A sad day for Canada, but an exciting one for new journalists

Newsroom headlines

The developing top story on QNet News (the student-produced news website at Loyalist College) on display on the overhead monitors, on a very busy day in our newsroom today.

A brilliant former Montreal Gazette colleague of mine who is now, as of the start of this academic year, a professor of journalism at a university, posted something rather poignant on Facebook at midday today: “It is so weird not to be in a buzzing newsroom right now.”

She was referring, of course, to the shocking (and as of the time of her posting, still very much unfolding) events in Ottawa, when shots were fired in the halls of Parliament and a young reserve soldier with his whole life in front of him was shot and killed at the National War Memorial. As I write this, several hours later, I think the whole country is still trying to wrap its collective head around the very un-Canadian events of the day. And mourning the death of that soldier, whose smile is so dazzling in all the photos.

My former colleague’s post referred to the fact that she is in academe now, as opposed to a professional newsroom. Both she and I have been in newsrooms on so many days like today, when shocking events catch everyone by surprise and it is necessary to dispatch a vast team of reporters to cover them, to co-ordinate and manage the coverage, and to ensure that the news as it develops is posted as quickly and as accurately as possible online and, eventually, in our newspaper. While the events of such days are, unfortunately, almost always tragic, the adrenaline rush you get from working through them and helping bring the news to the world is like nothing I can describe.

So I could certainly relate when I saw my former colleague’s post, right after I had emerged from the cocoon of teaching a class of first-year journalism students at Loyalist College about writing leads for news stories. And I came this close to adding a comment to her post, along the lines of “Me too.”

But then I stopped and looked out the door of my office, toward the centrepiece of the journalism program at the college: our own newsroom. And it was a scene of non-stop activity, full of students monitoring social media and websites and TV screens, taking notes, making phone calls, preparing to head out to nearby Canadian Forces Base Trenton to report on what impact the day’s events might be having there, prepping radio newscasts, and producing a constantly-updated running report for QNet News, the website made up entirely of our students’ journalistic work. And I thought: “Wait a minute! I am in a ‘buzzing newsroom’!”

Newsroom in action

All hands were on deck in our newsroom today as everyone worked on local angles to the huge story of the shootings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

As I hastened into that newsroom to offer to help (providing a brief break for a colleague, Robert Washburn, who had been in the hot seat directing operations through the morning), I thought: “I’m right at home here. This is what I do.” And in the midst of all the activity, I offered up a brief thanks that my own transition from professional journalist to journalism teacher had landed me in a place where the focus is on practical learning – on teaching students to become multiplatform journalists by working with them as they actually produce multiplatform journalism. Or (to quote a slogan I knew well in my Queensborough youth – the slogan of 4-H clubs, of which I, as a young rural person, was a member more than once): as they “learn to do by doing.”

The other thing I took away from today is how exciting it is to see young journalists experience and work on a huge breaking story for the first time. Our team worked so hard, and did such a good job. The adrenaline in the room was palpable, and it fired up the reporters and editors. At the end of the day they were excited and proud of the work they’d done, and justifiably so.

My heart broke late this afternoon when we got word that the soldier who had been killed had been identified as 24-year-old Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. Not just because it was just such a damn stupid waste; it was really because of the reaction of one of my students, who was preparing to do the 5 p.m. radio newscast. “He was 24,” he said softly, shock and sadness in his voice. “Twenty-four. That’s just a year older than I am.” Suddenly it was very, very real. For him. And for me.

This evening, my heart was again touched, by another one of my students. It was warmed to the core by his post in our program’s Facebook group: “Wanted to say it was great working with everyone involved with the Ottawa Situation. Was a nice taste of the real job.”

For a veteran journalist like me, there’s probably not a thing in the world better than to see these brand-new journalists find out about the thrill, the scariness, the realness, the rawness, the demands, the stress, the fun and – perhaps most of all – the teamwork of covering news.

These young people will go far. I am very, very proud of them.

Stirling butter, found in all the best places

Stirling Butter

So there Raymond and I were, in a hipper-than-hip butcher shop in Toronto’s Kensington Market called Sanagan’s Meat Locker, and what do I find but a splendid display of Stirling butter, made right here in central Hastings County!

When I was growing up here in Queensborough, my mum always bought Stirling butter because, well, it was the local butter. So did pretty much everybody else. And we never thought too much about it.

Vintage Stirling whey butter wrapper

Here’s something funky the internet just coughed up: a vintage wrapper from when the Stirling Creamery produced whey butter under the name Hastings (rather than Stirling). This takes me back to my childhood days!

When I returned to this area a little less than three years ago, I was delighted to learn that the Stirling Creamery was very much still in business in the pretty little central Hastings County village of Stirling and that it was still – sorry; I can’t help myself – churning it out.

