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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Two Canadian Muggles in Diagon Alley

You walk through a brick entryway, close enough to the King's Cross railway station to suspect you are in the right place, but there is no obvious signage. If you haven't looked at the map you might wonder what is behind the brick, because although the map shows it for the aimless and mapless wanderer it is something you simply stumble upon.

You pass through the brick entryway, a diagonal slant one way and then another...and then there it is. A whirl of people and shops and a feast for the eyes as everywhere you look, every detail, is perfect.

You are a muggle who has found the elusive Diagon Alley of Harry Potter fame.

One of the things about which I am asked most about during our recent holiday is our visit to Universal in Orlando and Diagon Alley, the new Harry Potter-themed "neighbourhood" in the park. While Hogsmeade had been present at Universal's Islands of Adventure for some time, Diagon Alley opened up just recently at Universal Studios Orlando, and since the opening it has proven to be a smash success - and I am not surprised.

The story floating around Orlando as told to me by a cab driver is that Warner Brothers, owners of the Harry Potter movie series and rights, were originally in talks with Disney to build a Potter-themed park. Disney after all has substantial property available, but talks broke down - the driver speculated it was because Disney has a  certain way of doing things, and one not all other corporations can agree with. Warner Brothers then began talks with Universal, and the successful culmination of these talks has resulted in a theme park that is, well, to coin a phrase, a bit magical.

One of the hallmarks of a Harry Potter fan is their attention to details. The Intrepid Junior Blogger can recite minute details from the books, things that baffle me as while I read the series long before she dived into them I don't think I memorized the details in quite the same manner. But her "fandom" includes knowing those details, having a strong sense of every single one, and it seems the designers of Diagon Alley do too.

From the architecture of the buildings to the costumes of the staff members every detail makes you believe you are in Diagon Alley. You can stop for a butterbeer (and you should, as they are delicious), you can have lunch at The Leaky Cauldron, and you can shop at Ollivander's to find your wand. You can visit Gringrotts Wizarding Bank and you can even wander through Knockturn Alley (where you will find Borgin and Burkes, the darker side of the wizarding world). In just a few short moments you can truly feel immersed in the world of Harry Potter and his friends.

Now, while it is magical for children as someone who has learned a bit about marketing in recent years I saw it through those eyes, too. It is a magnificent example of how to part adults from their money, as witnessed by the thousands of people cramming into the shops to buy Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans, Golden Snitches, brooms, wands, wizard robes, stuffed animal "familiars", quill pens, notebooks, key chains, hats, sweaters, scarves, gloves...if you can think of it then it has been produced and is being marketed (I say as I drink my morning coffee from my new cauldron-shaped coffee mug, purchased at Scribbulus, the stationery shop in Diagon Alley). I have not yet added up the receipts for all the items we purchased over the two days we spent at Universal, most of it in Diagon Alley. I suspect we came home with one of everything Slytherin, the house to which the Intrepid Junior Blogger insists she would be sorted (she suggests I am Hufflepuff, which I think is meant to be a slight insult but I think there could be far worse things than being considered loyal). That Diagon Alley is a genius of marketing should not be doubted for a second, and I would suggest muggles and their money will quickly be parted when fans of all ages enter the shops and the squealing begins.

But this should not detract from the magic, either. I suppose it truly presented itself to me not through the buildings or retail offerings but the staff employed in the shops who are immersed in Harry Potter lore. When we went to Ollivander's Wand Shop I did not initially plan to get a wand, right until I met the lovely older lady in the shop.

"What do you love to do?", she asked me. "I'm a writer," I replied, and she pulled out a slim burgundy coloured box containing a slender wand. "Reed," she said. For those good with words, steadfast in their beliefs but fair. Dragon heartstring core - a wand for you, I think," she said, and dropped it into my hands without another word, no admonishment to buy.

(According to the Hogsmeade branch of Ollivanders Wand Shop, reed wands were best suited to those who were bold and were eloquent speakers, and proved to be very protective friends. Coupled with a core of dragon heartstring, the owner's loyalty would be greatly admired by their friends. - from the Harry Potter wiki)

I took the wand out and felt it, ran my fingertips along its length, and finally put my right hand around its grip, finding it resting almost perfectly there - and then I bought it, along with the wand that had chosen the IJB.

We spent two days at Universal Studios, and while we visited other rides and other areas of the parks, including travelling between them on the Hogwart's Express which ferries guests between the two parks (another marketing genius as it encourages the additional purchase of the park-hopper option as the only way to ride the Express is to have the pass) it was Diagon Alley that captured us in every way. The most time we spent was in Diagon Alley, where we immersed ourselves in the wizarding world, two Canadian muggles far from home  -  except for anyone who has read Harry Potter or watched the movies it felt like home somehow, too.

There is one strange thing about Diagon Alley, though. We entered as muggles but I think somehow we left as witches. Perhaps that is the real magic of Diagon Alley and the entire Harry Potter world - because every single muggle knows in their heart that they are a wizard. Sometimes you just need to spend some time in a wand shop to know for certain.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bringing the Stolen Sisters Into the Light

I recall the conversation very well. I was researching a story on missing and murdered Aboriginal women for a local paper, and when I reached out to one of my sources they said two words I never anticipated.

Human trafficking.
I recall pausing as my mind processed it. Surely they were kidding, I thought. Human trafficking was something you saw in movies and television shows, not something that actually happened and certainly not in Canada. As gently as they could, however, my source disabused me of this belief by explaining that human trafficking is real and present and suspected to be responsible for at least some of the disappearances of Aboriginal women over the last few decades in our country.

I felt sick.
I felt sick once again when I read the story of a young Aboriginal woman found in a river in Winnipeg. The young woman was only 15, the same age my Intrepid Junior Blogger is about to turn this year, and my stomach churned at the thought of this fragile young life ended far too soon and in this horrific manner, discarded like trash.

There is something very, very wrong going on in our country. When I lived in northern Ontario I had a close friend who grew up on one of the reserves in the far north, accessible only by air or ice road. She told me of women who went missing from her reserve, never to be seen again. When the disappearances were reported to authorities, she said, they were told that perhaps these women had simply left abusive spouses or parents and chosen to not return. The concerned friends and families were served platitudes and false reassurances, and little was done to address their fears. There were no search parties, no investigations, no police reports. There was silence.
Many of those who disappeared never returned, their fates unknown, leaving behind family and friends who grieved a loss with the accompanying pain of just not knowing where they had gone or why. When my friend shared these stories she would ask if I thought such a thing would happen if a white woman in our town went missing, and we both knew the answer to that question, as we had seen the intense level of searches that took place when white women went missing across this country and continent. I didn’t know how to comfort her, because there was no comfort to be found.

