Hannah Goes West: Train 5703 From Truro

I’m so happy to welcome Hannah MacDonald to the blog as a guest writer. This is the first in a series she’ll be writing about her move “Out West”.

“One way to Edmonton?” the clerk at the VIA Rail ticket counter asked.

“Yes…” I replied with surprise. I glanced back at my dad with a look of confusion, realization and love. A quick quip from him and before I knew it, Mom, Dad and I were shuffling my bike into its boxed home for the train trip.

Although that small confirmation question jolted me into reality, I still have not wholly realized that I’m leaving and, in fact, that I’ve already left. I’ve said goodbyes to my friends at Governor’s Pub over clever and talented music. I’ve hugged family members over hors d’oeuvres on the front lawn of our Margaree homestead. My co-workers traded me souvenirs for my best or juiciest stories from my stint there. I even went swimming in the ocean in early July to get that fine Atlantic salty hairstyle – an act I never dared until August when the ocean’s warm enough.

As the train follows the St. Laurence upstream, it still feels as though I’m on vacation. A short trip away from Cape Breton to visit friends who’ve moved west. Now, I’m that friend. Moving west. Moving to Edmonton, Alberta. How cliché.

Ever since my partner and I decided to move to the prairies, I’ve been dealing with the idea of leaving Cape Breton, the logistics of moving to a new city and a feeling of personal-responsibility-island-guilt-preemptive-homesickness, if you will. My concern is that I’m abandoning the island and the people I love so much. Fortunately, I’ve found consolation and comfort in these same places.

Friend Insurance: I was overwhelmed by appreciation and love of my friends and family as we gathered at my childhood home on the Mira for my goodbye party. Around the bonfire, there was nothing but laughter, stories and pure summer goodness. In the warmth of the evening, I was lamenting leaving this beautiful place. My clever friend said, “Don’t worry, Hannah, this is friend insurance. You’ll be back.” It’s true. Brilliant, they are. My friends have ensured that I left with wonderful memories of home and insured my return.

Island Attitudes: Before leaving, a lovely friend asked me to host the IDEAS! Powered By Passion Youth speakers evening. My initial reaction was, “No! I shouldn’t host an evening stimulating momentum when I won’t be around to take part. It just seems wrong” She encouraged me to reconsider, as my move is part of a larger Cape Breton reality. People leave, people stay, people come home.

So, I hosted an evening of five island youth – four speakers and one musical guest. I was blown away by the articulate and intelligent talks. The last speaker, a recent high school grad, succinctly expressed the issues and potential associated with Cape Breton attitudes. The two main points, not nearly as cleverly put:

  • We shouldn’t feel we’re abandoning our island by leaving – going ‘away’ and coming home brings new and fresh ideas for our island’s benefit and growth.
  • When people move to Cape Breton, it shouldn’t be questioned or surprising – it should be applauded and encouraged.

A shift in attitudes is needed. My own included. And I think we’re headed in the right direction.

*Note: watch out for the YouTube videos of the Youth talk from New Dawn’s website. Well worth a watch!

Living in the Year 2012: Walking home to the North End, a wise friend reminded me that being away doesn’t mean being disconnected. “The only difference between being here and away means you just won’t get to have that cup of tea.” In the modern age, community development can happen in person and online. So long as you’re personally invested in a place, your input can still have weight, even from 5,000 kilometres away.

From these and the many other conversations I’ve had with folks at home, I feel better about going. Even “coming from away”, I’ve got big dreams for Cape Breton. Where better than to reflect on this than Leah Noble’s blog-turned-community Dream Big, Cape Breton? I’ve never written publicly nor electronically. Another change, with hope that it’s for the best. I’ll be contributing on a (bi-)monthly basis from Canada’s most northerly city. I hope to provide some clever anecdotes from life in Alberta and how their ‘Celtic music’ nights compare. Mostly, I aim to reflect on the strength of the Cape Breton connection from six provinces away.

For now, cheers from kilometre 1,763!

