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A European Vacation Experiment, Family Style

May 31, 2011 14 comments
a backpacking travel to europe R002-005

The decision to travel to Europe this summer, en famille, was not a light hearted one. My children tend to complain loudly on any walk that is longer than the length of our driveway, so there’s that to consider.

And then the sheer expense of the sojourn – multiplying everything by 5’s was great when we were learning our multiplication tables, but when we’re talking dollars it can be painful and exorbitant. When people used to tell me, children are expensive, I was thinking more along the lines of the extra toothpaste requirements, not additional plane fares. Yowsers.

Yet we are dying to show our children places that we have fallen head over heels in love with, and France and Italy are chief among them. My husband is taking a rare sabbatical, six weeks off work, and so with such a luxurious amount of time – unprecedented and perhaps never to be repeated – we have decided to carpe diem.

Despite the fact that my six year-old tells me every night she wants to stay home and practice her new monkey bar skills, we are flying to London in a week. After a couple of days there we will be spending time in rural villages in Tuscany and Provence.

My nine year-old is most excited about the mere fact she will be leaving North America for the first time, while my eleven year-old is under the illusion she will be shopping in Paris.

I have attempted to play Italian language CD’s in my car to familiarize my kids with some basic words, but it’s been impossible to hear them over the peals of laughter from the backseat. Mature guys, very mature, I tell them. Then they laugh harder.

Which leads me to ponder whether or not they will appreciate the food, the culture, the language, or the lengths we are going to to show them these things. Children being children, I expect not.

I recognize we are lucky to be able to take this trip – it’s a huge privilege I am so thankful for. Yet when my friends ask me if I’m excited, I tell them excited might not be the best word. More like trepidatious, cautiously optimistic, fingers crossed, hoping for the best.

I have been a parent for long enough to realize this experience will certainly fall short of the Von Trapp’s dancing through the hills of Austria, yet hopefully rise above National Lampoon’s European Vacation. The Griswald’s set the bar pretty low, after all.

Exactly where our happy medium lies is yet to be seen, but come along for the ride for the next six weeks, and I’ll give you an idea.

You’ll Owe Me For This One – Canucks Will Win Stanley Cup

May 25, 2011 7 comments

I had a feeling this would be their year.

As surely as I knew the rapture was going to amount to nothing, I knew our beloved Vancouver Canucks would make the Stanley Cup final. Call it women’s intuition, or luck, or a formidable amount of knowledge, but let the record show I sensed them, both the Canuck’s success and the rapture’s fail. Check, check.

And since I’m on a roll, I’m going to go ahead and predict the Canucks are going to win the Stanley Cup in six games. In fact, I guarantee it. I would bet my life on it, and will do so tomorrow if I can find a bookie.

You see, I have a plane ticket that will jet me away from my city, united in Canuck fever and awash in flags, on June 6, so the way my life goes the Canucks will win the cup right after I leave and the party of all parties will begin in Vancouver, while I am sitting in Europe.

Granted, a great place to sit on any occasion, but it is simply just my luck that I will be there when I most want to be here.

I’m not complaining, I’m just illustrating why you, too, should believe Vancouver will win the Stanley Cup this year. You may want to put money on it. A case of schadenfreude, on my account. A gift from me to you: all Canuck fans everywhere (and surely Canada, we are all Canuck fans at this point: it has been far too long since Lord Stanley’s silver trophy has resided north of the forty-ninth parallel).

Oh, there's the puck!

There are a few other reasons, of course, why you should believe in the Canucks this year. I mean, besides the fact that they have more heart than all of the NHL together and possess an uncanny ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat when it matters most. And overlooking the fact they were the most decorated team in the league, winning this trophy and that trophy, I won’t bore you with statistics or titles. Google it, they were the winning-est team among them.

But that makes it almost too obvious. Let’s look for reasons more subtle and wacky.

Perhaps this little gem: our Olympic golden ticket. When Montreal hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 1976, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1977, and similarly the Calgary Flames won it in 1989 after hosting the Olympics in 1988. Subtle enough for you?

Sports fans are a superstitious bunch and unearth strange facts in lieu of being able to put the puck in the net themselves. Everyone noticed tonight when Henrik Sedin refused to touch the trophy for winning the Western Conference tonight, since that’s not the prize they care to win. Yet the last time the Canucks advanced to the Stanley Cup final (but then lost to the New York Rangers), in 1994, our captain not only touched the trophy but RAISED it over his head. You see the difference this time?

It may as well be written in the stars.

There are plenty more theories floating around, but I assure you the best one is my conspicuous absence from the city when it all goes right for a change. It’s my way of taking one for the team. You can thank me later.

We are all Canucks, after all.