Just recently our Prime Minister once again denied the need for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women in our country. This denial indicates a total lack of concern and understanding of what these disappearances and deaths are doing in the communities across our country. Mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters – all gone without a trace, ripping apart the fragile fabric of families and destroying lives.
The time has come for a full national public inquiry into this issue, because the suffering has gone beyond the point of being tolerable. This is not an Aboriginal issue or a women’s issue – this is a human issue that touches all of us in Canada. My own lack of knowledge about the topic saddens me, just as I was saddened to learn of the existence and prevalence of human trafficking. I suspect so many Canadians are in the dark about what is happening right in our own country, and this public inquiry would not only expose the darkness to the light but if given enough power and authority could take the initial steps towards addressing the causes of these disappearances.

Here is what I know, though. Denying an inquiry is equivalent to denying the problem exists, pretending that there are not hundreds of Aboriginal women who are missing. Denying it pretends that lives are not being lost while thousands of other lives are not being destroyed. Denying it is, quite simply, not showing the leadership we need in this nation, and I am profoundly disappointed in a Prime Minister who believes denial is the right path to addressing any issue.
In this region we now have a new MP representing us in Ottawa. I would suggest this should become one of his primary issues, particularly given our strong Aboriginal communities in this region and the way this issue has touched the lives of those who reside there. This issue is not some distant topic of discussion – it is real and tangible and it is plaguing Canada, including northern Alberta.

 It is time for David Yurdiga to issue a statement expressing support for the missing and murdered women of this country as well as his constituents and request that his government order a public inquiry to serve the people of this nation. To do anything else – to deny, to ignore, to look away – is to deny, ignore and look away from the tears of thousands and thousands of Canadians, and frankly our stolen sisters in this country deserve far, far better than to remain in the darkness. It is time to bring them, and the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in this nation, into the light.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

How Does McMurray React to Celebrity Visitors?

Sometimes the best place to be to observe your hometown is thousands of miles away. Being in another place can just provide a new perspective, and this past week I was far, far away as I watched the reaction as yet another in a long and growing string of celebrities came to town.

The news that Leonard DiCaprio was in Fort McMurray seemed to set the town on fire, with the main reactions running along certain themes. Social media reaction was particularly intense, with Twitter all a-twitter about the arrival of this hero of the big screen and speculation as to his reason for visiting. The main themes of reaction I identified were:

OMG, Leonardo DiCaprio is here!

Somehow in my head this written sentiment was always accompanied by small squeals of delight (and occasionally the distinct sound of heavy breathing). These were clearly the Leo fans, the ones who sent him tweets asking him to come to their ballgame/visit their house for dinner/hold their hand/attend their wedding/date their sister/etc, etc, etc. It made me wonder if this ever works and if these celebs just show  up the occasional bar mitzvah just for the amusement value. These reactions were similar to the "OMG, I cannot believe Leo is in town when I am out of town", which is one I understand as I will never forget the look I received from the Intrepid Junior Blogger when I casually mentioned DiCaprio was in Fort McMurray. It seems all the "out of town while he is visiting" folks hoped that if only they were in town they would get a chance to hold Leo's hand (although from early reports of his visits it seems spontaneous hand-holding was at a minimum).

Go the hell back to Hollywood, you hypocrite.

Ouch. While I get the feelings behind this particular reaction I think it is very poor strategy on our part to tell visitors of any kind to leave. That kind of hospitality isn't likely to leave a good impression on anyone, and if that is going to be how we greet visitors to our home I despair our lack of good manners. There was also a good deal of assumption behind this one, because while DiCaprio has shown some evidence that he may not provide a glowing report on the oil sands nothing indicated that he would be unfair or unjust, either.

Simply because one uses fossil fuels does not mean one cannot express concerns about the environment. Hell, I live here and I express these concerns as well, and about ensuring our industry strives for excellence in environmental practices and sustainability. One would hope that DiCaprio acknowledges the heavy reliance of the world, including the industry in which he achieved his fame, on oil and talks about lessening that reliance as opposed to rhetoric about shutting down the evil oil sands.

Legitimate concerns, legitimately expressed, should be welcomed in the dialogue as we share this planet - and I like to think we will also welcome visitors as regardless of their feelings on our industry every visitor is an opportunity for our community to shine.

Why care what DiCaprio thinks? Who gives a damn?

Well, here's the thing: there are people who do care what he thinks, like his millions of followers on Facebook and Twitter. They are reading and listening to what he says, and even if he is not an expert in the oil sands they may be giving some weight to his opinions. The internet has been the great leveller, meaning that all opinions regardless of genesis are often given equal weight, meaning that the opinion of a scientific expert may well be viewed with the same degree of legitimacy as that of an actor. Is this fair? Probably not, but as your momma may have said the world ain't fair, either. That's why industry must continue to improve in telling their story of innovation and excellence, because if they don't tell it they will be drowned out by those telling a different story - or just making one up.

People like DiCaprio, James Cameron, Robert Redford and Neil Young have what we call "reach". They have access to a far wider audience than most of us, and therefore the narrative they tell may well be the one that becomes associated with us in the minds of their followers. If you have never heard of Fort McMurray before and then one day at a farmer's rally someone like Young stands up and uses two words in a sentence - Fort McMurray and Hiroshima - the image you come away with of this place is less than stellar. And why does it matter what some person thousands of miles away thinks of us?

Because we are not an island unto ourselves. We are still trying to attract new residents to help us build this community, and if what you are hearing is that Fort McMurray is like Hiroshima then you may not answer that job ad looking for new physicians for Fort McMurray. Whether we like it or not what people think about our community has the potential to impact us, as does what these individuals with reach say about us. If we can help them, through our magnificent hospitality, friendliness and transparency, say: "I still have serious concerns about the oil sands industry, but man, the people of that region are terrific and I respect their community" then we will have accomplished a great deal (which is why reaction two has the potential to damage us, too).

I am so sick of Leonardo DiCaprio.

This reaction amused me. These visits are fleeting and the excitement they engender disappears quickly, but the impact can last a very long time, which is why we need to do our damnedest to make a good impression on these visitors before they leave - and I don't just mean celebrity visitors, either. I have invited total strangers to join me for coffee on learning they are from out of town, because every single one is a chance to change and direct the narrative about our community, if not our industry.

Welcome to Fort McMurray.

I was truly and genuinely pleased to see this reaction expressed so clearly and often. There were several variants - welcome and be kind to us please, welcome and spend some time getting to know us, welcome and please come hold my hand - but each one embodied the sort of grace and dignity one would hope from a region that has nothing to hide, nothing of which to be ashamed, and such tremendous spirit and energy to share. It shows an openness, a willingness to treat each new visitor as an individual, a respect for them and their desire to visit us to learn more. Yes, we might still get burned, but every chance you don't take is a chance you have lost. I have now done dozens of interviews about Fort McMurray, and on some I have been burned when the end product vilified us - but I will never regret doing a single one or outright reject doing another, because each one is a chance, even if just the slimmest chance, to write our own narrative of life here, and I believe in taking every chance life gives you. I know in the back of our heads we are often hearing The Who's classic "Won't Get Fooled Again", but we manage to closet our cynicism and instead put our best foot forward as we welcome yet another visitor to our region. I think that alone says a great, great deal about the incredible nature of this community and the people who call it home.