One of the first issues that Raymond and I picked up of the excellent Country Roads magazine featured an article (by a local writer and blogger who was subsequently to become a good friend, Lindi Pierce) on the storied past and successful present of the Stirling Creamery. (Unfortunately that article doesn’t seem to be available online, so I can’t share it with you.) Raymond and I have been faithfully buying Stirling butter ever since our arrival at the Manse, and we have often remarked upon how good it is.

And we aren’t the only ones! In the past couple of weeks, I’ve spotted Stirling butter for sale in the trendiest of trendy Toronto food shops, at the St. Lawrence Market and in Kensington Market. Not, mind you, as one of several kinds of high-end butters for sale: as the only butter for sale to the foodie connoisseurs. That is pretty impressive.

Need more convincing of how great our local butter is? Check out this article from the Toronto Star that notes (among other things) that a while back Saveur magazine named Stirling one of the world’s top 30 butters.

Oh, and I would also like to point out that the gorgeous new packaging that Stirling butter came out with just a few years ago (which you can admire in my photo at the top of this post, and even more here) was designed by our friend Mimi Maxwell, a Toronto designer with a strong connection to the Queensborough area. Isn’t that cool?

Stirling Creamery

Here’s a nice photo of the Stirling Creamery, right in the heart of the pretty village of Stirling. The photo comes from a brilliant blog I’ve just discovered called Seasonal Ontario Food (seasonalontariofood.blogspot.ca), which is filled with recipes to help you eat locally and well.

Now, lest you dare to say (as I probably would have in my childhood here, when my mum was first buying Stirling butter) “But it’s only butter!” – let me tell you about my days living in France. The French are positively reverent about their butter, I learned; often they will visit a high-end cheese shop to purchase freshly made salted or unsalted butter, rather than buy it in a supermarket. Half of a good baguette sliced horizontally and slathered with top-notch butter is considered a treat. And with good reason! I learned while living there how good butter can be – and have had a taste for the good stuff ever since.

A taste that, I am delighted to say, is fulfilled in world-class style by our friendly local creamery. Aren’t we lucky?

I have moved to the land of high-priced dry cleaning. Who knew?

dry-cleaning bill

$34.75 for three items of dry cleaning? What the heck is that all about?

When Raymond and I moved to the Manse a year ago, I was prepared for some variations in the cost of things between here in rural Ontario and very urban Montreal, where we came from. I knew that hydro, for instance, is a fair bit more expensive in Ontario than in Quebec – Quebec consumers being well-served by the huge water-powered operations of Hydro-Québec, which take full advantage of the province’s natural resources in that regard. I knew that car-insurance rates would be different, and braced for them to be higher. (Which they were.) I knew that wine prices at the LCBO are generally a few dollars cheaper than at the Société des alcools du Québec, which is a very good thing. I liked the fact that the sales tax is lower here in Ontario.

One thing I did not expect – that never would have entered my mind to expect – was the sky-high cost of dry cleaning here. What, people, is that all about? Is it really so much more expensive to operate dry-cleaning machines in Belleville than in Montreal?

I say Belleville because as far as I know there are no dry cleaners in our immediate area – that is, Madoc or Tweed. There are businesses in those two central Hastings County places where you can drop off and pick up your dry cleaning, but it is sent to Belleville for the actual work to be done, and my understanding is that the cleaning prices are set by those Belleville companies.

The first couple of times I took items to the cleaners in Belleville – taking advantage of the fact that I work in that small nearby city – I was surprised at the prices. Ten dollars to get a simple knee-length unpleated skirt cleaned seemed like an awful lot. In response, since Raymond in those early months was back in Montreal for one thing and another fairly often, I tended to send dry cleaning with him, so it could be done at the place that’s up the street from the house we still own (because it hasn’t yet sold; would you like to buy a nice Outremont condo?) in Montreal.

But now that we’re here in Queensborough almost all the time, and because the dry cleaning was starting to pile up a bit, I figured I’d better get some done locally. So last week I dropped off three items – a plain (i.e. unpleated, unfrilly) dress, a pair of men’s trousers, and a plain skirt. They were done and ready for pickup two days later, which was great. But my eyes bugged out of my head when I saw the price tag: $34.75!

People of Hastings County, perhaps you are used to paying these exorbitant dry-cleaning prices, and so perhaps they don’t seem exorbitant to you. But based on my experience living elsewhere – they are.