Alzheimer’s or Not, She’s Still Alice

May 18, 2011 6 comments

Alice is a fit and healthy fifty year-old Harvard professor when she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Still Alice is a first hand account of someone diagnosed with this disease far too young, and like any first hand account it educates us about perspectives. Smart and instantly likeable, as Alice goes through the stages of her disease so does the reader. Her loss of lucidity is evident as you are treated to the inner workings of her mind.

As Alice says in a lecture at an Alzheimer’s convention in one scene, just because they are living with this disease doesn’t mean the rest of the world should write them off.

“My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today didn’t matter.”

And so this book is not only a great read, a personal journey of a beautiful character and her family, it also educates us about a terribly shattering dementia. I love learning as I read, it’s my favorite form of multi-tasking.

Life is no fairytale, and if diagnosed with this disease, it would be almost impossible to see any light. Yet the author manages to bring a touch of grace to a tragic situation. Relationships can evolve in curious ways, as happens to Alice. Without sugar-coating, this story illuminates that Alzheimer’s is not an ending, but rather a challenge which forces you to live your life differently.

In her first novel, incidentally written at Starbucks while her child was at school, Lisa Genova has created a touching story about a woman who endures this hurdle with dignity. She fights to hold on to the person she is, and lives in the moment as best she can.

I couldn’t put this book down, and when I did I was in a hurry to get back to it. The best books leave us with lessons learned in life, albeit through someone else’s experience. From Alice we learn to persevere, to enjoy the good, and to love hard.

And of course that lesson that never gets old – to live in the moment and for the moment.

Of Fervour, Dreams, and Books

May 18, 2011 10 comments

Something happens to me in bookstores.

Be them old, new, borrowed or blue, when in a library or other place heavy with book shelves, I feel like I am home amongst friends. Although I may have never graced those floors before, I see the old familiar titles on the shelves and I’m calmed. No matter how I felt before walking into the store, once across the threshold I am alive with possibility, awake with new meaning, open to new destinies.

If exercise or caffeine is not doing it, it’s my equivalent to popping an upper.

I feel like each book I’ve read is an old friend.  It may sound strange, but I have never guaranteed sanity. I see lots I recognize, oldies but goodies. Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’ubervilles, The Mill on the Floss, Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye.

Oh yes, these I loved once.

I hear of people who have read Jane Eyre seventeen times – who are you and what do you do for a living? I would like to reread these just once, but the stack of books beside my bed is already impinging on the light from my bedside table. Rereading these classics would mean missing out on many others.

Night time reading

So many books, so little time.

Walking amongst the stacks I see many more that I long to spend time with, but haven’t found the opportunity –  yet. War and Peace, Atlas Shrugged, Freedom. Your time will come.

On the bestseller wall live more recent friends: The Thirteenth Tale, Through Black Spruce, Secret Daughter, Half of a Yellow Sun. We were intimate, myself and these words. I fell in love with them, and they with me, and we sailed off into the sunset. It was lovely.

Not entirely impervious to chick-lit, some of these titles holler to me, reminding me of a time when my attention span was thin and my reading time competed with sleep. The desire to sleep usually won, but when it didn’t I turned to The Nanny Diaries and Sophie Kinsella’s books for silliness and comic relief.

Even the children’s section displays buddies from days gone past, other cherished times. Watership Down, Oh the Places You’ll Go, James and the Giant Peach. Less time consuming and appealing to my children, I have been able to relive these classics. Fewer words but still big in spirit and meaning.

I have a dream.

It involves sitting and reading for a long time.

From Vegas and Beyond With Lindy Hughes

May 16, 2011 4 comments

She endured a midlife crisis and came away from it an author. Lindy Hughes, incredible mother, wife, and ballet teacher turned novelist, is my subject today for Motivational Monday.

Every parent of daughters west of the Rockies has heard of her extraordinary prowess as a ballet teacher. Her South African accent combined with her love for fairies has little girls falling over themselves to get into her class – they are legendary, and each of my three girls were lucky to be her students.

But her rock star status amongst the five year-old set couldn’t insulate her disappointment that so many go through in their forties. She had never planned on getting married and having children, yet had done so and it naturally consumed her life. As Facebook launched and peers around the world caught up with her, she was mystified by her answers to what had become of her: how different they sounded from her grand plans of being a penniless writer.

Completely distraught, she had a very honest conversation with her husband, telling him she wanted to leave, that this life wasn’t intended for her. He asked her what her ideal life would look like.

I would be starving, sleeping on a floor somewhere in Paris, and writing, was her reply.

He pointed out she could do that here, in Vancouver, in their home. Sleep on the floor too if you want, but I’m not going to join you.

She agreed he had a point, there was nothing stopping her from writing except herself.

For the next three months, she wrote a fictional story about a middle-aged South African emigrant mother named Lucy who has an affair with her first love in the midst of a mid-life crisis. The story, she says, literally poured out of her.

Written with self-deprecating humour and just the right amount of poignancy, she self-published her book, It Never Stays in Vegas, through Amazon.

