Fifty X 50: Melanie Verhaeghe

I worked with Melanie many years ago at a now defunct magazine , Winnipeg Homes. Then for a time we were neighbours, living next door to each other. But it had been quite a while since I have had a chance to catch up with her on her life. It took some work to align schedules but we finally settled on date .  It was the day after Trump’s victory, which resulted in a rather busy work day for Melanie, While I waited for Melanie to arrive, I watched that momentous sunset that seemingly all of Winnipeg look to that day as some glimmer of hope.dsc_3974_ian_mccauslandI know it’s going to sound sort of like sunshine and lollipops, but it really just is a number.  Leading up to being 50, that’s when I started thinking about, “Oh, my god, being 50,” and “What does that mean?” When I was younger, I had this vision of a 50-year-old being a grandma and being old and nights in their pyjamas watching TV with a cup of tea, and I don’t really feel like that’s what 50-year-olds are I think  what 50 is now is not what 50 was years ago.

Having my son at 40 plays into that a little bit. It certainly keeps you young. I was busy living life and working on my career. I just hadn’t thought about having a child. Then when it happened, he was late. He could have been born when I was 39, but he decided to make it to my 40th. I’m great with that and it was the right time for me. If you look at some of the statistics, a lot of women are having children at an older age. I know other interviews were talking about they’re out of the sleepless nights, have  all this time for themselves, that kind of stuff. I did a lot of that when I was younger, so now I feel like I have a lot of wisdom and experience that I can share with my son

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When I was 25, I was just trying to figure it all out, “What am I doing with my life? What’s my career direction? What am I doing? Where am I going?” If I could go back in time I’d say, “Don’t sweat it. It’s going to be good. It’ll be fine.” Because what I started out to be when I was 18 was not what I ended up in.

I went to university for education, became a student teacher, then two years on, I realized that really wasn’t what I wanted to do. I think it was because I was too young. At the time when you’re 18 or  19, and you’re substitute teaching for 14-year olds, it just felt funny to me. I thought, “Well, I don’t really know much more than they do. How could I possibly be teaching them anything?” So I did what all good 20-year-olds do and backpacked around Europe and found myself and did a little reinvention and realized that journalism was what I wanted to do. And that’s where I am. I went from writing in a small-town newspaper to being the senior producer of news at CBC in Winnipeg. And I’ve done a lot of traveling with work and I’ve done documentaries all over the place.

There were definitely challenges early on, being a woman. I remember one time when I was a reporter in the field,  I got a story a competitor didn’t have, they said “Oh, it’s because you were wearing a short skirt that day.”  The competitor was male and said to me at a press conference in front of a group of reporters . At that point, I didn’t say anything and I regret it because in my head I was fuming.

Like who cares what I was wearing? I beat you on a story and that’s all you got? It’s like the judge saying ‘why couldn’t you keep your knees together ‘ absolutely ridiculous.

There were other times when I did complain. Once was a boss and the reaction I got from his boss was less than satisfying. Let’s just say I immediately started looking for another job.

Now I’m one of the people running a newsroom and that kind of behaviour is not tolerated under my watch. And by the way the short skirt comment guy never got promoted.

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I’m in an industry where before, a deadline would be the next day’s newspaper or the 6 o’clock newscast, and now the deadline is right now. It’s Twitter. It’s Facebook. It’s get a story up online right now. So the competitive nature is even– it’s like, I don’t know, 100-fold or more than what it used to be. M first year of journalism school, I was still typing on a typewriter. I didn’t have a computer. I was handing in papers printed on a typewriter. Now if I can’t get an answer on Google in 30 seconds, I’m frustrated [chuckles].  But I think journalism, itself, the core of understanding and getting to the bottom of a story, has been not been changed. How it gets presented has changed but what makes a good story and what you need to do to get that story hasn’t changed. So I’m always asking, “Did you talk to that person? Did you call that person? What about this? What about that angle? Are you sure? What’s that person’s motivation?” All of those things still exist, so that has not changed at all.

I’m doing a form of teaching at work. Helping with some of the younger staff, and teaching them what I know, and helping them become better journalists. There’s always been pressure in this industry. If someone else has tweeted something else, we need to get that story right away. And I’d rather be right than first, so I try not to get sucked into that kind of pressure and I’d rather that we had the story right. That’s one area that I can kind of direct people and calm them down.

dsc_4135_ian_mccauslandWhen our parents were younger, there wasn’t a TV set, or it was black and white, then it was colour. There was one channel, there were three channels. Now there’s what? Thousands of channels. It’s all an evolution in technology. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, it’s just a changing world. The only thing that bothers me a little bit is when somebody says, “I have 6,000 friends on Facebook.” You don’t have 6,000 friends. I worry a bit about this generation about how they actually communicate with one another. Do they actually have real, meaningful conversations? Short little text messages and Facebook messages doesn’t feel as real to me. And sometimes I feel like the bullying that goes on online is far more dangerous than the schoolyard bullying that we might have witnessed, as kids. It’s much, much different, and that, to me, is frightening.

For so many years you chase and you chase and you chase the thing – whatever it might be, if it’s a career goal, or something else, you’re chasing. I feel like I don’t need to do that anymore. I feel very  centred and grounded and really happy with where I am in life. My kid’s a great kid, my husband is fantastic. I just feel really, really grateful. And I think that’s where I feel like my life is going to now, gratitude and giving back to the community,  versus really chasing something. I don’t feel I need to do that anymore.

dsc_4017_ian_mccauslandMy outlets for dealing with stress would be friends, family, reading. I work out almost every day to try to stay healthy and to stay fit. I think that it’s really important just to take care of yourself. I mean if you’re going to live another fifty do you have to take care of yourself.

My mom is 80 and my dad’s 82, and they just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary a couple weeks ago. They’re pretty healthy so I have no reason to believe that I won’t live for a lot longer [chuckles]. I’d really like to see my son grow up and be a good person and a healthy adult in whatever he wants to do in his life. I want to be around for that. My husband and I always joke about this, but the older I get, the less tolerant I am of cold. So one of my goals is to not be here in the winter when I’m retired.

dsc_4042_ian_mccauslandAnd retirement doesn’t feel daunting to me, I’ll be okay with it. There are lots of different ways to channel my creative energy. I would be okay with retiring from what I’m currently doing and then actually maybe doing something else that wasn’t as dramatic.  Who knows, what  journalism will look like in ten years?

It’s just remarkable how quickly it’s gone. But I don’t like to dwell on age. I don’t necessarily feel like I act like a stereotypical 50-year-old.  I am surrounded by positive young people. You know what’s current, you know what’s going on, that helps. As well, having a ten-year-old really helps you stay active.