Category Archives: Blog

Can an online writers’ conference work?

In August I attended the inaugural online When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers. Before COVID-19, the in-person WWC had been going strong for nine years in my home city of Calgary. I’d attended each year, but had doubts the online version would provide the same energy, networking, and learning opportunities. As a result, I didn’t give the weekend my best effort, but it made me see the potential for such online experiences.

My first inkling an online festival/conference might work came during the Zoom test for presenters. I had volunteered to sit on two panels. Like most of the festival, they took place on the Zoom platform. At the test, I recognized familiar faces in the screen boxes, many of them people I only see yearly at WWC. One of them sent me a private ‘hello’ through the chat feature. She added that she was excited about the weekend. I replied with a less enthusiastic, ‘It will be different.’

Different it was when I checked into my first panel on the festival weekend, 10 minutes ahead of time, as advised in the presenter guidelines. The virtual Zoom meeting room was already full of people discussing brain chemistry as related to writers’ block. This wasn’t my topic. Had I received the wrong meeting invitation? Then an attendee in one of the squares started rambling incoherently. The Zoom host said the person was a troll and deleted him from the meeting.

Trolls, I learned, are people who join pubic Zoom meetings solely to be disruptive. Anticipating this, the WWC organizers posted meeting links only one day ahead, but trolls still found them. This year WWC made the festival free and available to everyone, largely because they were new to the online game and didn’t know if the whole event would tank. If there’s an online event next year, they’ll be more confident of the quality and will charge a fee, to discourage attendees who aren’t serious.

My computer isn’t able to give me a virtual background on Zoom – this one would be fun!
Once my panel began, I found it comfortable to answer questions, which were channeled through a  moderator. Her face filled the screen, making me feel like we were having a conversation, although I missed looking out at an audience of people to get their responses. It’s hard to read faces in small boxes, plus most attendees turned off their video, so only their names appeared, and some Zoom hosts preferred to show only the panelists.

A Zoom panel might look like this

A benefit of online festival/conferences is attendees and presenters can come from anywhere in the world. One of WWC’s most popular presenters zoomed in from Greece. If you’ve always longed to attend a conference held far away, you can go without the cost of airfare, hotel and meals, which can add up to far more than the fee for a conference weekend.

Another benefit of the online WWC is that most of the sessions were recorded. The organizers are gradually reviewing them and posting them on Youtube and other formats.

At the festival, WWC held several Zoom socials and parties, which I stayed away from. This was a mistake. People who went said they were fun and sometimes broke into into smaller groups, so everyone would have a chance to get to know a few people well. As with most things, you get back what you put in. If you sign up for an online conference or festival, I’d advise treating it as though you were there in person. Get involved with as much as possible, including evening parties, which you can now attend dressed in pajamas from the waist down.

The WWC online festival was a huge effort and accomplishment to pull off. Feedback was positive. Some attendees said it was the best online writers’ conference they’d been to since COVID-19 began. Others said they liked it as much as the previous years’ in-person festivals. WWC is committed to hosting a festival next August and and are hoping to return to an in-person event, but with online components. Based on this year’s experience, a hybrid event would combine the best of both festival worlds. But if COVID-19 is still fully with us, WWC will be ready with an improved online version, hopefully without trolls. I’ll be there with enthusiasm, because I know now, if I give it my best, an online writers’ conference or festival can match the in-person experience.

Lougheed House Summer Haiku Contest

Last month, a friend coaxed me to enter the 2020 Lougheed House Haiku Contest. A seventeen syllable poem struck me as an amount of writing I could manage during a busy summer.

I checked the contest guidelines. No entry fee. They allowed three haiku submissions per person. Themes suggested were gardens, nature, Calgary community, and life during the pandemic.

Gardens made me instantly think of my next-door neighbour, who spends four hours a day tending her beautiful outdoor plants. One of her flower beds borders my front lawn. I started to think of this burst of colour as a connector between her and me during our pandemic isolation.

I knew haiku had lines, but needed the internet to remind me the traditional pattern is 5,7,5 syllables per line. My high school English teacher taught that haiku should refer to a season, although I gather that’s no longer necessary.

My thinking and research led to this haiku:

my neighbour’s garden

bursts colour beside my yard

links us through summer

The contest required entrants to include a video of us reading or reciting our poems. I nabbed my husband Will for a cell phone recording. I stood behind the front yard flower bed and had to speak loudly to be heard, while resisting the urge to check that no one was passing by and watching me strangely.

