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

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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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My Little Life

At Lost Lake, Mundy Park

You’re probably wondering why I chose the title of this post. No, it’s not a reference to my 88-pound frame, and it doesn’t mean my life is about to end.

These words have crept into my thoughts quite often recently, when I’m contemplating giving a speech at Toastmasters or writing a blog post here. What do I have to say? What do I have to contribute?

“My Little Life” is partly humble, partly self-deprecating, and partly the result of a changing perspective on my whole life as I get closer to being old.

Old keeps receding. It used to be age 50; then 60; now it’s perhaps—75?

Yet more and more, the realities of old are already here.

This year, 2021, has been hard for me to write about because it included heartache, sickness, serious injuries, and deaths. I can’t write about these experiences here—they are not my personal experiences (or not mine alone), and the privacy of others must be respected. But they made me realize that I’m at an age when my peers will increasingly have health challenges and even face death. I watch my physical decline accelerating, but I am grateful for my relative good health and all the activities I can still enjoy.

Two speaking challenges

My biggest challenge ever as a public speaker came when I was asked to give a speech (online) at my Toastmasters District Conference—an annual event, virtual in 2021 because of Covid-19. The conference organizers asked me to speak about my “heroic Olympic journey” in an 18-minute speech.

Condensing my thirteen years of running before the 1988 Olympics into a meaningful message (one that completely rejected the idea of my Olympic achievement being heroic) took extensive thought, organization, and practice. However, I was determined to conquer my nervousness. On April 30th, I received my first Covid-19 vaccine in the morning; and in the evening I got ready for the Zoom camera and delivered my speech to a big audience of Toastmasters. It went well!

My next speech challenge was much more casual, and I wasn’t nearly as nervous about that one. Kevin O’Connor and Ellen Clague, coach and president of the Vancouver Falcons Running Club (VFAC), asked me to give a one-hour presentation online as part of their regular speakers’ series. There weren’t a lot of people watching that one live, but I did have a chance to connect with some old running friends. I was surprised by all the emotion that talk stirred up. It made me realize how much I’ve lost and given up since 2010, when I had my first knee surgery. Arthritis forced me to cut back my running to two short runs a week, and competing on pavement was deadly for my knee, so I typically raced only two 5Ks a year—until Covid-19 shut all races down in March 2020. We had just closed down our 29-year-old Phoenix Running Club the month before that because of our dwindling and aging membership.

Speaking with the VFAC members warmed my heart as we recalled past Pinetree cross-country meets in Mundy Park, and other races.

The greater significance of these two speeches, though, was that my preparation for giving them involved looking back over a long period of my life, starting from the time I started running at age 16. More clearly than ever before, I saw the bigger patterns of my life and the way it could be divided into major chunks.

These chunks were defined not only by big life changes like graduating from university, getting married, having a child, going back to college to train for a new career, leaving my husband, and starting a new relationship. Parallel to these events were all the major achievements and changes of my running career: success on Canadian cross-country teams, running with the best at international road races, participating on Canadian Commonwealth, World Championships, and Olympic teams, going through two leg bypass surgeries that allowed me to be competitive again as a masters runner, and the devastating end of my competitive career after tearing my ACL in 2009.

Reviewing all these events in my mind was sobering. Suddenly, I was confronting how many years had passed. And how many things are irretrievably gone. Over. My Little Life.

A quiet depression

Covid-19 hasn’t affected me as much as it has most people. I haven’t been personally touched by tragedy. My editing work life hasn’t changed. Like most people, my circle of real human contacts was very small for a while, but I always had the essential closeness I needed. I never felt isolated or lonely.

Yet I’ve often struggled with negative thoughts, and also a sense of being repressed and having no outlet. As I wrote at the outset, many experiences must be kept private.

The words My Little Life come from a sense of how insignificant I am, even in the running world, where I used to be impressive. I’ve slowed down a lot in the past year, increasingly limited by my knee arthritis and a stubborn hamstring insertion injury. Now I’m not even one of the best “for my age.” I’ve lost the desire to compete. Partly this comes from pride—I don’t want people to see the crippled runner I’ve become. Partly it’s because trying to run fast doesn’t come naturally anymore. It hurts too much.

