Plot Twist



I take it back.

When it began to snow a few days ago, I cavalierly told a friend I doubted it would last, and that this was just a taste of the winter yet to come. After a weekend that can only be described as a fall snowpocalypse, I recognize winter has arrived and has no intention of departing.

It seems it is just the latest plot twist in what has been a Fort McMurray year filled with them.

It’s a bit surreal at times, like we are living in some made-for-television melodrama in which every episode includes an unexpected pivot of the story.

The examples are endless.

Plot twist: a community that had become so accustomed to forest fires that it had grown a bit complacent about them suddenly finds itself under one of the largest evacuation orders in Canadian history, and almost 90,000 people flee.

Plot twist: local hero firefighter beats cancer into remission, but just hours after returning home from extensive and exhausting treatments is driven from his home which is then lost to the flames – and then his cancer returns.

Plot twist: local canine superstar who rode to fame on the back of a motorcycle returns from another of his infamous trips with his owner and dies just days later of an undiagnosed tumour after being unable to secure emergency veterinary services.

Plot twist: a friend’s house survives the flames, only to be destroyed days later in an explosion that levels several homes.

Plot twist: the firefighters fighting the flames lose their own homes to the very same fire they are fighting, but bravely battle on.

Plot twist: the tens of thousands who evacuated come home almost a month later to a landscape and a community forever changed, realizing the crisis hasn’t ended but really only just begun.

Plot twist: the very same media that once dismissed a community as the home of crime and drug abuse and the last stronghold of a “Wild West” mentality suddenly tells stories of it’s fortitude, courage and resilience

Plot twist: the region becomes famous not for the “tar sands” industry (as those outside the region are prone to calling it as opposed to oil sands) but for a natural disaster virtually unprecedented in our nation.

It is, in a word, dizzying. Frankly, it is perhaps the least believable television series ever aired, the kind where viewers would throw things at their screens as the latest absurdity was revealed by scriptwriters who clearly think they can stretch the limits of credulity.

Except this is no television series, and these plot twists are our lives.

It has been an entire year of plot twists, and many of them have not been positive ones.

But there have been other plot twists, too.

The remarkable bravery shown on May 3rd and the following days. The way neighbours help each other in new ways and with renewed intensity. The way we all look at each other, knowing that we have shared something both tragic and unique and compelling and, in some very bizarre and terrible way, special.

The truth is that life is a series of plot twists. So many of our favourite adages, like the ones about our best laid plans, focus on the fact that life rarely, if ever, goes the way we think it will. Just like the quote in Jurassic Park, “life will find a way” – but in this case it will find a way to surprise us, enlighten us, teach us, floor us, amaze us and sometimes even bring us to our knees.

And that is life, filled with crazy plot twists and unusual characters and moments that are sad and funny and sometimes both at the same time. What a boring existence it would be without these plot twists, even though when they are occurring we likely wonder why we are being subjected to yet another one.

It can be hard at times to remember that nobody is writing this script. Unlike television, there is no crafting of especially dramatic moments just to thrill the viewer; this is simply how life unfolds sometimes. And what we take away from it?

Well, that is up to us.

Plot twists happen. What matters is how we respond to them, and whether we allow them to break us or make us.

And the next plot twist? Well, that is unknown, of course. All that is known is that there will be one.

Because there always is.


Winky’s Everlasting Ride


The first time I saw them, I was pretty sure it was some sort of mirage, a trick conjured up by my mind. The second time, I acknowledged they were real.

The third time, I knew there was a story there just waiting to be written, and I knew I had to write it, because the goggle-wearing, motorcycle-riding German Shepherd and his human best friend were clearly the kind of tale that needed to be told.

And so I did, showcasing the dog – Winky, as he was called – and his best friend/owner Sandy in my column in Your McMurray Magazine.

Last night Winky, after a brief and as yet unexplained illness, passed away.

I read the news in utter shock and horror, because despite his age of ten years, Winky was a remarkably healthy canine and in excellent condition. But there was more to my sorrow than just that, because Winky was more than a dog.

Winky was one of those things that are best about Fort McMurray.