For comparison’s sake I tried to find a price list for my local dry cleaner in Montreal, but its prices, sadly, were not available online. I did, however, find a price list for another Montreal chain; it’s here, and it’s very comparable to what I’m used to paying. So using those prices, I calculate that the bill in Montreal for my same dry cleaning order would be $4.50 for the trousers + $8.75 for the dress + $4.50 for the skirt, which adds up to $17.75; when you add the taxes (a hefty 9.975% in Quebec sales tax, so $1.77, plus the 5% GST, 89¢) the final figure is $20.41. Which is about what I had expected to pay for my three items of dry cleaning the other day, and why I was so horrified when the price was almost $15 – 70%! – higher than that.

You know what this makes me feel like? Well, if you said it makes me feel like opening a dry-cleaning business, charging lower prices than the competition and probably making a bundle thanks to my satisfied customers, you’d be close. But I don’t think I have the time for that entrepreneurial enterprise, so sadly, that’s a non-starter. (Though if anyone else would like to try it, you will have your first customer in me.)

No, what the experience really makes me feel like is this: like I’ve been taken to the cleaners.

Some old-fashioned excitement comes to Queensborough

Old cars 1

Okay, Queensborough may be quaint, but this is not a sight you would normally expect to see. What’s the story? (Photo from a video by Marykay York-Pronk)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in Queensborough, you just never know what interesting thing is going to happen next. Why, if it’s not a deer coming for a visit, it’s a procession of cows through the village. And now here’s the latest thing: a parade of very old cars. And I managed to miss it!

There I was, ensconced in Toronto for the weekend for a couple of long-awaited big-city special events, when I happened to check my Facebook feed yesterday afternoon. Perhaps you can imagine my surprise when I came upon a brief video from our friend Marykay that showed a very familiar scene – Queensborough Road west of our hamlet – and a very unfamiliar sight on that scene: a whole bunch of Model A and Model T cars! Heading for Queensborough!

Old cars 2

More of the vintage cars on the road to Queensborough. Amazing! (Photo from a video by Marykay York-Pronk)

I couldn’t help asking Marykay, in my comment on her post, whether she might have temporarily stepped back in time. I sometimes think that Queensborough has a bit of a Brigadoon-like quality to it; every now and then you almost do feel like you’ve been magically transported to another era. I am pretty sure Marykay knows the feeling I’m talking about, because it seemed to give her a laugh. Anyway, she responded that the cars had been spotting driving around Queensborough before they all showed up on the road west of town, and she said that even though her video shows about half a dozen of them, there were more than that in total.

Old cars 3

This bright-red model is one I particularly wish I’d been around to see. (Photo from a video by Marykay York-Pronk)

Gracious! I didn’t know there were that many operational Model As and Model Ts in the vicinity. And to think they should all show up in Queensborough!

Then again, given the aformentioned Brigadoon-ness of our little village, maybe that’s exactly where one would have expected them to show up.

Anyway, I’m hoping one or more readers might know more about this most interesting visit to Queensborough. Who were those people in the cool old cars, and what made them come see us? And more to the point: when are they coming back? I don’t want to miss it next time!

Clackers: the stupidest (and most painful) toy craze ever

ClackersDo you remember Clackers? If so, do your wrists hurt when you think about them?

Clackers were a sadistic toy that became popular in the early 1970s, if memory serves. During the peak years of my childhood growing up here at the Manse, in other words. Every household with kids had them; I think they were popular enough that they might even have been sold at Queensborough’s two general stores. They were good clean inexpensive fun. But stupid!

Why stupid? And why sadistic? Well, here’s a post on an entertaining Facebook group to which I subscribe, called 1960’s and 1970’s Advertisements (never mind that the apostrophes are in the wrong place, she says, donning her editor’s hat) by one Kurt X Fischer that explains it quite well:

Today’s fun toy from our Lacerations Department is the infamous Clackers. These hard acrylic orbs were popular on school grounds and were bought in the millions by kids of all ages. The only issue they had, other than thousands of bruises, was the high speed orbs would shatter, sending very sharp high-velocity shards of Chinese plastic through the air, possibly blinding anyone within 30 yards.


A photo of Clackers from the website Banned Toy Museum – which informs us that they were banned in 1985. Good riddance!

That about sums it up, Kurt; thanks! Yeah, the story about Clackers – which I think may have been an urban legend, because neither I nor anyone I know ever saw it happen – was that the brightly coloured acrylic orbs would sometimes shatter, sending dangerous shards every which way, notably toward nearby pairs of eyes. But a far more real and present Clackers danger was the bruises that Kurt mentions: you could clack away at those suckers for maybe 30 seconds at a time, but eventually you’d lose the rhythm and they’d lose their trajectory and one of those hard acrylic orbs would slam into your wristbone at high velocity.

And you’d say, “Ow!” And then you’d say to yourself, “I’m never doing that again.” But everybody around you would be clacking their Clackers, and those orbs in motion were such interesting-looking (and -sounding) things, and… you couldn’t resist. You’d try it again. And bruise your wrist again. And again. And again.

