July 28, 2010

Erin doctor publishes powerful book of poems

As published in The Erin Advocate

Do you really want to know what goes through the mind of a doctor, facing a daily parade of human weakness and suffering? Consider that question and assess your appetite for ambivalence, biting metaphors and brutal honesty before reading Complete Physical, a book of poems by Dr. Shane Neilson. Then be brave, and read.

If you are a patient of Dr. Neilson, a physician with the East Wellington Family Health Team, you may be aware of his creative side – another career that does not pay as well, but which has earned him high praise on the Canadian poetry stage. Rest assured, too, that no details about you will be found in these poems.

Neilson is a New Brunswick native now living in Guelph. As a doctor he was attracted to Erin by a good job opportunity, and as a poet by The Porcupine's Quill, where I met him during a book signing session during the recent Doors Open event.

One of the privileges of being a publicly-funded Canadian publisher like The Porcupine's Quill is the mandate to seek out writers worthy of admittance to that respectable realm of ink on textured paper. Elke and Tim Inkster have succeeded at this for 35 years.

I went into a Coles bookstore recently and asked to see their poetry section. I was escorted to a shelf with one book, a greatest hits collection dating back to the Middle Ages. Their poetry section was about to be discontinued.

Still, there is an audience for poetry, and Neilson is ambitious for his creation, wanting to reach out beyond the readership of other poets and other doctors to the public – everyone who knows what it is to be a patient.

"The poems are based on a medical perspective," he said. "My aspirations for the book? I hope that people will actually care, and buy it and read it."

It is a collection of 43 short poems, some with a formal structure but most in a lyrical style, with rhythms controlled by the imagery. It is illustrated with quirky art from old medical textbooks that Tim Inkster found in an abandoned building.

There are a few local references. Here is part of the first poem, Standard Advice: "My practice amidst the one-horse town and faltering farms, a usual place where injury blossoms, pain is a boutonnière, when men know I will ask only if necessary, and women ask if."

The opening lines of Love Squawks Through Technology: "Dr Gear sits in his home study, listening to Ella Fitzgerald, tying flies, considering cancelling the New England Journal. Occasionally the intercom buzzes: Mr McGuire has lost a thumb in the thresher..."

Dr. Harry Gear was well-known in Erin village at the turn of the last century, building an Edwardian-style mansion in 1905 that still stands at 119 Main Street. He installed an audio tube at the front porch so patients could speak with him in the master bedroom. The poem imagines the mix-ups that could ensue from garbled communication.

The book shines a light on the amazing resilience of humans, on unrealistic expectations placed on doctors, on the emotional trauma of treating untreatable pain, on regrets for past errors, on impersonal technology, and on pessimism in the profession – as in Taking Charts Home after Work: "Charts snooze in the bag, kershuffle, and sing of lives awry in diagnosis, askew in drug, kerplunk in grief. I take the bag as homework, heavy in hand, and think the more you love, the more you lose."

It is heavy stuff, but achieves much more than therapy for the writer. In its fearless contemplation of pain and death, Complete Physical celebrates the pervasive beauty and power of love.

In his on-line commentary (porcupinesquill.ca), Neilson says his favourite poems are ambivalent – cherishing and despising a thing simultaneously. "The poems in the book freight complicity with beauty, they tend my flock not with judgement but with rueful wonder," he says. "The poems are exercises in answering the most important question the cpx [complete physical examination] begs: how are we to live in this world?"

Neilson published his first book of poems, Exterminate My Heart, with Frog Hollow Press in 2008, and now has four published collections. He edited a book of medical poems by one of his literary heroes, Canadian writer Alden Nowlan.

He also published a memoir about his tumultuous medical education, entitled Call Me Doctor. The Chapters-Indigo website sells that book, with a comment that Neilson "continues to be filled with a sense of wonder about how he made it this far as a doctor."

A prominent Canadian poet, Carmine Starnino, said this: "Doctors share one important thing with poets: an obsession with death. Shane Neilson has turned that obsession — and the special deathwatching vantage of his medical trade — into a collection of poems as beguiling and as brave as any I have recently read. In a clinical universe where suffering is distanced by language, Complete Physical becomes a kind of extraordinary talking cure. The human predicament has rarely found itself in such good hands."

July 14, 2010

CBC proud to release report by ERIN Research

As published in The Erin Advocate

The first phase of an innovative study by an Erin firm, measuring the "balance" of news presented on television, radio and the internet, has been released by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The News Balance Interim Report, by ERIN Research, is based on a 10-week sample of news recorded from October 26, 2009, to January 17, 2010. The full study, to be released in the fall, will span the 25-week period ending May 2, 2010, covering about 440 hours of broadcast news and 2,400 internet news stories.

