Sunday, October 23, 2016

Road Tripping in Scotland

For Drew's 30th birthday, I had a glorious plan. It involved Drew coming over to Birmingham, and the two of us travelling to the northern tip of Scotland for the summer solstice, when there would hardly be any night, to eat at one of Britain's best and most sustainable restaurants.

This plan didn't exactly work out as I had hoped. Drew was working a contract position that didn't include paid vacation, and I ended up teaching a course at the university that would have made this trip difficult. Thus, we put it off to when Drew's contract would be up and I had a quieter period. This coincided with the month that I believe to be the very best in which to visit Scotland: October.

Two weeks past saw us taking an early train from Birmingham to Edinburgh, where we rendezvoused with what would provide our transportation and our lodging for the next five days: Roseisle Campervan Hire's Fiat Westfalia luxury van. I am totally in love with this vehicle. You will see why as you read.

In the middle of Cairngorms National Park
This first day was ambitious. After the train and getting the van, we hit the road to the Cairngorms right away. It was a Friday, and I wanted to get us to Thurso, to the Captain's Galley Restaurant, for Saturday night's supper. Distances in Scotland are not that far - Google will tell you that it's only around 5 hours' driving from Edinburgh to Thurso, which is like the drive from Toronto to Ottawa: done in a morning with one Timmies stop and not a big deal. Except that it's not at all like the drive from Toronto to Ottawa. The roads are narrow and winding, and maybe if you're in a small, responsive vehicle and very determined you could get close to the 5 hour mark. In a camper van, even if you took the most direct route, the trip takes closer to 8 hours, partly because you must drive slower in some places, and partly because you're on vacation and can't help but stop yourself along the highway to gawk at the breathtaking vistas. Drew and I said 'beautiful' so many times that we had to laugh at ourselves.

Hands at 9 and 3
So, getting us to the Cairngorms from Edinburgh, just a little shy of a 3 hour drive, by nightfall seemed like a reasonable goal. And yet, I had only driven so large a vehicle once before, when we took a Uhaul from Montreal to Toronto, but that was on the right-hand side of the road on nice wide highways with plenty of visual space around them. In this case, I was driving on the left-hand side, something I had also only done once before, and I wasn't sure how the van would handle, how heavy it was and how quickly it could stop, or exactly where my mirrors were. Thus, I white-knuckled the van up the highway, and then onto ever smaller, narrower, more windy roads, never letting my eyes stray from the two lines marking my lane. It took us about an hour longer than Google said - partly my fault, but also partly attributable to the fact that it's not possible to take a large camper van up and down switchback roads at 60mph.

Drew chefs it up in the van!
That night I was exhausted, and it was pitch black, and there was nothing to do but eat some delicious food, drink some wine, listen to tunes, and snuggle into bed. The van (glorious vehicle) was equipped with two propane cylinders, an auxiliary battery for the cabin that was charged by the motor, and the separate motor battery so that you never drained that key power source. We stopped near Balmoral in a fairly sheltered pull-off near the road - since it's legal to 'wild camp' (camp outside of a campground) in Scotland, there are plenty of these pull-off areas all over the place, and especially in park reserves. We turned on the propane, got the heat going, and Drew cooked up a feast. The cabin of the van is heated (there's a thermostat), there's a two-burner stove and a fridge, and there is also hot water and a flushable toilet, so we had hot showers and hot meals, and got right cozy in there. With all of the van's blinds shut we were invisible from the road. In fact, that evening I stepped out of the van to see whether anyone could see it, and I felt like I had a blindfold on. The night was overcast, and there was no light coming from anywhere. I couldn't see a thing! I got back in and hit the lock button on the van's dash, and it was actually like being in a little bunker. It was so dark that night in the Cairngorms, and so cozy and safe in the van, that we fell asleep super early and had amazing sleeps.

Looking over Berriedale's hairpin curve -
probably good fun in a small car
The next day, we woke to a beautiful clear blue sky. The day's task was to get to Thurso, but not to do it at the expense of seeing the gorgeousness of Scotland. We tootled our way through the rest of the park, stopping at a little tea house to poke around and spend money, and then headed up past Inverness. Drew had found a classical radio station, and the dramatic music perfectly matched the landscape. It was perfect for me, too, because I didn't have to divide my attention between lyrics and driving. Like a new driver, I felt my attention entirely swallowed by the task of keeping us on the road. It wasn't until Sunday, day 3, that I felt I could relax and look around a little bit (to my credit, we put not a scratch on that van).

Drew cheffing again! Lunchtime.
We stopped at Dornoch Firth to make some lunch in the van, and then swooped up along the coast. The landscape was ever-changing, from the Lunar landscape of Cairngorm park, to the rolling hills around Inverness, to the distant Caithness mountains and falling cliffs into the sea.

The day was perfect. We arrived well before our supper reservation, and walked around Thurso, admiring the view of the North Sea and the Orkney Islands in the distance.