Posted in Guest posts, Women + kids | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Protocase, Part III: Q+A With Douglas Ronne

Douglas Ronne at work at Protocase.

Two weeks ago I posted a photo tour of Protocase, Inc, a Sydney-based manufacturer of custom electronics enclosures. Last week I ran a Q+A with the co-owner of that company, Doug Milburn. This is a Q+A with their lead software developer, Douglas Ronne.

1. How old are you?

I’m 36.

2. CB born and raised? Or recent transplant? (Plus whatever biographical details you feel like giving – age, education background, employment background, hobbies, family, etc).

Some of both. I was born in Baddeck; my family lived in Barra Glen, outside of Iona, when I was born. There was another family that lived near us that our family was friends with. Most of my family moved back to Olympia, Washington when I was almost 6; leaving my uncle and two cousins in Cape Breton.

I grew up on a clam farm in Olympia, and went to university for a Masters of Science in Mathematics. From there I moved to LA to work as an engineer in a large firm and later co-founded an engineering company in Oregon designing electric motor controllers. My specialty is in embedded software.

Almost 4 years ago I returned to Cape Breton for my Cousin Faith’s wedding. My mother came too, and she looked up her old neighbor Gail before we came. Gail had a daughter that I used to play with, we met and it felt like love at first sight! So I came back to visit and then moved here and married her!

I’ve always considered myself an “Outdoor Nerd”, ie, a nerd who goes outside a lot and loves biking, hiking, snowboarding, and the water.

Alicia, Douglas, and Douglas’s cousin, as kids.

3. “What are you up to these days?” I.e. what do you do for a living, what are you working on, are you a student, in the workforce, etc?

I am the Lead Software Developer for Protocase Inc. Our team works on CAD software (computer aided drafting) and business software for Protocase. I also am getting back into embedded software and electric vehicle system development.

On the side I help my wife Alicia with local food stuff whenever she needs computer type work or tables set up at the Baddeck market.

4. What is a typical “day in the life” for you, during the week?

Work day type one:

Get up, make breakfast for my wife and kids, walk the dog, drive to Sydney, talk to my team about the projects they are working on, answer customer questions about the CAD software, select an improvement to the software, and write code. I will often go to lunch with my co-workers or Alicia and my favourite place is the Whitney Pier Deli. Go back to work, leave around 5 or 6, go home and either make or eat dinner depending on whether it is ready. Talk to kids, work on some side project, go to bed. (I need to add some exercise in there somehow.)

type two:

Get up, make breakfast for everyone, go to my basement office and work. Generally I take lots of breaks and do the laundry, clean a little, walk the dog, maybe go for a bike ride. Meet the kids when they get home from school and see how they are doing, have a snack with them. Make dinner, pick a kid and make them clean up. Work on a side project or watch Allo Allo, go to bed.

5. How did you find the job you’re currently at?

I met Doug Milburn at a TecSocial event and he offered me a job and here we are! TecSocial events are something that InnovaCorp puts on the first Thursday of every month at Membertou Trade and Convention Center.

6. What would you love to be able to tell young people looking for jobs in this field? What should they all know about Cape Breton, that they might not be told in school?

There are many software companies here. Computer programming is a good field to work in! You have flexible hours and it is challenging work. Protocase also frequently has openings for mechanical engineers. Other types of engineers are also in short supply.

Don’t be afraid to work hard for what you want and don’t be afraid of failure – it is the best teacher there is. We don’t usually regret what we did, we regret what we did not do! Keep your options open so you can take advantage of opportunities.

7. What are your favourite CB eateries and food sources?

Whitney Pier Deli for lunch, Telegraph House in Baddeck for their local dinner special. My family and I eat a very local diet as much as possible. We grow some food, buy from the farmers markets, belong to a CSA farm share program and buy from local farmers directly. My wife is a local food fanatic and blogs at http://cblocaldiet.ca/

8. What are your favourite things to do outside?

Bike, hike, snowboard, sailing, rowing, paddling, swim in the river, and riding a motorcycle.

