A look back at 2013

As another year draws to an close, the annual deluge of ‘Top 10 Lists’ is upon us.  So in the spirit of the season, I’ve decided to end this year of blogging with a look back at three of my favourite stories of 2013.

As 2013 comes to an end, I look back at some of my favourite stories of the past year.

As 2013 comes to an end, I look back at some of my favourite stories of the past year.

Listed in no particular order, they are simply what spring to mind when I reflect on which stories have stayed with me beyond their short shelf-life:

Partnering Research and Industry Health Sciences Matters, 2013

This story was an assignment for Western University’s Health Sciences Matters alumni magazine.

Writing about a medical device designed to help people swallow may sound like a dull day at the office, but interviewing Professor Ruth Martin quickly made me realize that swallowing is one of those things people don’t appreciate until it’s gone.

Professor Ruth Martin's enthusiasm for her research was infectious.

Professor Ruth Martin’s enthusiasm for her research was infectious.

In fact, a quick chat with my father confirmed that the loss of the ability to swallow was indeed one of the major complications my grandfather suffered after his final – and ultimately fatal – stroke.

Professor Martin’s device works by shooting pulses of air at the back of the mouth, and she is partnering with Trudell Medical International to bring it to market. This brings me to another memorable aspect of preparing this story – interviewing London business icon, Mitch Baran.

It took a quite few attempts to reach the president and CEO of Trudell Medical, but once I had him on the phone he was a dream interview.

After asking my first question Baran proceeded to give me all the information I needed to complete my story – without any further prompting or extraneous information. (Which, as any journalist will tell you, sure beats sifting through 45 minutes of tape to find one decent quote!)

The Joy of Slowing Downeatdrink, September / October 2013

I am a sucker for small town restaurants. So I was excited when I received an assignment to do a write-up on Anna Mae’s Bakery & Restaurant from Flanagan Food Services’ Selections magazine. A quick Google search reveled that the bakery was located in Millbank, Ontario – just outside Stratford – and only about an hour from home.

Since I always prefer to see something with my own eyes, it sounded like the perfect excuse for a summer road trip with my mother!

Anna Mae’s did not disappoint, and Millbank – the commercial heart of the area’s vibrant Mennonite community – was a delight.

Turkey Club

Mom and I enjoyed a delicious lunch at Anna Mae’s!

Our after-lunch stroll through the village brought us to another hidden gem – the Millbank Cheese Factory. As we stocked up on their famous cheddar I thought “This is a story for eatdrink magazine.”

I made the pitch and ended up expanding my initial assignment into two different stories – always a bonus for a freelance writer. The best part – we now have a fun place to visit after morning hockey games against the Stratford Warriors!

Sounds From the Ashes The Beat Magazine, November 2013

I have been writing about Serenata Music and its founder, Renee Silberman, since the chamber music series debuted nine years ago.  But I felt this particular concert deserved some extra attention.

“Banned Composers, Forbidden Music” commemorated the 75th anniversary of Kristal Nacht. What better way to remember the beginning of one of history’s most terrible times than to perform music the Nazis wanted to silence forever?

The concert commemorated the beginning of the end for many of Europe's Jews.

The concert commemorated the beginning of the end for many of Europe’s Jews.

In fact, this concert featured a few works that have only recently been rediscovered, after miraculously surviving the Holocaust even when their composers did not. That fact just reinforces my belief that creativity and culture can overcome even the worst oppression to be a powerful reminder of what is good in the world.

With that said, I wish you all a very happy holiday season, and a wonderfully creative 2014!

And The Beat goes on….online!

As many of you may know, The Beat Magazine ceased publication at the end of the summer. From our first issue in September 2009 to our last in August 2013, being Beat editor was a wonderful professional and personal adventure. But as the saying goes: all good things must come to an end.

The Beat

The Beat ended on a high note with our 2013 Summer issue.

As it turns out, some good things are harder to kill than others, and after an outpouring of support from readers and the local arts community, Beat publisher Richard Young decided to keep our website up and running.