Man, were we dopey!

Thunderbirds: to a small kid, a terrifying lot of TV puppet heroes

ThunderbirdsIn the last few posts, I’ve found myself reminiscing about pop-cultural phenomena from my childhood here at the Manse, phenomena that even to me seem a very long time ago. There was that prose poem we all had on our wall, Desiderata; and the disastrous ad campaign of the Trudeau Liberals in 1972, The Land is Strong; and even that stupid and downright dangerous toy craze, Clackers. What’s next? Chez Hélène?

Well, what’s next is in fact a TV show, but it’s not Chez Hélène. That classic 15-minute-long weekday CBC show for kids will have to wait. (Until I can remember the name of the mouse who played a fairly significant recurring role, along with Hélène and Louise.)

No, the show I’m talking about is Thunderbirds. And all I have to say about Thunderbirds is this: I found it utterly terrifying.

Do you remember it? Thanks to its Wikipedia entry I have learned that Thunderbirds was filmed (and, presumably, aired) between 1964 and 1966. I was a very young child then, which probably explains why I couldn’t make head or tail of the rocket ships and other technology that its story lines featured. And perhaps also why its characters, who were puppets, were so scary. Puppets that look like ventriloquists’ dummies (as opposed to, say the Muppets) are scary, if you ask me. Like clowns are scary. Those puppets’ expressions never changed, no matter what the circumstances. Their eyes were always open, unblinking. Their bottom jaws moved woodenly when they “talked.” It was beyond creepy.

However, because I couldn’t make head or tail of the show the first time around, all those years ago, I found it interesting just now to read Wikipedia’s explanation of what Thunderbirds was all about: “It follows the exploits of International Rescue, a secret organization established to save people who are in mortal danger with the aid of technologically advanced land-, sea-, air- and space-rescue vehicles and equipment, headed by the Thunderbird fleet and launched from a hidden island base in the South Pacific Ocean. The main characters are ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy (the founder of IR) and his five adult sons, who pilot the Thunderbird machines.”

As someone who was, in childhood and well beyond, fascinated by the Apollo program and the early astronauts, I was also intrigued by this tidbit: “Jeff is a widower whose five adult sons – Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon and Alan – are named after Mercury Seven astronauts: Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Virgil (Gus) Grissom, Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard.” (You can read my nostalgic tribute to the astronauts, occasioned by the death last year of Scott Carpenter, here. And hey, Thunderbirds, what about Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton?)

Anyway, aside from the cool reference to my astronaut heroes, I still think Thunderbirds was wackadoodle and scary. Am I alone in having been freaked out by that show?

“The Land is Strong” – a dud ad, but a classic. Where is it hidden?

Trudeau and flag

In 1972, Pierre Trudeau and his Liberals informed us that under their stewardship, the land was strong and we should re-elect them. The message didn’t go over very well. But why can’t we find that message on the internet today?

So were you by any chance puzzled by the oh-so-Canadian reference I made at the end of last night’s post? If you’re not Canadian, or not that interested in politics – or perhaps more to the point, not old enough – you might not have smiled as I did even as I inserted that reference to the theme of a political advertising campaign that is widely considered one of the most disastrous in Canadian history. It was, of course, “The Land is Strong.”

That was the theme Pierre Trudeau‘s Liberals chose to try to persuade Canadians to leave them in power in 1972, four years and a bit of a hangover after all the excitement of Trudeaumania in 1968. Oh man, remember Trudeaumania? I only barely do, but word of it did indeed get as far as us at the Manse here in Queensborough. And it was pretty cool.


Trudeaumania in 1968: Canadians were wild about this charismatic intellectual who’d emerged from Quebec. Those were heady times!

Anyway, the now-legendary (and not in a good way) TV ads that the Liberals ran showed lovely photos of Canada’s scenery, while in the background a female crooner languorously urged us to “Take time. Take care. The land is strong.”

It didn’t work. The Liberals lost their majority in Parliament, and only barely squeaked by the Conservatives. Meanwhile, the Land is Strong ad campaign was loudly mocked all across the country, by political commentators, comedians, and ordinary Canadians. And even today, it can – I hope; that’s why I made reference to it – draw a wry smile from those of us who remember.

But speaking of remembering it, I have an urgent question: How can it be possible that this now-iconic piece of Canadian political advertising is nowhere to be found on the internet? How can an outfit that will give you five billion cat videos at the touch of a button not be able to drum up those early-’70s images of Canada and the soothing singer’s voice assuring us the land is strong? It’s an outrage! Surely to goodness the CBC or somebody has a copy of that classic ad. Herewith my shoutout to whomever that may be: Cough it up! In the name of history!