Going over decades of my life to prepare for my speeches made me acknowledge how unconventional my life has been in some ways. Paul and I never created a nuclear family. We always had friends sharing our home. We had many years of happiness together; yet our marriage had serious, worsening flaws. I did the right thing by not trying to have a “forever” marriage with Paul. Now, I must accept the fact that if I live to old age, I’ll probably be alone. My only child has been in Japan for twelve years; if I’m lucky enough to ever have grandchildren, will they be in Japan?

Like many people my age or older, I’m often overwhelmed by a world that seems qualitatively different, in ways that I can’t adapt to. There is so much new technology. I resist learning some things that are trivial to most people; for example, phone apps.

As an editor, I’m constantly exposed to new platforms and software that could help me be better at my work or at marketing myself. I feel overwhelmed; I question my value as an editor as I struggle to decide which software tools are essential for me to master. Sometimes I think I started my editing career too late.

Yet in more positive moments, I assess myself as an editor differently. For many clients and projects, I’m the perfect editor. Editing isn’t mostly about technology, even in 2021; life experience and a lifetime of reading count a lot. Also, being a good editor is about listening and reading carefully, and being able to communicate with flexibility and tact. My current editing job requires exceptional levels of patience, diplomacy, and organization. Not many editors could do what I’m doing in this project, technically limited though I am.

I also know what I get out of this project. Work energizes me. I love getting up early in the morning and knowing I have a book to work on.

And, as so often happens with me, it was a book that gave me a positive spin on this experience of getting older.

Successful Aging with Daniel Levitin

The book Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives (2020), by Daniel Levitin, is one that I can’t possibly recommend too highly. At age 63, Levitin is himself an inspiration; not only is he a neuroscientist, a cognitive psychologist, and a musician, but he has written four New York Times bestselling books.

Successful Aging gave me a huge lift because Levitin gives so many examples of what people in their eighties and nineties have accomplished. He gives simple, practical advice about nutrition and exercise to best promote physical health and mental acuity. In fact, his book set my mind at ease about the futility of trying to find a “magic bullet” or elixir to prevent aging or disease. Despite what advertisers, fanatics, and futurists would have us believe, the proven methods for staying healthy as long as possible are simple and inexpensive.

This is not to say that Levitin is in denial about the difficulties and heartbreak of aging. He includes chapters that acknowledge the huge, unsolved problems of pain and disease. He also gives good advice about preparing ahead of time so that one is prepared for difficult decisions about finances, living arrangements, and medical treatment.

Getting old with the rest of the Baby Boomers

One of the great things about being part of the Baby Boomer generation is that we’ve always drawn attention to ourselves and changed the world by virtue of our numbers. #trendingElectricBikes!

So at least we have lots of company and can seek support, advice, and commiseration from our friends.

On Thanksgiving Day Keith and I were part of a small dinner party where we met another couple (I’ll call them John and Lucia) for the first time. Chatting, we quickly made several “small world” discoveries. John and I had received major surgery (my knee, his shoulder) from the same surgeon. Lucia and I had friends in common from her teaching and my running club. Best of all was my conversation with John about Ontario cottage country.

Like me, John had grown up in Toronto. For all my childhood summers, my family rented a cottage on Lake Shebeshekong near Parry Sound, where for two weeks each summer my brothers and I had an idyllic time swimming and playing with the kids of our parents’ friends. John’s family had owned their own cottage on a similar lake. He told me that on the last day of school each June, he didn’t even go home—his mother picked the kids up from school and they drove straight up north to start their “second life” at the cottage, where they would remain all summer.

John and I shared deep-seated memories of what “cottage country” felt like. I remembered escaping from the stifling heat, humidity, pollution, and burnt grass of Toronto summers to a place where the air smelled sweet and the cool lake always beckoned. It was such a simple life there. Bare feet. Being in the lake as long as we were allowed. Canoe excursions. Badminton, ping-pong, games of tag in between swims. Card games, Scrabble, Yahtzee, and Monopoly on the rare rainy days. Going inside the small cottage as twilight deepened and the mosquitoes got serious; reading a book from the mountain of books I had brought from the library. Campfires on the beach a special treat. Falling asleep to the sounds of the adults’ raucous bridge games.

John said he wouldn’t have become the person he was if he hadn’t had those summers.

It was a wonderful nostalgia we shared: for those times without technology. At the cottage we had no TVs, no phones. Computers were not even invented in our world.

But John and I share more than nostalgia. We share the energy and optimism of the Baby Boomers, of whom Daniel Levitin is a stellar example. We’ve worked hard and played hard; we’ve had the surgeries and the physiotherapy that have allowed us to continue doing the sports we love. For our generation, becoming adults didn’t mean devoting oneself solely to one “job” or raising children. We hope there will be no traditional “retirement”—we don’t ever want to stop learning, creating, and being physically active.

