An anti-retirement rant

A week ago, at the end of a 3-hour Zoom meeting with my co-editors, I felt a strange mixture of relief and sadness.

I knew that we had just finished the last meeting when we would be writing and editing text for our book. For over two years now, I’ve been working with these three academics, all eminent nurse educators, on an advanced nursing ethics textbook designed to be read mainly by graduate students and leaders in the nursing field. Coming soon: Moral Horizon: Nursing Ethics for Leadership and Practice (3rd edition).

On the part of the three co-editors, this has been a labour of love, born out of the determination to leave a legacy of their many decades of research and hands-on experience in nursing and teaching. They published two previous editions of their book with Pearson Canada, but Pearson was not willing to publish a third edition of such a specialized textbook. Therefore, this edition will be published online by the University of Victoria Libraries, and it will be available free of charge to anyone, at a time when a print edition of the book would cost perhaps $180.00.

In writing the textbook, the three editors were joined by 32 additional authors who are experts in their fields. The book is timely; written during the COVID‑19 pandemic, it addresses the crisis in Canadian health care, the ethics of global health, the promises and perils of digital health technologies and AI, and much more. My job for over two years has been to participate in editorial meetings, copy edit the long manuscript (including hundreds of pages of scientific references!), and communicate with all of the authors and our publishing colleagues at the University of Victoria through many rounds of revisions of each of the book’s 22 chapters.

It has been a tremendous learning experience for me, not only in terms of my editing skills, or the subjects of nursing ethics and healthcare issues. These three editors have modelled exceptional communication skills for me, and it is clear to me why all three, throughout their long careers, were outstanding nurses and, later, nurse educators and leaders. From them, I have learned how to communicate with tact, sensitivity, respect, and clarity. These three people have been close friends with each other for decades, as well as research colleagues. It was an honour to be part of their team and know I was contributing to the production of this book.

What next?

Being close to the end of working on the textbook has me reflecting, naturally, on what’s next for me in my freelance editing career. At the same time, I need a break. Also, there are other major changes in my life that I have to pay attention to. In a more general way, I’m also thinking about how differently many Baby Boomers like myself are approaching old age and retirement compared to our parents’ generation.

In my previous post, I wrote about some of the medical challenges I am facing. I like to think I’ll never stop being an athlete, but I will have to make both physical and mental adaptations. Another change for me this year is also a wonderful opportunity—the chance to buy my own condo and have some security about where I will live—perhaps for the rest of my life! It is my inheritance from my father that has made this possible. I hope I can buy the apartment I’ve been renting for 11 years. I’m happy here. But whether I stay here or move to another apartment nearby, I’ve got to stop procrastinating about the decluttering work.

My balcony sunsets are one reason I don’t want to move

No retirement

I can’t imagine not working (writing and editing) any more than I can imagine not being active physically. Recently a friend of mine mentioned some relatives of his who are in their 70s. They are retired, well-off, and go on the same vacation every year, to Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

That reminded me of how my grandparents used to drive from Montreal to Florida every year and spend four months down south to escape the bitter Montreal winters. They’d always stop to visit us in Toronto on their way back, laden with bags of oranges and grapefruit for us. They, too, were satisfied with having the same routines every day and every year. I remember them watching Jeopardy on TV. They would have been in their 60s then. There was no such thing as “workouts” for them—they didn’t even go for walks. Both were smokers, and both died in their early 70s from complications of heart disease and stroke.

They were old people to me then, but now that I’m only one year away from being a “senior citizen” myself, everything in me rebels against the thought of repeating the same routines every day, and not making any physical or intellectual demands on myself. It’s a choice people make—will they continue to at least try—to learn, to embrace new technologies and new attitudes? Or will they give up, and take the easy way, being content with the status quo?

I know this might sound somewhat judgmental. Also, I have to acknowledge the hard lives my grandparents had. They lived through two world wars and the Depression. They became adults in an era when only professional athletes continued sports after university, except perhaps as a weekend hobby. The dangers of smoking were not known—smoking was even promoted as a way to combat stress and anxiety, and all the glamorous Hollywood stars smoked both on- and offscreen.

But I am determined not to be the kind of old person my grandparents were.

I was hugely inspired by reading Daniel J. Leviton’s book Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives. Leviton is realistic about the limitations of old age, yet relates many stories of productive, happy people who continue to work, play, and learn in their nineties.

Sure, I have my low moments. There is no denying that I have less energy than I used to, and I have a circadian rhythm that includes tiredness and depression in the afternoons. Running has been so difficult lately. A couple of days ago I wrote in my journal:

Does one learn to stop mourning about the losses of getting older? Of not being an agile, carefree runner anymore? Maybe not being any kind of runner at all? I’m sure when I sprint across the street to avoid a car, my running doesn’t look natural.

But these low moments pass, because I’m learning to adjust my expectations.

Most importantly, I still hold my sense of joy in being alive.

Posted in Commentary, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Running, Writing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

A new season of life

What happened to that flurry of blog posts I promised three weeks ago?

Life—meaning work—intervened, as it has so often when it comes to writing my blog posts. I plan to write a rare post about my editing work next time.

I get great ideas of topics for my blog almost every day, but I’ve discovered if I don’t sit down and immediately start typing to bring my ideas to life, the blog post I write days or weeks later will seem stale. I’ll have lost the freshness and insights I thought I had when it was all just in my brain. Doubtless it’s the same for people under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, who will swear to themselves that they’ve discovered the meaning of life and the answers to all the existential questions ever asked, but when they try to recover these insights later—pouf! Gone. Today my thoughts are already four days old, so probably stale. Perhaps recoverable?

A mid-life crisis and other “phases” of life

Today’s post is part of what might be a much longer post—when I have time. I’ve written a lot in this blog already about the full-blown mid-life crisis I experienced in the years between 2008 and 2012, when almost everything in my life changed dramatically.

Now I realize that once again, I’m starting a new “season” of life.

It’s human nature to try to fit the events of our lives together into a story that has some coherence and meaning. (Writers specialize in doing this!). I’m only now emerging from a set of difficult changes and events that have happened to me over the past year or so. It was a time of health crises: most significantly, my father’s descent last year into the final stages of kidney disease. He passed away on November 3rd, 2022, at age 92. At the same time, my life partner, Keith, was suffering a lot because of advanced arthritis in both knees as well as rheumatoid arthritis that affected many other joints in his body. This was not only extremely painful for him—it greatly reduced his mobility. He couldn’t take on photography work. We couldn’t do bike rides together, and even our slow walks together were short. But after years of suffering (Keith was one of the victims of an overstressed medical system), he started getting help. Last summer he began taking medication that helped the rheumatoid arthritis a great deal. And on November 15, Keith underwent double knee replacement surgery. He was a brave, determined patient. His brother gave him a lot of help, and he stayed with me in the first weeks after surgery. Together we did all the right things to make his recuperation optimal. The challenges only made our relationship closer.

Keith hiking at Sasamat Lake last weekend. Knees great, no poles!

Witnessing my father’s decline and Keith’s pain last year was heartbreaking. Worrying about them worsened my chronic insomnia. My own health problems paled in comparison—but they were there, and I was mostly in denial.

Last year a CT scan of my leg arteries showed that there were arterial deposits all along both of my legs. In addition, my cardiologist told me that my aorta showed deposits of plaque. My blood cholesterol was twice what it should be, so he put me on cholesterol-lowering medication (a statin).

I was more worried about a strange apparent blockage in a leg artery that happened in March 2022. One day, when I was only two or three minutes into a warmup jog, all the muscles in my right leg started cramping up, and this cramping grew worse so rapidly that I soon had to stop jogging. When I rested for a few minutes, the pain and cramping went away, but as soon as I tried to jog for more than a minute, the same thing happened. For the next ten days I could neither jog nor climb the stairs of the Coquitlam Crunch without getting severe cramping in my right leg. Then, one day, the cramping mysteriously disappeared. My vascular surgeon said it was “impossible” that I could have had a blockage that just went away. He suggested that I had injured myself with a muscle tear. However, the pain of a muscle tear doesn’t go away after resting for a couple of minutes after activity.