"The study will be the most detailed and comprehensive of its kind in Canada and likely among any in the world. It's already creating something of a buzz in the academic and research communities," said Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News. "Overseen by an independent panel of media experts, the final study will include both detailed content analysis and audience perception research."

ERIN Research has a long history with the CBC – the broadcaster was their first client back in 1981. That work has included six major studies of fairness in coverage of federal elections, plus the Quebec Referendum in 1995.

The company was founded by Dr. George Spears, PhD, trained in cognitive psychology, and Kasia Seydegart, with a Masters in Social Work. The couple moved to Erin, then decided it was better to start their own company than to commute long distances to work. The core team now includes Director Pat Zulinov and Business Manager Brenda Nicholson. There is also a variable workforce of contract researchers hired for various projects. You can learn more about the company and its ventures at www.erinresearch.com.

In addition to research for various media groups, ERIN Research also works for large organizations including TD Canada Trust, Peel Region, the Upper Grand District School Board and the Ontario government, measuring the level of satisfaction or effectiveness perceived by end users of specific services.

"Organizations want an empirical basis for making decisions, grounded in fact, in the truth, removing it from the subjective," said Seydegart. "This enables decision makers to have common information."

She says the success of a study depends not just on knowledge of the field, but on the sophistication of the statistical analysis, which can produce more beneficial data for clients. The questions must not only be relevant, but worded to elicit clear answers.

ERIN Research has won several awards for innovation and performance. Dr. Spears is considered an expert in the analysis of news and public affairs broadcasting, and of music use in the media and on the internet.

The firm did four studies in a project called Citizens First, for the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service, analyzing what really drives public satisfaction with government services. The organization says it has established the "gold-standard" for research on public sector service delivery, not only in Canada, but around the world.

"It is a powerful tool for governments to see themselves from the public perspective," said Seydegart.

The high-profile work for the CBC results in some intense scrutiny. Follow the on-line link from the ERIN site to the CBC announcement, and you'll find a forum filled with critics who accuse the CBC of all sorts of biases. Some suggest the ERIN Research study cannot be valid, since they see it as the CBC analyzing itself.

"That is not the case – we are independent," said Seydegart. "They come to us to get objective advice. It is not slanted or biased."

The CBC study measures things like the amount of news exposure given to different parts of the country, the representation given to visible minorities and aboriginal people and the balance of air time given to various political parties. It even measures the "tone" of the introductions and wrap-up comments in news items. For example, on The National, it is 19 per cent positive, 62 per cent neutral and 19 per cent negative.

It also finds that the CBC leads its competitors in its proportion of appearances of female news anchors and program hosts: 49 per cent for network radio, 60 per cent for local radio, 58 per cent for network television and 75 per cent for local television. Men still dominate the content of the news, since they remain the primary players in major news categories such as politics and crime.

Learning to communicate should stay in fashion

As published in The Erin Advocate

I was reading some on-line forums, in which people post comments in response to news stories, and was surprised at the poor spelling and grammar displayed by many contributors.

Not that I think the comments should be edited or censored – poor spellers have every right to engage in public debate. But if you are going to present your words to thousands of people, why wouldn't you read them over, or at least use the spell-checker before submitting?

When I encounter poor spelling, it alters my view of the writer. Do they lack education or they are too lazy to express themselves well? This is undoubtedly unfair, since intelligence can be quite independent of communication skills, and everyone makes mistakes, but that is my reflex reaction. Today, when I see people with poor writing skills rise to positions of influence and authority, I wonder if I am just old-fashioned and out-of-touch.

Still, I think all parents want their children to be competent at writing, because they want them to be confident, persuasive and have many choices for study and work. There are many things parents can do improve kids' literacy, especially during the summer when the regular academic stimulation is missing.

I encountered a new word last week: palaver. It was used in reference to my column, so I had to look it up. I was shocked to discover that it means "prolonged and idle discussion". Well, at least the columns are short.

The point is not that people should learn lots of obscure words, in hopes of impressing others. But if kids see their parents using a dictionary or computer to check on a word, it sends a strong message: the accurate meaning and spelling of words really matters.

Parents act as role models when kids see them reading books, or the local newspaper. Literacy involves many things, from reading maps while on vacation, to navigating with signs and billboards.

"Reading is like a muscle – if you don't use it, you lose it," says Margaret Eaton, President of ABC Life Literacy Canada. "It's important for parents to encourage children to read over the summer to keep their minds sharp. All it takes is 15 minutes a day of reading or engaging in a fun literacy activity."

Other ideas include writing postcards to friends and family while on vacation, or playing word games while on the road. Outings to places like the zoo can lead to useful reading. So can following a recipe or playing a board game.
Naturally, local libraries have many books and events to stimulate young minds.