Winky and Sandy went on long adventures, Sandy piloting the motorcycle as they headed south and Winky wearing his goggles and grinning the entire time. Winky and Sandy made friends and fans across Canada and the United States, and their notoriety simply grew over time because there was no way one could ignore the two best friends who rode together in such harmony, despite being different species.

When I interviewed Sandy and Winky, I was bemused that not only Sandy but Winky seemed nervous, as people being interviewed often are. Winky, just like an anxious person, paced the room and seemed a wee bit edgy until all three of us settled into a nice chat. The truth is that Winky and Sandy were so tightly bonded that Winky knew Sandy was a little nervous about the interview, so Winky was too, and when Sandy relaxed and eased into it so did Winky, resting his soft furry head on my knee at several points and gazing into my eyes with his huge puppy dog ones.

It was one of the most remarkable interviews I have ever done, because it was the first. and perhaps only, time I have interviewed a dog. And the crazy thing was that the dog seemed to know he was being interviewed.

I watched with delight as Winky and Sandy attracted more attention, which drew even more people to their fundraising for the Fort McMurray SPCA. The dynamic duo raised thousands of dollars, doing so quite independently, and based on nothing more than the pure whimsy and charm of a motorcycle riding dog and his best friend.

Along with thousands of others, I followed their adventures, and I laughed at Winky’s antics. More than anything I marveled at the strength of their connection, and the beauty of the human-animal bond so clearly evident between them.


And last night, I cried.

Winky was an ambassador for this region, the kind marketers and tourism companies dream about. He and Sandy traveled the continent showcasing the best of Wood Buffalo – compassion, friendship, generosity, innovation and a brave spirit.

Our community is facing a veterinary care crisis at the moment, as the wildfire in May and a recent building fire have left our three local veterinary clinics deeply impacted. Last night, Sandy was unable to secure the services of an on-call emergency veterinarian, and this simply compounded an already troubling tragedy. Since last night I have swung between tears of sorrow and anger, and the desire to lash out has been quite profound, but anger will not bring Winky back. I hope, however, the loss of Winky serves as a catalyst to ensure this issue is addressed immediately, because while we lost Fort McMurray’s most famous canine last night, I fear other pets – including my own – are at grave risk as long as this situation lasts. To do anything less than everything that can possibly be done to ensure emergency services are available would be a tremendous disservice to Winky, his memory and his legacy. As someone who managed veterinary clinics for a decade, I believe this is a critical moment for their professional reputation in our community – but for the moment that is all I will say about that, as I do not wish to sully the memory of Winky with anger.

And that’s because it was impossible to feel anger around Winky. When you saw him, one could only smile and laugh, because how could you feel anything but joy when seeing a dog wearing goggles and smiling, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, as he and his most loved friend zoomed down the highway?

And so that is the sentiment I choose to carry with me today. I honour Winky’s memory by remembering him in his trailer, goggles on and ears flapping gently in the wind. I remember the way he and Sandy spoke to each other without speaking, so deeply connected that they were quite clearly family, not pet and owner.

My deepest condolences go to Sandy, who has become a friend and for whom I would do pretty much anything, as he is one of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever met.

I would encourage those who wish to honour Winky to do two things: hug your pets, and donate to the Fort McMurray SPCA, the cause Sandy and Winky have been so devoted to.

And maybe a third thing.

Remember Winky. Remember a dog who loved to ride, who hopped into his trailer behind that motorcycle at every opportunity and who lived life with zest and joy and exuberance and like a giant puppy even when he was ten years old.

We can all learn something from that, I think.

If heaven is real, and there are motorcycles, I am betting there is now a trailer there with a resident goggle-wearing German Shepherd going for his everlasting ride.

Good night. sweet Winky.




Go the Distance

It’s late in the evening at a dark and rather dingy pub. He sits on a bar stool at the front, tucked up close to the bar, but facing a small gathered audience of admirers. He’s just finished a rollicking good tale about his cousin and his uncle, and while the laughs are still quieting down someone calls out: “Whatever happened to your uncle and cousin?”