It was intriguing to watch the entire thing go down from afar, although the IJB felt far less positive about it. When I informed her Leo had left town - while we were still in Florida - she looked at me and growled, "Nice timing for a holiday, Mom" and scowled.

Sigh. I guess she thought she was gonna hold his hand while he toured the oil sands, too.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Welcome to Fort McMurray, Leo

Greetings Mr. DiCaprio,

Last night my social media feed exploded with the news that yet another celebrity was visiting our region - in this case, you. There was a great deal of excitement - after all, you are a well regarded actor, respected for your work. And then there's that whole "hottie" thing, which made my own Intrepid Junior Blogger, who normally ignores all things Hollywood, demand we cut short our Florida vacation to rush home on the mere chance she may get to glimpse your face (as much as I love my kid, though,we will return as scheduled). But I know you aren't in the Wood Buffalo region to film a movie or meet fans - you are there to learn about the oil sands.

Did you notice how I welcomed you to "Fort McMurray"? That's because I am welcoming you to our home, a community much like any other in North America. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo might encompass the oil sands projects, but Fort McMurray is the bustling little city at the heart of the region. Now, some recent visitors have had some trouble differentiating between industry and community, going so far as to compare Fort McMurray to Hiroshima and then when challenged claiming that everyone knows that when you say Fort McMurray you mean the oil sands.

Not everyone knows that, Mr. DiCaprio. In fact within the urban limits you will not find one oil sands site or project. While the community is heavily involved in the industry, as all resource based communities are, it is not synonymous with the industry, a key point to remember. Fort McMurray is home to thousands of people, including families and individuals of every demographic. Our culturally diverse and vibrant community is something of which we are justifiably proud. We have built a resilient, energetic and strong community in Canada's north, and while you may have concerns about our industry you would do well to acknowledge and recognize that.

About those concerns regarding industry? Well, you aren't alone. Many of the people in this community share the belief that we need to ensure our industry is as environmentally friendly as possible, pursuing every innovation to improve what we do while we continue to meet the world demand for our product - because until an alternative is found the demand will not end. We have a responsibility to do it right, but simply "shutting off the tap" won't solve anything, and it won't just impact the people of my community but the people of communities across North America who rely on our industry for associated employment - and for the oil we produce.

I hope you get the opportunity to meet some of the local people. I don't just mean the ones from industry, either. Speak to people in our hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and businesses. What you are likely to find is that we are no different from any other place. Our home is not perfect, but we love it regardless and have chosen this place to live, work and play. Some may stay only for the jobs, but others - like me - have stayed because we have been so overwhelmed by a community of such generosity, with a can-do spirit and energy unparalleled in our experience.

I'm not expecting you will come away with a glowing report on how wonderful the industry is. I hope you will be balanced and fair and avoid the use of hyperbole and exaggeration and rhetoric. What I truly hope, though, is that while you see the industry you also see the community, a place where your visit has created both excitement and trepidation as we fear being maligned as has happened far too often in the past when "celebrities" have visited. 

I welcome your visit and your opinion of our industry, and I will give your opinion the consideration and respect it deserves as we all have the right to hold and express one - but I hope you will give Fort McMurray - my home and my community - the consideration and respect it deserves as well when you speak of us after you leave. As a visitor to my home I don't think that's too much to expect, and I have  faith that you will extend that consideration and respect to us, because frankly you don't seem like the kind to be a rude guest who slams his hosts as soon as he has closed their front door behind him.

Welcome to Fort McMurray, Mr. DiCaprio. Enjoy your stay, fill yourself with the knowledge you seek and if you happen to see a petite, beautiful kid with salmon-coloured hair and a t-shirt with some sassy slogan about science that would be my kid (a kid who shares your concerns about the environment, our world and the oil sands industry). Maybe you could give her a wave - because she adores you and she loves her home, too. Please don't disappoint her - or us, your hosts in the community of Fort McMurray. Enjoy your stay.

Warmest regards,

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ice, Fundraising, Disease and Cynicism

If you've been on any form of social media in the last week you've seen it. My feeds have been filled with the videos, overflowing with them in fact, much like, well, a bucket of ice water. The ubiquitous ice challenge to raise funds and awareness for ALS has not only filled social media with videos but with controversy as people debate the angles: Does this really help with awareness of ALS? Is it right to put people on the spot to donate to a charity when they may prefer to give to a different cause? Is this kind of viral fundraising a form of "slacktivism"? Are people just jumping on the bandwagon and forgetting the cause at its heart? Or is this a form of clever and inspired fundraising, designed to take advantage of social media, peer pressure and our herd mentality, using them for good?

Here's where I stand: I don't think there is one "right" answer, but I think the cynicism is a bit overblown given the very success of the phenomenon.

I think the ice challenge has done a great deal to raise at least some degree of awareness of ALS. It is a disease with which I am familiar not through personal experience as thankfully it has spared my family and friends but through my fascination with disease and disease processes (little known fact about me: when I was younger I toyed with the idea of a career in virology, the study of those tricky little viruses that plague us, literally). ALS is one of the terrifying ones, a disease that destroys individuals, families and lives, but one that is far too often in the shadows as it is not exceptionally common. The ice challenge has ensured that even those who have never given it much thought have heard the acronym, and there is some degree of success in that alone, I think.

There have been those who suggest it is wrong to put people on the spot for a cause such as this, as perhaps the cause closest to their heart is another disease or issue, and I suppose I see some validity in that line of thought, although donating to one cause does not preclude donating to another.

And then there is the charge of slacktivism and bandwagon jumping. I suppose both are true to some degree, but what true harm - I mean real, genuine harm - comes from a fundraiser of this nature? Slacktivism in this case seems preferable to nothing-ivism, and I've seen people jump on worse bandwagons and with far more detrimental effect. Perhaps there are those who will dump a bucket of ice on their head, not donate a cent and never give it another thought. Or perhaps it will inspire a few people - just a few - to look up ALS on Wikipedia and learn more. I would suggest if it encourages even a few to educate themselves or donate then it has had a beneficial effect, and perhaps our cynicism, while understandable, should be toned down a bit.

Is it clever and inspired fundraising? I would say yes, and it has effectively utilized social media to achieve a goal. Will it be a distant memory in a few weeks? I would also say yes, but the benefits will linger both in terms of the money raised and the simple fact that every person in North America has probably seen three letters - ALS - far more often in the last week than they likely have in their entire lives. I must admit I was initially skeptical about the entire thing until I realized how much those letters were filling my social media feeds and what that meant in terms of public relations for ALS-related organizations. It is, as they say, the kind of publicity money can't buy.

The final question? Will I be dumping a bucket of ice on my head?