9. Are you planning on sticking around in CB? Why, or why not?

Yes, I love the place. Also my wife is here, my job is here, and my kids are in school here.

10. Finish this sentence.: Cape Breton needs…

Not much actually! The economy is not that bad, the people are great, and the outdoors are excellent! A Thai restaurant would be nice though.

Posted in Business ideas, Jobs, Q+A, Work | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

it’s the weekend

I’ll see you on Monday. Time for some R&R!

What are your favourite things to do to relax on the weekend?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Frugal Friday with Alicia Lake: Local Eating

This post originally appeared on Alicia’s blog, Cape Breton Local Food Adventure. She has kindly allowed me to republish it here.

My daughter and husband planting buckwheat that will be ground into flour to be used hopefully during my next September of eating local.

Well, once again the market season is here, and everyone is thinking about buying local! This year perhaps more than other years, people are also thinking about food costs.

With rising prices of not only food, but electricity, oil and just about everything else, some people are asking if they can afford to buy local. I talk a lot about keeping money in our own communities and supporting our local economy, but we must be practical and look at the personal economic aspects of buying local, I realize. Buying local has to be practical and accessible to everyone!

My experience with eating local food is that it actually saves our family money now that we have developed some strategies and changed the way we view meat and think about cooking. I was asked to speak at a Frugal Friday event last week at our local library in Baddeck and prepared the following handout for the event.

Frugal Local Food Ideas

Find Food! – In Cape Breton there are lots of great berries and other edibles to find in the wild. Turn a family hiking trip into a berry picking trip or start looking at dandelions as the first salad greens! Look for a book on wild edibles at the library.

Grow Food! – Whether it is container gardening, a plot at the community garden or something much larger, growing your own food is an effort that will be rewarded. Start off small with transplants and a few good books and in no time at all, your thumb will be green.

Make Friends with your farmers! – Sometimes farmers are willing to trade labour for food. This is a really great way to get kids involved in growing too. Come to the farmers markets and make friends.

Plan your meat! – Meat can be one of the most expensive parts of your meal and we don’t need to eat as much as we do. Cook larger portions such as a whole chicken on a day that you have more time; save portions for other dishes. Having cooked meat will make a week day meal much faster and easier to prepare. Develop a group of recipes that work together, scan some cookbooks for ideas!

Invest in a freezer! – It may seem like a big expense but it will pay off in the long run. Owning a freezer will allow you to save things when in season and buy in bulk. Look for good quality used ones that are not too old so they are energy efficient.

Buy in Bulk! – Buying beef and other meats by the side or quarter is a way to save a lot of money. It is also possible to work out deals with farmers to buy larger quantities of produce at lower prices sometimes.

Pick your Priorities! – If you want to buy more organic and local products you must expect that while the price of most vegetables will be close, some things like organic cheese or bread and free range eggs will be more. This reflects the true cost of delivering high quality. Remember that buying less junk food saves money too. One trip to the fast food place per month or a coffee a day can really add up!

These strategies have proven to save our family money and I think that everyone can create their own strategy. As an example, here is our last years beef order:

  • 6 packages of hamburger (2lb each)
  • 7 roasts of different varieties – no bones
  • 3 large soup bones
  • 4 packages of stew meat
  • 27 packages of steak. (2 steaks per pack) – 6 of these were T-bone packs.

All of this cost $300, and we were able to tell our producer that we wanted mostly 2″ steaks and not much hamburger. It was also processed at a licensed abattoir and delivered in neat clean packages ready for the freezer. I am quite sure that we couldn’t have ate the way we did all winter without local food!

Pots with tomato, pepper, eggplant and cucumber seeds that will eventually be planted in our back yard garden and containers on our step.

The other Frugal Friday posts on this blog:

Posted in Environment, Food + agriculture, Guest posts | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Lately: July 2012

Loving the shadows on the floor of the marina. (I am there a lot. Many twelve-hour shifts.)