Cherishing My Little Life

At the end of this long post, I have nothing original to offer.

Maybe I’ll always struggle with getting older and the losses that come with it. I’ll never fully conquer the times of “quiet depression.”

But far stronger than depression is my exultation about this one little life I have, and I’ll cherish every moment of intimacy, beauty, and high energy that each day brings.

With Keith at Kitsilano Beach on Thanksgiving Day

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

The unforgettable summer of 2021

It’s a cool day in Vancouver with clouds and periods of misty rain. The summer of 2021 is almost over. And what a summer it has been! Though its heat and the Olympics evoked powerful memories for me, this summer featured extremities never seen before. My personal, emotional ups and downs were intertwined with the extremes we all suffered/celebrated here in Vancouver (and to some extent provincially, nationally, and globally). There were the splendid sunny days (something like 50 days without rain in “Raincouver”!); the promise of liberation as summer began, with 70 or 80% of people in BC fully vaccinated; COVID-19 cases down, restrictions lifting. Then there was the heat dome, the forest fires attacking much of BC’s Interior, and the menacing, changing face of COVID-19’s fourth wave.

Summer begins

(Diary entries in italics.)

June 21 balcony sunset

The “official” first day of summer, June 20, was also the first beautiful day of what had been a cool and rainy June. On June 21st I was enjoying a perfect morning on the beach at Sasamat Lake when I got a phone call from a Phoenix Running Club friend telling me that Jim Thomson, a long-time member, had just passed away. It wasn’t a surprise—Jim had been ill with cancer for years—but it seemed especially sad on that perfect day. A couple of days later I learned that another friend, a beloved member of my Toastmasters club, had also passed away on June 21. This news reminded me how harsh death can be: my friend was almost ten years younger than me; brain cancer had taken her in a year and a half.

On June 24 I got my second vaccine. The following day, I felt a little sick on my morning bike ride, but went to Sasamat Lake anyway to swim after my ride. I got chilled after just a few minutes in the water and couldn’t get warm on the beach, even though it was hot. The heat dome was upon us! Yet I spent the rest of the day in bed with chills, feeling sick and lethargic.

The heat dome

The following day, June 26, was the first day of extreme heat. It was also the day of our Phoenix Running Club reunion in Mundy Park. Luckily, I had recovered from my vaccine reaction. We had closed down the 30-year-old Phoenix club in February 2020; for various reasons, our club had been struggling for a few years. I missed my long-time Phoenix friends and it was great to get together with about 20 of them again. A couple of our members shared their memories of Jim. Then we separated into small groups to walk or run in the park. Sadly, I was a walker, not a runner, that day. A hamstring insertion injury had nagged me since November and I avoided running in June to see if that would help it heal. (It didn’t.) After our walk/run, we enjoyed Cathy’s delicious homemade cakes, coffee, and lots of water!

Keith didn’t come to the Phoenix reunion, even though he’d been such a boost to our club with his help at races (finish line videos) and informal photography. By late June, Keith couldn’t even do a short walk. His left knee, always a problem, had become much worse in April. As of this writing, Keith’s incompetent GP has still not succeeded in getting him an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon; our health system has completely failed him, and he has, in a sense, “missed” this summer. His knee is too painful for him to walk on or even stand on for long, despite steady doses of extra-strength Tylenol, Aleve, and (in the evening) alcohol.

Later that day, after the Phoenix reunion, my cat Tux and I moved to Keith’s ground-floor apartment in a North Van home for a few days. I knew my apartment, with its northwest-facing windows, would be unbearable during the heat dome.

Even Keith’s apartment, which during a normal summer would stay at a comfortable 20 degrees or so, got up to a record 30 degrees during the heat dome! On June 28th, my Toastmasters group was supposed to meet in Rocky Point Park for our first in-person meeting since last summer. We had to switch the meeting to Zoom after several members emailed to say they couldn’t bear the heat outside. From Keith’s place, I took part in our Zoom meeting—and was somewhat comforted to see that everyone seemed to be suffering from the same heat-induced exhaustion.

Meanwhile, that day Lytton, BC, recorded the highest-ever temperature in Canada at 49.6 C. There were plans to evacuate the town because of fire nearby; then the fire advanced so rapidly that 90% of the town was destroyed.