While this means I’m out of a job as a magazine editor, I do get to continue doing one of my favourite things – interviewing and writing stories about the local classical music scene.

Most recently, I chatted with the always charming and very knowledgeable Renee Silberman of Serenata Music, who is presenting an evening of music banned by the Nazis in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Renee Silberman

Serenata Music’s Renee Silberman.

The November 9 concert, co-sponsored by the London Jewish Community Centre, features music by composers who were persecuted and often murdered by the Nazi regime.

Writing the story got me thinking about music as a political force. And while it’s somewhat difficult for us to imagine the arts posing any sort of threat to the government, Renee points out that the Nazis were experts in mass manipulation and that culture can indeed play a large role in defining social norms.

(Just look at the ongoing debate about Miley Cyrus’ onstage antics and whether she is a feminist icon celebrating her sexuality or merely another young women exploited by a money-hungry patriarchy. Whatever your opinion on the matter, the fact remains that we’ve come a long way since Elvis’ hip action was considered too risque for television.)

Another ongoing local debate is London’s need for a performing arts venue. To make a long story short, our city is the only one of its size in Canada without a proper venue – but we still can’t seem to convince enough people that this matters.

So when I had the opportunity to interview Orchestra London conductor Alain Trudel about this season’s Opening Night, I couldn’t resist asking him what he thought Londoners were missing out on.

Alain Trudel

Alain Trudel had an unexpected answer for my question about a Performing Arts Centre.

His answer was not about the orchestra’s need for a hall with decent acoustics or site-lines. It was about the need for a place for the community to come together to make music.

I’m looking forward to continuing to share those community stories with Beat readers, both in regular feature stories and in my monthly Classical Q&A columns.  And if you’ve got an arts story that needs to be heard, please drop us a line! You can still reach me at thebeateditor[at]gmail[dot]com.

Writer’s Block

Or how I was almost stumped by a birthday speech  

Sometimes people ask me about writer’s block, and how I deal with it. “With deadlines,” is my usual answer.  It may sound flippant, but in almost a decade of freelance writing, I’ve never experienced complete paralysis before a blank computer screen.  As a mompreneur with limited uninterrupted hours for work, I simply don’t have time to procrastinate.

I usually don't have time for Writer's Block!

I usually don’t have time for Writer’s Block!

When in doubt, I take my own best advice:

  • Start at the beginning
  • Lead with the most interesting tidbit or…
  • Set the scene with a person.

It’s always worked, and I’ve never missed a deadline. In fact, pressure seems to get my creative juices flowing. Except for recently – when they froze.

Of course, this wasn’t any ordinary assignment. It was the occasion of my parents (joint) 145 Birthday Party, and my mother asked me to give a short speech.  Since I am a professional writer, the pressure was on to come up with something articulate, engaging, and memorable.

The problem was, I didn’t know where to start.

The pressure was on to write a speech for my parent's 145th birthday party.

The pressure was on to write a speech for my parent’s 145th birthday party.

So, I did what any self-respecting writer would do. I turned to Dr. Google.  “How to write a birthday speech” turned up a few corny examples and plenty of practical advice on structure:

  • Open with a welcome.
  • Share a few amusing or insightful anecdotes about the guest of honour.
  • Close with a toast.

It seemed simple enough, but I was still drawing a blank…and time was running out.

I decided to Google my parents to see what turned up. That gave me a bit of material to work with, but for some reason I couldn’t stop thinking about all the funerals I’ve been to this year.

For some reason the upcoming party made me think about all the funerals I've attended this year.

For some reason the upcoming party made me think about all the funerals I’ve attended this year.

 

So that’s where I decided to start – and then the words began to flow:

I recently commented to a friend that I knew I had finally hit middle age because I’ve been going to more funerals than weddings this year. It makes you realize that not every couple is lucky enough to celebrate their 145 birthday together, so it’s wonderful to have everyone here to share this occasion.

Mom and Dad, we are all here because you are a very special couple.