Drew enjoys a meal he
did not have to cook
Our meal that night was outrageously good. I had been to the Captain's Galley ten years previous, to help paint it, in fact. I was friends with the son of the owners, Jim and Mary, and we got to work one weekend giving the bothy a sprucing. Jim and Mary remembered me, and we had a good blether before sitting down to eat. Drew and I both decided to get the set menu paired with wine. The Captain's Galley has won Sustainable Restaurant of the Year for the past years running in part because Jim buys sustainably caught fish fresh off the boats in Scrabster Harbour, so you get what's being caught when you go to eat there. Sample menus are available on their website, but one must be prepared to go with the catch of the day! Mary expertly pairs Jim's dishes with their selection of excellent wines, from appetizers to dessert. The meal was speckled with amuse-bouches as well, which were fun and refreshing. To top it off, Drew and I got to meet Jim and Mary's new doggie, Beau, before walking back to our van in Thurso. This restaurant was entirely worth every moment of the drive to get there, and the drive was so wonderful in itself that it would have been worth doing anyway. People! Dear readers! You must go.

Looking across the highlands near Thurso
Our next goal was to be in Falkirk by 18:30 on Monday, and so Sunday we found ourselves with an entire day to do whatever we wanted. I was at the wheel, and judged that we could probably go and check out Loch Ness, and then make our way back into Cairngorms, thereby giving ourselves Monday morning to taste Speyside scotch whiskey and still be in Falkirk for dinner. We took our time, indulging every urge to stop for photos or tea. I was aiming for Drumnadrochit - a little town on the side of Loch Ness, which has a Nessie shop and a little lunch spot. The GPS was aiming to get us there by the most direct route, and we forgot to tell it that we were in a large van. Thus, we approached Drumnadrochit overland, directly from the north, rather than scooting along the loch. I wasn't sure at moments whether we were going to manage it - we were muscling up and falling down the rolling hills that finally give way to the big drop into the loch. The van, however, was prepared for this kind of scenario; it is equipped not only with an optionally manual transmission, but also with engine braking. With the press of a button, the van was helping me to guide it safely down the twisting side of a steep hill in second gear.

Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness
We made it to the loch in time for lunch and a wander up the road to Urquhart Castle. The sky was bright blue, the loch a deep and glossy black. Nessie-searching boats skimmed across the surface. It couldn't have been more gorgeous. From there, back into the wild Cairngorms, with a stop in Cawdor to see Macbeth's castle and enjoy a pint. That night was perfectly clear and perfectly dark. Every object in the sky revealed itself to us, and we could see the heart of the Milky Way with its black dust clouds and highway of stars. In the midst of this, I was extremely sad to be heading back south. I love northern places, and the Highlands especially - the ruggedness, the space. It makes my heart sing and my life feel appropriately small, giving a kind of freedom from importance.

Sometimes there is traffic

Such a lovely frosty morning
The next morning brought a heavy and gorgeous frost. The bright purple heather and green ferns were transformed into soft lavender and mint, and the rising sun sparkled on every tiny leaf as it filtered through the evergreens around us. We were so cozy in the van that we didn't notice the chill until opening the blinds and seeing the white-frosted world around us. Steaming hot cups of coffee and woolly sweaters helped us outdoors to enjoy the crisp air. It was with regret that we turned the propane off and started to drive out of our sheltered forest nook.

Drew screams for
ice cream!
We were, however, very excited to visit the Speyside distilleries. There are a critical mass of them all to the north-east of the park. We only visited a handful, but I believe we chose wisely: Cardhu, Macallan, and Aberlour among them. We made our way south, again joining larger and larger roads. We stopped at Stewart Tower for ice cream and a break, and made it to Falkirk in time to wander down to see the Kelpies before dinner.

The next morning we had to give the van back. We were sad to see it go. I believe in returning it that I set one of my favourite socks free as well. All bad. On the train back to Birmingham, we watched the landscape become green, flat, and dense with towns. Gone were the rocky outcrops, heather-covered mountains and long stretches of emptiness. Back to civilization.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

That Sinking Feeling

I had just had a meeting with my supervisor at a café on New Street, and was taking Drew to see the university. We were going to do work and I was going to attend a talk. I was carrying my brand-new MacBook Pro, which I both adored and still felt guilty about buying because they’re so expensive. Drew was riding my roommate’s bike, and I was excited to take him along the canals for the first time. The canals are one of my favourite things about Birmingham, and I ride along them daily to and from the university, so I was looking forward to sharing their awesomeness with Drew. But let's be clear about one thing at the outset: no one wants to actually *go into* the canals; no one wants the water upon their person (even though we're told it's clean). The idea of one's body being submerged, partially or entirely, in the canal is terrifying. 

It was a beautiful October day – warm in the sun, but cool in the shade, with a surprisingly blue sky. It was the perfect day to ride under the trees, through spackled sunlight. We were just into our ride, just outside of what you might consider the centre of the canal system and heading along the canal that leads to Worcester, when it happened.