On June 30 I returned to my apartment; the worst heat was over. Most of my balcony plants were badly burned.

June 30, 2021

It was a relentless, exhausting heat, yet there are some things I liked about it. I lived in my underwear except when I had to appear on Zoom. Even my lightest flimsy dress felt oppressive against my skin. I sat outside with Keith in the evening coolness after 9:00 p.m. Susan and Serio [Keith’s landlords] were always around, tending to their garden, but I couldn’t be embarrassed about my lack of clothing. It seemed like a survival tactic to wear as little as possible.

Summer paradise

The heat dome days were over, but the perfect sunny days continued. Wildfires continued to worsen in the Interior, but Vancouver escaped mostly unscathed. There was only a mini heat dome in August that brought a couple of days of bad smoke. I took full advantage of the hot weather. I probably swam at Sasamat Lake more days in July than ever before. Often, I went to the lake after dinner when the heat in my apartment became stifling. I even chose to sit on the shady side of the beach.

Sasamat Lake. north side of White Pine Beach in the evening

Despite my nagging hamstring injury, I completed my annual mini-triathlon on July 30—but I wrote about that in my previous post. Yeah, my run was slow but I did a PB for my little swim course!

August 2, 2021

The pink in the sky deepens. My swim was one of my best, maybe the best, of the summer. Swimming is becoming so easy and natural now. The water is so warm I can relax and enjoy the rhythms of swimming, my crawl either steady or sprint-powerful, or the complete relaxation of hanging in the water or floating on my back, or the gentle sculling on my back or breaststroke when I can look at the beauty all around me from my place far out in the lake, far away from all the boats and floaties and paddleboarders.


My adventures weren’t all done solo. A novel activity this summer was hiking with my friend Laurie, who showed me many wonderful trails close to home, many of them in the hills (mountains) above Port Moody’s North Shore. There were afternoons when we’d be on trails for two hours and see only one or two other people. Some of our hikes were extremely challenging for my damaged knee, but it seemed to recover quickly, and there were always rewards for the climbs and the difficult footing. One day we hiked to a little-known lake in PoCo called Goose Lake. It’s so hard to get to that it will never become a popular destination! Having a pristine lake to ourselves for swimming was wonderful.

Goose Lake after swimming

Another day we went on the more familiar Jug Island hike from Belcarra. Again our reward was a refreshing swim, this time in the ocean, followed by relaxing for a while in the last patch of sunlight on the beach.

Indian Arm. Jug Island is on the left.

The hike to High Knoll at Minnekhada Park I had done before—but not for years—and it was harder than I remembered!

I made it to High Knoll!
View from High Knoll. The Pitt River is behind me.

There were shadows behind my exuberant workouts of summer, though. Sometimes I became depressed about my own deterioration as a runner, but this paled beside the heartache I felt about Keith’s situation.

June 21, 2021

I’m discouraged today. I jogged a little and felt so rickety. Running isn’t natural anymore. The line between being forced to give it up and wanting to give it up because it’s so difficult and so unnatural is getting blurred.

June 30, 2021

I feel a peculiar kind of loneliness. I am celebrating all I love about summer, but mostly on my own.

July 9, 2021

Both the recent Phoenix “reunion” and Jim’s memorial service stirred up so much sadness and so many memories. And there can’t be a new beginning for me, running with another club. My running is so pitiful and limited that it must be a solo activity.

August 15, 2021

The sadness isn’t about one week apart and then another week apart. It’s the realization that the whole summer has passed and Keith is still in terrible pain, and he doesn’t even have an appointment yet to see any kind of specialist. This is ridiculous. The summer has passed without our being able to do one bike ride or hike together. Instead, since April, Keith has become more and more disabled, so each low was succeeded by something worse.

Our fun hikes first turned into painful short walks to the Inlet; then even the Inlet was too far; and now he can’t even walk to Thrifty’s. I am angry with his GP, and I feel fear, too, about what this will do to his overall health.

The one bright note was that Keith was able to swim at Sasamat Lake with me a few times. However, even the short walk down from the parking lot to the beach was painful for him.

The 2020 [2021] Tokyo Olympics

I had a perfectly-timed break in my editing work which left me lots of free hours starting July 29, just as Athletics was getting underway at the Olympics. And did I ever get into watching those CBC livestream videos! I watched almost every heat, every race. I was more excited and inspired than I had expected. It seemed so indulgent to spend early mornings, my most productive work time, watching races, but so worth it!