Another odd thing happened just four days ago as I was pushing myself hard up the 450+ stairs of the Coquitlam Crunch. I was about two thirds of the way up when suddenly, something—I couldn’t put a finger on it—just didn’t feel right. I felt that I must slow down—and I did, slightly. This happened when I was close to six minutes into the climb from the parking lot. If you look at the heartrate on the graph below, you will notice a double spike around that time. I reached the top of the stairs at 7:07. As for my heartrate being 198 bpm—that isn’t accurate. My Forerunner 45 wrist heartrate is unreliable, I’ve found, but the pattern is usually correct. Another thing to know and notice about this workout is that other than running across the four road intersections to avoid waiting for cars, the only part I run is the final 250–300m to the top. That always feels like a maximum effort, but the heartrate showing here at the end of the climb is much lower than the spike on the stair climb.

Screenshot from my Garmin workout of ascending the Coquitlam Crunch

Coincidentally, I had an appointment with my cardiologist a few hours after doing the Crunch. I’d recently had a heart CT scan done, as well as blood tests to determine my cholesterol level. The purpose of my appointment was to discuss these tests with my doctor, and to do a stress test on the treadmill. The treadmill walk/jog on a steep incline showed I was pretty fit, but my doctor had bad news for me. He said one of the arteries leading to my heart was 70% blocked. Also, he said, though the statin drug had reduced my blood cholesterol dramatically, it was still too high, so he would double my daily dose of the drug.

I agreed to try the new dose of the statin. But did I mention the incident from early that morning to my cardiologist? No, I did not. There’s that denial again.

I look fit, but inside–the heart and leg arteries are all messed up!

The larger gist of this blog post about entering into a new phase of life is that I’m gradually accepting that this phase includes becoming an “older person.” (Note: I still can’t write “old person.” This post has been mostly about the physical manifestations of that. And it’s a cliché that all old people talk about is their ailments. Well, clichés come from reality, and ruefully I see that it’s not only me but my whole cohort of baby boomers who are talking about bad knees, as well more serious—even terminal—medical diagnoses.

Yet this new phase of life also offers new adventures and new opportunities. Being older means having the wisdom to appreciate what we have, and the wisdom to understand our own power to make decisions that affirm the time we have left. My next blog posts will be about juggling acceptance of my limitations with the determination to keep learning and pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A flurry of blog posts in the forecast

A flurry of cherry blossoms

I’m taking on a challenge this month: I will be writing eight blog posts in four weeks. This is a challenge defined by a Toastmasters project I’m working on.

Those of you who are familiar with my blog know that I’ve posted infrequently in the past few years. I can make my excuses—busy with editing work, thinking that I’ve written all I have to say about certain subjects, and not being able to write about my own or others’ physical and mental struggles because of privacy concerns.

But sometimes having a precise goal stimulates action and creativity. I will have to write whether I think I’m ready or not. Do I have worthy ideas to share? Do I have time to write? Doesn’t matter. At least my readers can know that, contrary to my usual style, these posts will be short. Vignettes.

There have always been writers who’ve chosen to put constraints on how or what they write. The most obvious constraints are the ones imposed by the various traditional formats of poetry; for example the sonnet, the villanelle, or the limerick, with their strictly defined rhyming patterns, number of lines, meter (the pattern of syllable emphasis), and other characteristics.

But I’ve also heard of authors who arbitrarily set themselves tasks like writing a novel in English without using certain vowels; or even writing a novel in English using only one of the five vowels!

The human mind can not only be incredibly creative under strict constraints; it can also start from one small idea and then expand it exponentially. The best example I can give of this is a book I read over 20 years ago—Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (1997).[1] (I also mentioned this book in a blog post I wrote over 10 years ago.)

This book takes as its jumping-off point a tiny 16th-century French poem, “A une Damoyselle malade” by Clément Marot. Hofstadter translated the poem into English himself, and then enlisted many friends, colleagues, respected translators, and even 1997-era AI programs!—to produce their own translations, all 88 versions of which are included in this book. However, Le Ton beau de Marot is infinitely more than one translated poem. It is a wild and exuberant treasure-trove of exploration on topics including creativity, the music and wordplay of poetry and other forms of writing, AI, and (from the jacket cover), “musings on life, loss, and death,” and “a love letter to the French language.”

Le Ton beau de Marot wasn’t recommended to me by a friend, a librarian, or any article I read. I found it by accident while browsing at a bookstore. It’s just one reinforcement of my basic belief in life’s unpredictability and how we are enriched by embracing the unexpected. This book stretched my mind to the limit. Taking on the challenge of reading its dense 600+ pages was one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve ever had.

I suspect that my eight “required” blog posts will wander in unexpected ways. Such is the joy and freedom of not writing for money.

[1] Hofstadter, Douglas H. (1997). Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. Basic Books.

Posted in Book Reviews, Poems, Vignettes, Writing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The worst run of my life

I’ve been running for nearly half a century, so to say that I recently did a run that probably qualifies as “the worst run of my life” is really saying something.

I caught a cold from Keith. He had a “little cough,” and we weren’t careful. This was the first time I’ve been sick since before COVID—surely an unprecedented length of time to go without even catching a cold. I’d forgotten how miserable it could feel. My sinuses felt they were exploding. I was going through a packet of Halls and a box of tissues every day. We were finally having a stretch of warm, sunny weather, but I didn’t feel good enough to exercise other than to go for walks or easy bike rides, my pockets filled with tissues, feeling dazed as though I were in a dream world.

Finally, after about a week, I felt a little better and decided to go for an easy run in Mundy Park. I started my run early on a cool but brilliant morning, the kind of morning that would normally make me feel invigorated and joyful.

Instead, within the first minute or two I knew I was in trouble. Breathing while jogging was making me choke and cough. The cough sounded gruesome. I needed to spit and cough and blow my nose all at the same time. I didn’t want the dog walkers to hear me. But I told myself it might get better, I might warm up, and I shuffled deeper into the park and into the Nature Trail, where I’d be unlikely to have any witnesses.

The struggling and coughing never went away. By the time I was ten or fifteen minutes into my “run,” I felt so terrible I thought I would have to quit running and walk the shortest route back to the parking lot.

But I didn’t. And why not? Because it is so ingrained in me, after all these decades of hard training and racing, that quitting is unacceptable. The only acceptable reason to stop running during a race or a workout is if injury makes it physically impossible to keep going.

The worst run of my life took me almost 28 minutes to complete, and I covered less than 5K. Even more significant than the struggle to maintain even such a slow pace was the fact that despite running on a beautiful crisp morning, in my favourite park, I didn’t enjoy the run at all. And even before the post-run feverish chills and shakes set in, and the hacking cough and exploding sinuses grew worse, I knew that this run had been a big mistake. I should have stopped after two minutes. I told myself that in the future, I would listen to my body and stop if it said the same things it had said to me that day.

I have to let go of the mantra “never quit unless you have to” that was part of the essential toughness of the elite runner. I no longer have the physical toughness required to meet the demands of that kind of mental toughness. My new mantra needs to be “enjoy every run!”—because there are a limited number of kilometres left in this aging body.

A happier run: A recent short burst of running near the top of the Coquitlam Crunch
Posted in Personal stories, Running, Vignettes | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Eleanor Wachtel interviews Yiyun Li: The Book of Goose and the power of 12-year-old girls

On a recent Sunday, I was blown away yet again by CBC’s Writers & Company program. This time, Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing Chinese American writer Yiyun Li, winner of many awards and writer of several acclaimed novels. I’ve now discovered a writer who is new to me, someone with an intriguing voice. Some of Li’s comments during the interview were so strange and extreme that they almost put the seasoned and appreciative Wachtel at a loss as to how to respond. Yet many of Li’s words struck a chord with me, especially her thoughts about 12- to 14-year-old girls. She led me back to vivid memories of my own early adolescence.