Trying to appreciate every little bit of time I do get with my boyfriend, who lives on the Northside, and who I don’t get to see during the week. (His and hers beer at Swiss Chalet. Mmmm ribs…)

Seeing the summer light. From early morning til evening. It’s so pretty.

Cuddling a teacup chihuahua. This is me and Tomate, who belonged to a French family passing through Baddeck harbour last week on a sailboat. They stayed on a mooring at the marina and came in to the store with him. I fell in love immediately. At first sight. They let me hold him while they went and did errands. I had him with me at the front desk for a whole hour! He was very chilled out and just hung out in my arms. LOVE.

Sharing photos on Instagram, and still enjoying it. (This is a used book for sale at the marina. I love the fonts, the design!)

Wishing there was more time in the day to write and post all the blog post ideas that come to me, all the time. It’s true what they say, by the way: once you start to nurture your creativity, it responds and the ideas start coming, and coming. Make sure you have notebooks at the ready.

Preparing for school in the fall by applying for a student line of credit at the bank, and a Nova Scotia student loan. Lots of papers, in file folders. Ducks in a row.

Answering the phone at work. “Baddeck Marine, this is Leah, good morning.” The phone rings probably every two to five minutes. All day long.

Thinking about a talk I’m doing next month at the Baddeck Library and starting to gather my thoughts for it.

Dreaming vivid dreams and wishing there was more time to parse them, come morning.

Watching my mother’s gardens grow. They are so, so beautiful. The fruits of her labour. Food and flowers.

Riding my bike to work and back, every now and then. It is sweet, contemplative time in the morning and the evening. And I love how I really experience the roadside as I bike along – smell the flowers in the air, and hear the birdsong.

Laughing with customers. Locals that I know well, and people from all over the world who are just passing through. Laughter is so good – such a good release.

(As always, Elise Blaha inspires me. This is her “Currently” post that she does once a month.)

(And, here are some other “lately” posts that I’ve done on this blog: here, here and here.)

Posted in Leah's thoughts | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Protocase Part II: Q+A with Doug Milburn

Last week I posted a photo tour of Protocase, Inc, a Sydney-based manufacturer of custom electronics enclosures. This is a Q+A with the co-owner of that company, Doug Milburn.

1. What’s your age?

Hmmm … I’m in my forties now. Wow, how did that happen? I guess I should start to think about growing up …

2. CB born and raised? Or recent transplant? (Plus whatever biographical details you feel like giving – age, education background, employment background, hobbies, family, etc).

Proudly born and raised in CB. I was born in Glace Bay General Hospital, and lived there for my first three years. My parents then packed up the family and moved us to the big city when I was three, and I stayed in Sydney until I went off to Mount Allision University. I then went to Waterloo, Ontario for grad school. Finally, the nice folks at the University told me it was time to move on, and my wife Michelle and I and our first child (who was 6 weeks old at the time, now 16) moved back to Cape Breton. And here I am, 16 years later.

3. “What are you up to these days?” I.e. what do you do for a living, what are you working on, are you a student, in the workforce, etc?

I work full time at Protocase Inc, the company that I founded with my business partner Stephen Lilley. I also spend time at Advanced Glazings Ltd., a company that I founded with Michelle, who now runs it as General Manager.

4. What is a typical “day in the life” for you, during the week?

I obviously spend lots of time at work, mostly Protocase but also Advanced Glazings Ltd. There’s always lots of variety, and sometimes its tough to get home at a decent time.

When I’m home I like to try to spend time with my kids, but now that they’re older, they’re not so enthusiastic about it and have other preferences than hanging out with dad and mom.

I also try to get as much exercise as I can fit in, which is not always as much as I’d like. I try to get to Sydney’s wonderful new YMCA in the morning. I also used to play hockey a couple times a week in the winter and soccer in the summer, but a knee injury sidelined me for the last couple of years. I had some major rebuilding done before Christmas (thanks Dr. Yepes!), so I’m hoping I’ll get back to that, it’s great psychological therapy. (I note that Evgeni Malkin hit 50 goals this season for Pittsburgh after having an ACL repaired, so maybe there’s hope for me after the same surgery.)