No, but I did send a donation in support of ALS, something I had not done before as while I was familiar with the disease even I hadn't thought about donating as my usual donations go to diseases that have touched my life. So, in a sense, I am living proof that the ice challenge works, because it worked for me, reminding me that at times it's good to give to a new worthy cause and reminding me of a disease that I've known about for years but only thought about rarely.

The ice challenge for ALS: no right answer, and maybe not perfect - but I don't think anyone can argue the effectiveness of a viral fundraising campaign that has, to date, raised an estimated 41 million dollars for research, a remarkable achievement by any benchmark, even those thought of by cynics like me.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Try Everything

A modern day cruise ship is, quite frankly, a marvel of engineering and business practice. When the Intrepid Junior Blogger first floated the idea of a cruise vacation I was a bit hesitant. In my head I had a vision of cruise ships as the final bastion of the elderly vacationer, those too frail to cope with iffy hotels in foreign countries and bouts with food poisoning from hole-in-the-wall roadside restaurants far off the beaten tourist path. The IJB was insistent, though, and the more I learned the more excited I became as I realized that cruising - and cruise ships - had changed.

Never one to start at the bottom, the IJB opted for the largest cruise ship on the ocean - Allure of the Seas. At the time I had no idea this choice was inspired by a video from her Grade 7 science class that showed the design and building of the Royal Caribbean Oasis class ships, of which the Allure is one. In fact I didn't learn that part until we were on a beach in Labadee, Haiti. Once I knew that, though, I put the information together with an offer from the cruise line to participate in a behind the scenes tour that would take us deep into the ship and onto parts most passengers never see.

The tour was not inexpensive, but it was easily worth every penny. From seeing the IJB glow in the engine control room as she carefully looked at displays showing what appeared to be complete chaos to me but were actually intricate electrical circuitry, to her face when we stood on the bridge and the second officer called her by name, it was an amazing experience, three hours that may well have been the best moments of the cruise. We stood on the helipad which passengers can't normally access, we saw the crew quarters including their pubs and restaurants, we went backstage at the theatre and in the massive galley kitchens. We eschewed the plush carpeted stairs for the guests and moved instead on the narrow and steep steel crew stairs, discovering the laundry facility (with the million dollar plus washing machine) and the garbage sorting room (where they recycle every scrap they can and minimize environmental impact as much as possible). We met a Sous Chef, the Laundry Master, the Second Officer (who seemed quite taken with the IJB as she has this air about her sometimes and I suspect he saw a potential ship's officer in her, too), a Ship Engineer, and more. But there was one person we met who struck me and who said something so profound it goes far, far further than a cruise.

His name is Hendrick (coincidentally the name of my beloved gin, too) and he serves as the Provisions Manager on the Allure. Now maybe this doesn't seem like a big job, unless you consider that the Allure is fundamentally a town afloat. 6,000 passengers and 2,000 crew depend on Hendrick's ability to make sure all provisions on board are sufficient for the cruise, as all supplies are brought onboard in the USA and no quick trips to the closest island grocery store are allowed to replenish the stock. Hendrick has in his hands the entire cruise in many ways, because if his order is faulty it will affect the ability of the passengers to enjoy the cruise, the ability of the crew to deliver the excellence they promise and result in disappointment. But it wasn't really Hendrick's job that impressed me most, although I was quite impressed by the magnitude of it and his calm demeanour given the task. No, it was what Hendrick said to those of us in the tour.

"Try everything," he said. "Do all the things the ship has to offer, enjoy every minute, don't waste a second when you've worked all year for the holiday."

It was one of the most profound things I've ever heard, because I think it's pretty much the motto for a good life, off and on cruise ships and vacations.

Try everything. Two simple words but what a world they hold.

Just over three years ago there were several things I would have never tried. I would have never submitted an article to a magazine, I would have never agreed to write a weekly column in a newspaper, I would have never auditioned for TEDx, I would have never applied for a job doing communications professionally, I would have never agreed to emcee an event, I would have never danced with the stars, I would have never done a fashion show, I would have never bought my own house, I would have never...well, I would have never done all the things I have done for the last three years. And then I tried those things, which led to trying more things, because trying everything is like a disease where you suddenly want to try ALL the things. This year the IJB and I plan to try more things, as we have a few plans, ideas and schemes in the works. We are going to launch head first into trying all the things, because, well, she and I are on this ship together and we have the chance. And as we go I will use a new hash tag I've adopted thanks to Hendrick, designed to share my new adventures with others. I am always delighted to see a hashtag I coined over two years ago (#ymmshoutout) still pop up on occasion, and so this year I introduce #tryeverythingymm - my nod to Hendrick, a brilliant philosophy for cruise ships and life and a community where you have the opportunity to try everything.

Try everything. Not just on a cruise ship but on life. Life is, after all, just a slightly longer cruise ship ride. We embark one day as novices to the whole experience and depart one day hopefully having had the time of our life - literally. We need to do all the things life has to offer, enjoy every minute and not waste a second when we have spent our entire lives working just to be where we are.

Try everything, friends. Try everything.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

We Got 99 Problems But That Ain't One

I count myself as guilty as anyone, really. It's such a standard thing to do in Fort McMurray. We complain - often vociferously - about the things we don't have or should have or want to have.

We want more retail, we whine. An airline cancelled our direct flights to Vegas, we moan. We have to wait for hours in the ER to see a doctor. Our roads are bumpy, our traffic jams too long, our governments too slow to give us what we want, which usually involves putting more of the money we generate back into us to improve our quality of life.

And I get it, I really do, because I have been one of the complainers, but on occasion you go somewhere and realize how relative it all is. For me that place was Cozumel, Mexico.

Cozumel is a wonderful place for tourists or cruise ship passengers like me. This little island greets visitors warmly and welcomes them and their cash, and when we arrived our tour guide wanted to ensure we enjoyed Cozumel. We were heading to do some horseback riding and then on to the beach for some rest and relaxation, and it was marvellous to bump along in an air-conditioned Mexican bus playing tinny Spanish music on our way to our destination.

The ranch was wonderful, the ranch hands friendly and warm. We enjoyed our time and then we headed to the beach, a quick stop for some nachos and margaritas and sea and sun and sand.

While at lunch we were approached by one of the ubiquitous beach side jewelry dealers. He claimed he is a gemologist and makes his own wares, although I was dubious as I had seen the same rings and earrings for sale on the ship. It was a game, almost certainly, one designed to attract tourists who would relish the idea of buying handmade jewelry rather than mass produced, and I could not fault his ability to weave such a yarn to brighten his livelihood.

After awhile we finished our nachos and the Intrepid Junior Blogger headed down to the sea, anxious to enjoy the beach while I stayed behind to pay. The jewelry dealer who had approached us earlier (and been rebuffed with the knowledge that I had not come with enough cash to buy) approached again and asked how old she was.