I was stunned by the excellent performances of so many Canadian athletes. I don’t mean just the stars, sprinter Andre de Grasse (gold, silver, bronze medals) and decathlete Damian Warner (gold), who deservedly got tons of media attention. I was filled with admiration for the many Canadians who placed high in their finals, beating many runners ranked higher than them going into the Olympics.

There was Mo Ahmed, whose brave front-running in the final paid off with an amazing silver medal. Gabriela Debues-Stafford did more of her share of front-running in the first two rounds of the 1,500m to ensure her place in the final, where she finished 5th. Geneviève Lalonde set a Canadian record in the semi-final of the 3,000m steeplechase and then lowered her own time slightly when she finished 11th in the final. Aaron Brown, Justyn Knight, and Pierce LePage were overshadowed by the Canadian medallists in their events, but they achieved superb performances in the 200m final (6th), the 5,000m final (7th), and the decathlon (5th), respectively.

Finally, we saw incredible toughness and endurance from Evan Dunfee in the 50K racewalk and Malindi Elmore and Natasha Wodak in the marathon. Dunfee’s bronze medal was achieved by his all-out speed at the very end of his race. Elmore and Wodak ran perfectly paced races in extreme heat, showing great discipline and awareness of their bodies’ abilities. They finished 9th and 13th, respectively, in a field where many of the runners they beat had faster PBs than they did.

August 2, 2021

Yes, this is one of my best summers ever. The heat and the Olympics bring back so many memories of other hot summers. I remember running the 10,000m in Ottawa at Mooney’s Bay several times at the end of hot, humid days.

The Olympic Games are surreal. They are only Games—yet they bring so much emotion. The physical/emotional beauty and power of human beings. The range of performance and emotions. The spectacle that the Japanese organizers have given us. The success of these Games in the shadow of COVID, exceeding everyone’s expectations. This is a celebration of health and spirit, after so much sickness, death, and anxiety, our world’s being turned upside down. Surreal, yes, because COVID is not over, and Japan as a nation is suffering more than they are admitting to the rest of the world.

COVID-19: the fourth wave

July 21, 2021

I am truly appreciating summer this year. It’s still a strange year—with most countries and people going back to “normal” life while the pandemic is still raging out of control in many countries and the anti-vaxxers are sealing their own doom, but perhaps making control of the virus near-impossible for everyone.

Here in Canada we are lucky ones, for now.                                          

But now, a month after I wrote the above, the tide of COVID-19 is changing for the worse again in Canada, as it is in so many places. In BC, we’ve gone from 30–40 cases a day in early July to 600–700 cases a day currently. COVID-19 is terrible in many countries where they don’t yet have sufficient vaccine doses, places like Brazil, India, Mexico, Russia, and recently Indonesia and Malaysia. In addition, there is a frightening resurgence of COVID-19 because of the Delta variant in countries where full vaccination is easily available, like the UK and the US (where the situation is exacerbated by the astonishing percentage of the population refusing the vaccine).

My son Abebe lives in Japan, so I’m more aware of the shadow behind the Olympics than most people. According to Abebe, the numbers of people contracting COVID-19 or dying of it are far higher than what is reported. He told me a few days ago that 60% of people sick enough to require hospitalization can’t find a hospital that will let them in.

Goodbye, summer: your songs are forever

I’ll never forget you! Your heat, your ecstasies, your physical adventures and exhaustion, your tragedies and sadness.

Your music! I rediscovered The Guess Who. “These Eyes.” “No Time.” “American Woman.” Other favourite songs that brought back memories and will always be the essence of summer. “Summer Breeze” by Seals & Croft (1972). “Summertime Sadness” (2012) by Lana Del Rey. “Insensitive” (1994) by Jann Arden. “Bobcaygeon” (1998) by The Tragically Hip.

Sunset on a “smoke” day
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Mini-triathlon 2021 during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Mini-triathlon start on Murray St. *All photos in this post by Keith Dunn.

I haven’t run a real race since the Longest Day 5K of June 2019. Yet I still like to challenge myself, and every summer since 2013, I’ve insisted on completing my own mini-triathlon course, starting in downtown Port Moody. I ride up to Sasamat Lake (8K) and run the 3K trail around the lake, followed by a swim triangle of about 500m, finishing with the ride back to Port Moody.