Always elegant, mom is the artist, the social organizer, the domestic general, and the type of person who can make friends wherever she goes, despite – or maybe because of –  her very  direct style of communication .  

The quintessential academic, Dad says he was too scared to leave school for a job in the real world.  A true opera-lover and would-be orchestral conductor, he is smart enough to take advice on his wardrobe to follow orders around the kitchen, and he doesn’t mind being introduced as the artist’s husband.

I never really understood what dad did for a living – other than forcing poor university students to write essay exams – but after a Google search I discovered that he has published more than 30 books and more than 250 papers. He even has his own Wikipedia page. Some blogger calls him ‘the world’s greatest expert on the history of monetary theory and macroeconomics since the time of Adam Smith.’ Not bad for a kid from Tyne and Wear.  Even I was impressed. 

But although dad may influence economic policy from behind the scenes, it was mom who cornered then finance-minister Marc Lalonde at a garden party at the Govenor Genral’s house in Ottawa – using me as a human shield – to berate him about proposed changes to the tax laws regarding artists and their unsold inventory. I like to think that she single-handedly saved Canadian artists from an unfair economic burden.

Together, they are definitely a formidable pair and make a fantastic team.

And now that you are both officially septuagenarians you might think that you have reached old age. But, I am happy to inform you that the baby boomers have banned that concept. It has been re branded  and is now called the Creative Age – because apparently while the ‘mature’ brain loses it’s short-term memory, it gains a greater capacity for holistic thought. 

So today, I propose a toast to a truly creative couple who are loved and admired by many.

To a couple who have been loving and supportive parents to me, goalie grandparents-in-training to Natan – and the all-time best dog-parents a pooch could ever hope to have.  We wish you health, happiness, and lots of love for another 145 years.

Have you ever experienced writer’s block? How did you cure it?

www.spilledink.ca 

Embracing the summer slowdown

Or what I plan to do on my Summer Vacation

Now that summer has officially arrived, the media is full of articles offering advice on how small business owners can make the most of the summer slowdown.

Summer slowdown

The summer slowdown is here!

Network, catch up on your business-related reading, ramp up your social media presence, revamp your website, and reassess your professional goals seem to be the most popular suggestions. They’re all great ideas – but here’s another one:

Turn off the computer, close the office door, and give yourself permission to play hooky from work and have some fun.

And that’s exactly what I plan to do over the next 8 weeks!

A wonderfully-busy work schedule, a tenacious winter cold, and some family health crises (thankfully resolved) have left me feeling tired and emotionally drained.  So I’ve decided to give myself the same kind of complete summer break enjoyed by people with ‘real’ jobs.

Of course, I do plan to catch up with colleagues over lunch, and I do have two feature stories and two websites to write before Labour Day weekend rolls around. But I won’t be spending the short summer months actively looking for my next gig.

Nicole Laidler, writing

I hope to spend plenty of time doing ‘nothing’ this summer!

It’s a scary thought for a freelancer used to living with one eye on the current project and the other on the lookout for the next.

My goal is to hit September refreshed, re-energized, and roaring to go. So here’s to the summer slowdown, and to having faith that my first fall blog won’t be entitled ‘Help – I need to find work!’

What are your thoughts on taking a self-imposed vacation?

To learn more about my writing life, visit www.spilledink.ca

Outside the comfort zone

If anyone had told me 20 years ago that I’d be spending much of my time interviewing scientists, I’d have told them to think again.

You see, I was a typical arts student – someone who quit science as soon as possible, right after Grade 10 Physics. Instead of learning the periodic table, I studied French, Spanish, History, Literature and lots and lots of Music.

I only took Grade 13 Calculus because my economist father insisted. For the record, I got an ‘A,’ although I can’t say that it’s ever come in handy!

Calculus

I got an ‘A’ – but still don’t know what this means!

So I’m pleasantly surprised at how much fun I’ve been having writing stories about some of the cutting-edge research being done at Western University.