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After I drafted this first haiku, Will and I set off on a bike ride to downtown Calgary. While pedaling by the Bow River, I mentally composed a haiku about how the pandemic closure of cafes, bars and gyms inspired people to go for walks along the river; a healthy, easy and free activity. We made a recording at our lunch spot beside the Bow River. Then we biked through a park and passed a group of women sitting in a circle of lawn chairs placed two metres (6.5 feet) apart, Canada’s social distancing recommendation.

I realized the phrase ‘two metres apart’ is five syllables – the ideal haiku first line length!

To suit the contest themes, I placed the ladies in a garden. I liked the slightly archaic word ‘ladies’ for a contest sponsored by Calgary’s historic Lougheed home. Drinking tea also evokes the past to me and what do ladies discuss at a garden tea? Their gardens. Present and past blended into my next haiku:

two metres apart

ladies sit in the garden

drink tea, talk flowers

Will and I recorded this haiku in my neighbour’s back yard. Since the video was too large to save to my computer, we uploaded it to dropbox. I sent my three haiku to the contest.

A week later, I got the word that my poem ‘two metres apart’ placed first in the Lougheed House Haiku Contest and ‘my neighbour’s garden’ received an honorable mention. The contest judges commented that they appreciated the garden imagery, since the Lougheed home is known for its splendid Beaulieu Gardens.

The Lougheed House is posting the winning haiku recordings on its social media. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter.

Writing the haikus was fun and an opportunity to reflect on the links between gardens, people and the pandemic.

I thank my good friend

& historic Lougheed House

for inspiration

WWC Online Festival Starts Today – It’s free for everyone!

Every August for the past nine years, I’ve attended Calgary’s When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers. I’ve loved the festival’s energy, learned about the writing craft and book promotion, and acquired new readers and writing connections. When this year’s in-person event was cancelled due to COVID-19, the organizers decided to go online. The festival happens this weekend. It’s free and open to everyone.

I wasn’t sure I’d get involved with the online version of WWC until I saw the first draft of the 3-day program. The organizers invited past presenters to fill vacant spaces on the proposed panels. Several topics grabbed my interest and I was given spots on these two panels:

Ten Things I Wish I’d Known When you started writing, what assumptions blocked your progress, lead you down dead ends, or limited your opportunities and experiences? Panelists share their initial faulty thoughts that slowed their journey into the writing world. 
After almost 30 years of writing, I wish I knew a few more things and hope to learn them from my fellow panelists. I’m familiar with all three from past WWC festivals and they’ve achieved success in their widely-varied directions. Our panel will take place on Zoom, Friday, August 14, 3:00 pm. All you need to do to attend is go to the WWC website and click on the event link in the program PDF. No registration or payment required.

My second Zoom appearance will be on Saturday, 1:00 pm, Access Denied: A panel for writers on how to handle rejections and critiques, and communicate with editors/agents/publishers,

The agent on this panel will have a lot to share. I’ve become an expert on this subject during the past 30 years — but I’m still standing!
When I’m not on a panel, I’ll be cruising the WWC program for other panels, presentations and activities to attend. There will be up to five choices every hour from 1:00 pm Friday, August 14th, to 5:00 pm Sunday, August 16th. A number have already caught my eye:

Meet the Mesdames of Mayhem: Fresh from their award-nominated CBC Gem documentary, meet the writers with a century of combined killing time and learn how they freshen up their crime sprees for the 21st century (Sat, 2:00 pm).

Medical Errors and Tropes: A bullet in the shoulder that doesn’t hit anything important? Knock-outs without actual damage? Induced comas? What is realistic and what is not? A discussion of common medical mistakes and questions in fiction (Sat, 3:00 pm).

Plus a couple of panels on editing, which I’m in the midst of doing now for my novel-in-progress.

Two fellow BWL authors will also be involved this year.

Nancy M Bell: Blue Pencil Café
Pitch Sessions
Editors: When Can They Help and How? (Sat 12:00:00 pm)
The Dos and Don’ts of Successful Pitching, (Sun 3:00:00 pm)

David Poulsen: Crime Thru Time (Sat 4:00:00 pm)
From the Mean Streets to the Deadly Wilderness (Sun 1:00:00 pm)

At last year’s WWC festival, David and I participated in a fun panel with two other Calgary area crime writers.  For a (virtual) taste of what you’ll get this weekend, you can listen to the podcast of High Crimes in Your Own Backyard.