I told him that she is fourteen and he smiled. He then asked what I do for a living and when I said I am a writer he shook his head and expressed some surprise that that could even be a job (I didn't even know how to explain operating social media accounts as part of a career). He asked what the IJB wants to do, pointing to her as she stood on the beach, water up to her ankles and shoes in her hand.

"She wants to be an engineer," I said. "Maybe even work on the space program, designing space vehicles or be an astronaut. Or maybe design ships, she's shown some interest in that after this cruise", I say.

He looks at me and says: "Big dreams, big plans!" And then he shakes his head again and says: "But maybe in Canada these dreams are possible, si Amiga?" and in his face I can see that in Cozumel these dreams, dreams as simple as going to university, may well be big - and unachievable - dreams indeed.

I join the IJB on the beach, and after a time we head back to the ship in our air conditioned bus. The tour guide says he wants to show us some of the real Cozumel, and so we drive through the city, passing the kind of abject poverty that even I have tried to forget exists. At one house - a place where it appears part of the roof and wall have caved in - a group of small dusty children stand beside the road, listless in the extreme heat. They watch as we go by, their faces expressionless. 

As we pass them I wonder about their dreams and their futures. I look at the IJB beside me, her eyes wide as she sees a kind of poverty she has not really experienced before.

We have problems in Fort McMurray. We have the kind of problems that a booming economy brings, the kind of problems people in other parts of this world would give anything to have. Even with all our problems we are rich beyond the comprehension of people like some of those I saw in Cozumel, who would no doubt be astonished at our complaints as while we have problems we have incredible opportunity and hopes and dreams and plans. 

We might have 99 problems in Fort McMurray, but opportunity ain't one. The next time I think to complain about some tediously minor issue in our community I hope to remember an island far away, where opportunity isn't a given, but a dream. 

I don't swear often in this blog, but today I will. We are so fucking lucky, regardless of our 99 problems, and we should never, ever doubt it.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ruined by Community Theatre

It was actually the Intrepid Junior Blogger's idea to go see the musical Chicago on board our cruise ship. Days at sea can become long and dull, so the cruise companies spice it up with more food than you should ever eat, designer handbag sales and live entertainment.

The theatre venue on the Allure of the Seas is bloody impressive, better by far than many land based theatres I've been to. Seat service of cocktails and coffees enhance the experience, and on the stage in front of you unrolls a musical performed by an undoubtedly talented cast, bringing years of theatre and stage experience to their respective roles. And while I enjoyed it I couldn't help but compare it to the performance of the same musical presented by Keyano Theatre. I sat there in the darkened theatre, clapping, but in my heart of hearts I knew a simple truth. Community theatre has ruined me.

You see the performance of Chicago on the cruise was flawless, every line delivered with perfection, every song hitting just the right note and every dance step nailing the choreography - but something was terribly, terribly missing. It felt cold to me, devoid of the personality and warmth of our little cast of community players. It felt perfunctory, perfectly presented, but perfectly without the little thrill of emotion I get from seeing someone I know, either well or only slightly, on stage.

As a writer one of the things I love most is knowing the backstory. With community theatre I often know if this is a performer's first time on stage - or perhaps their last before they leave our community. I might know their mom or their spouse. I might even know them, have watched them as they went to rehearsals and poured more and more of their heart, soul and energy into their performance. The backstory is what gives me that lift, that generates that shiver of excitement when the curtain goes up, the music begins and the first words are spoken or sung.

Community theatre is not always flawless. On occasion lines are missed, props are dropped and scenes go better some nights than others. But the flaws, the backstory, the friends and neighbours and community members, are what fill me with joy, what make me stand up at the end clapping and hooting. And, often, the community cast and crew nail the performance just as perfectly as a collection of polished professionals, adding a new level of delight to the experience. They are what I have come to love about live theatre, and while other performances can be excellent in quality and delivery they will never reach the level of perfection I've found right in our own community. 

At the end of the performance of Chicago on the ship the IJB turned to me and said: "That was pretty good." I smiled, and nodded, and then I said: "Yes, but Keyano Theatre did it better" - and I meant it, too, because our little Keyano Theatre and all the community players in it have captured my heart. Nothing will ever come close to what I feel when those curtains close and the final notes of another heartfelt community performance fade away.

Making A Difference - A Personal Thank You to a Leader, Boss and Friend

I sit at my keyboard in my office, not quite sure where to begin. I leave on vacation in two days and I've just been tasked with drafting the most challenging press release I've written so far in my role at the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo, or the RRC as we call it. Finally I tap out the headline in bold font, and there it is, the announcement that Tim Reid, CEO of the RRC and COO of MacDonald Island Park before the transition was made to the RRC, is leaving Wood Buffalo.

My relationship with Tim goes back much further than when I joined the RRC a year and a half ago. It began very near when this blog first began and I started to attend press conferences and community engagement sessions. I don't even recall how or when I first met Tim - it doesn't matter, really, as now it feels like I have known him forever. Even back then I was captivated and excited by his vision for MacDonald Island, but even more so I was struck by his evident leadership. He had this ability to listen, this way of building relationships, and a quiet but sure air of confidence that made you believe, too. He very rapidly became someone I respected, particularly after he took the chaos that the original expansion at MacDonald Island had become and turned it into a successful organization. That Tim was making a difference in our community and making it a better place was clear from the moment I met him.

I attended so many events at Mac Island that I lost count. Concerts, press conferences, galas, community meetings and events. Tim was always there, his smiling face greeting me a fixture at every event. What amazed me was that every single time he would ask me what I thought - and he listened, not in the false way some people do but in the genuine and thoughtful way that makes you know you are being heard. My respect for him only grew with every conversation, enough so that when the recommendation for Shell Place went to RMWB Council I was proud to speak in favour of the expansion, even though I was terrified and my voice quivered. But I knew Tim believed in my ability to deliver my message about why I thought Shell Place was the right choice for our community, and his confidence in me bolstered my own.

When my life changed two years ago I faced a decision. I was at a crossroads when my marriage ended, including deciding whether to stay in Fort McMurray at all. One of the factors in my decision was my ability to find employment that was not only able to support myself and my daughter but that would make me happy and allow me to feel fulfilled, like I was contributing to the community and making a difference in the place I call home. I saw the posting for a Communications job at Mac Island, and while I was terrified about my skills and my ability to rise to the role I submitted my résumé and waited.

When I received the phone call informing me that I had been chosen for the role I felt many things. I was scared. Nervous. Excited. Thrilled. And I wondered, truly wondered, if being inside the organization would be different than being on the outside looking in. I wondered if Tim was truly the leader I thought he was, or if I would be somehow disappointed once I got closer to the reality.

After almost two years I can say it was different.

It was, in fact, vastly and immensely better than I ever thought possible.

Tim was every bit the leader I had believed him to be, and more. As part of Tim's team I have worked harder than I ever have in my life - and I've learned more, loved it more and accomplished more than I ever dreamed possible. When the RRC incorporated last year with a vision of making a difference in our region every day I could not have been prouder to be part of it - because I have believed since my first day on the job that our role is to make that difference, and it began with Tim and his leadership.