I was in the lead on my bike, and as we approached the (wide, modern) Five Ways underpass, I suddenly and mysteriously† wobbled and felt myself lose control of my bike. Having ridden along the canals for some time now, I have had a plan in case of such an emergency: bail as quickly as possible onto the ground, to avoid falling into the water. This, I did. But it did not help. Momentum was not on my side, and though my knee struck the ground (and Drew had time to think I was going to stay on land) I felt with horror as my bike, and I upon it, still somehow mostly upright, plunged into the water.

My entire being had one feeling at that moment, and it formed itself and whispered in my ears: No.

But yes! I saw the surface break, saw my hands brace out as if I could stop myself from going under, felt my bike sink away from me, and saw the water wash over my glasses. I was under water for the briefest moment, and yet my body had time to register the temperature (warm compared to the air), smell (clean and wet-rock, like a river), appearance (clear), and depth (greater than I had been led to believe). 

A single thought: COMPUTER.

Drenched in wool and leather
I surfaced, full-panic. Quoth I, “NAAAGH! NGAAGH! NAAAGH!” as I kicked and paddled, grabbed the side of the canal and launched myself up and onto the path. I frantically cried “Oh my god! Drew! My computer!” as I tried, legs still submerged and wriggling like a seal, to shake my soaking backpack off my drenched and clingy leather jacket. Drew was already in action, pulling my backpack off and taking out my things. I hauled myself fully out of the water, near-hysterical, and stood stock-still repeating phrases like ‘Oh my god,’ ‘I can’t believe that just happened,’ and ‘My bike.’

To his immense credit, Drew was looking at me with the most concerned and sympathetic eyes. I may have been dying with laughter if our roles were reversed. Two women who were walking by at the time got to see the entire spectacle. One of them asked if I was alright, but the other was straight-up impressed. “I’ve never actually seen anyone do that,” she said. I was congratulated on getting myself out of the water; “most people can’t get out.” Satisfied that all the damage was emotional, they went on their way.

My bike was gone. By some absolute miracle, my computer was dry. My phone, too, had but the slightest hint of moisture on its case. Drew tucked both of these into his warm and dry backpack, as I stood dripping. With those things safe, I was permitted to turn my thoughts to my poor, poor bike. My trusty, German-made, puncture-proof tyred, fully-fendered, wicker-basketed bike! It was down there in the water – just down, right down there. I stripped off my jacket and told Drew I was going back in for it. I put my jacket back on and told Drew that was totally insane I wasn’t going back in. My boots squelched. I took them off and squeezed out my socks, put them back on, and started trudging, with Drew, back home.

Haha just kidding
I was swinging between lamenting my loss of bike and general sogginess, and oddly unsettling laughter. We had to walk all the way along the canals to home, passing groups of people and police officers, and not once did anyone comment on my clearly sodden and bedraggled appearance. Brits! It would have been so much less embarrassing if someone had commiserated or made a joke with me, but everyone was straight-faced.

Thanks to the Canal & River Trust, I got my bike back. Two men with a long hooked stick dragged it out of the water (after first chancing upon some bags of trash). In the end, everything came through intact. The only things left to mark the event are my personal trauma and Drew’s memories, and now this story. 

† Leading theories of what caused the wobble include: 
• Five Ways Bridge trolls, exacting their price
• Tow-path elves, playing tricks
• A kelpie, attempting to eat me (though I'm not sure they live in England)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Four-Year Watch

Today I have a watch that used to belong to my grandfather. I never met him. The watch is an unfussy stainless steel Timex wind-up affair from the mid-70s, with glow-in-the-dark panels on the hour and minute hands, and a window to tell the date. The numbers printed on the watch’s face hint at the digital while being entirely analogue. It feels like an office man’s watch, and my grandfather was an office man. I imagine him putting on his brown or blue suit and wide 1970s tie, setting a hat over his pure-white hair, getting into his shiny gold 1970s Chrysler Newport, and as he steers out of the driveway of his tidy, stucco, 1970s home, I see the silver flash of steel on his wrist. I know him only through a few stories, a few photos and the watch.

One day the watch stopped winding. I sent it to Timex to see if they could fix it, but they sent it back to me with a note: unfortunately, there was nothing they could do, because they had stopped making the movements for this era of watch some years ago. I checked with some other watch-fixing folks – jewelers and watch-makers – who told me similarly that they didn’t have and couldn’t get the parts for it. It seemed like the watch’s time had run out for good. Then, on a weekend in a small town for a friend’s wedding, I spotted yet another watch-maker’s sign, and decided to take the number down to ask yet again if the watch could be fixed. 

This time, I was in luck. The man on the phone said that he could fix it; he would find a movement for the watch, or he would make one if he had to. I was elated. I mailed the watch to him, and waited. 

Time went by. I called the watch-maker and he said that the watch was working and he was going to put it back in the mail for me. We would settle up once I received the watch again. Time went by. I called the watch-maker and he said that the watch had stopped working and he was going to put a new movement in it for me. He’d let me know when he had it in the mail. Time went by. I called the watch-maker and he said that the watch had been working but now had stopped. He’d make another movement for it. 