Li’s background and the origins of The Book of Goose

Li’s originality surely comes in part from being born in Communist China in 1972, and growing up in a world where there was no privacy, and no information about the outside world. Li comments about the enormous hunger she felt, not only literally (for food), but for knowledge, books, and a connection to what other people were thinking or feeling. She read the newspapers that fish came wrapped in. She was 13 before she first entered a library. This hunger for knowledge and connection, in a place where most information was propaganda, led to Li’s relying on her imagination to play and to create stories—her “secret life.” Stories were the only way to escape from the boredom and deprivation of real life.

Early in the interview with Wachtel, Li gives the interviewer pause when she asserts that she believes 12- to 14-year-old girls have the same “capacities of feeling and thinking as an adult,” and are not taken as seriously as they deserve. Li believes she is the same person today as she was when she was 12—“my core was formed by then”—though she recognizes that to the world, she looks different. I felt a surge of recognition when I heard these words, because I felt their truth for myself, although I have always thought of my essential “self” as coming into being at a somewhat later age, 15, mainly because by then I had an understanding of my sexuality that did not exist at age 12. Yet intellectually, and as a writer, my core was already there at age 12, too —and I have the diaries to prove it.

Listening to the interview, I was pleased to hear Li quote one of my favourite childhood writers, C. S. Lewis (author of the Narnia books) supporting the idea that a person’s essential intellectual nature exists at this young age: “If anyone does any thinking, he has done enough thinking by age 14. If he hasn’t done enough thinking by age 14, he’s not going to be a thinker.”

The plot of The Book of Goose grew out of a real-life literary hoax perpetrated by a teenaged peasant girl in post-World War II France. In Li’s fictional version, there is not one writer but two. They are young teenaged girls bound by an intimate friendship. This choice to have two fictional writers was based on Li’s fascination with the nature of the friendships that often develop between girls of 12 to 14 years of age—intense relationships that she describes as being “as tragic and dramatic as a Shakespeare play.”

Obviously, this is an extreme statement—one that Wachtel responded to half-jokingly with the question, “Did you mean a Shakespeare tragedy or comedy?”

Li also analyzes the way girls can be precocious, expert manipulators: some girls are natural manipulators, and other girls this age are natural “manipulatees,” who are happy to submit to the leadership of the manipulative personality.

Me as a young adolescent

Well, I clearly remember my own experiences during those critical years for young girls, and I had my own “tragic and dramatic” relationships. In retrospect, I believe that “love” is not too strong a word to apply to the friendships that can develop between young girls before all their passion turns obsessively to boys.

 I also agree with Li that some 12- to 14-year-old girls are anything but naive and innocent. In fact, it’s almost hard to believe the awareness of their own power that some girls can have at such a young age.

In particular, I remember a girl who became the “leader” of the grade 7s at my junior high school. “Mary Lou” had been a “nobody” in elementary school. She wasn’t one of the bright kids academically, and she wasn’t pretty—in fact, she was plain. But somehow, after the summer holidays, she came back transformed. She had developed a slim, well-proportioned figure, and learned how to use makeup. She still wasn’t a pretty girl—but what she had learned at age 12 (somehow!) were the arts of charm and seduction. Every guy in grade 7 wanted to be her boyfriend. She had the ability to flirt in a fascinating way with any boy, to make him feel good, to make him feel he had a chance without promising anything. Most of the girls in grade 7 wanted to be part of Mary Lou’s entourage, to have some of her popularity (and maybe some leftover boys) come their way.

My German girlfriends

The closest friendships I had between the ages of 10 and 14 were with my “German girlfriends,” two sisters whose family moved into my parents’ cul-de-sac when I was 10. “Annelise” was a year older than me, and “Erika” was the same age. The girls went to a different school than me, because they were Catholics, but during the first three summers they lived on our street we became fast friends. We went for bike rides together, played all kinds of board games, and went to the local pool for the evening “5-cent swim,” where we flirted with our favourite lifeguard. We created our own magazine (banging out articles on my ancient typewriter), and put on a magic show for the kids in our neighbourhood. The girls had their house to themselves during weekday afternoons, because their mother worked regular hours and their father left for his shiftwork at noon. We watched our favourite shows during the hot summer afternoons: “Let’s Make a Deal,” “The Dating Game,” and “The Newlywed Game.” We danced to ‘45s played at full volume.

Best of all were the rare nights when my parents allowed me to pitch a tent in our backyard and have a sleepover with Annelise and Erika. After reading ghost stories aloud to each other by flashlight, we talked most of the night. Darkness and exhaustion allowed inhibitions to disappear—we knew all of each other’s secrets.

Of the two sisters, Annelise was my closest friend for two years. Erika was buddies with another girl on our street. But then Annelise changed. She quickly became a glamourous woman like the girls’ mother, always dressed up, with carefully applied makeup. Erika told me Annelise had fallen in love and she had seen her sister necking with her boyfriend. I was hurt that Annelise had dropped me, seemingly denying all of our former closeness. When she happened to see me in the street she said no more than a curt “Hello.”

Erika and I were even closer friends, though, for the next couple of years. I’ll never forget the evening when we went for a bike ride together, and I crashed on a steep hill and was bleeding heavily from my forehead. A passing motorist took me and my bike home, and my dad took me to Emergency, where I received a few stitches. Later that evening, Erika delivered a sweet note to my house, expressing her worry and care for me. She illustrated her note with cute drawings and also left me her library copy of Flowers For Algernon, which she knew I was dying to read.

We told each other about our crushes. For years she was in love with Toronto jockey Sandy Hawley, and showed me all her newspaper clippings of him. Erika knew about my hopeless Grade 8 crush on Dean, a short, powerfully built guy with piercingly beautiful eyes who sat near me in science class. I was tormented as I watched him eye-flirting constantly with a beautiful, teasing, athletic girl on the opposite side of the room.

But I lost Erika, too, when she became beautiful and sophisticated like her sister and boys became much more important than a childhood friend.

My closest friendships with my school girlfriends ended about the same time. I, who had been a leader in elementary school because of my academic achievements and natural bossiness, became a “loser” for a while in junior high. My former friends changed rapidly in a way that I didn’t appear to. Suddenly they looked sexy in their jeans, miniskirts, and liberally-applied makeup. Their lives revolved around the “in-group,” their boyfriends, and wild parties. Looking cool was all-important. As for me, no brand of jeans fit my tiny, skinny frame, but my legs (those future runners’ legs!) were too long for children’s clothes, so I was still wearing the old-fashioned dresses my mother sewed for me. I was definitely not cool!

My period of being lonely didn’t last long, though. I soon gained not only 10 pounds (which ended the lack of both jeans and boyfriends), but a new group of friends who accepted people who weren’t cool in the ways that the popular kids were. I also accepted that being an obsessive reader and writer would be a permanent part of my identity, and it was something that would bring me employment (at times), and more importantly, lifelong enjoyment, including listening to Writers & Company interviews!

Inside the mind of an obsessive book lover

A good part of my pleasure in listening to Wachtel’s interview of Yiyun Li came from my delight in being exposed to an extraordinary thinker, someone whose obsessions perhaps stretch into a zone many would consider abnormal. Yet I liked her obsessions about favourite writers because I recognize the same obsessions in myself. Li just goes much further than I ever have. For example, Li has read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace 15 times. She ponders the way our personalities are influenced not only by our biological genetics, but by what she calls our literary genetics. For her, the great Russian writers have been a key component of her literary heritage. Li describes War and Peace as her “daily bread.” She has read the novel about fifteen times, at a rate of 15 pages a day, meaning it is part of her daily life for about 6 months at a time. For her, War and Peace acts as a “placeholder” for her own development, because as she changes as a person—as a writer, a thinker, and a human being—the book reveals new insights to her every time she reads it.

This reminds me of writer Rebecca Mead’s obsession with George Elliott’s Middlemarch, which culminated with Mead’s writing the bestselling book My Life in Middlemarch. (See my blog article about Mead’s book here.)