His eyes search the crowd, and then, in a southern drawl that is almost undoubtedly adopted just for the occasion given his Canadian heritage, he slowly says: “Son, I said I was telling a story about my uncle and my cousin. I never said it was true.”

There was a moment of silence and then more laughs, as he has truly had us all believing a rather fantastical familial tale.

Yesterday, at the age of 81, W.P. Kinsella, author of books like “Shoeless Joe”, which became the movie “Field of Dreams”, died at the age of 81. Reports say it was a physician-assisted death, and that sounds about right as the man I met both lived his life and wrote on his own terms.

I met Kinsella years ago in that bar, but I’d been an admirer long before. There are those who might be surprised at how I revere his work, given his tendency to write about topics like baseball and my general lack of knowledge of such things, but Kinsella didn’t write only about baseball. He wrote about life.

A few years ago when the Fort McMurray Public Library asked me to participate in their “Fort McMurray Reads” panel, the book I chose was “Shoeless Joe”. You see, I felt it wasn’t just the story of baseball or Iowa or a man who builds a baseball stadium in a cornfield; it was the story of the kind of plucky courage and tenacity that makes people believe they can achieve the impossible. I felt it was the perhaps the most compelling parallel I had ever found of the story of Fort McMurray and the people who live here. Fort McMurray was the kind of place where if we built it, they would come; and they have.

Yesterday we lost Canada’s Mark Twain, a storyteller like no other who had both the kindest smile and the most acerbic wit.  It is a loss indeed, and the world will be just a little bit quieter without that voice in it.

This morning I pulled a book off my shelves. I read the inscription and felt myself pulled back into the past, into a dingy pub and a late night chat with an author who had touched my soul.

“To Theresa,” it reads. “Go the distance. Bill Kinsella”

When he signed the book that night so many years ago, W.P. made me promise I would do what he wrote in the inscription. 

And so I have, and so I will.

Thank you, Bill. For everything.

Smoke Damage

I am in my shed, four months later. For the most part, my life has returned to normal; there are no scorch marks on my house, no melted shingles and no red flame retardant. I open a bin of seat cushions, one that has been unopened for a year, and out spills not only the contents but a sharp, acrid odour, one I have come to recognize well since my return to Fort McMurray on June 3rd.

Smoke damage.

It happens at the most unusual times and in the most unexpected places, a sudden quick reminder of a day that has ever so slowly begun to recede into my memory instead of appearing in my every day thoughts. The smell of smoke, not of campfires but the odour of burnt memories and homes, is quick to bring it all to the surface again and remind me of how much has happened since that fateful day in May.

I was lucky, so much luckier than so many others. My home escaped the flames, but I did not escape the fire, as in some way I too am smoke damaged, not burned perhaps but still altered by an experience outside of what I once considered to be possible.

I think in the aftermath of May 3rd I am both stronger and more fragile than ever before. The simple smell of a freshly mowed lawn can bring me to the brink of tears; a quick glimpse of kindness can make my heart feel filled to the brim with joy.

I don’t know how to describe this as anything other than some sort of growth, thrust upon me perhaps but growth nonetheless. But with this growth has come some pain. There is, undoubtedly, some residual smoke damage.

There was a point when I thought I would one day return to “normal” – you know, the person I was on May 2nd, 2016. It has taken four months for me to comprehend that this is never going to happen, and I will never be that person again, because what has happened to my community – to me – has altered me.

There are so many different experiences and different perspectives; they are as unique as we are, the intriguing collection of people who have chosen this northern community as our home. I know there are those who are struggling to get through every single day, and it breaks my heart to witness it; I know there are those who have returned to lives virtually untouched and who seem impermeable to the events of the past four months.

For myself, I have managed to go days without saying the word fire, and there have been times when it has been quite far from my thoughts, but the truth is that in some way it is omnipresent. I suspect to some degree it always will be, and accepting this has been both the hardest and simplest part of the entire experience.

I pull the bin of seat cushions out of my shed, and leave the contents outside in the cool air overnight. The next morning they are almost as good as new, covered with a soft sheen of fall dew, but with an ever so faint smell of smoke clinging to them. They are quite usable, and they will be good for many seasons to come, but they are also forever altered.

They are smoke damaged, just like I am and just like the city I have come to love with a ferocity that astonishes even me is. But it is the kind of damage that doesn’t mean the end; it’s the kind where a reminder of the past exists even as you move into the future. I fluffed up the pillows, placed them on my deck chairs and sat and listened to the birds while my neighbour mowed his lawn. As the sweet smell of green grass filled the air, the faint smell of smoke simply faded into the background; still there but not centre stage.

And maybe that, in all its simplicity, is all I truly need.



I suppose I have not yet written about it because it makes me feel ever so slightly sick when I think what could have happened. But for a twist of fate – or a moment of listening to my instinct – things could have been very, very different.

I have written often about my experience on May 3rd, but I have left out one pertinent detail: I was not supposed to be in Fort McMurray on that day.

Every few months I travel to Edmonton to visit a corneal specialist, a trip I usually combine with some shopping and leisure time; this spring, my appointment date was for May 4th, and I had intended to leave very early on the morning of May 3rd. My hotel was booked and I was ready to go – except that on May 1st things began to change.

I was working a shift at the Spring Trade Show on the Sunday afternoon, and as I walked back to my office after the trade show ended I noted the increasing smoke filling the sky. From my office window I saw the a bleak darkness beginning to form, and as I walked to the parking lot I noticed ash falling on my car; I didn’t even have a chance to start the engine, though, before I received notice that some of our neighbourhoods were being evacuated. And I was sitting in the parking lot of the evacuation centre. I pulled out my keys, tossed my stuff back in my office, and headed in to help in whatever way I could.

The next morning, when I returned to my office and a building which was now officially an evacuation centre, I went into my boss’s office and told her I would be postponing my Edmonton trip. I said it was because I felt it was not a good time to be away, which was true, but if I was very honest it was also because of my instinct.

There was a time when I ignored my instincts. I assumed that instinct was of less value than intellect. In recent years, though, I have learned to listen to instinct; those gut feelings were far more often right than wrong. I began to understand that my intuitive sense was stronger than I ever realized, and that it was tapping into something my conscious mind did not and could not. I had begun to not only listen to it, but allow it to guide my decisions, recognizing that even if my instinct was on occasion wrong that I would never regret having followed it; and on May 2nd my instinct told me that I could not leave on the morning of May 3rd.

I am not psychic, nor do I claim to be. I had no way of knowing what would happen on that date, but I sensed that I should not leave, and so I was here when things began to fall apart. I cannot imagine if I had been in Edmonton, hours away, unable to evacuate my dog and my cats. I cannot imagine not having been here for my colleagues and friends, and watching it from afar. While being here was difficult, for me not being here would have been far worse; and it could have easily been the case.

Instinct is a funny thing. We discount it readily, suggesting that intuition and instinct are not factual and therefore not worth weighing when we make decisions, and yet in my experience my intuition and instinct have been invaluable. They have helped me navigate tricky interpersonal experiences. They have helped to direct my professional writing career. And in May, 2016, they were the difference between feeling helpless and feeling like I had some control.

When I called my corneal specialist on May 2nd to postpone my appointment, the receptionist mentioned they had a number of people booked for May 4th from my community, and asked me if I thought they would make those appointments. I hesitated, and for whatever reason I finally told her I thought they should be prepared for some cancellations. Even as the words left my lips I had no idea why I believed them to be true, but I did; and the receptionist later told me that of course many did not make those appointments as they were flung far and wide on the afternoon of May 3rd.

My experience at the beginning of May solidified what I have suspected for a very long time: instinct and intuition have power, and we ignore them at our peril. Being in Fort McMurray on May 3rd was hard, but at least by being here I had the chance to rescue my cats and my dog, gather important documents and be there for friends as they went through the same experience. To have been hours away, for me, would have been pure torture, and it would have significantly changed my experience in the days after evacuation.

It was a tremendous lesson in learning to trust my instincts. Any doubt I have had in this regard has now been washed away, and I have begun to listen to my intuition even more keenly.