There's the Bug Safari, a mix of bug games, crafts, collecting and identifying, in Hillsburgh July 15, at 10:30 am, and in Erin August 11, at 2 pm. The African Drumming workshop will be a boost to musical literacy, today (July 14) at the Erin Branch, at 2 pm. There are Jungle Family Storytimes, Toronto Zoo presentations, clay mask-making sessions and a model tree house building contest.

Call or visit a branch to register for events, or for the TD Summer Reading Club – this year with a jungle theme. Last summer, more than 2,000 Wellington kids read over 33,400 books through the club. There is also the Teen Summer Reading Challenge, with some nifty prizes.

Now there's a word you don't hear much any more – "nifty". My on-line dictionary tells me it means skillful, as in "nifty footwork", or stylish as in "a nifty black shirt". After 150 years, the word has fallen out of fashion. Perhaps it is just as well.

July 07, 2010

Making Wellington County a vacation destination

As published in The Erin Advocate

If you still need some summer vacation ideas, you don't have to go to cottage country or the big city attractions. Try looking in our big back yard – Wellington County.

It is a competitive market out there, as municipalities vie for a better slice of the tourism dollar. The city to the west even has a brochure entitled "Top 10 Things To Do Downtown Before Leaving Guelph". But they are not part of Wellington, at least not yet.

There’s a ton of information at www.visitguelphwellington.ca, but it is mainly about Guelph, with only a smattering of Wellington. (Not that I have anything against Guelph – it’s OK, for a city.) The site has sections like Where to Eat, What to Do and Bed & Breakfasts, with no Erin listings. You will find better B&B choices at www.bbcanada.com.

Even though Erin is now part of a huge Ontario tourism region that includes Wellington, Waterloo, Perth and Huron, it still gets significant promotion from Hills of Headwaters Tourism, which includes Caledon, Orangeville and Dufferin. Go to www.thehillsofheadwaters.com. Or for a broader scan, drop a destination into the search engine at www.ontariotravel.net.

For rural and small-town events, check out the tourism website developed by Wellington County and its member municipalities: www.wellingtonfestivals.ca.

Hillsburgh is prominent in the Agritourism field, thanks to the Sustainable Living Workshops hosted by Everdale Organic Farm. Instead of lounging on a beach, you could foster your creative side by learning about Cement-Lime Plastering, or discovering The Lost Art of Canning and Home Preserving. Go to www.everdale.org.

Speaking of Hillsburgh, Century Church Theatre attracts many out of town visitors. Find out about their Summer Festival at www.centurychurchtheatre.com

Looking around Wellington for weekend outings or day trips? How about the Fergus Truck Show, July 22-25, the largest truck show in North America. Or various truck and tractor pulls – July 31 in Palmerston or August 28 at the Grand River Raceway in Elora. Or the Antique and Classic Car Show, August 29, at the County Museum near Elora (www.wcm.on.ca).

There are major artistic events like the Elora Festival, with top-notch classical music from July 9 to August 1 (www.elorafestival.ca), and the Hillside Music Festival, July 23-25 at Guelph Lake (www.hillsidefestival.ca).

Art in the Yard will be held July 10-11 at the Elora Centre for the Arts. Get your fill of pipe bands and highland dancing at the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games, on August 13. Or sample regional cuisine at Food Day Canada, at the Grand River Raceway, July 31.

There are specialty events like Afternoon Tea in the Victorian Garden, with Tarot Card readings, July 28 at the County Museum. Or check out the Mount Forest Fireworks Festival, July 16-18. My choice for the best event name is the Summer Sizzle Piano Pedagogy Symposium, including the Keyboard Kamp for Kids, July 18 in Mount Forest (www.cncm.ca).

Of course, you should give some consideration to attending summer events in Erin that are sure to attract vacationers. This Saturday, July 10 Doors Open Erin is a chance to explore heritage homes and learn about local history. There is the Erin Garden Tour on July 17 (www.eringardenclub.ca), and on August 7, the Erin Fest Sidewalk Sale, Festival and Concert.

Saturday, August 14 will be bustling with activity, with the start of the two-day Erin Rhythm & Ribs music and BBQ festival at McMillan Park. On August 19, Hillsburgh hosts the Wellington County Plowing Match (www.wellington.ca), then on August 21, the Spirit of the Hills Fun Day.

So, there you have it, more fun summer stuff than you can shake a stick at, without setting foot in a cottage or a city, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Go to www.wellingtonfestivals.ca for more, including autumn events like the Wellington Rural Romp and the grand-daddy of them all, the 160th Erin Fall Fair on Thanksgiving Weekend.