Me (right hand side) on a panel at last year's festival
Partying at a previous When Words Collide festival. This year, WWC is hosting a virtual pool party.

The Spanish flu in Calgary, Kansas and the World

COVID-19 piqued my interest in the Spanish flu, which devastated the world from 1918-1920. This led me to place library holds on several e-books about the subject. The first one available was More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War by Kenneth C. Davis. This short book, aimed at young adult readers, turned out to be an excellent primer on the pandemic. It taught me a lot I didn’t know.

The Spanish flu was first noticed in Haskell County, Kansas in January, 1918. Two months later an outbreak appeared in a Kansas army training camp. More outbreaks erupted at other camps in the United States as the country prepared to enter World War I. US troops brought the disease to Europe and passed it on to other allied soldiers and civilians. German soldiers picked it up from allied prisoners they released.

Crowded sleeping area at Naval Training Station, San Francisco, California

Both sides in the war supressed news reports on the disease, to keep up morale and not let the enemy know their troops were weakened. Spain was neutral in WWI, which freed journalists to broadcast reports on the new disease striking their fellow citizens, including the king of Spain. The name Spanish flu stuck. To this day, Spain would like that error fixed. I might suggest calling it the Kansas flu pandemic, but the World Health Organization now recommends that we no longer name diseases after places to avoid the negative effects on nations, people and economies. To add to the controversy, some researchers speculate the Spanish flu originated in France, China or the eastern USA. Recent studies on recovered samples of the virus suggest it was initially transmitted by a bird.

Unlike most viruses, the Spanish flu, H1N1 influenza A virus, attacked a disproportionate number of healthy, young adults. One theory for this is that their strong immune systems overreacted. Another is that an earlier strain of the virus gave many in the older generation immunity. It’s now estimated that the Spanish flu’s four waves killed close to 100 million people worldwide , about 1/20th of those alive at the time. It is history’s second most lethal pandemic, after the Black Death.

Sprinkled through More Deadly Than War are stories of historical figures who contracted the disease. In addition to the Spanish king, Walt Disney and artist Edvard Munch recovered. US President Donald Trump’s paternal grandfather was an early victim. According to the family account, Frederick Trump was walking down a New York City street, when he suddenly took ill. He died the next day. The cruel virus tended to act swiftly. Some called it the three day fever.

Was Edvard Munch’s agonized painting “The Scream” partially inspired by his suffering from the Spanish flu?

The primary advice in 1918 for escaping the Spanish flu sounds familiar to people living through COVID-19 today.

  • Wash your hands.
  • Maintain a social distance.
  • Avoid crowds.

A friend sent me links to my home city Calgary’s history of the Spanish flu. We know the precise day the disease arrived – Oct 2, 2018, when a train from eastern Canada brought patients to Calgary’s isolation hospital. Unfortunately, the measure didn’t isolate the disease from Calgary residents. An estimated 38,000 people in our province of Alberta contracted the Spanish flu; 4,000 died.

Poster in 1918 Calgary, courtesy Glenbow Museum

Will my interest in the Spanish flu filter to my fiction writing? I’m mulling potential ideas for my next Calgary mystery novel.

Featured Author Rerun

On June 19, my publisher, BWL, ran a featured author post by on the BWL website. Here it is, for those who missed it. I talk about my three published novels, including my Calgary Stampede mystery, Ten Days in Summer. It feels nostalgic now, with the Stampede cancelled this summer.


I’ve loved mystery novels since I read my first Bobbsey Twins book when I was eight years old. From the kid sleuth twins I progressed to Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and, later, Agatha Christie whodunnits and Daphne Du Maurier dark suspense. I wrote my first mystery novel, A Deadly Fall, as a classic whodunnit combined with a coming-of-middle-age story. My amateur sleuth, Paula Savard, age 52, stumbles into investigating the murder of her childhood friend. The story events shake up Paula’s personal and professional life and lead her in new directions.