I am so proud of Tim as he embarks on an incredible new opportunity and challenge. I am humbled and honoured to have had the opportunity to work for him - and with him - as part of ONE Team. Even more though I am committed to continuing to make that difference, to working harder, learning more, loving it more and doing more than I ever thought I could, because Tim's encouragement and belief in me has given me the confidence to believe in myself. I work with the most incredible people, a team dedicated to making a difference in the communities of our region, each one of us the beneficiary of the kind of leadership that is both rare and unique.

Thank you, Tim, for everything you have done for our community. Thank you for bringing your wonderful wife Nathalie with you, as she too had a profound impact on the youth of this community though her role as an educator and mentor. Thank you for sharing your beautiful boys with us. But, most of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your team, to learn and grow and accomplish and laugh. While I know Fort McMurray will always be grateful to you I will always be so personally grateful because your belief in me came at a time when I needed it most, and I will never, ever forget it.

As Tim embarks on his new adventure I wish him well and I know he will bring to Edmonton and Northlands all the amazing gifts he brought to our community. I also know that I will continue to work harder than I ever have, striving to make a difference every day in an organization of which I am so very immensely proud to be a part. 

After all, I know Tim would never accept or expect anything less from me - and now, thanks to my time under his leadership, guidance and friendship, nor would I.

Get Over Yourself

I have now been out of Fort McMurray - and Canada - for almost a week. A couple of days in Fort Lauderdale and a few days on a cruise ship with 5,500 passengers and 2,000 crew members from all over the world have made me realize something: Fort McMurray might need to get over itself.

People in Lauderdale and on the cruise are amazingly friendly. The first question almost always is: "where are you from?" And the conversation always goes like this:

Me: Fort McMurray, Alberta

~blank look~

Me: Home of the oil sands?

~blank look~

Me: Northern Canada?

Them: Oh, anywhere close to Montreal?!? (Don't ask me, it's always Montreal)

The word they trigger on is Canada - but it most certainly is not Fort McMurray or oil sands. So far I've met people from America, El Salvador, Peru, Great Britain, Serbia, France, Italy, Portugal,and Haiti and not one single soul has recoiled in horror when I named my home town or what we do for an industry. In fact they seemed not only indifferent but entirely unaware of any of it, which has led me to suspect that the focus on our community and the oil sands is of interest to far, far fewer people than one might assume when you live in the community and are part of that industry.

The funny thing about being in the bulls-eye is that you may come to believe that all the attention truly is focused on you. You can lose the perspective and realization that you are really just a small cog in a very large machine, one that encompasses a world of billions of people who kind of have their own communities, industries and worries of their own.

We invest very heavily in trying to "change the image" of Fort McMurray. This investment hinges on the belief that there is already an image in people's minds about us, and an unsavoury one at that. The reality is that as you move further away from our community in an ever expanding circle that image, or even any knowledge, of our community fades until it disappears. It seems so vital at ground zero and yet here in the middle of the Caribbean it disappears into a tropical mist.

 I suspect we have two things: a fairly large ego about being the economic engine of Canada and a fairly large chip on our shoulder about being targeted as the bullseye of environmental groups and external media. The reality I am finding though is that both are quite out of proportion with the way the majority of others see us, which is some strange place with a fort close to Montreal.

Last night our server from Morocco asked where we are from. This time I just said "northern Canada", to which he smiled and said "I have an uncle in Montreal!". I smiled and laughed, and said we didn't live close to Montreal, and that Canada is a big place - but that the IJB does speak French, at which point he chattered at her in flawless French.

This cruise trip has been amazing, and it isn't over yet. One of the most enlightening parts, though, has been the realization of one thing. Fort McMurray, we probably need to get over ourselves, because the rest of the world hasn't just gotten over us. Most of them never even knew we existed.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Social Media Takes a Holiday

It's a dangerous thing, letting a fourteen year old girl plan your first big mother-daughter vacation. The Intrepid Junior Blogger isn't just any kid though - this is the kid who created a PowerPoint presentation to convince me to send her to horse camp (and it worked as this summer was her second year at WildHorse Mountain Ranch and this time she spent two weeks there). I knew that whatever vacation she chose - as I left destinations and details to her, a true leap of faith - would be well researched. What she chose, though, was not exactly what I expected.

I thought perhaps we would end up n Europe, back in England and Ireland perhaps or exploring France and Spain. When she said the words: "Caribbean cruise" I was surprised as it had never even occurred to me that this was a place she wanted to go. When she followed it with: "on the largest cruise ship in the world" I knew it was the engineering side of her brain at work and her fascination with big machines. She explained that in Grade 7 science class at Ecole McTavish they had watched a video on the making of Royal Caribbean's Oasis class cruise ships, which is how we find ourselves on Allure of the Seas (if you are reading this, Mr. Shack, I'm looking at you!).

The Allure of the Seas is a behemoth. I don't use that word lightly (it's not a word anyone should use lightly or often, really). This ship is monstrous in dimension, a spectacle hard to reconcile when you see it in harbour for the first time and realize it towers over the buildings around it. It holds a town's worth of travellers, 6,000 or so, plus crew, making it into a living and vibrant town at sea. It has several different "neighbourhoods", each more mind-boggling than the last (a zip line? Yes! A carousel? Yes! A shopping district? Yes! Nightclubs? Yes! The first Starbucks at sea? Thank god, yes!). It combines the old-world charm of sailing the oceans with every modern convenience and option, and as the IJB planned our seven-day Caribbean cruise even I became excited - with one exception. 

All the stories I heard and read indicated how expensive Internet service is on cruises. The amounts I heard were astronomical, and frightening enough that I advised the IJB that we would disconnect for the entire week, leaving behind our social media networks for our holiday. While we both accepted it I think we were equally uneasy about it, but then too I had read so much about the value and importance of "disconnecting".

When we left Fort Lauderdale we said our farewells on Facebook and email and Kik and Twitter. We boarded the cruise and settled in to wait for our departure. While we sat waiting, shipboard Starbucks in hand, I quietly logged onto the ship's Wifi to see what exactly the service cost.

What I found was that it cost much less than I had feared. For about $35 a day the IJB and I could have unlimited Internet access. I faced a dilemma. Tell the IJB and discuss the option, allow her to learn it herself (as she undoubtedly would) or simply refuse to connect?

One of the things I have learned over the past few years is that there is no singular "right" way to do things. What works for others may not work for me. What others need or want may not be what I need or want. And so, in the middle of the Royal Promenade, the IJB and I discussed the decision we faced - and then we reconnected.

You see for her and I social media is something we enjoy. We interact with our peers and friends online, we share our thoughts and stories and we find entertainment and value in our time online - and there is nothing wrong with that, either. It's just who we are.