My only competitor is myself—but I’m a tough cookie! As a senior athlete, part of this exercise is documenting the physical decline that inevitably occurs. But more importantly, I’m celebrating what I can still do! I recognize that my expectations of myself have changed. Also, I can recognize that my own drive to excel still exists: on the one day each summer I choose to do my triathlon, I will do this ride faster than the countless other times I’ve ridden to the lake this year. I’ll do my swim faster, and I’ll complete a run that I don’t do otherwise because its small hills and many steps are rough on my arthritic knee.

I’ll never forget this summer—the summer of the Heat Dome. In late June, we experienced record-breaking heat for several days, with highs of up to 41ᵒ C in the Vancouver area. Lytton got up to 47ᵒ C and then burned in a fire that took away 90% of the town. Hundreds of forest fires are raging in BC’s Interior, with states of emergency in many places. Smoke is heavy and air quality is terrible in many parts of the Interior.

But here in Vancouver, the whole month of July has been a summer paradise, with seemingly endless hot, golden days. I’ve been able to swim almost every day at Sasamat Lake. I don’t do workouts there, like the real triathletes do. I just want to cool off and enjoy myself. That means spending 10-15 minutes in the water, including some vigorous swimming, but also some easy breaststroke when I’m just taking in the beauty all around me, or lying on my back, kicking and knowing how good the cool lake water is for tired leg muscles.

My bike course to Sasamat Lake is kind of goofy because I refuse to ride the route that most cyclists take—busy, narrow Ioco Road. Too many cars. Plus, I don’t want any traffic lights interfering with my time! So I take the bike path and Alderside Road to Ioco. This means the cycling portions of my triathlon can be influenced by runners, walkers, dogs, and other cyclists on the bike path. The bike path is also degenerating year by year as tree roots assert their primacy over the asphalt, so it’s a super bumpy ride in places. That’s fine, my mountain bike has shock absorbers. It’s not built for speed.

Once on Alderside, I never know what construction projects might be underway on this ocean-facing street where most of the houses have their own private docks. So during my triathlon, I face the contradictory challenges of trying to ride fast without killing any pedestrians or being hit by a car or a giant construction vehicle. Oh, and a few days ago I was racing a train to the railway crossing at the end of Alderside!

My partner Keith is an essential part of my triathlon every year. He’s my photographer. He cheers for me and shares my excitement. This year, Keith wanted to support me again, although we knew it would be difficult for him. For about three months he’s had an extremely painful knee (diagnosis still unknown), and even walking is a struggle. We knew he wouldn’t be able to stop as many places on the route as usual, and his walk down from the parking lot to the beach at Sasamat Lake would be slow. But you’ll see he got awesome photos anyway!

My mini-triathlon

This year the Olympics made my triathlon especially memorable. Friday morning CBC was live with the second day of track coverage. I had just finished an editing job and now I had lots of free time to watch. I got psyched up for my triathlon by watching the men’s 10,000m final! I was pretty choked up seeing Canadian Moh Ahmed run so bravely (front-running with 700m to go) and finishing 6th in the world.

It was yet another perfect hot day and I was ready to ride at 8:00 a.m. I pushed hard; my legs felt weak on the big hill going up to the lake; I flew into my picnic table destination at North Beach and stopped one of my watches. My time was OK; best of the year, but how would it compare with previous years? Slow, I thought. I would see later.

Riding up from Alderside to Ioco Road.

I quickly took my cycling gear off and shed my singlet.

Off into the trail. I was hot but running mostly in the shade was fine. How would my knee and hamstring hold up? I expected my run to be very slow this year. I had barely run at all for two months because of my hamstring insertion injury. I felt a little cramping in my left leg while negotiating the steep little hill in the first kilometre, but it eased as I started getting some small downhills.

Other than being awkward on the many stairs on the route, which are hard on my knee, I felt good and was able to put on some speed near the end as I ran across the two beaches to the finish.

Finishing the run.

Now, time to cool off!

I was surprised how tired my arms felt on the swim. Then I remembered: Yeah, it’s always this way when I swim after cycling. And why did I do that tough upper body workout at the gym yesterday? Nevertheless, I was confident my tired arms could power through the swim without a break: I had a solid month of swims behind me. When I stopped my watch at the beach, I saw my time was good—but how good, compared to other years? I would know later.

Yes, gasping.

My swim-to-bike transition was not done like a pro’s. I was enjoying the feel of the sun on my slightly-chilled body as I chatted with some women at a nearby picnic table. Unhurriedly, I put on my gear for the ride back.