On the principle of ‘write what you know,’ I set the novel in my home city, Calgary, and created a protagonist similar to me. Paula was my age at the time I wrote A Deadly Fall. Like me, she grew up in Montreal and moved west to Calgary for opportunity. She’s an insurance adjuster; I worked as an insurance claims examiner. But as our shared traits diverged, Paula became her own person. She’s divorced; I’ve now been married for 42 years. She has two grown up daughters; I have two sons. She enjoys sports and risk. I like reading and run from danger.

Here’s Paula with the novel’s prime suspect, her murdered friend’s husband. He’s invited Paula to lunch to learn what her friend had told her about him.


Paula would reassure him and make it clear her friend had told her nothing. He would be on guard, but, perhaps, less guarded than he’d be with a cop. There was a chance he’d slip.

He was waiting for her reply. His face said, ‘Yes, no, either way, I don’t care’ while his hand opened and closed into a fist, opened and closed against his shaking leg. He was hanging on her answer. Saying ‘no’ would close the door. After talking with the police, she could cancel.

“I can do lunch tomorrow,” she said. “Where? What time?”

“Your choice,” he said.

She thought of a nearby restaurant. “Do you know Lily’s Café?”

“I’ve heard of it.”

“Noon. I’ll give you directions.”


While writing A Deadly Fall, I realized that an insurance adjuster would make a good series detective. Adjusters are skilled in investigative work. They visit accident and crime scenes, interview witnesses and study forensic evidence to determine what really happened. Insurance claims could also reveal cover-ups for murder. Was the building fire an accident? Did an arsonist set the blaze to collect the building insurance? Or to kill a person sleeping inside?

A suspicious house fire is the subject of my second Paula Savard mystery novel, Ten Days in Summer. Paula investigates the fire from the property insurance angle. In the course of her work, she gets to know the family living in the house and gradually unearths their secrets. I set this novel during Calgary’s annual wild west festival, The Calgary Stampede. For ten days each July, Calgarians cut loose, wear cowboy hats and boots, party, line dance, and cheer on the daily rodeo and chuckwagon races. Paula’s mother from Montreal is visiting her this summer. Paula takes her to the Stampede parade, which kicks off the festival. In the midst of the revelry, business intervenes, when an insurance claimant/suspect returns Paula’s phone message to set up a meeting.

Stampede Parade

Belly dancers, in halters and pantaloons, whisked guns out of their holsters. They twirled the pistols around their fingers and shot imaginary bullets into the air.

“A blend of the old and new Calgary,” Paula said to her mother, who was seated on the lawn chair beside her. Over the past few years, Paula had noticed more and more newcomers’ floats and acts in the Stampede Parade. Today, Asian, Muslim and Caribbean communities would march with descendants of the original pioneers.

Her cell phone rang. Brendan Becker.

“Great of you to call,” he said. “I’ve been bugging my sister Cynthia to contact the insurance company.”

The belly dancers moved on. A bow-legged man wearing riding chaps bounded toward Paula and her mother. He moved his arms in circles.

“Cynthia refused –”

“YAHOO,” the cowboy shouted.

“YAHOO,” the crowd answered.


“YEE-HAW.” Paula’s mother joined in.

“You sound like you’re at the parade,” Brendan said against a backdrop of trombones.

“You too?” Paula said.


While working on his second mystery novel, I got an idea for a different suspense/mystery story. Calgary engineer Julie Fox travels to California to search for her mother who abandoned Julie when she was a child. This novel, To Catch a Fox, would alternate between five viewpoint characters. As the story progressed readers would understand the harm and danger the two ‘bad guys’ plan for Julie.

My husband Will and I researched setting descriptions on two holidays in Southern California. Yes, writing can tough sometimes. Julie stayed in the Airbnb apartment Will and I rented in Santa Monica. All of us rented bicycles from a shop on the boardwalk. Julie questioned a clerk in the shop.


Julie hesitated, feeling foolish to hope the clerk could provide any information about her mother; yet how wonderful, how easy would it be if he did.

He looked up, his eyes bleary red, and asked what type of bike she wanted.

From her waist pouch, Julie pulled out the three pictures of her mother she’d brought. “I’m looking for this woman, who once worked in a bike shop in Santa Monica.”

“This shop here?”

“I’m not sure. It was in the late 1980s. Was this place operating then?”

The man’s grin revealed a gold front tooth. “Beats me. I only bought the joint two years back.” He picked up the pictures.

“Could you put me in touch with the previous owner?”

“Not likely. He’s dead.”

Bike shop on the Santa Monica boardwalk

After BWL published To Catch a Fox in 2019, I returned to my mystery series. I’m currently working on the third Paula Savard book, Winter’s Rage. Paula investigates a hit and run collision that killed a woman and seriously injured her husband. Was it an accident? Or a pretext for murder? The insured vehicle owner, an eighty-five-year old man recovering from heart surgery, insists he wasn’t driving.


“I can’t tell you more than what I told the police,” he said. “Them showing up at my door yesterday was the first I’d heard of anything.”

“Our insurance perspective is different from that of the police.” Paula had explained over the phone that she was the independent adjuster assigned to the claim, but repeating that could insult him, and rightly. So far, he’d impressed her as being mentally on the ball.

He leaned forward, lines flaring from his nose bridge. “When they talked about my car being in an accident, you could have knocked me down with a feather. I haven’t driven for two months. Doctor’s orders.” He rapped his chest with his gnarled hand. “I was sitting right here, reading, that whole evening until I went to bed.”

“At what time?”

“About 9:30, my usual these days.”

“It was your birthday,” she said.

“At my age, that’s nothing to celebrate.”


Every book publication is something to celebrate. BWL has scheduled Winter’s Rage for publication in February 2021. After the celebrations, I’ll move on Paula Savard mystery # 4, which will be set in spring, the season of hope.

I Can’t Write the Future Anymore

On March 10th, I began the third draft of my novel-in-progress, Winter’s Rage. Unlike my two previous mystery novels, this story shifts between three viewpoint narrators and two time periods. For reading ease, I placed a header at the start of each chapter with the narrator’s name and the story month and year. For the main storyline, the date was January, 2020. But this March I thought, since the book won’t be published until next year, why not reset it in 2021 to make the novel more contemporary? Later, I could insert any minimal changes needed or specifics to highlight that future date. I had done this easily for my earlier books to help bridge the time gap between starting a novel and its publication. In fact, draft #2 of Winter’s Rage was written months before January 2020.

So I changed the headers for my first few chapters to January 2021, started revising, and realized I couldn’t do this. In March, the effects of COVID-19 hit Canada with full impact. International travel shut down. Empty shelves, lineups and changed protocols appeared in grocery stores. Museums, restaurants and group activities closed. Each day brought a new development that I hadn’t considered the day before. I couldn’t predict what my world would be like the next week, never mind ten months in the future.

Even now, three months later, I don’t know what daily life in January 2021 will be like in Calgary, my home city and the setting for my mystery novels. Will we have a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 by then? Probably not, but if I assume this and a miracle happens I’d have to significantly change any story I’d write now. And if COVID-19 is still with us, what rules, guidelines and customs will Calgarians experience in January 2021? Will schools be open, or will students continue to study online? Will we all be wearing masks? In lockdown or moving about fairly freely, keeping our social distance? What percentage of people will be working from home, or be unemployed? Will our economy have collapsed, flattened or revived with a renewed flourish? Will national and international travel be open? Will Canadian snowbirds travel south, as usual, to warm, sunny destinations or hibernate at home?

We can all make guesses, but no one is sure enough about life in Calgary next winter for me to portray it in the novel I’m in the process of finishing now.

I returned to the first chapters of Winter’s Rage and reset the date to January 2020, when I and many others lived in the old normal, oblivious to what lay a month or two ahead. As I revised my manuscript, ordinary behaviours I’d included struck me as strange in our current time. Characters shake hands when they meet for business. Some touch people who don’t live in their own households. I’m sure they often stand closer to each other than two metres (6.5 feet or, in Canadian terms, about the length of a hockey stick).

Paula, my insurance adjuster sleuth, visits insurance claimants in their homes. No one thinks twice about inviting her into their living room. In an early scene, Paula helps a claimant prepare hot chocolate in his kitchen.  The man is 85, recovering from heart surgery and at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19. He and Paula pass each other mugs, utensils and the can of chocolate powder without hesitation. In these details, my novel and others set at the start of 2020 will chronicle our society immediately before everything changed.