And now I share this story, because I think far too often we ignore or discount our instinct. We allow ourselves to be swayed away from what we know instinctually to be right or true, and we veer away from trusting the very abilities that have served us well since the dawn of time. While over our evolution we may have refined our speech, our intellect and our ability to reason, instinct has always been a guiding principle for the human species. It may not always be “right”, but it is always worth considering. And it may not be the ultimate deciding factor for everyone, but I suspect that if we listened to our instincts more often we would learn not only more about our world, but about ourselves.

On May 3rd, 2016, I was in Fort McMurray as it burned. But I wasn’t supposed to be. But for a sense – a small feeling in the pit of my stomach – I would have been far away, watching it happen as if it was some surreal dream instead of surreal reality. Perhaps others would have preferred to be far away; for me, though, being here, in the community I have loved for fifteen years, was the only place to be. And it is only thanks to my instinct that I was.

Writer Life

I get up early, because a deadline looms.

The deadline isn’t a surprise, really. I’ve known about it for some time, but I’ve found reasons to delay the actual writing of the piece in question because:

  • I need to finish all the interviews!
  • I need to figure out the story “trajectory”!
  • I need to do an outline!

Those are really great but all completely bogus reasons:

  • Of course I can start it before I do all the interviews
  • I’ve never figured out the trajectory before I began
  • Outlines are for schmucks and I haven’t done one since Mrs. Van den Beuken forced one out of me in Grade 10

The truth is while all writers are different, many of us are similar in some ways. We moan about deadlines we’ve known about for weeks, we are master procrastinators and we take all the rules of writing and quietly shred them, burn them and dance on the ashes.

And some days, writing life goes like this:

  • Get up early
  • Coffee
  • Turn on laptop
  • Play with dog
  • Look at laptop briefly
  • Play with cat
  • First sentence typed
  • Google a word from first sentence
  • Get distracted by Google search and find yourself googling obscure ufo sighting that has nothing to do with current writing topic
  • Guilt
  • Coffee
  • Second sentence
  • More googling
  • Complete PayPal purchase of completely unrelated item after 46 minute search for said item
  • Sigh
  • Go for a nap with cat
  • Get up groggy and type third sentence
  • More coffee
  • Suddenly tsunami of words hits and madly and furiously type away
  • Triumphantly finish and throw hands up in air while dancing like you’ve just scored a touchdown
  • Realize you are now 600 words over your word limit
  • Scowl at keyboard
  • Begin dismantling your opus, your work of beauty, your baby
  • Finish it feeling a bit like the final runner across the marathon finish line
  • Pour a gin and tonic
  • Realize you have a second piece also due
  • Cry

Yep, writer life.

Five years ago, when I began writing as a hobby after a long absence from writing at all, it was a bit different as every single project was new and exciting and fresh. Over time, though, writing has not only become my craft but my job. For the last four years it’s how I paid the bills. I have a house and a car because I write. Writing isn’t just my passion; it’s my paycheque.

That doesn’t make it any less special, or any less exciting. I’ve just learned a few things, like how to write regardless of how I feel. Whether I’m excited or bored by a subject, whether I’m sick, whether I’m hungover, whether I’m distracted; it’s all immaterial. I just write because that’s what I do.

Most days it’s smooth as butter, and some days it’s not. But that’s how jobs are. And that’s okay, because it means I have reached the point where some of my writer friends, who have done this for decades, finally think I am worthy of the description “professional writer”. I’m no longer the eager-beaver novice who never wanted to ask for a deadline extension (not realizing editors always build this in because writers are not only notorious for needing extensions but almost expected to ask for them) and who often submitted pieces before deadline. I’m no longer the writer who simply agrees with any changes the editor suggests, as I’ve become a bit proprietary of my work. And I’ve come to realize that at times writing should be difficult, because if it’s always smooth as butter then it might be because I’m not working to better my craft.

Objectively, I write better now than I did five years ago, and it’s because of days like the one described above. Those are the days when I’m not just writing but polishing my craft, having to hone down 2,000 words to 1,400, forcing myself to re-evaluate every sentence and justify every letter. I’m forcing myself to self-edit and self-evaluate, not just my words but my skills.