We are spending much more time together on this cruise, talking and laughing far more than usual. Our connective devices are put away at mealtimes and when we are enjoying the many sights and sounds of the sea, but for those long moments when the ship is sailing, the dark night surrounds us and we are tucked into our stateroom, we are connected once more with the world onshore.

I would never judge those who choose to disconnect, as perhaps they need or want to do so. Not everyone needs - or wants - to disconnect though, even when on vacation. For some of us we don't take a vacation from our social media. We take our social media on vacation, finding it can actually enhance the time we spend away by sharing it not only with each other but with our social media networks. There is no "right" way to be connected - just the way you want to be. For this vacation the IJB and I chose to connect with a cruise ship, 6,000 new friends, some new destinations and all our friends onshore, too - and it's turning into the perfect vacation, all thanks to the IJB.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Thoughts On Castaway Cove

Today I share a more personal tale than perhaps I normally would. Blame the sun, the sea or a vacation frame of mind - but this tale has been part of my life in Fort McMurray, and so I choose to share it here today. Thank you for indulging me.


Castaway Cove

It is with tremendous sadness that I read the news of the untimely - and tragic - death of Robin Williams. He was an actor of renown, an unparalleled comedian, and, perhaps most importantly, a human being who struggled with depression, a form of mental illness that is far more prevalent than we like to acknowledge. His death, which appears to have come at his own hands, sent shock waves through the world, a world struggling to reconcile the legacy of a man who made so many happy but who experienced such personal darkness. 

I sat in the middle of the Caribbean ocean while it all unfolded on social media. On a gently swaying cruise ship I read the sad story and I cried, because depression is a journey I know. 

After my mother's death I travelled through a very dark period in my life. Although I had a significant family history of mental illness, including my mother's battle with anxiety and paranoia and her father's death by suicide, I believed I was immune to the disease. And a disease it is, as mental illness is not an ailment one chooses. It is not something you can simply choose to "get over" - how I wish it was.

After Williams' death I read so many beautiful tributes to him and reminders of the frailty of the human spirit. I also read some comments that troubled me deeply as they displayed how little we understand depression, mental illness and suicide.

Suicide is not a selfish act, although on the surface it may seem to be as it creates so many who suffer in its aftermath. When you know someone in intense physical pain, from cancer perhaps or another illness, do you consider their desire to die to escape the pain as selfish? If not then why do we feel this way about those who suffer intense psychological pain, as if their pain is a choice while physical pain is not? Why do we differentiate between these types of pain unless we still cannot acknowledge that mental illness is a very real disease?

When my father had terminal lung cancer on occasion he expressed a desire to escape his suffering through death. While it hurt me to hear this it also told me his level of pain was reaching unbearable levels. Had my father chosen to take his own life I would have been devastated, but I could never say it was selfish as I did not have to feel the pain he bore, and yet when someone commits suicide we accuse them of selfishness. The desire to escape pain isn't selfish. It's human.

Yet another comment was that there should be no sympathy for Williams, a rich and successful person who took his own life, as if mental illness respects the borders of economics and success. How sad it is that we think of mental illness as somehow affecting only those who are not rich and successful, as if having money and success acts as an inoculant against depression and sadness. And yet if we understand it we know that mental illness knows no borders, not of race or gender or nationality. It is an equal-opportunity disease, with no respect for the artificial boundaries we hold so dear like our bank accounts and our fame.

Finally the comment that troubles me most perhaps is that if somehow the outpouring of love that happened after Williams' death had come the day before he may not have taken his own life. 

When I was a young adult I lost someone I knew to suicide. The guilt of the family and friends left behind was immense. They were a close group, loved each other intensely and freely. They had tried to get the depressed person in their midst help, but despite their efforts that person took their own life. Afterwards several of them expressed to me their wish that they had fought harder and done more - loved them more - in the hopes that it would have prevented the sad ending. And while perhaps it might have and while we must express our love for those close to us and help those in need we must also understand that love in and of itself will not cure depression or prevent suicide. It may help, but I know from personal experience that when depressed you may simply not believe the love others express for you, or you may feel unworthy of it.

Depression isn't about not having other people love you. For me it was about not really loving myself enough to believe other people could or did love me, and until I loved myself I could not accept their love and let it help heal me.
To say that perhaps that outpouring of love we witnessed could have somehow prevented his suicide likely only increases the pain of his family and friends who may always wonder if they could have done more or simply loved his pain away. It misleads us into believing that we can cure depression with love or somehow prevent suicide with enough love. And while love and kindness and support is so vital to all of our lives I am living proof that you csn surround someone with love and they can still journey through the darkness of depression and even contemplate that very final way to escape the pain.

Today I write this on a beach in Labadee, Haiti. I sit in the shade of a fiercely hot Caribbean day as a warm tropical breeze blows and a Haitian band pounds out an island rhythm. Beside me is my daughter, a creature who I now know has the genetics to suffer mental illness just as generations of my family has done. I watch her carefully as she grows, loving her to the best of my ability but knowing my love alone - or the love of the entire world - cannot protect her from any disease, including depression. 

A few short years ago the thought of being on this beach today was far, far away from me.  I was instead on an island of my own, surrounded by those who loved me trying to reach me. My island of depression, though, was a Castaway Cove with only enough room for one. It took almost a year for me to realize I was depressed and needed help, and until that realization no amount of love could save me from the darkness, a painful realization for those around me, too.

Robin Williams left a legacy of laughter. Now, in his death, I hope he helps us to truly understand the nature of depression and mental illness. I hope the awareness his untimely death brings will help more people to understand mental illness and depression, although I know that I did not - and could not - understand it until I travelled it.

This post isn't meant to be the definitive narrative of depression. It is only my narrative, as personal to me as every narrative is personal to each of us, and every single person who travels into the valley of depression will have a unique experience. Some of us will one day find ourselves on an island in the Caribbean, reflecting back to dark days we spent alone even when surrounded by people who loved us. And some of us will never leave that Castaway Cove, entrapped forever on the island all alone.

I will always be forever grateful to have found a way off that island, but I know that it is always there, and I have been a visitor, too.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why Blog?

It happens on a fairly regular basis, particularly after this blog has been recognized in some way. I get emails from people thinking about starting a blog, hoping for tips or advice or encouragement. Over the last three years I have received dozens of these emails, and helped at least a dozen people begin blogging. The sad part, though, is that few of those blogs last more than a few months.

When I look at the blogs I link to on this blog it saddens me that few have recent postings. Many lie dormant for weeks or months or even forever, blogs once started in good faith or with high hopes. The reality is that blogging is not what many people think it is. These are the most frequent questions I get asked about blogging, and I am answering them here as this week alone I received six emails all about the art of writing a blog.

1) How do you write a successful blog?

You don't. Nobody knows if a new blog will be a success and success is a very relative term. One of my favourite quotes from an interview I did once was: "chase excellence, not success." What does success mean to you? To me it has always just meant enjoying the experience of blogging and the outlet it provided. This blog was never an attempt to "make a name", "be popular" or be anything other than a place I could share my thoughts and exercise my passion to write.