5. Tell us about starting Protocase. What was the process like? What was the biggest lesson you learned?

Protocase was the second company that I was involved in starting. It was way easier than the first time. In fact, Protocase has been a relatively easy run in a lot of ways. That’s not to say that there weren’t a lot of really tough times in the early years, wondering if we’d survive, or be able to make payroll. But we made it, and Protocase was and is a lot of fun.

We’ve been able to collect a great set of employees, and we have a really great set of customers, who are highly creative engineers who design and build electronics.

Our customers are located around the world, anywhere where people create technology, and they tend to love what they do. So do we, so overall, a day at work is a good experience. I think overall, I’ve learned that, in business, if you like the people you serve as well as your employees who serve them, and you look after everyone well, you can have fun and prosper.

6. Balance, efficiency, “small-scale” and positivity seem to be very important at Protocase. Is this is on purpose? What would you say are the best examples of these values in your company?

Totally by design. Work/life balance is important if our people are to avoid burnout, which is a real danger in today’s work environment, and particularly for people who love what they do and work in a fast growing business. If we burn out our people, it will hurt our business.

Efficiency is critical for us in a number of ways. We serve the engineering community, who have smaller-sized jobs, so we have to minimize the overhead to be profitable. We’ve achieved that through the use of technology. We also know that to grow, we have to work smarter, not harder.

Small-scale is also a key part of who we are. We do small jobs for our customers, and as soon as our attitude and ego becomes too big for our customers, dealing with Protocase could become like, say, dealing with a cell phone company, bank, or automaker. Not to say that each interaction with those companies are bad, but generally, most people walk away feeling less than satisfied, and with the impression that their business is not really important to the company.

Finally, we rely heavily on positivity . At Protocase, we work hard at things we love to do, in a place that we want to live. We feel lucky to do so. This attitude helps motivate us, and comes through when we deal with customers. And we want every customer walking away from each interaction feeling as positive as is possible, so that it maximizes the chance of them coming back.

7. What are your favourite CB eateries and food sources?

Hmmm … lots of choices, I’ll stick to Sydney and area so I don’t take up too much space. Allegro and Flavour (downtown or 19) for a sophisticated lunch, and of course, you can’t beat the burgers and fries at Kay’s Kozy Korner. For food and drink after work, I happen to be a fan of Don Cherry’s wings, plus they have my favourite beer, Newcastle Brown (as long as Steve Lilley doesn’t drink them out of stock). Boston Pizza has great draft (cold Rickards Red), and Governors has a great beer selection and is a short walk up the hill from my sailboat’s berth at the Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club.

8. What are your favourite things to do outside?

In the summer it is sailing. I have a 33’ sailboat that I love spending time on. Cape Breton has the best sailing on the east coast of North America by far, with relatively warm water, incredible scenery, and more beautiful and secluded anchorages than you could ever wish for.

I keep my boat at a club that is 15 minutes walk from my house, and I can drive there after work in minutes. Sydney Harbour is becoming a decent piece of recreational water, since our sewage treatment came on line a few years ago (it’s hard to believe that many Canadian cities still crap in their own water!). The Bras d’Or Lakes are a revered sailing destination, but most east coasters have to slog their way up through the foggy and rough coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia. I can get there in about 4 hours. Plus we are in a great location to get to interesting places such as PEI, the Magdalens, and that magical place called Newfoundland.

9. Are you planning on sticking around in CB? Why, or why not?

Absolutely. Why would anyone ever want to go anywhere else?

Seriously, I spent 10 great years in Waterloo Ontario, and met a great group of friends and had a great time. It was a good place to live, and I’m sure I would have been happy had I stayed. I bet there are a ton of other places that would be great to live. But my family is here, and I love our landscape, ocean, people, and culture. Everything that I like doing is close by. So I doubt I’ll be going anywhere permanently.