And in writing, as in any job, that’s a good thing.

At the end of the day, I write because it’s part of me. It’s not what I do, it’s who I am.

I’m a writer, and with that comes the writer life, including deadlines, word limits, and coffee.

A helluva lot of coffee.

10 Reasons Stranger Things is the Best Television in Years

After a weekend (okay, a night to be honest) spent binge-watching new Netflix series Stranger Things, I began reflecting on why this is the best series I have seen in years. Maybe decades.

Okay, maybe the gin and tonic I was drinking while watching fostered this reflective state, but the truth is that this really IS the best TV in years. Here’s why:

  1. Winona Ryder – For the record, I graduated in the 1980’s. In the 80’s, every North American female wanted to be Winona Ryder. She was living with Johnny Depp, she was starring in movies with Christian Slater, she had this dark mysterious cool girl thing going on and as if that wasn’t enough she got to be LYDIA for god’s sake. She has been absent from the screen for a bit, at least in any meaningful way, but as the slightly haphazard, kinda disconnected, wacky and yet desperately loving Christmas-bulb hanging mom she knocks it out of the damn park. I still want to be Winona Ryder, dammit.tumblr_inline_oac2ra1nhr1t6ym0o_1280
  2. The Music! – The Clash? Peter Gabriel? Echo and the Bunnymen? New Order? JOY DIVISION!?! Yes please. Man, as a survivor of the real 8o’s I can guarantee only ebony-haired, black-lipped, cleopatra-eyed goth-before-it-was-a-thing freaks like me were listening to JD back then. And now it’s used as music for a television series. It’s about damn time, really.
  3. Eleven is a girl – Yep, the super-power-wielding and mind-blowing (literally) protagonist is a heroine, not a hero. And she likes pretty dresses and blonde wigs. I shouldn’t find this as satisfying as I do, but I do.strangerthings.jpg
  4. Pre-adolescent boy friendships – Is there anything really as sweet and touching as the friendships between adolescent boys? None of the cattiness of girls that age (hey, I was one, I know) – just straight up giggles, farts and steady friendship.
  5. Barb – Holy hell, how did they find one of my best pals from the 80’s? Except my Barb was named Judy. I don’t know how often we told Judy to just go home as we wanted to party on without her watchful and slightly more wise (even though we doubted it at the time) gaze upon us. We loved her but we totally undervalued her, too. I’m genuinely glad my Barb didn’t get eaten, though. The Barbs of the world deserve better.
  6. Chief Hopper – Okay, so he’s kind of messed up on booze and drugs, and he isn’t exactly dedicated to his job (at least in the beginning). But somehow the person I thought would be a failed hero became an actual hero and redeemed himself. The dead daughter storyline is a bit weak, but hey, that’s part of the beauty of this all and leads to my next point…
  7. Messy storyline – Huh. This storyline is really a bit of a mess. I mean, there is a lot of shit that doesn’t exactly make sense, and from a writer’s point of view one starts to suspect they might be making a lot of this up as they go along. And then you realize you don’t care, because it’s just too good to care about it being a clean plot. And while every character is pretty much a cliche, they are good solid 80’s cliches. That rocks.
  8. Unexpected success – Show of hands, who else thinks they had no idea this would be as successful as it has become? It just has that low expectation feel to it, which makes the way it’s soared to success even more delightful.
  9. That monster – Pretty sure I have seen him in my nightmares. I mean, that is one scary-ass and yet recognizable monster. The gin and tonic didn’t make that creature seem any less menacing, incidentally.
  10. The return of science fiction – Okay, sci-fi didn’t really “disappear”, but this is like a throwback to the good ol’ days of sci-fi, like John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. Man, we must have watched that every Saturday night while sitting on plaid-covered sofas in my parent’s basement for months. You know, on my dad’s VHS player. Because it was the 8o’s.


Maybe it really is the nostalgia captured by Stranger Things that does it for me. All I know is that when I heard them play Joy Division, I knew I had come home.

There’s only one problem with Stranger Things.

I have to wait for season 2. But S’ok, I’ve got the gin chilling.