Time went by. Months passed, and then years. I quit a job and started a PhD. My partner started and finished a professional program. My sister got married. I spent time in England. I thought about the watch every so often, but not that often. Every few months I would call the watch-maker. He would tell me that the watch was working or not working, going in the mail this week or going in the mail soon. I seemed to think about the watch most on Fridays, which was a bad day to think about it since the mail doesn’t run on weekends. If the watch-maker was going to put the watch in the mail, it wouldn’t be on a Friday, so I tried not to call on Fridays. 

Every time the watch-maker said the watch was going in the mail this week, I believed him. Then every time, I forgot about what he had said and when we had spoken. Weeks would pass before I thought about the watch-maker again and wonder where the watch was. Sometimes I would let myself get worked into a kind of outrage about how much time it was taking to fix the watch, because I missed it. I started to think that maybe I wanted it back, even if it wasn’t working. Sometimes I thought about telling the watch-maker these things, but I never did. His friendly assurances made my stern words evaporate on my tongue. I never worried it was lost; I always thought the watch was still sitting on the work-bench. I imagined the silver steel catching rays of light, glinting among the tools and wooden surfaces, sparkling in the dim with the boxes of gears and springs. 

Over time, the watch must have gotten to know the watch-maker well, much more than I did. They must have developed a relationship, the watch-maker peering at the watch, the watch watching back. The watch-maker replaced the insides of the watch countless times, tinkering with its movements and scrutinizing the spinning cogs and wheels. The watch was staid throughout repeated examinations, placid, waiting to catch up with the world outside of the workshop.

Last week I got a brown paper envelope in the mail. The watch-maker’s address was marked at the top. I tore it open and my watch slid out, the second-hand happily ticking away the minutes. The watch-maker has returned my watch to me, working. Now, nearly four years since I sent it away, my grandfather’s watch sits steely on my wrist, moving through the world and keeping time with me again.

As appears in the Globe and Mail, Facts and Arguments column, entitled "As years ticked by at the watchmaker, my grandfather's timepiece stood still," Tuesday August 9, 2016

Monday, August 8, 2016

Abyss in August

One day Philosophy sent a spark into my brain. 
It was a small speck of light, and it settled inside my head and it started to grow. 
It swirled and glowed, all white and gold. 
What at first I took to be a star, I soon realized was a black hole. 
It shimmered with light and energy on the surface, but only because it was sucking in the thoughts and ideas around it.

That was over a decade ago. 
Philosophy's abyss in my brain is about marble-sized now,
one of the big throwing marbles. 
It grows quite slowly. 
But it still has the power to suck in parts of the goodness around it
when it gets close enough. 
It can still take a swipe at parts of my life that I think are meaningful, and leave them smeared like a ruined galaxy, all dust and smashed planets. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Friday, May 6, 2016

It's Power Weekend

Well folks, here we are. After many months of hard training, it has finally arrived: Power Weekend. The weekend of legend and secret ritual, upon which we candidates will be pushed, pulled, tested, and judged, and at the end of it, we will have earned our black belts. Guys, it's intense.

Cold brew: my saviour!
What I know about the weekend is this: it starts at 19:00 tonight, and ends with a run on Sunday morning (finishing around 09:00, let's say). We will be sweaty, we won't get much sleep, we won't eat as much as we think we might, and we get to go outside sometimes, but only when we're instructed. We don't get to leave the supervision of our instructors, so that means we will sleep at the dojang.

I've packed all my uniforms, club t-shirts, and sports bras. I've got piles of Gatorade and Clif bars. I figured out how to achieve caffeination equilibrium while being unable to make or purchase coffee: cold brew!! Thank you, coffee fanatics everywhere.

I'm really excited that Power Weekend is finally here. There's been so much work and anticipation leading up to it. I can't say that I'm psyched about the prospect of doing 70 burpees, or skipping for an hour, because both of those things are painful and not my idea of fun, but I know that once the nausea passes I'll be having a blast with a group of people I've come to really like. Other parts of what we'll be expected to do over the weekend - the forms, the teaching - I love completely, and I can't wait to perform them.

So, friends and family, thank you for your love and support over the past eight months. Your patience, understanding, and encouragement have made all of this possible. A special thank-you goes to Drew, who has trained with me inside and outside of the dojang, created the music for the form that I made, and will bring me spicy pork noodles for my hot meal tomorrow evening: you are a wonderful, kind, and golden-hearted human.

Think of me while you enjoy the beautiful weekend, friends. When you hear from me again, I'll be a black belt!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Tales of an Almost-Black Belt*

In the beginning...

I began studying taekwondo at the Galway Road fire hall in 1998. I was 14 years old. The Galway Road fire hall was not a fancy (or even nice) dojang – it was a working fire hall. Our instructor, Dave, was a volunteer firefighter and was given permission to use the fire hall to start a martial arts club.