I have my own book obsessions—the books I’ve read too many times to count. For me, these include mainly books that I read as a child or a teenager. I have an emotional attachment to them; they give me comfort, often in the middle of a night of insomnia. These are books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith; The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett; and the Narnia series, by C. S. Lewis. But I also reread challenging books, such as Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (how did he do it?). I go back again and again to short stories that pack seemingly infinite depth and questions into the constraining form of a short story: “Cathedral,” by Raymond Carver; “A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner; the linked stories of A Bird in the House, by Margaret Laurence; and many jewels of the short form by Carol Shields and Alice Munro.

Slow reading and catching a butterfly

I was fascinated by Li’s love of slow reading. She mentioned that she is often reading 10 books at a time. She likes to live in the writer’s mind, to live with the characters—she calls this slow reading “decanting” a book.

Yiyun Li left her audience with a beautiful analogy about writing near the end of the interview. She talked about how there are two ways of catching a butterfly. The first way, you actually catch the butterfly, preserve it, and pin it down in your collection—then you have a beautiful, dead butterfly.

But by writing—

“I like to think writing to me is to catch how it feels if a butterfly flutters by and you can’t really see it clearly, you can only see the shadow, you know, passing by on your page, on the book or on the porch. But that momentary feeling, that fleetness of the moment, I think that is what writing is about. It’s to capture the feeling instead of the real butterfly.”

You can listen to the Writers & Company podcast here.

“I like to think writing to me is to catch how it feels if a butterfly flutters by and you can’t really see it clearly, you can only see the shadow, you know, passing by on your page, on the book or on the porch. But that momentary feeling, that fleetness of the moment, I think that is what writing is about. It’s

Posted in Book Reviews, Personal stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2022 to 2023: Loss to a turning point

Last year I wrote little in this blog. As someone who needs to write—to express myself, to untangle my thoughts and feelings, to rave about creative work and ideas that move me, and to interact with friends and followers—my lack of writing left me frustrated and deeply unsatisfied.

It wasn’t writer’s block in the usual sense. I was blocked for two reasons:

  1. Most of the time, I felt trapped on a hamster wheel of constant demands (mostly from a book editing project) that left me little time for writing.
  2. The subjects I wanted and needed to write about were too grim.

Last year was a 10-year landmark for me in a few significant ways, and it was part of my frustration and regret that I couldn’t write about this more. It was ten years since I moved into my beloved apartment in Port Moody overlooking Burrard Inlet—the first time in my life I had lived alone. It was ten years since my coach George Gluppe, the single most influential person in my life, had died. For ten years I had written blog posts, starting with weekly posts about my training and racing leading up to the 1988 Olympics, and that life-shaping event itself.

As I think about last year, I’m aware that I’ve arrived at another major transition point in my life, just as I did in the years between 2009 and 2012. During those years, my marriage ended, I took courses to become a professional editor, my son left home for Japan, I started a new relationship, and I moved out of my home of 22 years.

Now I’m ready to write about 2022. I want to write about the struggles, the darkness, and the losses—though only briefly. Some of the most heartbreaking parts can barely be alluded to, because they are other people’s stories, and privacy must be maintained. But part of the point of writing this is to say that even during the hardest times, there were silver linings. I didn’t lose my capacity for joy. I’m starting 2023 with an awareness that I have changed, and that my life will change; there are significant decisions to be made. At age 63, I’ve become mentally stronger, while at the same time becoming more aware of and accepting of my physical decline. I’m ready to welcome the changes that a new stage in my life will bring.

The dominating background of 2022

My life last year was dominated by two situations: my father’s terrible decline in health as his kidney disease progressed; and the constant demands of my freelance job as the project manager and copy editor of a large nursing textbook.


I wrote about my dad in the tribute to him that I wrote after his death in November . The heartbreak of my father’s condition was always in my mind, and it felt like my brothers and I were always a bit behind in our planning for the kinds of help Dad would need as he grew weaker. It didn’t help that he was in denial about the seriousness of his situation. I visited my dad in Toronto five times between May and early October. Each visit was worse than the one before as I saw him becoming ever weaker and less able to function. I struggled with a terrible brew of emotions: sadness, worry, a feeling of impotence, loss—and especially, guilt—guilt not only because of all I was not doing, having the excuse of being the one out of three children who lived far away, but guilt about the negative reactions I had to seeing my father’s skeletal form and other physical manifestations of his disease. Why could I not be tougher emotionally, and more loving? Why could I not find ways to comfort him more when I was there?

However, I was able to accept my limitations. One of the silver linings I gained from the last part of my father’s life was a newfound degree of admiration and love for my younger brother, Mike. Mike lives in Burlington, at least an hour’s drive from where Dad lived, but with a part-time work situation he was able to visit Dad regularly during the last year of his life. On my second-last visit to Toronto, in September, Mike reassured me that he wanted to give Dad whatever help he needed so he could die in his own apartment. That was what Dad wanted. When Mike and I had that conversation (during a break in a bike ride), I could feel his sincerity and the love he felt for Dad. It ended up that either Mike or my other brother, Alan, were with Dad 24/7 during the last few weeks of his life. I couldn’t have done what they did, and I was enormously thankful to them.

Editing work

I was under constant stress all year long as the nursing textbook project continued. The original online publication date was supposed to be April 2022, but the writing, editing, and design deadlines kept getting pushed to the future as the three book editors and some of the chapter authors struggled with health issues (including severe cases of COVID-19) and other problems. My job with this project includes a lot of responsibility, as I am doing administration and communication roles in addition to copy editing. I couldn’t manage my worries about the ever-delayed deadlines, and this contributed to my chronic insomnia.


During 2022, I was frequently brooding about mortality and getting older, not only because of my father but because of other things going on in my life. This choked my blog writing. Why would people want to read posts about mortality? How could such posts possibly offer any kind of inspiration? Well, maybe you’ll find it at the end of this blog post. Here, I’ll just outline the physical struggles that 2022 brought for my partner Keith, my cat, Tux, and me.

Keith’s health is his own business, but he is fine with my sharing a little. For him, 2022 was just part of a continuing health struggle. The positive part was that he finally started getting treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. This allowed him to go for a few good e-bike rides before his double knee replacement surgery on Nov. 9. (Keith is making good progress now, after enduring a lot of pain!).

Keith’s knees about a week after surgery

My 15-year-old cat, Tux, went in a few months from being a “fat cat” to being a very sick and skinny cat by January 2022. She almost died before spending a couple of days at the vet’s last January. She is on medication now but is still skinny. Although she’s lively and still seems happy, she has worrying symptoms indicating that she may not have too much longer to live.

Tux in August 2022.

I’ve thought about how uncanny it was that my father’s extreme weight loss during his final illness was echoed in a minor way not only by Tux, but by me. In 2022, without any change in my diet or workout habits, I lost a few pounds to go from an already-low 88 lbs to 84 lbs, the lightest I’ve been since I was 13 or 14. I’ve mentioned this to my GP, and have had a couple of things checked out with more bloodwork to come. I feel healthy and my workouts have been normal (relatively—see below). However, I had to start taking cholesterol-lowering medication early in 2022, and that plus fairly significant declines in my athletic performance, as well as one very disturbing physical event (see the next section), has made me aware that I can’t take my health or physical fitness for granted. The ultimate finish line for me is unpredictable, and may be closer than I used to believe.

A frightening event: circulation blockage

One day last March, I started warming up for a regular sprint workout with my friend Laurie. After about two minutes of slow jogging, I noticed one leg felt unusually weak. By three minutes, the leg was starting to cramp, especially my calf muscles, and by five minutes the cramping was so severe that I had no choice but to stop and walk. This kind of cramping was no stranger to me; it’s called claudication, and it happens when an artery is blocked and muscles don’t get adequate blood flow to meet their demands. When I was in my thirties, I experienced blockages in the upper part of both femoral arteries (I was told this was due to a rare genetic disease), and without the major bypass surgery I received (left leg at age 34, right leg at age 38), I would never have been able to run again for more than a minute or two at a time.

