Tuesday, June 29, 2010


When you're an only child, especially when you have older parents, extended family and friends take on special importance. When you're an only girl child with older parents, that importance triples as you and your parents age.

I come from a massive family, both maternal and paternal sides. I have 21 first cousins on mom's side and 9 on dad's, (plus another family that are cousins' cousins and just like family). Factor in my cousin's kids, and you get the picture... Geography meant that I was closer to mom's side growing up than dad's. Of  the 21, I am closest to the Allison boys. My mother and their mother were sisters, 13 months apart in age and closer than close. If we weren't at their house, they were at ours. All holidays, first communions, first brownie and boy scout...we spent it together. They were more like my brothers than my cousins, and we continue to be close. They lost both parents at a young age, and my mom has been their 2nd mom for years, and is grandma to their children. She's the only grandma their children know on that side of the family.

It's an odd business sometimes. I don't know what it's like to have real siblings, but I sure know what it's like to love someone like siblings. I remember feeling horribly hurt one time when one of the Allison boys was staying with us for a family wedding. His other brothers were all staying at a nearby hotel, but because he had a small child, he and his family opted to stay with us instead. One night, the rest of the family were convening for dinner, and my cousin staying with us was feeling put out and hurt, and blurted out something to the effect that he just wanted to have dinner with his brothers, his blood family. Since "real" family is a bit of a touchy subject when you're adopted, I suppose I reacted a bit more strongly than was appropriate, but I was still hurt. I forget that we don't share DNA, and sometimes, I forget that we don't share parents either.We've shared so many life experiences that I forget sometimes that we're not siblings. We certainly fight like it.

We've just had news that one of the 4 Allisons has a life threatening health problem. It's come out of the blue, and my mom and I are having a hard time processing it. On top of my mother-in-law's cancer diagnosis, it's been a bit too much to handle and to cope with.

You see, it's Murray. Of the four, Murray is the most like his mother. He has her gentle and kind nature, her patience and her ability to give you his undivided attention and make you feel like the most important person in the world. Murray is 7-8 years older than I am, but was infinitely patient with his pesky girl cousin who trailed after him wherever he went. Murray was my first dance partner, teaching me dance steps and dancing with me when I was just a little kid stumbling over my feet. Imagine how I felt, this teenage boy dancing with me. The last thing Murray tells you before he hangs up a phone call is "I love you."

Life circumstances sent Murray out to Field,BC when I was still a child. From then on, I kept up an annual Christmas letter that outlined everything that was going on in the family. I don't know if he read them or not, but I wanted him to be up on the family news. His wife, Cathy, told me he looked for those letters every year. When I finally met Cathy for the first time, she said she felt like she knew me from my letters. I knew that she had made Murray happy and I loved her because of it.

Murray and Cathy have had a rough go because their son has an aggressive form of MS. Allie went from a hockey playing, soccer kicking, planning a career in sports management, to a man who cannot get out of bed somedays because his leg won't work-literally. And now, Murray has a serious illness. The how and the why don't matter. The what now does, and it's serious.

Death is no stranger to my life, and I always knew that I would lose my "big brothers" at some point. I wasn't ready for it to be this soon.

I was already feeling pretty raw and stretched with my mother-in-law's cancer. We have ugly days looming on the horizon, and I simply don't want our family to have to go through what we will have to go through in the days, weeks and months ahead. I try hard not to let my husband see me cry for my mother-in-law. It upsets him, it upsets our daughter, and I need to be strong to support the rest of the family. My daughter was pretty upset the first time she saw her daddy cry. It won't be the last time, and I have to support both of them. 

My strength has left me with this news about Murray. He's "only my cousin", except no one told my heart that. He's been my surrogate big brother all of my life. We might have seen each other only a handful of times over the years but the heart doesn't recognize time or distance...only love.If it was humanly possible, and I needed him, he'd be on the next plane.

This wonderful country of ours can be a detriment when someone you love and you want to help and support is miles and hours by plane away. Instead of being able to stop by with food, or a visit, or a hug, I have to be content with a phone call or a blog post.

Murray taught me how to overcome personal adversity. Murray taught me that kindness and gentleness are not weak, but rather, strong traits to have. Murray taught me that there is no distance when it comes to loving your family. Murray taught me that dancing with a child is one of the best gifts you can give to that child. Murray taught me that even the bleakest situations can be overcome. And Murray taught me that you don't have to be "blood" to love someone like a brother.

I love you, Murray and I pray that all will be well.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pay the Writer

Jean Mills, my friend and colleague in the Professional Writers Association of Canada, is inspiring this post. She is an award winning writer-a real award winning writer, with a plaque and award money and everything. She is also a multi-published essayist for the Globe and Mail. But no longer. The Globe and Mail stopped paying for the Facts and Arguments essays, but they still take all the rights and use them however they choose. Here's Jean's take on it.

I wrote for nothing when I was starting out. It was a good way to build clips quickly. Then, I wrote for the equivalent of nothing because at the time, it was steady money and no one else was publishing me. Writing has an element of ego to it, and we are so darn happy to see our name in print that we sometimes take inadequate money because of it. There's nothing quite like a grown woman doing a happy dance on the driveway the first time your article makes the cover of a mainstream publication. I am ashamed to admit that I would write an average of 1500-2000 words a week for a column that was labour intensive, and received the princely sum of $50. Yep, $75 with pictures. Do the math...The local police departments loved me because I was writing about the criminal activity that doesn't always make headlines-the speeders, the drunks and the people who really should not be let out alone-you know, the ones that think it's okay to break windows or spray paint buildings. (although I had to laugh out loud at the Halloween prankster who wrapped a food inspection car in food wrap...come on, now that's clever.) When the publisher stopped paying me, and I finally had to resort to a collections agency to get the money I was owed, all of my pieces were pulled from the site, so I can't even show you what I did for that paltry sum.

Our local chapter of the Professional Writers Association of Canada was contacted the other day to provide some writing for a local business. The job description sounded interesting and promising-consumer information pieces on products, which would involve research, interviews etc-a mini-white paper for consumers rather than business to business. It sounded interesting until you checked the pay rate $5 an article. Turning on my computer costs me more than that.

So here's some things that you might not know about magazine writing:

  • The average mainstream publication in Canada-the ones that are in your local supermarket and that you recognize immediately, pay about $1 a word for feature articles. So a 1500 word article will earn the writer $1500. Sounds good, doesn't it. I've earned it. I like it. BUT-a writer is not paid for the time it takes to research the topic, the telephone charges to interview the experts or any of the other "production" costs in crafting the article. We are only paid for the finished product. 
  • Trade magazines pay considerably less than $1 a word.
  • $1 has been the standard rate in Canada for 15-20 years.
  • The average article takes at least 10 hours to craft, including research time, interviews, drafts, and revisions. Complex articles can take significantly more time than that.
  • Rights are a hot button topic with writers. In simple terms, rights are what a publisher can do with the article after they have paid the writer for it. Until recently, that meant that they got the right to publish it first in North America. After that, if they wanted to post it on a website, or in an anthology, or translate it into another language and print it again, or turn it into a chapter in a book, they had to pay the writer more money. That changed with the explosion of the internet. Now, more and more publishers want to use the article any way they want to...but they only want to pay the writer once. Did I mention that rates haven't changed in 15-20 years? Rights are how writers earn additional money. We always have more research and interview material than will fit in the article. Re-purposing an article from a different angle is stock and trade for writers. Now, however, a publisher wants "all rights" which limits what a writer can do with the article. Used to be, writers were willing to give up some rights in exchange for more money. Not anymore. (and I won't get into a very detailed discussion here. If you want to learn more, go to Badwritingcontracts.ca. ) 
  • Article factories like Suite101 and Demand Studios and a bunch of other ones are further undermining the business of writing. They pay pennies, and people write for them. A quick scan on Elance or a number of other freelance writing sites show people who are unwilling to pay industry rates for quality work. Writers should be happy with the "exposure". The editor for Facts and Arguments at the Globe and Mail rationalized the decision to stop paying writers because of the "national exposure" they get from being in the Globe. (and she said it to a roomful of writers) Exposure doesn't pay my bills. 
  • In contrast, corporate writing pays $50 an hour at the absolute minimum. We can charge upwards of $125 a page for web copy, and if you write white papers, according to "that white paper guy" Gordon Graham, you can craft one with 3-4 interviews, 10 hours of work and earn around $5K, with 50% paid up front. I made thousands of dollars in about 4 months working on brochures, member information and the like for a medical association that was launching.  Oh, and corporate writing pays you for the time to create the thing, not just the finished product. When we quote a project rate, we factor in the time it will take to create it, the interviews, the meetings, the telephone calls and the thought process.
I, and hundreds of my professional colleagues, make my living writing. More and more of us are turning away from magazine writing and working on corporate writing, white papers, business to business copywriting and the like. Writing a brochure on a widget might not the be most interesting thing to do, but I bet it pays a whole lot more than an article for a trade magazine on the same widget.  I love to write for magazines. It's challenging and interesting and I love to learn new things while I'm working on the topic. But I can't make a living at it any more. Our family finances cannot survive me working purely as a magazine writer, and that's sad. Like so many of my peers, I am now concentrating on finding corporate work. Sure, I still query magazines with story ideas, but I'm focusing my efforts on finding corporateclients.Writing is writing, and it is my business and my profession. I work from home as a writer to take care of my young child but I still need to contribute to the family coffers, or I'll be trying to write under a tree because we're living in our car, and my laptop doesn't have a charger that works on the cigarette lighter.