For people who have grown up in the city, much of what I just wrote may not make sense. In places like Fenelon Falls, where I grew up, there aren’t enough people or fires to keep a paid staff of firefighters, so people in the community take a course to become firefighters and first responders. They have a lot of responsibility, because often they will beat other first responders – paramedics and police – to any accident scene in the area by many minutes, and they have to really save peoples’ lives. However, they aren’t called upon too often. So, Dave saw an opportunity in the fire hall. He bought some mirrors, and a roll of industrial office carpeting, and made a dojang.

The first thing we had to do when we got to class was move the fire trucks. Once the fire trucks were moved out of the parking bays into the driveway outdoors, we would roll the industrial carpeting out over the cement floor. In January, that floor was cold. The whole dojang was usually freezing. Occasionally, in May or June, it would be nice enough to train with the huge fire hall doors open, with nothing outside but the buzzing of insects and the wind in the trees. The fire hall was also in the middle of nowhere.

Grading at the Galway Dojang - I'm at the very back,
3rd from right, in the top right photo
I trained with Dave at the Galway Road dojang until going to university. We trained 10 months per year and graded in June, and over the four years I worked with the club, I made it to brown belt. I was really passionate about taekwondo, and Dave was a very encouraging instructor. I was a part of the demo team, and we performed at the Fenelon Falls home show and a few other venues. I really wanted to get my black belt before going away to school, but there just wasn’t enough time.

When I got to university, full of excitement, I joined the taekwondo club on campus right away. This, sadly, was not a good experience. I felt out of place, intimidated, and like the other members ofthe club didn’t take me seriously. Yet, I surprise myself when I realize that I stuck with this club, training multiple times a week, for a full six months before deciding I wasn’t going to go back.

This experience was the beginning of some unfortunate luck with dojangs. I couldn’t find one that was friendly and welcoming, which allowed me to come in at the brown belt level that I had worked so hard for, and which I felt like I could really be a part of. I moved to many places – from London, ON, to Glasgow, Montreal, Geneva, and then finally to Toronto. Through all of those places, taekwondo was on my mind, but not a part of my life. Nine years slid past; I was 27 by the time I moved to Toronto, and I was deeply intimidated and nervous about joining new martial arts clubs.

And then… Suddenly, I was 30. 

I bring this up because it was the realization that I was starting the fourth decade of my life that made me think that it was about time I do something about getting that black belt. I have lived in the same apartment on Gerrard Street, mid-block between Woodbine and Main, since I moved to Toronto. I had been walking by Desantos Martial Arts for three whole years, giving it a sideways look, peering cautiously at the website, before finally sending an email saying I was curious about training here. During my very first class I regretted not coming in sooner. It was everything I was looking for in a dojang! It had been here the whole time!

It's love
Once I started training with Desantos, it wasn’t long before I convinced Drew to come along with me. It’s been so much fun to train with him and to watch him progress through the belts. He has almost caught up to me now, since he will grade for his brown and black-stripe belt in June. Yay, Drew! I’m also really pumped about all the great people I’ve gotten to know at Desantos, a few of whom I’m lucky enough to call friends.

Never one to make things too easy on myself, when I decided to pursue my black belt, I decided at the same time that I should probably go and do a PhD. 

In England. In order to try to keep on track with my black belt, and wanting very much to achieve it while training at the Desantos club, I asked Kwan Jan Nim about the possibility of counting training at a club in England toward my training time at Desantos, and I’m grateful that she agreed.

Paul, the TAGB instructor
at Birmingham
I found a club in Birmingham that was happy enough to have a visiting Canadian join their classes for a few months at a time, without having to get into their grading schedule. The club that I train with in England is the Birmingham location of the West Midlands branch of the Taekwondo Association of Great Britain (TAGB). The instructor, Paul, made me feel like a valuable part of their club from the get-go, and it has been fun to learn their curriculum. It has also been fun to share a few tips from Desantos with them. I’m looking forward to going back to the club this fall with my brand new black belt! Some of the people I train with there will have also gotten their black belts while I’ve been away, so there shall be high fives all around.

Kwan Jan Nim, Veronica Desantos, top right, and four of
her walkers - we made it to Niagara!!
The past eight months have been full of ups and downs, as I’m sure many black belt candidates will report. I’ve experienced ebbs and flows of enthusiasm about my training regime, new and recurrent injuries, and not a few major scheduling conflicts. Committing to black belt means making some choices that other people who haven't done the black belt training find odd, though the hardest for me has been managing the guilt I sometimes feel for putting my black belt training first. My friends and family have been nothing but supportive – I have had to grapple with my own sense of obligations.

Dave, #1 Mentor, with Natalie and me
at the end of our Niagara walk

Out of all of the challenges I’ve faced, the scheduling issues have been the most stressful aspect of committing myself to the black belt cycle – to which my good and dedicated mentor, Dave, can attest. It is hard some weeks to find the time to do all the training for black belt on top of other responsibilities, and Black Belt Spectacular itself posed a bit of a challenge for me – I have to fly to Scotland right after to present at a conference that starts the next day! Luckily for me, Kwan Jan Nim is the most understanding and flexible human on Earth. She told me that she thought I’d be able to make it to the Spectacular and to my flight, and she made it work out. It’s a bit self-centered to think that she did that just for me, but that’s how it feels; it feels like Kwanji takes care of us, and has taken care of me.