For several years now, I’ve been experiencing mild claudication in my left leg when I cycle up long hills or do intense running. Since I’m not competing anymore, I haven’t worried about the slight limitations this places on my performance. However, what shocked me at Mundy Park that day when I had to stop was realizing that this severe cramping was occurring in my right leg, which had seemed 100% normal up to that day!

This was not a muscle pull or cramp; I knew that because the leg recovered after a minute or two of rest, as blood slowly flowed back into the deprived muscle cells. When I “tested” the leg, though, by trying to jog again, the same severe cramping came back after two or three minutes. When Laurie arrived, I told her I couldn’t run with her that day, and explained what had happened.

I tried to get an immediate appointment with my vascular surgeon, but was told I’d have to be referred by my GP and it would likely take months.

The next day I tried to do one of my regular workouts, the Coquitlam Crunch, a popular trail that includes about 500 stairs and ~250m of elevation gain. I usually just walk the trail, but I push the stair section hard and run the final 300m or so to the top, then jog/walk down.

My attempt showed that the blockage I suspected was still there. I made it to the top of the stairs in a time only a little slower than normal, but doing so caused all the muscles in my right leg to cramp so badly that I had to rest for a few minutes before I could continue walking.

Near the top of the west Crunch stairs.

A few days later I did a running workout of sorts, doing 100m strides on a soccer field with a 2-minute break between each one, during which I did pushups and situps while my leg muscles recovered.

It was 11 days after the initial apparent blockage when I did the Crunch one morning and experienced no cramping. My leg circulation was normal again! I was able to return to my usual running workouts. When I talked to my vascular surgeon on the phone, he told me it was “impossible” that I could have had a blockage that just disappeared like that. He insisted that I must have had a calf muscle injury—a ridiculous diagnosis given my symptoms. Also, while I was still experiencing the blockage, I had an appointment with my GP, who listened to my pulses and confirmed that the weak pulses in my right foot were consistent with a blockage being present in my lower leg.

This incident heightened my awareness of my own physical vulnerability. It was a warning that not only are my speed and strength gradually decreasing (and I’ve noticed significant changes since I turned 60), but a sudden event like this blockage could mean an abrupt change in my life, and it could happen without warning again. If it hadn’t been for my mysterious recovery, I would have been unable to continue cycling up big hills, or do any running other than short sprints.

A psychological turning point

The last two months of 2022 were tough. With my father’s death on November 3 came sadness, but a kind of relief because his suffering was ended. I also had a peculiar sense of loss, not just about my father, but because of the realization that for the first time in 63 years, I would no longer have a home to return to in Toronto.

Throughout all of 2022 I had had Keith’s constant support as I worried about my dad and struggled with my constant book editing challenges. But Keith had challenges of his own. Only six days after Dad’s passing Keith was in hospital for his double knee replacement surgery. I knew he would need lots of help when he got out of the hospital. When his brother Gary brought Keith to my apartment after his hospital stay, I was happy to help him by keeping his ice machine functioning, making his meals, delivering coffee in the morning, encouraging him to do his prescribed leg exercises, and driving him to his physio appointments. Keith was in a lot of pain—it was tough for him, but he was a good patient, and together we kept talking about the long-term benefits of this double-whammy surgery.

Yet having Keith’s care added to my editing work was difficult for me, too. And I missed “strong Keith.” For a while I had to take my turn being the strong one.

All of the pressures were getting to me, and my chronic insomnia was getting worse. My sleeping pill consumption was getting out of control. I hated the physical and emotional side effects these drugs can often cause, and the spectre of becoming totally addicted was always there. There was a night near the end of December, when Keith was much better and back on his own in his place in North Vancouver, when I couldn’t sleep all night and finally phoned him at 3 a.m. That was my lowest point. We talked for an hour. I told him I was starting to think I had no choice but to ask my GP to put me on an anti-anxiety drug. I couldn’t handle my worries and was sleeping so little I couldn’t function well and do my work. That made me worry more—it was a vicious downward spiral. Keith agreed that it might be a good choice for me to go on an anti-anxiety drug for a while.

Talking with Keith had relaxed me. I fell asleep and slept until 8:00, even though it is very rare for me to sleep past 6:30, even on a nearly-sleepless night or a night when I take a sleeping pill.

It’s hard to explain, but after the low point of that insomniac night, I felt a dramatic mental shift within myself.

I felt stronger. I didn’t want to be on a prescription anti-anxiety medication. I already know the undesirable side effects such drugs can have. From deep inside, I suddenly felt the conviction that I could let go of my worrying. I experienced a liberating sense of freedom. And in the past month, I’ve been able to do it! I’m feeling happier, relaxed, and more peaceful.

It’s not as if a miracle has occurred. I’m still taking sleeping pills occasionally—but I’m no longer panicking about it. I’ve made concrete plans about how to address my anxiety and how to reduce my stress, and some of my actions are already underway.

I’m grateful for my good health, while at the same time knowing that health is unpredictable. I have a new acceptance of my fragility. As for my own mortality—before, I accepted it as a scientific fact, but I couldn’t bear it, either rationally or emotionally. Now, I am getting closer to some kind of understanding and acceptance.

Most importantly, I’ve regained my eagerness for life. This year, 2023, is the start of a new phase of my life. My father is gone, and the nursing textbook is almost done. I’ll be looking for new work, and maybe even a new home. I’m starting the year with the confidence that I can make good choices and welcome new adventures.

A sunny view from my balcony yesterday morning lifted my spirits.
Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Psychology, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Frank Rooks (April 2, 1930­–November 3, 2022): Memories of my dad

My father had kidney disease for the last three years or so of his life, but he was doing quite well (without dialysis; he was adamant about that) until the spring of 2022. When I found out about Dad’s increasing weakness and lethargy, I decided to visit him in Toronto in mid-May. I hadn’t seen him since late summer of 2021.

One of the first things Dad said to me after he picked me up at the airport was, “Well Nance, I’m literally fading away … I’m down to 120 pounds.” Even more ominously, to my ears, he continued, “I don’t think I feel good enough to go to Alan’s birthday party tomorrow.” That shocked me, because Dad lived for the times he got to spend with family—my brother Alan and his wife Sarah, and my brother Mike’s family. Alan lived in Waterloo, and Mike in Burlington. The party was going to be in Burlington, and Dad and I wouldn’t even have to drive—the plan was for my nephew Daniel to drive to Dad’s apartment from his place in Richmond Hill and do all the driving.

I hoped Dad would feel better the following day and change his mind, but it was not to be. I went with Daniel to Burlington, stayed overnight at Mike’s to socialize with the whole family, and returned to Dad’s apartment the following day.

My visits with Dad in his last months

Between May and early October, I visited Dad five times, spending roughly one week a month with him. I found all of these visits very difficult emotionally. It was heartbreaking to witness Dad’s rapid decline. With each visit, Dad was weaker and less capable of doing even the easiest tasks or actions. Although he was a lifelong night owl, as the months passed, he went to bed earlier and slept ever more hours during the day.

Until his final month or two, Dad gamely tried to maintain his independence in whatever ways he could. One of his most anguishing losses was giving up driving. Driving was his means of escaping from his seniors’ apartment and the attached care facility: it gave him the freedom to explore when he could no longer walk or even ride his bike. My brothers and I knew that with his strength, visual acuity, and ability to react greatly diminished, my father shouldn’t be driving. We spoke to him about it but decided to stop short of taking his car keys away.

I went on a hair-raising drive with Dad in July. We planned to go to one of the Lake Ontario beaches where Dad used to cycle, but we weren’t aware that the Caribana festival was on that day, and we got hopelessly stuck in traffic once were downtown and heading south for the lake. We gave up on reaching our destination, but it was still challenging to negotiate out of the traffic and find our way back to the Don Valley Parkway north. Dad did an illegal U-turn, and miraculously didn’t get pulled over by the cop stationed nearby. He narrowly missed hitting pedestrians several times as I screamed warnings to him. We got home safely, with a great sense of camaraderie. I viewed the escapade with a black sense of humour, but I knew that it was ethically wrong for us to allow Dad to continue driving. We were lucky he never injured anyone. Soon after that day, he was forced to stop; he simply became too weak to get to his car and get in and out of the driver’s seat.