Writing is a profession.  Those of us who call ourselves "professionals" take pride in our work, take care in our research and work hard to craft an informative and clear piece. And yet, we are expected to be happy with "exposure." I somehow doubt that the publishing executives are doing their jobs for "exposure". I doubt that the lawyers who are doing their job by crafting the rights-grabbing contracts (and no, they are not the enemy) are completing their work for the rate of pay that writers are expected to accept. Hell, I bet the cleaning staff make more than some of the writers. It's not that hard to fathom:  without the writers, there is no publication.

It shouldn't be up to the writers to fight this fight alone. If you like a well crafted magazine article tell the publisher to pay the writers. If you enjoy carefully thought out, logically presented and well executed opinion pieces, tell the publisher to pay the writer. If you like humourous pieces that make you nod along in agreement and spit coffee in amusement, tell the publisher to pay the writer. It should not be this difficult for a writer to be paid a decent wage. Pay the writer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Writer Wednesday: Genuine. Honest. Integrity. Persona.

This post is once again inspired by Megan over at MisAdventures of a Work At Home Mom. It's also inspired by my experiences at the Magazines Canada/Professional Writers Association of Canada annual conference last week. I ran smack dab into other people's perceptions and it left me scratching my head.

Genuine.  My grandmother was a genuine person. By that I mean, she was honest, forthright and consistent in her opinions, her beliefs, her foibles and her traits. She loved her family fiercely, loyally, unquestioningly and protectively. That being said, she would not hesitate to comment if she didn't believe our actions were appropriate and she would kick our butts if we were acting like idiots. We knew without a shadow of a doubt that she loved us no matter what, but when grandma laid the smack down on you, you listened.  I have met more genuine people in the writers' association than anywhere else in my life.

Honest. I try to always be honest in my dealings with people. Life is too short for backstabbing or game playing. It's probably why I didn't do well in the corporate world and I would be a lousy poker player. People can read my expression.  I have had to learn to balance honesty with tact and soften the hard edges. Because I am honest, I expect others to be honest as well, and I have been sorely treated as a result.  I have not always lived my honest or true nature, though. For years, I didn't think that people would like the person that I was in reality, and so I became a chameleon, the class clown, the actor who would mask paralyzing shyness and introversion with an excess of extroverted appearance.  I still do it when I'm uncomfortable, which is anywhere there are large gatherings of people I don't know. I found out early that I could make people laugh. If people are laughing, they don't usually notice that the clown is not. Humour and wit, and the ability to make people laugh have always been my armour against insecurity and shyness.

I thought I'd gotten over it for the most part, but I found myself slipping into old habits at the conference last week. Instead of humour, I used my music and my singing, but the result was the same. I wrapped myself in protective armour, and felt a fraud as a result. I have probably been more honest in my relationships with the writers than I have in any other profession, but in person, the latent fear that they wouldn't like me in person, as opposed to my writing, resurfaced. By hiding in my music, I was once again the chameleon. This time, however, I was aware of it, and distressed by it, but powerless to stop. I have a ways to go.

Integrity. I think this is one of the most important character traits to have. My professional and personal integrity are vital to who I am as a person, and I am incapable of actions that challenge my sense of justice and integrity. I just won't go there and I will be very nasty if you expect otherwise.

Persona. I have many personae. There is the introverted, terrified person who dons masks and disguises to protect her from her expected rejection of the person she is. There is the mother, the wife, the writer, the singer, the daughter, the friend. There is the funny extrovert, the witty fraud masking terror with wit and humour.

And according to my professional colleagues in the Writers' Association, there is the competent, well-groomed, always put together person who is recognizable across the room, or from the back because of the posture, the grooming and the confident air. One of the writers said she knew me instantly because my hair was perfectly groomed as always ,and my outfit was perfectly put together. I looked at her like she was speaking ancient Greek. Surely she wasn't talking about me? Me, with the bangs that needed a trim and I didn't make it before the conference, the frumpy sandals because of two broken toes and the clothes in a size that I cry when I look at? Surely that wasn't the person she meant? Turns out, it was. It's not how I see myself, but it is how many others see me. I suppose that's a good thing, I just have trouble believing, especially these days, that when they refer to the competent, talented, well-groomed, put together person, that they mean me. I don't see it. I don't feel it and I have trouble believing it.

Customer Service Fail

Does this look like I'm having fun? This is a close up of my lower legs. The red spots are not freckles: they are bed bug bites. The ankles and backs of my legs are ten times worse than the fronts.

Last week, I attended the Magazines Canada annual conference, and Professional Writers Association Annual Meeting. I stayed at what is supposed to be a very nice hotel, mainly on the recommendation of people who stayed there last year.

By Friday morning, I was out in these welts that I thought at first was a reaction to the soap. Problem was, the welts ended where the pyjamas began, and are concentrated on my lower legs, ankles and feet.

A week later, they are gradually diminishing, but I'm surviving on Benadryl and Calamine lotion. Two pharmacists have confirmed the marks as bed bug bites. I have to let them run their course and heal. In the meantime, the itch is making me crazy.

I contacted the hotel and received what is most assuredly a form response. I wasn't asking for money back. I wasn't asking for special consideration. I wasn't asking for anything at all. I was reporting a problem that they need to rectify so that the next person who stays in that room doesn't get eaten alive.

In part, here's what the response was:
"I am obviously concerned that you are feeling unwell as a result of a possible insect bite, however at the same time I have to also state that this skin irritation can be a result of many things such as,  allergies to the soap used in our laundry process to insect bites as a result of being out doors.  I would also like to inform you that at this time the Hotel has had zero feedback in relation to other guests who have stayed in the same room as you and from other guests."
The hotel also stated that they have "a comprehensive set of room inspections and cleaning  procedures are in place to reduce the likelihood of this taking place.  Daily inspections of all mattress, head boards and bedding are taken and on a monthly basis we follow an aggressive Pest Control Program in each room."
Funny thing is, there's a sign beside the bed advising that the sheets are only changed every other day, and I happened to see the maid making up one of the rooms. She was in and out pretty quickly, and I didn't see any comprehensive inspection taking place. If you only change the sheets every other day, it's impossible to inspect the mattress daily. Besides, if there hadn't been issues in the past, they wouldn't have such a rapid e-mail response ready, would there?

My out doors interactions consisted of walking across the road to the conference centre, or down the road to the Eaton Centre and the PWAC after party. If I was reacting to the soap, it should be all over, and not just areas not covered by pyjamas. I'm pretty thorough in my scrubbing. If you google bed bug bites, I have all the characteristics of them. If you google bed bugs, Toronto, there are reported infestations all around the hotel.

In spite of the best efforts, sometimes things like bed bugs happen. We've all had bad experiences in a hotel, a restaurant, a store...but how many of us take the time to talk to the place in question? I was trying to help the next guest in that room by reporting my experience. I was expecting the hotel to react, not insult me and my intelligence with what was clearly a template response.

How a company responds to a customer complaint tells a lot about the company's culture. A simple "I'm sorry" goes a long way to mitigate and defuse a bad customer service experience. I understand the sensitive nature of my complaint-it's why I took the time to advise them in the first place. Adding insult to itchy injury escalated the situation. It's common lore in business that a customer will tell 5 people about a positive experience, and 10 about a negative one. When I received the response from the hotel manager, here's me, telling people about a negative experience.

I fired off a response after pondering it for a couple of days. I've suggested that if they are truly confident in that room's cleanliness, that they spend a few nights sleeping in it. They might want to stock up on Calamine lotion and Benadryl first though, and I wouldn't recommend sleeping nude. Just sayin'. You could end up looking like this all over your body.

And no, I'm not going to name the establishment publicly. I'm not that stupid. Itchy and irritated, yes, but not stupid.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An overview of MedicAlert. An interview with SVP Ramesh Srinivasan

I recently interviewed Senior Vice President of MedicAlert, Ramesh Srinivasan, about MedicAlert. I had no idea that MedicAlert was so much more than a recognizable, life-saving piece of jewellery.