Black belt buddies!
If a future candidate asked me what the best part of the past year was, I would say that it’s being able to look back now and see how much I’ve improved. It’s been both difficult and greatly rewarding to see myself and the other candidates at Desantos work so hard and reach such great heights in a short and intense time period. I honestly didn’t know I had it in me, and I couldn’t have done it without Drew, Dave, and Kwan Jan Nim, my black-belt candidate peers, and all the great people at Desantos. 

Me, a black belt at 32,
surrounded by me,
a kid at 12. 

Though it has also been one of the most challenging, working toward my black belt in the supportive and encouraging Desantos club has without a doubt been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

*This text and most of the photos come from my black belt poster, created for Desantos Martial Arts as part of the requirements for achieving black belt

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

I'm Walking from Toronto to Niagara Falls!



Yes. Really, terrifyingly, the title of this post is true. What was I thinking when I signed on for this? Well, I think it was something like this: I have time, as a PhD candidate, to walk for four days, and it's a fundraiser for children's charities through the Desantos Foundation, and I've never done anything like it before, so... I guess I thought, 'why not?'

Now that the walk is two weeks away, I'm really questioning my judgment. I'm a lazy and unwise person who doesn't properly train for things; thus, I haven't been practice-walking properly. I always think that I will properly train for things (a 10k run a few years ago comes to mind), but then I don't. I'm going to do 25 km on Friday of this week, but according to the walk-training schedule it should be more like 33 or 35 km, so I'm a bit behind.

The walk starts on April 19th, at six o'clock in the morning. We walk 40-ish kilometres that day, and then the same distance the next day (so walking back-to-back marathons), then about 30 km the third day, and finally 25 km on the last day. I'm worried, to say the least.

But that's OK! I'm going to walk over 145 km to Niagara Falls over four days! That's pretty cool and pretty hard, but it's not the hardest thing ever. In fact, here's a list of all the really hard things I'm not doing:

- I'm not crawling through the woods for 3 months with a broken femur, Hugh Glass style
- I'm not climbing Mount Everest in the 1950s, Edmund Hilary style
- I'm not fleeing a war zone with my belongings and children in tow
- I'm not braving the winter waters of the Mediterranean Sea in a dingy
- I'm not attempting to cross Death Valley with a covered wagon
- I'm not crossing the North Pole on a dogsled
- I'm not traversing the Chilkoot Pass in the 1890s
- I'm not trying to circle the globe in a hot air balloon...

The list goes on. I'm not really doing anything difficult at all. It'll be an enjoyable lakeside walk.... right? I hope so.

And, because friendly, caring, and generous people have started to sponsor me, it's way too late to back out. Backing out would be so lame, and I don't think my pride could handle it anyway, but those donations definitely help me to screw my courage to the sticking-post, as it were.

In any case, it's going to be a new adventure, with good and dedicated people, and all for a very excellent cause. If you, dear reader, are interested in supporting me and the children's charities that benefit from the Desantos Foundation, you may donate here. I'll be thinking of you as I walk, and your support will keep me going!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Thoughts on Australia

I'm sitting under a heavily-laden peach tree in an Adelaide back garden. The sun is shining, and the desert-dried wind is blowing in from the north-west. Lorikeets and cockatoos are making a racket in the trees, but it's so nice to look at them that I almost don't mind the noise.

Sitting here just now, I was thinking to myself that Australia has a lot going for it. Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide have all been welcoming and enjoyable cities, and the weather has been great. The food and coffee have been top-notch - I appreciate how seriously Australians take the business of making a cup of joe.

It strikes me, though, that being anywhere for two weeks is just not sufficient for knowing how good a place is to spend a lot of time in. It's like going to PEI in August, as Drew and I used to do every year (but haven't for two years running - and this year might make three), and calling it paradise. It's tempting to do this when you happen to see the best in a place because you've gone at just the right time.

Drew has always been into the idea of Australia, and as a physiotherapist, this country holds a lot of opportunity for work and education for him. I've been less interested, but there are, it turns out, piles of ethicists here, working at great institutions. So, because we're here and seeing the sights, our thoughts have wandered towards the livability of Australia, in the short-term sense. It's not an easy evaluation.

For example, here are some observations:

Food: overall, pretty expensive. Great fruit and veg, because of awesome climactic conditions for growing, and backyard gardens seem to do really well. Lots of people in Adelaide have their own fruit trees. Local stuff is easy to find, partly because it's expensive to import things to Australia. A larger part of a household budget would have to be put aside for groceries, though, and eating out is really pricey (though delicious). Coffee is A+.

Housing: overall, pretty expensive and not temperature controlled. It's hard to believe in such a hot country, but here's what I've noticed: a lot of the houses in the cities we've been to, including the places we've stayed in, look great and have a lot of character, BUT, they lack HVAC systems almost as a rule. New office buildings, retail stores, and university buildings have A/C, but some don't have heat, and it seems incredibly rare that a residential dwelling would have either central air or heat. This is insane. It gets well above a comfortable temperature in the summer, and well below a comfortable temperature in the winter, so indoor temperature control seems appropriate. The windows are also mostly crap - so British of them!