Once again I thought I “sucked on the uphills” as I slowly rode up from the beach and up out of the park. Then I had the joy of flying down the big hill. I was expecting another injection of speed as I made the turn from Ioco down to Alderside and then—damn! Instead of flying down that hill, I had to brake hard as two construction vehicles were blocking my way! I carefully rode by one truck, but then I was stuck behind a very slow dump truck and there was no room to pass on either side. I rode behind, hoping the truck would pull to one side enough to let me pass, but no. After a minute or so, I decided to go back to the start of Alderside and redo that portion at a faster speed. My Garmin could tell me later how much time that extra part had cost me.

True, the dump-truck incident gave me a bit of rest, and I gritted my teeth and powered as hard as I could for the remaining 3K of the ride. I could see Keith with his camera as I flew towards my finishing mark on the bike path!

The finish!

After the finish, even before I examined my times and compared them with my times from past years, I was filled with gratefulness simply for being able to complete my little athletic test once again. Neither my bad knee nor my hamstring were hurting! Now it was time to relax with an iced vanilla creme cold brew from Starbucks and watch the REAL athletes in action! What a high, indulgent day I had.

My results

I did look at my results unflichingly, though—and was pleasantly surprised by what Garmin told me.

Stage 1: Bike up. Only 2 seconds slower than last year, despite my thinking my time was slow! (Actually the big gap was between 2019 and 2020, when I did slow down significantly.) Best-ever time was in 2015.

Stage 2: Run. Almost a minute slower than last year—but this was still better than I expected. Best-ever time was in 2014.

Stage 3: Swim. My PB for the course—by 3 seconds!

Stage 4: Bike back. This time was a guesstimate because of my dump truck encounter, but it was ~ 20 seconds slower than last year. Best-ever time was in 2014.

The Covid-19 Olympics—emerging from the shadow

My mini-triathlon 2021 is part of one of my favourite summers of all time. The heat and the Olympics bring back so many memories of other hot summers. When I was at the Olympics in 1988, I remember thinking how surreal it was to be part of the athletes’ village and the competition stadium, self-contained worlds that were not part of “normal“ life, yet completely dominated those of us who were involved for those intense two or three weeks. During that time we narrowed our focus to that surreal experience: it would shape the rest of our lives.

I have the same sensation of surreality about these 2021 Olympic Games. There was so much controversy about whether they would or should happen at all. Yet they have been an astonishing success. The organization is superb; the theatricality impressive; the announcers are top-notch. They can hardly contain their enthusiasm for the performances they are witnessing. But it’s the athletes. These are only Games, after all—yet these supermen and superwomen are doing something important. This is a celebration of health and spirit after so much sickness, death, and anxiety, our world’s being turned upside down. Not only are we seeing human beings at the absolute pinnacle of physical performance and beauty, but they are sharing their emotions with us so freely! I think we had forgotten just how moving and entertaining the Olympics could be.

Maybe we had even forgotten that the physical, mental, and emotional strength of the world’s best athletes is a metaphor for the excellence that human beings can display in any arena. Covid-19 is not over. Climate change is here. Fires are raging. Let us take hope from these Covid-shadowed Olympics to believe that our species can solve our real-world challenges after these surreal Games are over.

Posted in Commentary, Cycling, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Running | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Silence, resilience, resurgence

This rose was a bud during the Heat Dome!

I haven’t written here for months.

Silence seemed the only answer when the things I wanted to write about were painful, sensitive, and a betrayal of others’ privacy.

I’ve been overwhelmed with the situations faced by people my age or older: crippling injuries, serious illnesses, and death. I can’t avoid thinking about the fact that people my own age, people I know, are suffering and dying from ALS. It’s a terrible way to go. Alzheimer’s disease, too, is affecting people close to me.

Keith’s serious knee injury, still undiagnosed, makes me feel sad and helpless. We haven’t been able to do our usual hikes and bike rides together. I hate to see him in pain, but can do little except share his twisted laughter about the need for self-medication with alcohol and heavy doses of extra-strength Tylenol. Our medical system is not helping him, and it seems all wrong.

My own physical problems are trivial in comparison to the ones above. I know I’m blessed with good health and I’m thankful for all the activities I can still enjoy. Yet it’s frustrating to have a hamstring injury that’s lasted for seven months already. Even taking multiple weeks off running doesn’t seem to help.