In March, I had the opportunity to interview two members of the engineering department – professors Jason Gerhard and Greg Kopp.

Kopp is a wind engineer who works at the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory, where models of some of the world’s most famous skyscrapers and bridges are tested before being built.  I was there to ask him about his research at the “Three Little Pigs” facility – otherwise known as the Insurance Research Lab for Better Homes.

Three Little Pigs

Professor Kopp is working to make sure your home never gets blown down!

In a nutshell, Kopp and his colleagues get to build full-scale houses and then try to blow them down – mimicking and studying the effects of hurricane force winds. The point, of course, is to make recommendations to building code regulations that will make all of our homes safer.

You can read about his work here.

Then, it was time to think about toilets – or the lack of them in most parts of the world.

Professor Jason Gerhard is part of a team that placed third in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Their mission? To develop a cheap and effective toilet that runs without outside electricity or a sewer connection for the estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide who currently don’t have access to safe sanitation.

Toilet bowl

An estimated 2.5 billion people don’t have access to a toilet.

You can read about Gerhard’s contribution to the project here.

Was it scary to interview people who spend their lives working in disciplines that I have always done my best to avoid? A bit. But I did lots of background reading – on the professors, their projects, and the issues at hand.

It was fascinating to learn about their work, and fun to have the opportunity to ask all the ‘dumb’ questions necessary to write stories for a general audience.

And despite being a science neophyte, I guess I got most of my facts straight, because I’ve already accepted my next assignment!

The moral of this blog? That your comfort zone may be bigger than you think!

What’s the scariest story you’ve ever written?

www.spilledink.ca 

Game Changers – Or how to find the Rainbow Connection

One of my dear friends who works in fundraising recently invited me to join her at the official launch of the London Community Foundation’s 2013 Community Vitality Grant Program. With the title “Community Vitality – Game Changing Ways” and featuring keynote speaker, Seattle-based ‘community builder’ Jim Diers, how could I resist?

Jim Diers

Keynote speaker, Jim Diers, was invited to share his passion for community building.

I checked my cynicism at the door, and vowed to open myself to the possibility that this might be more than just another pie-in-the-sky session about how little London Ontario could become a ‘world-class’ city with a bustling downtown and thriving creative class.

Diers didn’t disappoint.

His presentation began with the refreshing acknowledgement that any discussion about community building cannot simply be about where we want to get, but must also be about finding the means to achieve our collective goals.

And he offered three key ideas to help us get there:

To change community, change how you play. 
Break down the silos that exist between non-profit organizations, and government departments. Focus on the whole place, rather than just one slice of the pie. In Seattle, this meant establishing a Department of Neighbourhoods with physical (not virtual!) branches in each area of town – a one-stop shop where residents can access information and city resources. Diers described Department of Neighbourhoods staff as “overt double-agents,” city employees who actually work for the good of their own neighbourhood.  

Shift your thinking from starting with needs, to starting with strengths.
This comment was directed at the many non-profit social agencies in the room. Too many times, Diers said, agencies focus on what clients lack, rather than what they already have. If you start with what people can offer they become citizens with something to contribute rather than faceless service users. Quite a radical proposition to offer a room full of people whose own livelihood relies on having a social problem to fix.

Move from top-down projects to community-driven initiatives.
This is where Diers offered an actual road map for turning collective dreams into reality. Seattle is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the city’s Neighbourhood Matching Fund. It’s a simple concept that has had powerful results:  if a neighbourhood has an idea for a one-time project and can rally enough financial and community support, the city will match the funds.  Diers showcased many Seattle success stories, including neighbourhood parks, community gardens, social housing developments, and even a youth arts program. My favourites were turning the top floor of a parking garage into an urban community garden, and a public art competition that transformed a derelict underpass into a tourist attraction.

Seattle Troll

The Seattle Troll turned a derelict urban underpass into a tourist attraction.