Cycling: Sydney was not awesome for cycling, so we took transit to move around the city. There wasn't a ton of bike infrastructure, and there was pretty heavy vehicle traffic on the surprisingly narrow streets. Melbourne was a bit better, though some of the bike lanes disappeared without warning, and somehow they don't have a bike share stand in Fitzroy - which is one of the funkier neighbourhoods to hang out in. Overall, though, we found that we could easily get to where we wanted to be from our accommodation in South Melbourne by bike. Adelaide is the bomb for biking in, partly because the downtown area is completely ringed by parklands. There are bike paths through these parks, and alongside train and light rail corridors, which makes biking enjoyable (because away from heavy traffic and often very scenic) and fast. The only downside to cycling in all of these places is the heat, which really would be a bit of a barrier sometimes.

Weather: it's been pretty darn hot, but since we're semi-vacationing it has been manageable. I'm not very productive when it's really hot out - like above 30 - and many days are much hotter here. Only one day on our trip has been 38 degrees, and most were between 28-34, but we're also at the end-ish of summer, heading into fall, so we've had fewer really hot days than there are in early summer (December-Jan). Apparently Melbourne is a bit unpredictable, and we experienced that on arrival, when it was 18 degrees and drizzly, followed the next day by a 10-degree jump and sunshine.

Wildlife: we haven't seen too much beyond birds and a few non-deadly spiders, but there's plenty of those. It was a special adventure to use the 'spider bathroom' at the house in Sydney - basically an outhouse with flushable toilet at the end of the back garden. I really wanted to see a koala or a kangaroo, and though we have been in places where both of these would/could be spotted, we had no luck. Koalas have adapted to urban places, and live in Adelaide's southerly neighbourhoods, wandering from one tree to another at night, or hanging out in a tree for a month or so before moving on, and making horrendous screamy noises. If they also got into people's compost bins, I'd say they're just like racoons without tails.

Politics: super weird. Did you know that marriage is not legal for same-sex couples in Australia?? I had no idea, and frankly can't believe it. It's not often that the US is ahead of other industrialized nations when it comes to equal rights, but here we see a rare example. There is also some weird and uncomfortable practices pertaining to migrants, and a large detention centre on an island off the coast of Australia where thousands of migrants are being 'held.' Immigration is very tightly controlled and difficult, it seems. I have gathered that Australian politics have been right-leaning for a while, and that there is a tendency of the mainstream Australian populace to feel a bit protectionist and a bit xenophobic. These feelings have informed federal policy, and I think it's reflected in a fairly non-diverse population. In other words, Australia is very white.

So, the jury is out on Australian liveability, but it's interesting to ponder. I often consider the politics of a place when thinking about whether I'd really be able to live there, and this has usually ruled out a significant number of American states (because of the death penalty, abortion laws, or marriage laws, for example). With the current marriage and migration laws/practices in Australia (which are homophobic and racist), as well as the higher cost of living and the difficulty that I think Drew and I would face trying to move here, I'd be tempted to give it a pass, as well. Unfortunately, if I follow an academic career I may end up having to compromise on my no-live list, because, as they say, one has to go where the jobs (or funding opportunities) are. If that's the case, then at least I'll have an idea of how to spend my advocacy energies.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The First Pre-Test

Tomorrow is the first and, according to some, the most important black belt pre-test. This is a four hour test that will determine whether each of us is really going to go forward to the next test and eventually Power Weekend, when we are tested a final time for our black belts. So, this is a really big deal.

These muscles aren't just for show
I have no idea right now whether I'm physically ready. I've done my best, week by week, to get into top shape, and I think that I've had a measure of success. But, I've also had annoying injuries, including shin splints and some persistent bursitis in my shoulders. I've had great running weeks and not great running weeks, and great push-up weeks and not great push-up weeks. The only things that I've been consistently good at are crunches and skipping. So, tomorrow could be physically great, or physically terrible, and I really can't know which it will be in advance.

The expectations for tomorrow are shrouded in mystery, as are the tasks we'll be asked to complete. A few of the people who have already got their black belts are gleeful as they warn us, with a twinkle in their eye, about how difficult it will be (e.g. there will be buckets nearby in case we have to be sick). There's a little bit of that old passage-to-maturity ritual feeling to it - 'we went through this, and now you will go through it, too, and we will keep the secret that was kept from us.' I understand it, but not knowing is obviously what drives the nervousness and anxiety about the testing. It's a mental game, as much as a physical one.

Mentally, I think I'm doing alright. I know that my emotions are my weakness. I sometimes have exercise-induced asthma, but I know how to control it. It first happened in high school, during a rugby game. I was in pain, exhausted, hot, and pissed off. Through the experience of years, I have figured out that it's fine to be in pain, fine to be exhausted, and fine to be hot. It's the pissed off part that gets me into trouble. When I feel frustration mounting in my chest, I know that my throat is about to constrict and the wheezing will start, and suddenly I won't be able to get my breath. I know how to talk myself back from that by telling myself to calm down, and breathe deeply. Tomorrow, keeping my temper in check and receiving each new instruction with calmness (joy, maybe??) will be my greatest challenge.