Even without that injury, though, I’ve realized in the past year or two that running at any pace has become increasingly difficult. There’s really no such thing as an easy run. I’m a parody of the runner I once was. I can accept slowing down, but when other injuries and aches are added to my arthritic knee, and I can’t even recapture a glimmer of the powerful, fast, natural runner I once was, then I know that the line between quitting running because I have to or because I no longer want to run is getting blurred.

My dilemma is: What do I write about/speak about when I can’t write about running? I always feel the pressure, whether as a running role model or as a Toastmasters speaker, to be positive and inspirational. People always want to hear my running stories. So my reaction, on this blog, has been—silence.

As for speaking, I’ve given people what they want. This spring I had some special opportunities to speak and didn’t want to turn them down. In April, I was asked to give a keynote speech about my “heroic Olympic journey” at the District 96 Toastmasters online conference. Although I instantly cringed at the use of the word “heroic,” I delivered the speech. My 13-year progression to the Olympics despite many obstacles was possible, I explained, not through any heroics of my own, but because of a combination of talent, luck (meeting a coach who recognized my talent in spite of scant evidence), hard work (yes, I can take some credit here), and all the support I received from my team (my husband, my coach, training partners, medical people, and countless volunteers and running aficionados).

I had another chance to speak when Kevin O’Connor and Ellen Clague from the Vancouver Falcons Running Club (VFAC) asked me if I could participate in their monthly “Coffee Coach’s Corner” (again online) as a guest speaker. This ended up being a 90-minute session where I spoke about my unlikely beginnings as a runner, my progression leading to the Olympics, my training philosophy, and my experiences on the US road race circuit as a professional runner, both when I was young and as a Masters runner in my forties. My talk evolved into a friendly discussion with multiple participants. I especially enjoyed reconnecting with some old running friends and reminiscing about the great Pinetree Classic cross-country races we took part in over multiple decades.

One unexpected side effect of preparing for this VFAC presentation was that it suddenly made all the stages of my life more visible to me than they had been before, more clearly delineated. It’s in retrospect that we can recognize these stages and patterns in our lives, and understand that although we’ve changed, and the building blocks of our daily lives (families, friends, homes, jobs) may have changed, we have core identities that never change completely.

Many people have said to me, “Once an Olympian, always an Olympian.” What I understand that to mean is that I can never lose all I learned, all I became, all the friendships I made and the places I travelled because of running. So many races and other running experiences are indelible.


I’m not old yet. I don’t live to rehash the past endlessly. That’s why I’ll refuse to write and speak about running exclusively. I’m excited about the editing project I’m involved in now. And I’ll never lose my drive to write. It’s been part of my nature since I was eight years old. But I’ve needed this period of silence to mull over what I want to write about.


This morning I woke up early.

It’s barely beginning to get light out so I guess it’s a little before 4:30. Tux cuddles with me and purrs. She climbs on top of me even though I have no coverings, and for once she’s careful with her claws.

I can hear, faintly, just a few birds. It’s not like springtime.

I know sleep will not come back. I feel the same sadness that has been my background emotion for a while now. I worry about Keith’s infirmity, the way he can’t seem to be aggressive enough to get the medical help he needs, my nagging sense that I could help him more.

I think about our recent Phoenix Running Club “reunion” in Mundy Park. It made me realize what a cornerstone of my social life our Saturday morning workouts had been for so many years. We closed down our club over a year ago because too many members couldn’t run anymore. Now we were saying goodbye to one of our most loyal and enthusiastic families before their permanent move to Winnipeg. And we were remembering one of our club’s long-term members, Jim Thomson, who had just passed away days earlier. Jim was a great contributor to our club; a Race Director for the Pinetree Classic and Mother’s Day races many times; and a fast runner into his 70s, often seen in the West Van Masters Mile. Plus he always called me “Young Lady.”

Once I get up and make coffee everything is better. How I love the peace and purity of early summer mornings!

I see that overnight, a small “incredibly fragrant” rose has opened. This bud survived the Heat Dome! So did the six sister buds on the plant that will soon be opening. Some of the leaves are scorched, but I consider it to be a small miracle that all these buds developed during our record-breaking Heat Dome days.

These lovely flowers remind me that it’s all right to be dormant for a while. This rosebush produced only one bud in May and then surprised me with all these later buds. I’ve regained my belief in my own resilience. I only need to be patient. There is so much energy, joy, writing—even running!—in me still.

Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments