well as flat boots I helped them by making a contribution to their Alberta BoostR crowd sourcing campaign. That contribution, one I made happily, has now translated into a pair of gorgeous leather boots that will soon be on their way to me, ones made specifically to fit me, and that I will wear proudly while telling those who admire them about my friend Kendall and her company.
I have even better news, too. When Kendall and I met I told her about Fort McMurray and the strong community here. I told her about my friends and all the shoe-loving women I know, and it appears some of what we discussed stayed with her, because Poppy Barley are coming to Fort McMurray with a pop-up store. For three days, at the Fort McMurray Tourism Fall Show and Market at MacDonald Island, this weekend (Sept 20-22) Poppy Barley will be here to measure you, show you their lines, and help you to find the boots you’ve always wanted to own but could never find. I am incredibly pleased by this, as while I won’t take credit for bringing them here I hope I was able to share with Kendall in my time with her the nature of our community, and how much we embrace innovative, brave people who take a really great idea and make it into reality. This is our chance to do just that.

Here is my prediction: Poppy Barley is going to be an enormous success, likely international. All the things that make this company right will not go unnoticed, and they will skyrocket to success because they took a common problem and developed a solution, and then had the courage to pursue it. This is our chance as individuals and a community to support a company from our neighbour to the south, and people who embody what is best about this province. This is our chance to be in on the ground floor of what I suspect will be an internationally known company. I will never be able to say I owned one of the first pairs of Jimmy Choo’s or Fluevogs, but I will be able to say I owned one of the first pairs of Poppy Barley – and I am so proud of that it is hard to describe.
If you are attending the fall trade show this weekend please drop by the Poppy Barley booth and say hello, and check them out. Show them some of that Fort McMurray love of entrepreneurial spirit and innovation, and support an Alberta business that I believe will one day stretch far past our provincial borders. Tell them I sent you, if you want, or just tell them you love shoes, or tell them that you appreciate their courage – and then get measured for your new boots, because in the end for some of us, like me, it’s really all about the shoes.
My best wishes and my thanks to
Poppy Barley
for bringing their
pop-up store to Fort McMurray,
a place where we see the possibilities
and embrace them.


Monday, September 16, 2013

The Death of "There's Nothing to Do in Fort McMurray"

Well, it was a helluva weekend in Fort McMurray. And after that weekend, at the end of which I found myself lying on my sofa in a stupor Sunday night, I decided that the next person who whines “there’s nothing to do in Fort McMurray” will be hit upside the head with my overstuffed daytimer, and I can guarantee they will walk away with a concussion – because frankly there has never been more to do in my eleven years in this community than there is now.

What are you into? Concerts? This weekend saw Our Lady Peace burn up the stage on a cool fall evening, and Sloan play during an unseasonably hot afternoon (so hot that I couldn’t stand the heat and had to escape to air conditioning). Or maybe Celtic Thunder was more your style, an Irish singing group that performed on Saturday night. Or maybe country, in which case Dwight Yoakam was in town on Sunday night.

Maybe you are into athletics? Well, then you could take part in the first City Centre McMurray Half Marathon or Terry Fox Run, both of which followed routes through the soon-to-be-revitalized downtown core.
Maybe you are more into something personal, like your upcoming wedding? Well, then there was the Eternal Bliss Wedding Show, a showcase of all things wedding.

Maybe you are an early riser, and keen to connect with community? Well, then there was the Firefighter’s Pancake Breakfast, an annual event normally held earlier in the year but postponed this year due to the floods in the spring.
And maybe you just wanted to learn more about what there is to do in this community, from arts to culture to volunteer to sport to leisure to recreation? Well, then there was Community Registration Day, where 83 groups came together in a trade-show style showcase to tell the public about what they do, and how the community can get involved.

And you know what? As soon as you read this you will probably think of something not on this list, because quite frankly there is so much going on these days that not only can I not remember it all I often don’t even know what it all is. I try to keep up but there is such an incredible thing happening here that keeping pace can be a challenge. And what is happening here is, in one word, community.
Maybe in years past the refrain “there’s nothing to do in Fort McMurray” might have been accurate. Maybe it had some validity. But in the last few years I have seen the options for entertainment and leisure not just grow but skyrocket. I have seen the future, and the future is indeed a vibrant, energetic community that is involved, engaged and active. Except that this is no longer the future – because we are living “the future” right now. The future has arrived, and if anything confirmed it for me it was this past weekend when I had to pick and choose events, and in  the end miss some I wanted to attend simply because there wasn’t enough time in the day.

Recently a celebrity who shall remain nameless (he doesn’t need or deserve any more publicity by name in my blog, and I’ve taken to referring to him as ”he-who-must-not-be-named” in reference to a well known villain in a certain book series) called Fort McMurray “a wasteland”. I recognize he likely meant the oil sands (and even then more specifically the tailings ponds and mining areas, as the reclaimed areas like Wapisiw Lookout and Crane Lake hardly qualify as a wasteland), but because he used the name “Fort McMurray” as opposed to “the oil sands industrial sites” he made the miscalculation of appearing to include the general region in this description – and frankly you can argue what you will about the oil sands sites but he could not be more wrong about this community. All one had to do was attend one of the concerts or sporting events, the wedding show or the registration day, to see a community that is so far from being a “wasteland” that it is, in fact, the polar opposite. Far from being a wasteland this place is instead a heartland, where people invest their time and energy in an amazing variety of pursuits.
I also want to recognize all those who create the events in this community – the organizers of marathons and Terry Fox runs, those who bring concerts to fields and arenas, the ones who support sport and athletic initiatives, and the private businesses who create events like wedding shows. Having been on the inside of some of these I know the amount of time, work, and effort that goes into them, and the reality is the people creating, organizing, sponsoring, and bringing these events to the public are members of our community, too. There are so many who do this both as a career and as a volunteerism, and those efforts deserve tremendous recognition because without them perhaps the refrain “there is nothing to do in Fort McMurray” would be true.

Once upon a time I would say to those who would complain that there is nothing to do in Fort McMurray that they simply weren’t looking hard enough. I’ve changed that now. My official response to that complaint is that they aren’t actually looking at all, and are at risk of being just as blind as the he-who-shall-not-be-named celebrity who showed an inability to actually see past preconceived notions and ideas. And just to make my point clear I will follow up my response with a healthy whack from my daytimer, likely rendering the complainant unconscious from the sheer weight of that book – because you see there isn’t “nothing to do in Fort McMurray”, there is everything to do in Fort McMurray, and this past weekend? We just proved it. This past weekend was the final death knell of "there's nothing to do in Fort McMurray" - and together as community we just wrote the obituary. And I don't think anyone will ever mourn the loss, either.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Our Lady Peace, the Intrepid Junior Blogger, and Magic in McMurray

There are times in this life when you wish you could preserve a moment forever, capture it somehow in a way that you will be able to transport yourself back to it whenever you feel the need. There is no way to do this, of course, except in our memories, and for me one of those moments and memories occurred last night, a cool evening in Fort McMurray, in front of an outdoor stage and under a gorgeous half moon that lit up the sky.

Yesterday was the Intrepid Junior Blogger's fourteenth birthday. I remember her first birthday here, when she turned three. We had just moved from our home in northwestern Ontario, and had been here mere weeks, knowing few people and celebrating on our own with our little girl. Things have changed since then, and last night we celebrated her birthday with hundreds of other people as we stood on an outdoor field at MacDonald Island Park to take in a performance from Canadian band, and icons, Our Lady Peace.

One of the things she and I love to do is attend concerts together. We have seen Down With Webster twice, Hedley, Sum 41, and Billy Talent. And while I don't object to travelling to see concerts there is something wonderful about being able to do it right here, in our own backyard, and so, whenever a band comes to town that I think she will enjoy, we go.

Last night we were there right at the front rail when opening band Siiines took the stage. An act from Edmonton they were a tight little trio, and the IJB quite liked their distinctive sound. The real magic began, though, as the sun began to drop below the horizon, a cool breeze filled the air, and Our Lady Peace took the stage.

From the very beginning they had our rapt attention. The IJB was as close to the rail as possible, and asked me to hug her to keep her warm - and so that is how we watched an amazing show, with her huddled against the rail and me holding her from behind, her small but ever growing body tucked against mine. She rested her chin on my arms, and I rested my head on her soft once-blue and now green hair, and we cheered and sang along and watched as a kind of magic unfolded before us - and around us.

You see there are moments, too, when things come together in a way you cannot predict. The crowd, of so many different ages, joined with the band to sing some of their classic songs. At times Raine Maida, the lead singer, would stop singing entirely and simply let the audience carry the song, and while at some concerts this is a gesture that falls flat in this case it was incredible to witness the way the audience owned the songs, singing them back at the stage with such strength. The crowd swayed and danced, sang and cheered. And up above flew a small remote controlled UFO type toy, obviously brought along to entrance the crowd, a highly effective tool given the deepening dark night.

At one point, just prior to a song entitled "Paper Moon", Maida commented on the moon last night, a half-moon that shone a strong bright light on the crowd gathered below. And then, when he commented that there was an amazing energy in this little town I felt chills when the crowd began to chant "Fort McMurray" around me, a show of solidarity and strength in a little town that far too often finds itself on the defensive. It was a moment of pure magic, because those chanting were adults and kids, people of all kinds and all sorts - the very community that we all know lives here, plays here, works here, and calls "here" home.

My own personal magic came at a moment close to the end of the show. The IJB, tucked up against me, pulled me even closer to her, and in that flash of a second I realized that soon, far too soon, these days will be distant memories. Today she is fourteen, and in a few short years she will go off to university (and I know she will, as her plans include study, and hopefully a life, overseas) and these moments will be lost to me forever. I held her closer and listened as Our Lady Peace sang of life and love, and connected with a community hungry for the kind of connection they brought to the stage. And I held onto my little girl, now a young woman, but for a few hours at a concert completely mine to treasure before I had to let her go again and off into the world that will one day claim her, because the world will need her and her strength and intelligence just as much, or even more, than I do.

After the final notes rang out we began to walk away from the field, our ears still ringing and our hands cold. She held my hand, this girl-becoming-a-woman, and said "Do you think Neil Young was an idiot for saying what he said about Fort McMurray?". I looked at her and told her that he was not an idiot, but that he only saw what he wanted to see, and that he only looked at the things that would confirm what he already thought about us. She shook her head, and said "Not an idiot, I guess. Just blind", and I think she came so close to a simple and beautiful accuracy about that whole incident that I could say nothing more. We went home then, the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I, after another night in our community spent at a concert but also spent finding something so much more. I feel sorry for those who missed Our Lady Peace last night, because you see they didn't miss a concert. They missed magic, a magic that unfolded on an outdoor stage with a beautiful boreal forest backdrop. They missed one of those moments you wish you could capture forever. And for me, I have - both in my memory, and in this blog, recorded forever as a birthday present for the reason I do everything - my daughter, Sam. Happy birthday, Intrepid Junior Blogger. The best day of my life has been every day since you were born, fourteen years ago.