During my first visit in May, Dad was still making his own simple breakfasts and heating up the meals my brothers brought him in the microwave. But each month, he found fewer foods palatable. Nausea and diarrhea were among his symptoms. By his last two months, he was eating little other than cereal with cream and soups. At the end of July, he was down to 98 pounds, and eventually he weighed less than my skinny 88 pounds. His clothes hung off him as if he were a scarecrow—or a skeleton. His skin was so fragile that the slightest bump could bruise it or break it and cause an open wound.

My brother Mike, who is semi-retired and was already visiting Dad at least twice a week, made the choice to devote himself to Dad and help him as much as necessary. There were doctors’ appointments and iron infusions at the hospital. Mike took over Dad’s shopping and laundry. He led some difficult conversations with Dad as we agonized over decisions about Dad’s care: would we move him out of his independent living apartment to a higher-care facility? He wanted to stay in his own, familiar apartment, though, where he could eat exactly the foods he wanted and record his favourite TV programs and sports for later viewing.

Mike made the decision to be Dad’s main caregiver to the end. Soon after I left Dad for the last time, on October 9, that meant a 24/7 commitment. Dad was bedridden and needed care and attention day and night. Mike was with him five days a week and Alan took over the remaining two days. They had a caregiver come in several days a week to help. My brothers did something I could not have done. I couldn’t bear to see my father so reduced, curled on his bed in the apartment that had become a sauna where the temperature had to be kept at 30⁰ C for his wasted body.

I am very grateful to my brothers for the care they gave Dad. And I’m thankful to my parents for creating our family! My brothers and I have always been close and supportive of each other. That’s especially important now, and I feel comfort in knowing that closeness will continue.

Our family on the occasion of Mike’s wedding to Pamela Chackeris. 1989.
Mom and Dad with the beautiful bride and happy groom.

About my dad

I don’t want to remember my father the way he was in the last six months of his life. Instead, I want to share my memories of him, the way he was between the ages of about 34 (my earliest memories) and 91 (last summer, when I went for my last bike ride with him). And I want to write about my father objectively, too. What was he like? What were his accomplishments? As his daughter, I want to reflect on what he gave me, how he shaped me—the whole fascinating mixture of genetics, which is a biological thing, and environment. The way our parents treat us helps shape the people we become.

My dad grew up in Trinidad, West Indies, when it was still under British colonial rule. He was the second of two sons. My dad’s older brother Robert was a type-A personality, leaving my dad to be the more wild and carefree son. He was always playing pranks on the Masters (teachers) at his formal British-style school, and as a young man loved taking girls for rides on his motorbike.

My father was an adventurer who left Trinidad at age 20 and emigrated to Montreal. This young man from the tropics embraced Montreal’s bitter winter by learning to skate and becoming an avid fan of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. He met my mom at the bank where he was working when she had a summer job there. At age 17 she had already completed her first year of a biology degree at McGill. My mom fell hard for the charming foreigner with his singsong Caribbean accent, but her strict father told Dad in no uncertain terms that his oldest daughter would not marry anyone who didn’t have a university degree. My dad immediately started night school, completing a business degree while working full time.

Mom and Dad in 1955, shortly before they were married.

My parents married as soon as my mom finished university. My father gave up his dreams (becoming an airplane pilot was one of them) to become a devoted family man. At home, he never talked about his conventional job in life insurance. He took carpentry courses at Home Hardware and put in months of work to turn our unfinished basement into a kids’ playroom.

My dad loved playing with his three little kids, me and my two younger brothers, all close in age. We played “rough-and-tumble”—when he did all kinds of acrobatic moves with three kids all over him. In good weather, he often took us outside after dinner to explore the ravines near our home. He’d challenge us to sprint races as we approached our house on the return trip.

One of my earliest memories of time spent with my dad as a little kid came to me just this morning. I know we would have been so young that my brothers might not even remember this. There was a special ritual that happened occasionally when my dad got home from work. He would allow all three of us to sit on his and my mom’s bed while he got changed out of his work clothes. He would give us lots of tiny objects to play with. I remember cufflinks and coins. Lots of little kids are fascinated by jewellery and other valuable objects that are normally “off-limits” for them to handle. As he got changed, Dad would sing; West Indian songs from Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte; “Puff the Magic Dragon;” or, the song I remember best, “Swinging on a Star,” a big hit introduced by Bing Crosby in 1944. I’m sure Mom loved Dad for getting us out of her hair for even a few minutes.

The most significant gift parents give their children is a sense of security. My brothers and I knew our parents loved each other and loved us. They expected excellence from us but they gave us the freedom to choose our paths and supported us in whatever paths we chose. They created wonderful times for us with our cousins and close family friends, especially our summer weeks at a rented cottage, which were the highlight of our childhoods. Mom and Dad modelled one aspect of a strong marriage: they consciously made decisions to act as a team, whether it was to plan their annual budget, spend a whole day washing windows, drive overnight to visit my grandparents in Montreal, create magical Christmas mornings for us, or discipline us.

Yet my parents had a stormy marriage. They fought a lot—including nasty, bitter fights—and often hurt each other badly. Mom would cry. Dad would leave the house and go to a movie. Even as a child I could analyze it. Mom was rightfully angry or hurt by Dad’s words or actions, but she wasn’t good at being honest about the real reasons for her anger. Their misunderstandings were caused by a cultural clash. Dad had been spoiled in colonial Trinidad where even poorer white families like his had Black servants. He came from a patriarchal society where women did all the domestic work. He expected the household to revolve around his schedule. He failed to consider the frustration and boredom my well-educated, brilliant mother must have felt being “just a housewife.”

Another problem was that my father loved to tease. I could see that my dad teased my mom because he loved her—but sometimes he didn’t realize he was hitting sensitive topics, and the teasing hurt. As an adult, I’ve always been attracted to men who tease me, because I recognize it as a sign of affection.

Part of reflecting about a parent is considering what makes you feel close to them, and how you are alike. I’m a private person, like my dad was. Like him, I’ve always appreciated solitary, routine pleasures like reading. However, although he was on the introverted side, at large celebrations Dad was capable of being a colourful, witty speaker.

For me, as for him, our favourite sports have lasted for our lifetimes. Dad’s sport was tennis. He played tennis recreationally with my mom when she was young, but he was a competitive player who could still challenge some of my high school running teammates in tennis matches when he was in his 50s. He continued playing doubles until he was 82.

 I share Dad’s love of being outside in natural places and exploring on foot or by bike. Even though his joints became painful with age, making walking difficult, he continued cycling regularly until his last year. He’d often put his bike on his car and drive to Lake Ontario’s bike paths or to a new neighbourhood in Toronto that he could explore.

Dad and I pausing during a bike ride in his neighbourhood. 2020.

In his last years of work before retirement, Dad was responsible for helping his company switch all their systems to computers. This computer literacy proved to be a godsend when he embarked on his biggest retirement project: the online genealogical research that enabled him to produce huge family trees of several branches of both his and my mother’s families. He traced his ancestors back to England in the 1700s. He wrote two books that he self-published: Rooks Roots is about our ancestors and includes images of many old documents and photos that he found. His other book is a memoir about his boyhood in Trinidad. In this book, he relates memories of his games with neighbourhood boys of all colours, the jokes he played on his school masters, the special trips to the beaches of Trinidad and Tobago, and dramatic events of World War II, when the American airforce base and U-boats came to Trinidad.

Mom and Dad had 62 years together, despite their fights. For decades they were duplicate bridge partners, competing right up to the level of international tournaments and earning the status of Life Masters. Analyzing their games was another source of fighting, but I think they enjoyed those fights. As my mom’s emphysema got worse, dad took good care of her, finally learning in old age how to do some simple household tasks. Despite her physical suffering, my mom had Dad’s constant companionship. I feel so much sadness that he had to go through the isolation of the COVID-19 years without her.

Bye, Dad.