Last night I dreamed that my red-topped attendance card (a large rectangular piece of card stock that is used to record our attendance, and is colour-coded for belt level) had a thick, bold black line across the top of it. I didn't wake up feeling over-confident about this weekend. At first, I didn't even connect it. But I'm a bit weird when it comes to dreams; I think they often give us clues about ourselves and our actions. I think my dream was showing me the future, but not in a prophetic way; it was showing me something that I want and will be true, as long as I keep working as hard as I have been, and stay dedicated.

I'm not worried about failing the test tomorrow, but I also don't think I'm going to get a gold star at the end. For me and my teammates who have been working hard since September, this will be a difficult but possible challenge to meet. I will meet it; I will try so hard to surpass it. I'll try to be as sharp, as quick, as strong as possible. I won't be perfect, and I'll be in pain and exhausted, but I'll be calm, and take joy where I can find it, and keep my eyes on that bold black line.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Here Lies Kate: She Got What She Asked For

There's something about the power of intention, something spooky. There's something about telling the universe that you want to achieve certain things, and then finding yourself doing more than just achieving them, but surpassing your own expectations or wildest imaginings.

Just over two years ago, when I was about to turn 30, I wrote a list of things I hoped to achieve in my fourth decade of life. I know now that I could have said that I wanted to achieve them in the first half of my fourth decade; at this rate, I'm going to need some new goals by 35.

You see, some of the things I wanted to do were:
- become an eccentric aunt
- get my PhD
- travel "way more," and move somewhere new
- make a decision about whether to get my black belt
- wear fun things every day
- take more time for snuggles, and remember to love deeply and to be grateful

Well, it's only been two years, and already I can tick half of these off the list. I'm doing my PhD, and I'm actually half-way through it at this point. I decided to do it in Birmingham, England, so in terms of efficiency I managed education and travel quite handily. I am definitely travelling as much as I hoped I would. More, in fact; I think I spent six out of 12 months last year out of the country, so that's quite a lot of travel. Luckily, it hasn't all been to England. Drew and I went to Asia in September, and in February we're going to Australia. We'll be in Scotland in June, as well.

We haven't moved to a new city, but I think the PhD sort of takes care of that one, too. It's not definitely the case that I won't get a job in Toronto, but there's such a slim chance that it's not really worth hoping for, and very much not a good idea to plan for. A new city is in our future, I believe, and I really look forward to that.

In rereading the list that I made when turning 30, I'm amused to notice that I only wanted to "make a decision about whether" to get my black belt in Taekwondo. Well, I definitely decided. I checked out a martial arts school around the corner from our house in January two years ago, and once joining the school there was no going back. Participating in the school means progressing in one's skills, and so since I joined with a brown belt, they let me get back into it at that level, and now I'm only a few months away from achieving black belt. A few months, and a few hundred hours of physical and mental training. Just in case you're curious, everything still hurts.

Regarding becoming an eccentric aunt, I pointed out before that the aunt part was up to other people, but that I could handle the eccentric part. It just so happens that in addition to my two 7-year-old nieces, all of those potential other people who could aunt me have now done so. It's a literal avalanche of babies around here. My sister, my two besties, and four or five other girlfriends are either currently pregnant or have just had babies. For two of these friends, they're already on their second.

So aunthood is well in hand, and the eccentric bit is coming along well, too, depending on who you ask. A friend recently made a comment to Drew and I about having eccentric friends, and I observed that eccentricity is a relative term. To many people, that Drew and I don't want to get married or have kids, that we ride our bikes as our primary transportation, and that we like renting, is enough to make us eccentric to the point of near-unrelatability. It all depends on where you're standing.

The projects of wearing fun things every day, taking time for snuggles, and loving deeply and being grateful are all long-term, on-going, constant works of self-improvement. These will never be accomplished, but always undertaken. I'm reading Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking," and I don't think there's another book that could help with the project of loving deeply and being grateful as much as this can. It's almost like being given the gift of time. Reading Didion's reflections on her husband's sudden death and the things that she remembered, questioned, or regretted is like getting a letter from my future self, telling me to take care now. It's like glimpsing the future, 40 years hence, and understanding that every moment between now and then is precious and fleeting, and that there is never enough time. I told Drew the other night that a whole lifetime isn't enough time with hm, and I meant it. I'm grateful to Didion for reminding me to go slowly and gently through the world, and to Drew for going through it with me.

It's nice to sit here, on a train to Ottawa to see my bestie and her son, and to reflect on how much I've accomplished and how much I have left to do. I started this post thinking that one should be careful what one wishes for, because one might just get it. I'm ending the post thinking that if my life were cut abruptly now, I would feel good about what I'd gotten done in the time I had.