2) Is a blog work?

Damn skippy it is and anyone who says it isn't has never tried it. Blogging is a commitment and it takes time, particularly in the beginning. I think this is why so many new blogs run into trouble - people realize it's just not as simple as they thought it was and that a good blog takes time, the kind of time some may not have to spare.

3) Should I start a blog?

Only you can answer that. Why are you starting one? Is it because the experience will have value for you? In my opinion that is the only reason to start one, because if it has no value for you as a creative or expressive outlet and you are starting one for any other reason (success, fame, impact on others etc) you will get likely get discouraged easily because even if you find those things it's unlikely you will find them right away.

4) What makes a good blog?

Content matters. It needs to be interesting if you want others to read it, although if you are writing purely for the joy of writing then the content should be whatever makes you happy. Writing matters, too. There is nothing wrong with writing a post in a word processor and running a spelling and grammar check and then pasting it into the blog. If you do hope others will read it then making sure the spelling and grammar are clean is a good start. Besides, part of the joy of writing is honing your skill, so you can use a blog to get better at writing, too.

5) Can you make money blogging?

Yes, but I don't. I've had several offers to advertise on this blog, some quite lucrative, but I've always said no because I blog for enjoyment, not cash. Others do earn money blogging, but those that do have worked towards excellence to find that success.
6) How do you start a blog?

The technical side is easy: choose a blog provider and set it up. The art is tougher as you need to figure out what you want to say. What do you want to write about? Do you want more of an online journal or more of something you share with the world? If you want to share it then social media, like Twitter and Facebook, are your friends for sharing blog links.

7) How do you keep it going?

This is where so many blogs falter. They start strong, then the posts begin to diminish in number until they stop entirely. You keep a blog going because it has value to you. If the only value is how many readers you attract or comments you get then it may well be very discouraging in the beginning. This all goes back to why you are blogging. Are you chasing excellence or success? Blogging needs to make you happy or you just won't make time to do it, period. Blog about the things you are passionate about. Don't try to force yourself to blog every day or hit a set number every week, because there is no joy in that. And if it is not making you happy? Time to evaluate why you're blogging and if it still has value and meaning to you. If the answer is no then is it truly a good use of your time?

8) Why do you blog? Why did you start your blog?

This is the one I get the most. I blog because I love to write and because I saw a niche to be filled. I wanted to blog about life in Fort McMurray, not in a journalistic style or about industry or environment, but in a personal way about being a mother, resident and person living in a community that is both unique and similar to every other community in the country. I didn't start writing it to be successful or even to attract readers, although I am very satisfied with the level of success and readership this blog has found. I started it because I needed a place to share the stories of my life here and because I enjoy writing.

9) Will you ever stop blogging?

I don't know. But I know that the moment I stop enjoying it, find it a distasteful chore or find myself resenting it is the moment I will take a break from it at the very least, because that would seep into my writing as I am absolutely terrible at hiding anything in my written work. I also know that in order to enjoy the process I must stay honest to myself and blog in the way that is authentic and real for me, which means some others may not like what I write or how I write it. Tough beans, they can start their own blog and learn what it means to blog.

10) How do you handle criticism?

I've been asked this one by adults and even a Grade Four student. It's all about being authentic and realizing in the end I answer primarily to myself. I look at every criticism individually and evaluate it on a case-by-case basis. If there is value in it then I may need to reconsider my comments or my thoughts on something. However, criticisms of myself as a person are often more reflective of the nature of the one criticizing and not myself, and I tend to be more dismissive of those. Some people can't handle anyone who expresses opinions that differ from their own and tend to attack writers on a personal level for having the audacity to do so. Again, if at the end of the day I've been authentic and genuine then I have nothing to regret (and besides over time spent blogging you learn you will never, ever please everyone).

I have been writing this blog now for over three years. Every day somewhere between 600-800 people visit the blog, and I'm now bordering on 600,000 lifetime views. I am undoubtedly pleased with these numbers (ones I just checked for the purpose of this post as I rarely check my own stats) but the joy isn't in the numbers. The joy has always been in the writing and creating. That's why I blog, and that's why I have been able to keep it going this long. I enjoy the experience, which I suspect is why people enjoy the blog. The reality is that even if I hadn't found some degree of success I would have kept blogging as it goes right back to why I started it, which was all about finding a place to share my stories of life in Fort McMurray. I am just incredibly grateful that I have been blessed with so many readers who took time out of their lives to read the blog posts that I took the time to create. To me blogging has been an incredible journey, and I am so happy that it seems much of the road is still ahead of me. I've never blogged for anyone else - just for myself, and perhaps that is the best reason for why I blog.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How I Met Your Blog

I am not an obsessive checker of my standing in the social media sphere. I don't know my Klout score, I am not entirely sure how many followers I have on Twitter and I am not quite certain how many tweets I am at (although I do know I passed 30,000 a couple of weeks ago, which seems more of a warning signal than a milestone, really). To be honest I have never measured impact or effectiveness of what I do by the numbers, preferring to gauge it by the emails or messages I receive (both of praise and derision). But there is one thing I like to check on occasion, which is how people find this blog through web searches.

Every few months I pull up my blog stats and head straight there, just to see what key words people are using to find my blog. This random sampling shows how readers found my blog over the last little while. Some of the searches are fairly obvious, while some are a little more...unusual.

1) mcmurray musings

Alright, there are people out there who know the blog name! A surprising number call it "macmurray musings" instead though, which is a little worrisome.

2) lady in fort mcmurray who blogs

I can live with this. I've been called far, far worse than a lady.

3) parking like a douchebag

Okay, I did a couple of posts on bad parking and then I stopped because everybody was doing it. I mean parking badly, not blogging about it.

4) what to wear in fort mcmurray

Clothing is preferred, really. Due to the cold winter temperatures there is a dearth of nudists in this town. I am quite happy about this, too.

5) dating scene in fort mcmurray

Barking up the wrong tree with this one. My last date was with the cat over a bucket of tiger tiger ice cream for me and a can of tuna for him.

6) animal that lives in a whole

What? No. In a whole what? Just no.

7) fort mcmurray escort services

This might be where the "I have been called worse" part comes in. Given how often this is searched for this could be a potential future source of revenue generation. I mean accepting ads for escort services on the blog, not running one myself. Get your mind out the gutter would you?

8) where to eat in fort mcmurray

Restaurants, usually. Yes, we have those.

9) shoe fetish

I plead the Fifth on this one on the grounds I may self-incriminate.

10) fort mcmurray blow jobs

Okay people, look here. I don't know if you were searching for anecdotes, photos, videos or offers but regardless this is not the blog you were looking for (and I am sorry as you must be quite disappointed, too).

So, there you have it. This is how people met my blog recently. Frankly I am sitting here wondering what the person looking for an animal that lives in a whole thought of Fort McMurray, really.