Thank you for giving me your share of the genes that helped me become an Olympic runner, and for being proud of me as a runner long before that.

Thank you for teaching me to dream, read, learn, tease & be teased, sing with happiness, play bridge, go exploring, and tell stories.


“Swinging on a Star”—a little taste

Music by Jimmy Van Heusen, lyrics by Johnny Burke

How would you like to swing on a star,

Carry moonbeams home in a jar.

You’d be better off than you are—

Or would you rather be a pig? [Mule, fish] etc.

 Swinging On A Star – Bing video

Posted in Personal stories, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Distilling summer

Anyone who knows me knows that summer is my favourite season and I’ve always called myself a “summer girl.”

This summer was a long time coming. The spring was cool and rainy, with gloomy days persisting into “Juneuary,” and for the first time since I moved to Vancouver 32 years ago, I didn’t swim in Sasamat Lake until July.

This summer has had other black clouds lurking, always, in the background, and that is one of the reasons for this blog’s silence. My father is in the final stages of kidney disease. No longer, for him, the bike rides of summer that he enjoyed right into his 92nd year. My partner Keith has been enduring pain and disability for years now—and just a few days ago, an arthritis specialist finally offered him the hope of life-changing medication. Another challenge is a complicated book editing project that has kept me under a high level of pressure and uncertainty.

In spite of the clouds, though, for the past two weeks I’ve revelled in the perfect days of August. Every one of them is a pearl. I’ll string them together on a necklace of memories. Maybe, on dark days, I’ll be able to pull out that necklace, and feel again, in the lustrous glow of those pearls, the bright, carefree atmosphere of summer.

What I give you here is the past six days, and a simple, yet extraordinary (to me) moment from each day—accompanied in most cases by a photo.

August 9, 2022: Two bears swimming in Mundy Lake

Laurie and I were doing a sprint workout in Mundy Park in the afternoon. It was hot! We were walking between sprints along the Mundy Lake loop when we heard VERY loud splashes—too big to be frogs—and saw two bears swimming in the lake, close to the trail. They seemed to be playing. I would guess that just like us, they needed to cool off! We chose not to join them.

We don’t run with our phones, so no photo. Instead, I’ll substitute my best bear photo from last year.

Bears at Minnekhada Regional Park

August 10, 2022: Caterpillar

I was wondering why my almost-new sunflower plant wasn’t looking very healthy. Then I noticed a fuzzy orange caterpillar on one of its half-eaten leaves. Aha! Into the garden trimmings with you, and down to the community garden bin where you can eat leftover foliage until you turn into a butterfly. I neglected to take a photo, so I’ll substitute one of my best bee photos from Edwards Gardens in Toronto.

August 11, 2022: Eagle hunting at Sasamat Lake

I was enjoying a blissful swim on a hot day and was quite far out in the lake, away from any other swimmers or boats. Taking a break from front crawl, I rolled onto my back. Directly overhead, I saw a magnificent eagle circling, hunting for prey. (No, not me, I’m too big!). I watched it make several graceful circles, and was thankful for the opportunity to be so close. No photo: I don’t swim with a waterproof camera attached. I’ll substitute a photo showing you how magical the lake looked that day.

Sasamat Lake

August 12, 2022: High tide at Burrard Inlet after sunset

I went out for a refreshing walk right after sunset. The Inlet is at its most beautiful in the evening, especially when the tide is so high—the pull of the full moon.

Burrard Inlet

August 13, 2022: The unicyclist

This day looked unpromising, with gray skies and a warning of light rain. Nevertheless, I felt like going for a bike ride, and I knew that by getting out early I would avoid Saturday traffic on both roads and trails. I was right; there were few people on the trails, but one of those few was a surprising sight: a guy riding at Colony Farm on a tall unicycle! We exchanges smiles, and he even managed to give me a wave as he rode by, but of course there was no time for a photo.

August 14, 2022: Deer at the Seymour Demonstration Forest

Today was a perfect day to be riding on the Seymour Demonstration Forest road, and there is a place at the bottom of the Hydraulic Connector trail with stunning views of the mountains. I got great views of this deer, too!

Posted in Personal stories, Seasons, Vignettes | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

It’s easy to have a Happy Birthday

The Coquitlam Crunch stairs; view from the bottom of the east stairs.
The Coquitlam Crunch: June 13, 2022

Some of my regular blog fans (few in number, but treasured by me) may have noticed that I haven’t written a post for months. I feel choked by not being able to write. For me, writing is an essential way I express myself, and I’ve continued writing in my two journals and my training log. Why not my blog?

It’s been a landmark year. In the spring, I urgently wanted to write about two ten-year anniversaries that marked huge changes in my life. On March 1, 2022, I celebrated ten years of living alone in my beloved Port Moody apartment, with its spectacular sunset views and its proximity to so many places I’m attached to—Mundy Park, Burrard Inlet, Sasamat Lake, and others. I also remembered George Gluppe, my running coach of 36 years, who passed away ten years ago on April 21, 2022.

I couldn’t write about these anniversaries, significant as they were to me, for two reasons:

  • I’ve been working very hard on a nursing ethics textbook for over a year now—in multiple roles, including that of copy editor. There is always more work for me to complete.
  • So much of what I want/need to write about is painful, including health crises of friends and family, and my encounters with my own physical and mental vulnerabilities. How do I frame these subjects in a positive way? How do I maintain the persona of a successful, inspiring athlete as I grow older and my body starts falling apart? Can I write about the struggles of people I am close to without betraying their privacy?

For all these reasons, I’ve appeared to have writer’s block. I’m not going to write about those ten-year anniversaries today, either. I’m just going to write a small vignette about why I’m grateful on my birthday; why it’s easy to have a happy birthday.


About three months ago, I started jogging slowly in Mundy Park in preparation for a workout with my sprinter friend Laurie. After about three minutes of this slow jogging, I noticed one leg felt unusually weak, in a way that couldn’t be explained by fatigue. To my dismay, the weakness rapidly turned to muscle cramping, especially in my calf muscle, and after futile limping for a couple more minutes, I was forced to stop jogging. The calf cramping was excruciating, but as I walked slowly back to the park entrance, the cramp went away. I recognized these symptoms only too well. These were the symptoms of a blocked artery in my leg. Having gone through partial and then complete blockage of both my femoral arteries when I was in my thirties, I knew what muscle claudication (lack of oxygen) felt like. I had had bypass surgery done on my left leg in 1992 and my right leg in 1998; without those surgeries, I wouldn’t have been able to continue running.

In the past five to ten years, I’ve experienced symptoms of a partial blockage in my left leg. When I’m cycling uphill, or running fast for more than a few minutes, I get some muscle cramping in my left leg. But so many other things hold me back now, including my right knee arthritis, so I can live with not being able to run at race-pace intensity.

What I was feeling now, though, seemed like a total blockage. With shock, I realized it was my right leg that had cramped up, not my left!

Once my muscles felt normal again, I tried to jog—but again, I was forced to stop after a few minutes because of intense cramping.

At home, I made some frantic phone calls. My vascular surgeon’s office told me to get a referral from my GP. My GP couldn’t see me for a few days, but was able to talk to me on the phone. He reassured me that if I had a clot in a leg artery, it could only travel down, and wouldn’t lead to a stroke or heart attack.

Over the next few days, I did some easy cycling (no hills). I tried to do the Coquitlam Crunch, and was quite amazed that I could do the stair section only 30 seconds slower than my usual time. The difference was that by the time I reached the top, my leg had cramped so badly that I had to rest for two minutes before I could even continue walking. I repeated this workout a couple of times in the next week, with the same result. I even did a running workout on the soccer field. I could sprint for 30 seconds; I then let my leg recover for two minutes while I did pushups and situps. People who are addicted to exercise are very creative in finding ways to get a good workout!

At my GP’s office, the doctor listened to my pulses at various points on my legs and feet. He agreed that it sounded as though I had a blockage somewhere in my lower right leg. He sent in a referral to my vascular surgeon and I was given an appointment to have a treadmill test that would assess my circulation a few weeks later.