As Diers noted, community-driven development has several benefits over government-driven initiatives:

  • Implementation actually happens 
  • Government resources are leveraged
  • Appropriate development is encouraged
  • More holistic and innovative solutions are found.

That left the room to discuss the question: What would game-changers look like in London, Ontario?

Here’s my answer – and as someone who works in the cultural sector, it might surprise you:

Clean up our urban waterways so they are swimmable. This includes the Thames River and Fanshawe Lake.

Creating a public beach at the Forks of the Thames has already been proposed by city planners, and widely ridiculed in the media. But I’ve swum in almost every city in Switzerland, including downtown Geneva and Bern, as well as in many communities on the Bodensee (the lake between Germany, Switzerland and Austria), so I don’t see why we can’t do it here.

Rainbow Connection

I’ll continue to dream about a day when I can swim in the Thames!

Of course, cleaning up the Thames is a huge project that would take more than community builders to achieve. But I’m allowed to dream, and I know it would be a game-changer.

I’m sure many in the room had more practical ideas that could quickly come to fruition with some elbow grease and a London Community Foundation Community Vitality Grant, and I look forward to seeing them spring to life.

As for me, I’ll leave you to contemplate this photo from bern.com….

Bern river swim

Swimming in downtown Bern, Switzerland…those are the parliament buildings in the background.

What are your game-changing dreams for London?

Career advice from one to watch

Sometimes you meet people and you just know they are going places. Such was the case when I first ran into Andrew Schiestel several years back. I can’t remember the occasion, but his can-do attitude and positive energy made a lasting impression, and I knew he’d be someone to watch.

Andrew Schiestel, tbk Creative

Andrew’s positive energy is infectious and makes a lasting impression.

In 2008, when he and partners Misha Allard and Melissa McInerney launched their first business venture Tagged By Kindness – a gift card school fundraising project that tracks acts of kindness online –  I pitched a story to Business London magazine. The editor didn’t bite.

A few years went by and I noticed that Tagged By Kindness had quietly morphed into a web development and marketing firm called tbk Creative. And all of a sudden Andrew seemed to be everywhere, speaking about harnessing the power of social media to help firms grow their brand, and do good in the process.

Andrew Schiestel keynote speaker

Andrew is a popular speaker on the power of social media and branding.

When tbk Creative won a national award for a Facebook social media campaign I knew it was time to try another pitch – and by now I had discovered that Andrew was a graduate of Fanshawe College’s Police Foundations program.

Fanshawe College Alumni News accepted my query, and that’s how I ended up spending a few hours last summer asking Andrew about his winding career path and unconventional business approach.

You can read the full story here on page 22, but there are a few thoughts that have stuck with me since our interview:

If you’re young and still trying to ‘find your calling’ – don’t panic.
Very few people in their 40’s are actually doing the job they thought they’d be doing in their 20’s. (I am a perfect example.) As long as you keep moving in the direction you think you want to head, life has a way of working out if you’re willing to put in the effort.

You don’t necessarily need a degree to launch a successful career.
Andrew has no ‘official’ qualifications as a marketer, communicator, or web developer. But he’s smart, a real people-person, full of curiosity, and has a solid work ethic. And he surrounds himself with colleagues who are just as dedicated to excellence as he is.

Sometimes starting at the top is the fastest way to get to the top.
Andrew made a strategic decision to go after London’s top companies and institutions right from the beginning. He wasn’t deterred by some initial setbacks, and within six months tbk Creative was working with a handful of nationally-recognized brands. (And of course, once the first contracts were landed he made sure to deliver great work.)

Swallow your fear and just forge ahead.
Andrew gave me one of my all-time favourite quotes:

“I think fear is the great paralyser of people’s dreams coming true. I would say fear is normal. It’s in all of us, including myself each and every day. The goal should be to look your fear in the eyes, get comfortable with that feeling, and act anyways.”

It’s taken me a long time to embrace my professional fear, and it’s something I wish I’d learned how to do earlier. It’s great advice, and absolutely necessary for anyone hoping for a freelance career.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

www.spilledink.ca