Too close

Winter’s Rage is book three of my murder mystery series. Since the first and second novels were set in fall and summer, the one thing I know about book four is that it will take place in spring, to complete the Calgary seasons. Since it won’t be published for a couple of years, I’d expected to set the story next year or later. Then I thought, with no travel on the horizon, I might have time to start the first draft this summer, writing by hand on my back yard patio. The novel could take place this spring, while we’re experiencing the height of COVID-19 restrictions. Why not portray this unique time in a fictional murder mystery story? The current social mood even fits what I have in mind for Paula at this point her life. Uncertainty. Fears. Isolation from loved ones.

But how can I have dramatic interactions between Paula and suspect strangers when everyone with something to hide has the perfect excuse to tell her, “Stay away, I won’t talk to you in person?” How does an insurance adjuster/detective do her job without meeting people face to face? I’d better start researching this before life returns to a new normal and people forget the details of this peculiar time we’re living through.

Social distancing on Hunchback Hills, Alberta. In the past, my hiking club would squeeze together for a group photo

E-biking Through the Pandemic

COVID-19 prompted my husband Will and me to buy e-bikes. Our thinking was that with most of our usual activities likely to be gone or restricted this summer, it would be good to expand the ones we’d be able to do. This included cycling. We’d always enjoyed getting out on our twenty-five-year-old bikes and hoped electric bicycles would let us ride longer and farther and handle steeper hills.

I didn’t quite know what an e-bike was before I bought one. Since then, I’ve learned they have motors that provide pedal-assist. You still pedal the same as with a regular bike, but get more for your effort. E-bikes can go up to 32 kilometres per hour (20 mph) to be classified as bicycles, not mopeds. After each use, you plug them in to recharge the battery.

The motor makes e-bikes heavier than regular bicycles. Usually the battery is attached to the frame. We chose models with built-in batteries and aren’t much heavier than our old regular bikes. This will make them easier to load in our car for outings and easier to ride if the battery ever runs out. I’m especially glad we got the lighter bikes after hearing about a friend’s holiday in Paris. During her first day of renting a heavy e-bike, it toppled onto her and broke her leg.

I chose an upright cruiser style, with a comfortable seat and handy front basket.

Will and I bought our bikes at a local bicycle store, which has been doing a steady business this spring. Some companies are thriving during the pandemic and I see lineups outside of every bike shop in Calgary, where I live. We walked to the store to pick up our e-bikes, rode them home, and tried them out on our quiet, flat neighbourhood streets. The next day, we went for a longer ride on a city bike path, with a hill I previously couldn’t ride all the way up. Half way, I’d have to get off and walk my old bike. On the e-bike, I cruised to the top, passing a group of fit-looking riders in their twenties. What a thrill for a senior citizen!

Will chose a racier model. We’ll enjoy the lunch box on the back for picnics. On a ride to downtown, we had our first look at Calgary’s kayak course on the Bow River.

Calgary enjoyed a couple of weeks of fine weather after we bought our bikes. Will and I took them out every day or two. We conquered numerous hills we’d have struggled with or walked up before. I could still feel the cardio exercise as I pedalled to the crest. We could also do longer rides, to parts of the city we hadn’t previously biked to from our home. I returned feeling less tired than I used to from my regular bike rides, although my sore muscles suggested I’d had a workout.

I’m still cautious about riding a more powerful bike. Wind from the higher speed makes me cooler when I ride. I’ve had to wear more layers of clothing this spring, but this might make biking on hot summer days more comfortable. My e-bike has nine gears, which are easy to change with the paddles on the handle. The power level button on the frame is trickier to use. I still haven’t got the knack of pressing the button 1,2 or 3 times to shift the power up or down while riding.

Colourful, layered clothing in the cool wind.

E-bikes aren’t cheap. Ours were in the lower price range and each one cost more than Will’s first car. But with this spring, summer and probably fall of non travel, e-bikes turn staying at home into a vacation. When Calgary’s weather warms up again, we plan to load our e-bikes into the van and ride in the rolling countryside, tackling hills with ease. Not much beats coasting to the top, leaving those twenty-somethings in our dust.

Home At Last

Looking at this makes me hungry
The final day of our drive from Ottawa to Calgary, I treated myself to a maple glazed donut with my morning coffee break at Tim Hortons. Will enjoyed a hot chocolate. Thank you, Tims, for providing restrooms and caffeine boosts for us essential travellers. After our stop in Swift Current, the temperature dropped in the Saskatchewan countryside. We passed fresh snow on the fields beside the road.


Our next highlight was a scavenger hunt through Medicine Hat, Alberta, to find a Subway restaurant for our takeout lunch. We plugged the first one into our GPS, which directed us to a suburban shopping mall.  The restaurant was closed. The next closest one was across the highway. It was open, but the clerk said the restrooms weren’t working.

We continued our quest to Subway # 3, downtown. The GPS announced that we’d arrived, but we couldn’t see a Subway sign. We followed the riverside, past a splendid train station in the historic downtown, and crossed the bridge to the next Subway. Closed. We plugged in Subway #5.

Medicine Hat historic train station

Its neon ‘open’ sign glowed. We pushed restaurant door open. Eureka!

“Can we use your washroom before ordering?” we asked.

“Go ahead.”

Armed with our foot-long tuna sandwich, we left the town and decided our best bet for a scenic car picnic lunch was a range road. We turned off at the first reasonable one and parked at a wide point in the road with a distant view of Medicine Hat. As we took out our sandwiches, a pickup truck rumbled behind us and stopped.

Range road lunch spot

“Do you need help?” the driver asked.

“We’re just here eating lunch.”

“Okay.” He smiled and drove onto the highway.

After lunch, we were into the homestretch of our five-day journey across Canada. One more stop in Bassano for gas, restrooms and a non-memorable snack from the convenience store. Approaching Calgary, we saw the  skyline. Soon we were cruising the Deerfoot Trail, in no-longer-rush hour traffic. Minutes later, we turned into our neighbourhood and drove by our fitness centre, its parking lot empty. To our right was our library., closed; our mall, closed except for Shoppers Drug Mart; our Safeway grocery store, thriving, but changed inside by the new social distancing protocols.

Now I’ve been home for five days and find the restrictions easier to handle in my own place. Will and I feel less isolated here in our familiar surroundings and with opportunities to meet neighbours on the street, from a safe distance. We can each do a variety of activities around the house and yard, as well as clean up the crumbs in our car from the picnic lunches. In Ottawa, we didn’t have our bicycles. Yesterday, in beautiful spring weather, we rode around Calgary’s Glenmore trail and I’ve rarely seen it as crowded. All of sudden, everyone has discovered walking. Who knew it existed and could be fun?

Glenmore Reservoir, still mostly frozen

Shout Sister

Shout Sister Ottawa
This winter, a friend coaxed me to join her choir. This wasn’t something I’d thought of doing since high school. During my childhood and teens, I belonged to choirs at school and church. I enjoyed them and continued to like singing alone or at occasional public events, despite my diminishing vocal quality. No longer able to hit the high notes, my range became limited to about five notes. My voice cracked and stained by end of each song. The tones fell flat, to my own ears.

My friend got into choir for something to do after she retired. Before then, she’d had no interest in singing and, unlike me, hadn’t taken piano lessons as a kid. She explained that some choirs required auditions. Others don’t, including Shout Sister, her all-female choir.

She gave me printouts of lyrics to her group’s current roster of songs. Leonard Cohen., Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles; my long-time favourites. I had spare time and was looking for activities this winter, since I was away from home in Ottawa, helping a relative through medical treatment.

“I’ve arranged for you to try out the choir this week,” my friend said. She’d also convinced the  administrator to give me a special rate if I decided to stay, since I’d only be there for part of the year.

“Okay,” I said, because she’d gone to all this trouble.

Wednesday afternoon, we drove to her choir practice at a local church. About seventy women, mostly seniors like us, stood in a horseshoe shape facing the choir leader. No sheet music. The notes  rose and fell with the leader’s hand, a method of music reading I found easy to follow.

The meeting brought back memories of my youthful choirs. “Don’t interrupt the line of music by taking a breath.” The director echoed my earlier choir leaders. “Sustain the last note.” The large group sang harmonies that sounded lovely to me. I found myself able to sing all the notes. Either the organizer selected songs suited to amateurs or she arranged them for unpracticed female voices.

Best of all, for those two hours of song I forgot my worries about my family member’s health challenges. The choir had me hooked.

I looked forward to the weekly sessions. After two months, a woman I talked to during the break  convinced me to participate in the next week’s concert at a retirement home. Performing with the group was fun and gave a new dimension to choir practice. Our concert ended with the 1970s O’Jay’s anthem, Love Train, which urges people around the world to join hands and form a train of love. At the rousing finish, we were supposed to join hands with the person beside us. Some of us did; others refrained.

The following week our choir session was cancelled due to COVID-19. It soon became clear we wouldn’t be singing for weeks and months. Then the organizers set up practices on Zoom, a virtual meeting site that has taken off in this time of home isolation.

I’m not swift with technology and worried I wouldn’t figure out Zoom, but with a little advice, Zoom worked easily and well. Now, I follow the leader on my computer screen, while thumbnail pictures of choir members appear along the top or side. During breaks, I switch to gallery view, with thumbnails filling the screen. The first two weeks, over fifty members signed in each time. I’ll miss week three since I’ll be driving from Ottawa, west across Canada to my home in Calgary .

At the virtual Zoom session, the director puts us all on mute, since the system can’t co-ordinate our voices. I discovered my voice doesn’t sound as good alone as I sounded to myself with the group. It still cracks and strains for those high notes.

I wouldn’t want to start with choir online, but virtually continuing with familiar faces and songs was more satisfying than I’d expected. Again, for those two hours, choir brought me out my despondent mood. For the first time since this mass isolation began, I felt that most of us won’t be permanently damaged and we’ll return to our humankind.

Shout Sister operates in numerous Ontario locations. Ottawa has three branches, with our afternoon group the most recent sister. Here’s a YouTube video of one of our older sister groups performing Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, a song our newer group learned this year.

Shout Sister Ottawa \’Stand By Me\’

I have several friends in Calgary who belong to choirs. A year ago, I asked one of them what he gained from being in a choir. He said, “When you sing together, you make each other so much more.” I agree.

Day Four: Sunshine on the Prairie

On day # 4 of our drive from Ottawa to Calgary, we set out from Winnipeg in sunshine. By now we had our routine down pat. Stop at Tim Hortons mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon for a coffee/tea/hot chocolate/donut and restroom break. Stop at some point for gas and restrooms. The plan never worked exactly right. Some of the gas stations closed their restrooms to customers and we had to find an alternate place. In the outskirts of Regina, usually reliable Tim Hortons was only open for drive-through customers. We went next door to the Esso convenience store, where Will bought a litre of chocolate milk as compensation.

Wapella lunch spot

Our lunch routine involved buying a sandwich at Subway, after using their restroom. We usually ordered the 12 ‘ daily special to share, topped with veggies, with pickles on my half, and then looked for a scenic place for our picnic in the car. Today, we drove into Wapella and parked facing the small town’s Centennial Park, which was open to wander through. While it was still too cold to eat at the picnic table, the temperature rose on our way to our 4th night’s destination, Moose Jaw. For the first time on this trip, it was warm enough for a comfortable walk outside. Our Moose Jaw hotel backed onto an unfenced golf course. Will asked the reception desk clerk if we were allowed to walk on it.

“I guess so,” she said. “Why not?”

“Sometimes there are rules about being in public parks.”

“Hmprh,” she said. “I hope all this ends in a few weeks.”

Don’t count on it, we thought.

The next morning, a different reception desk clerk told us she was really glad to see some travellers.

“It’s essential travel,” I said, not wanting her to think I was doing this for fun.

From my limited experience of small town Manitoba and Saskatchewan, provinces with relatively low COVID rates, I think they’re generally following the protocols, but the peoples’ hearts aren’t in it, since they don’t feel personally threatened yet. Will thought the hotel and restaurant clerks in suburban Winnipeg were more relaxed about the rules than their counterparts in Ontario. Our Winnipeg hotel clerk grazed his hand as she passed him our room keys.

Moose Jaw golf course walk

After our pleasant walk on the Moose Jaw golf course, it was time to order dinner. Once again, our first choices of restaurant either didn’t answer the phone or their websites said they were temporarily closed due to COVID.  Then, I remembered seeing a Humpty’s restaurant across the main street into town.  It turned out to be open for takeout. Will and I easily jay-walked across the street, which would normally be busy at the end of a work day. To honour the rule of minimizing people in restaurants, Will went inside to get our order while I waited in the sunny, empty parking lot.

This was one of many moments, since #stayhome began, that I’ve felt like a nuclear holocaust survivor, who emerges from her underground shelter to find her city’s buildings, streets and playgrounds largely intact, but its people and activity strangely absent.