Eleven days after this happened, I was at the Crunch for my fourth attempt up since the blockage. Imagine my surprise! my relief! my thanks! as I bounded up the full set of almost 500 stairs and felt no symptoms! And they didn’t come back. I went right back to my normal training routine, with a couple of runs a week, hilly bike rides, and Crunches.

I went for my treadmill test. I only saw a technician; I had no chance to talk to the vascular surgeon. He gave me a call a couple of weeks later, and said, “I’ve got good news. Your circulation is completely normal.”

I wasn’t surprised. I insisted upon having a conversation about what had happened. He said, “These arterial blockages are never temporary. Something else must have caused your symptoms.” I could tell he thought I was crazy, and that he probably attributed my problem to a calf injury. But my calf had been fine. When I stretched it or touched it there was no pain. I could tell this surgeon had no idea of the expert knowledge an athlete has of their own body and how it responds to various levels of physical exertion.


This morning, I was back at the Crunch. I was thankful for so many things! The morning was sunny, contrary to the weather forecast. I usually do the Crunch once or twice a week. It’s not one of my hard workouts, because I don’t run it. It’s a way to get outside and get some breathtaking views when I have only an hour to spare (driving there included). I push just two small portions of it: the stairs and the final 250m uphill from the 2K post to the top. On the way down, I jog only the flatter sections because it’s not worth it to hurt my bad knee.

Today, my “performance” on the stairs, pushing hard, was average for me at 3min30sec.

It was an everyday victory for me. After what happened to my leg in March, I know I can never take my workouts for granted. It’s not just that one “blockage” incident, either. Last fall I had a number of medical tests, and I found out that I have calcium deposits in the arteries of both legs as well as in my aorta. I have a faulty heart valve that isn’t bad enough to require surgery yet. I’ve been put on cholesterol-lowering medication. The stress of my work and other worries has made my sleep worse than ever, so I’m constantly battling my need to take sleeping pills occasionally with the risk of addiction.

Is the machine that has served me so well for 63 years falling apart?

No. It’s just giving me little reminders of that number above. I still have days when I feel 100%, even though I will never again be fast compared to my youthful self.

Today, I’m saying thank you to my body for allowing me to complete another fun Crunch. And I’m saying thank you to all my friends and family who have phoned, sent text messages, emails, or Facebook messages, or sent flowers. And thank you to Keith for coming back from the cabin to share my birthday with me.

I even broke my writer’s block!

Sunset from my balcony
Posted in Commentary, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Enchantment with books (again): Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Wayne Johnston’s The Mystery of Right and Wrong

Recently I read two very different novels, Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, and Wayne Johnston’s The Mystery of Right and Wrong. What these books have in common is their spellbinding power, the power to pull me away from the worries, work, and mundanity of “real life.” I became fully immersed in the worlds these exceptional writers created. What did I care about insomnia as I read these books during the dark wee hours of January?

These two books cast different kinds of spells. A Gentleman in Moscow is thoroughly romantic. Its hero is the (pre-Revolutionary) Russian aristocrat Count Alexander Rostoff, who is experienced in duelling over women, fluent in multiple languages, and a connoisseur of fine food and wines. Yet it is after he is sentenced to life imprisonment in Moscow’s glamorous Metropol hotel that we understand the deeper substance of a true aristocrat and gentleman.

By contrast, The Mystery of Right and Wrong is itself a mystery novel in which the main narrator is trying to understand his beloved fiancée’s strange behaviour. Why is Rachel compelled to read The Diary of Anne Frank over and over, in multiple languages and multiple editions? Why does she scribble for hours every day in her journal, at times to the point of collapsing in exhaustion, without producing a book or any other coherent piece of writing? Her compulsiveness seems to be tied to her family background, because her three sisters and her parents are all peculiar in their own ways. The mystery gradually morphs into horror as the story progresses.

More about A Gentleman in Moscow

This book is a pure pleasure to read. The action starts in 1922 when Count Alexander Rostov is spared being shot (as many of Russia’s former aristocracy were after the 1917 Revolution) and is “only” sentenced to lifelong house arrest in the Metropol Hotel. The Count is forced to move from his luxurious suite on the third floor to a tiny attic room on the sixth floor, so he must abandon most of his treasured furniture and other possessions that were once part of life on a grand estate.

The book eventually covers the next three decades of the Count’s life, as he moves from his early thirties to his early sixties. And what a setting the Metropol Hotel proves to be! The book’s energy and intrigue never flag. Within the hotel’s walls, the Count manages to conduct a decades-long love affair with a beautiful actress, make friends with a precocious nine-year-old girl, and take on the role of father to an abandoned 5-year-old girl whose intelligence and talent he nurtures until she becomes a world-class pianist. With his best friends in the hotel, the famed dining room’s chef and maitre ’d, Count Rostov (who becomes the restaurant’s headwaiter) is privy to the intimate conversations of the country’s new political leaders. His worldly knowledge is also informed by the time he spends in the hotel’s bar, where international journalists gather most evenings.

Towles is an incredible storyteller; the book’s momentum makes it hard to put down. The climax includes suspense, trickery, and violence. For the first time the setting moves away from the Metropol hotel. The ending was most satisfying, but I was sorry there were no more pages left to read.

One thing I loved about this book was the way it showed how full of adventure, discovery, relationships, and humour life can be even within strict confinements. This is something we can think about amid the pandemic restrictions we have been living through for almost two years now. To be sure, the Metropol hotel is an exceptional building; yet I found much to admire in the Count’s adaptations to his imprisonment. He created ways to stay healthy, mentally and physically; he nurtured his closest friendships; and he kept his sense of humour and his keen intellectual curiosity, always. That is why we, as readers, are entertained on every page.

More about The Mystery of Right and Wrong

Even though Johnston is a well-known Canadian writer, I hadn’t read anything by him before. This book was gripping. It was suspenseful and mysterious. The book is written from the points of view of two narrators, though one (Wayde) is clearly the dominant one. I was particularly intrigued by the interludes of clever poetry (supposedly from two different long poetical works) that were connected with the unfolding story.

The story seems to be a realistic one. Early on, there are clues that seem to subtly suggest sexual abuse as a possible cause of the female character’s strange behaviour. Wayde is in love with Rachel, yet how can he feel secure about their relationship, given the peculiarity of her family members and the fact that she abandons him and their relationship for a year? As the book progresses, the events and characters become increasingly shocking and gruesome. The elegant, yet disturbing, poetry interludes continue; the writing is never cheap or sensationalized.

Yet the horror of the story became so extreme that at times I wondered whether I should keep reading. I was unable to stop.

I didn’t fully realize what an extraordinary achievement this book was for Wayne Johnston until I read the 10-page Author’s Afterword. [Spoiler Alert!] It was then I discovered that Johnston based this novel on his own personal story. This book is the culmination of six years of work and many more years of planning how to tell the story as a creative work of fiction. Johnston’s honesty and artistic achievement blew me away. Also, as with the many books by the late neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, I learned more about the amazing variety and extremities of human abilities and survival mechanisms. In this case I learned about hypergraphia In this case I learned about hypergraphia (the compulsive desire to write or draw). Johnston himself has this disorder, but in his novel applied it to his main female character rather than to his fictional double, Wayde. In his Afterward, Johnston describes how he has been able to channel his hypergraphia productively in his career as a writer.

We can all escape our prisons

Both A Gentleman in Moscow and The Mystery of Right and Wrong allowed me to escape from reality. But, more than that, they reminded me to put my own worries and challenges in perspective.

Johnston’s novel (and the true story behind it) showed that even horrific circumstances and painful disabilities can be overcome. Johnston and his wife aren’t merely survivors; they have created full lives and great art.

Towles’ book reminded me of the richness of life and human experiences. Even when circumstances seem to limit us, we can use our imaginations to expand our worlds. There are no limits when it comes to human ingenuity, love, and the ability to find laughter in the face of absurdity.

Find your enchantment.

Mundy Park, Coquitlam, January 2022

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