10. Finish this sentence: Cape Breton needs…

Simple – Cape Breton needs economic self confidence. The toughest part of living here is watching so many people move away. Everybody believes that this is a tough place to earn a living, and to do business. But based on my experience doing business here, I believe that is a bunch of garbage. Granted, career track jobs are scarce compared to today’s boomtowns, but those who have gainful employment here have an easier time living, because of our cost of living, and our lifestyle that doesn’t require you to show off your expensive material things. Also, we worked on a New York highrise apartment building project in Manhattan recently, and these 600 sqft studio apartments rented for $3500 per month. Really, no type or slipped decimals! We don’t have to deal with that here. It is good to come to the realization that, if you earn a similar salary here, you are miles ahead of those in the large urban areas where most people migrate to.

But our negative attitudes to Cape Breton as a business environment are a bigger problem. Doing business in Cape Breton has its challenges, but every other community has its own set of challenges. For example, in Toronto, the road system is totally congested and unusable for about 6 hours a day now, and you could pretty much travel from Sydney to Halifax in the time it would take you to get from Toronto airport to downtown and back in rush hour. But business there just find ways to adjust. Likewise, here, if you just accept the strengths and weaknesses, and adapt to them, you find that we actually have a lot of advantages.

But in Cape Breton, we have come to believe that there is something particularly special about our poor economy, like there is a curse on the community or something like that. There isn’t, this is just another place. Once we get rid of the cloud of economic negativity and are able to see straight, we will see ourselves as just another part of the incredibly prosperous North American trading block. We are close to the North Eastern US which is the largest block of prosperity in the world, and Western Europe is just 4 hours east of us. We have great internet connectivity which is the nervous system of today’s economy. So we have everything we need here. We just have to believe in ourselves.

Finally, I think we need to give up on government. We’ve looked to government for the leadership required to transform our economy since the decline of our traditional industries, but they’ve totally failed. Cape Breton has always been made up of private sector communities, and anytime we’ve relied on government to help it hasn’t worked. We have to make this place friendly to people who create prosperity through business. I think we’ll really turn the corner when our young people truly believe that this is a great place to come and start businesses or to work. When Cape Bretoners buy into that positive vision, it will become a self fulfilling prophecy. Likewise, if we continue to falsely believe that there is something wrong with Cape Breton as a place to do business, that vision will continue to shape us. I believe this will happen eventually, but I hope that we’ll see a leader emerge who will accelerate the process.

You can connect with Protocase on Facebook, Twitter, and their blog.

Posted in Active living, Business ideas, Jobs, Q+A | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

10 Beaches/2012: Point Aconi

The one day last week that I had off and had time to go to a beach, of course it was rainy and foggy.

But I went anyway.

This is a lookoff, on Kelly’s Mtn. Not much looking off to be done here today!

First I drove out along Black Rock, on Boularderie. Then I went through Millville to the highway, and stopped at the little mini-barn where Rendall’s was selling strawberries, three dollars a box. I bought three boxes.

Then I drove out the Point Aconi road. There were signs that marked the way to the beach, as you can see above.

I parked and ate my lunch in the car, since it was drizzling. I looked at the power plant. I thought about electricity, and how we use it for so much in our lives these days: light, heat, cooking, bathing, computers, telephones. And I thought about how easy it is, when you don’t see the power plants, to forget that the electricity comes from somewhere. Not just the plug in the wall.

Then I got out of the car, and walked down to the beach. I walked the length of it, taking pictures, while my glasses got progressively more covered in raindrops. Then I turned around and walked back. “That’s enough,” I decided.

I went home for a warm shower and to make strawberry shortcake. I’ll go back there another, sunnier, day.

To get there: Take exit 17 off the Trans Canada Highway in Bras d’Or, onto the 162. Continue roughly 5 km until you start seeing signs for both the Nova Scotia Power Plant, and the beach. Follow the “beach” signs til you get to the parking lot.

This summer, I’m challenging myself to make it to ten separate beaches on Cape Breton Island. Here’s the original post.

Posted in 10 Beaches/2012 | Tagged , , | 2 Comments