My book club read it, and Lindy gamely attended our meeting. Over wine and dinner, we barraged her with questions about the book, lobbing tougher questions as the wine flowed. She answered all of our questions in a straightforward manner, dealing with criticism as well as compliments. It was our best meeting ever, consumed not only by the book but also grander conversation about life and its challenges.

“Each life is just a story, and we CAN change things. Every day you are writing your own chapter,” she says. Writing her book was cathartic, and put her in a better space. “The world would be a better place if everyone would write their own book.”

She is in the midst of finishing her second book, Tutus, Tiaras and Tassels. This one is non-fiction, and is a collection of essays about lessons learned from the dance studio. Where Lindy is concerned, there is never a dull moment, and I am anxiously awaiting its release. Suffice to say this woman has chutzpah, but I can’t give anything else away.

“We must get over that fear of embarrassing ourselves,” she says, referring to the fact that everyone should live their best life, whatever that means for them. “At the end of the day, it’s just you on your deathbed, so you can’t let anyone else rule your life.”

I salute you Lindy, for making lemonade when life gave you lemons, for your fresh perspectives and your unflinching honesty, but mostly for going after your dream.

It’s Not Always Easy Being Green in Vancouver

May 12, 2011 3 comments

Vancouver Canuck's most obvious fans: the Green Men

Canuck fever is burning hot in Vancouver, as our beloved hockey team is off to the semi-finals of the Stanley Cup. Blue and white flags are flying from cars and the lions on the Lions Gate Bridge have donned Canuck jerseys. Go Canucks go can be heard from the deepest, darkest recesses of our mountains as even the black bears have boarded the bandwagon.

But I’ve heard almost as much about the antics of the Green Men as the lackluster play by our team’s infamous twins, the Sedin brothers. In fact, these two pranksters have vaulted to popularity during these playoffs as fast as the Swedish twins have fallen from glory.

The Green Men have become an institution in Vancouver since 2009, when they first appeared on the scene in seats beside the opposing team’s penalty box. As their name suggests, they appear in the stadium wearing skintight green lycra suits. Whenever a player sits in the sin bin, the Green Men come to life, taunting and cajoling the player.

Quite a sight in the produce aisle

The home crowd generally loves them, they are more interesting to watch than Finn, the official mascot. Their object is to get under the competitors skin, in the hopes that it throws them off their game. If you’re a Canucks fan, this seems noble enough. If you’re on the other side, it seems rude and unsportsman-like.

Thus the clash of controversy.

Nevertheless they have grown in popularity, and are now not only a fixture during home games, they traveled to Nashville to continue their pranks beside the penalty box.

But recently our bonafide mascots have come under fire. The NHL has asked the Green Men to stop doing handstands and banging on the glass.

The Green Men responded by bringing a cardboard cut out of themselves to the next game, and inverting their likeness on the glass so that they weren’t doing the handstands, only their cardboard selves were.

Don Cherry, Hockey Night in Canada‘s hilarious and outrageous commentator, weighed in between periods in Game six of the Vancouver/Nashville series, with a message to the Green Men: Don’t be mean, keep it clean.

He was referring to the Green Men’s recent gag, bringing a cardboard cutout of Carrie Underwood wearing a Canuck jersey. Underwood is married to a player on Nashville’s team, and they taunted him with the picture when he was in the penalty box. Don felt they crossed the line of acceptable behavior by bringing a player’s wife into their act.

Love them or hate them, they are stirring up controversy and bringing another element to the game that Canadians are already passionate about. They are providing entertainment for the lower bowl and much fodder for the news outfits and local radio shows.

For ardent fans, it begs the question: how much is too much? Are the Green Men taking away from the game, or adding an element of fun?

Christine Fletcher: Modesty Is Everything to this Triathlete

May 9, 2011 6 comments

It’s Motivational Monday, and today I want to tell you about a friend of mine who is charming, thoughtful, intelligent and beautiful. She is passionate about life and throws herself hook line and sinker into her family, business, friendships, and her active life. Christine Fletcher also happens to be a professional triathlete, but she doesn’t exactly wear that on her sleeve.

I met her in my book club, a motley mix of incredible women (I look around the room and wonder how I sandbagged my way in), largely of the sporting persuasion. There is often talk of a race experience, training regiment, or an outdoor adventure. But not from Christine, who more often than not has won a race since our last meeting. We need to pry this information out of her, her modesty is legendary.

This is in stark contrast to myself, who wears my finisher medal for days while doing errands.

Her ability to train 3-4 hours a day, and be so accomplished and recognized in her sport, yet rarely mention this tidbit, is a feat unto itself.

Whereas I ponder the incredible act of will required to complete one Ironman triathlon (just to recap, an ironman is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, followed by a full marathon, 26.2 miles), and then roll over for my afternoon nap, Christine has completed this distance nineteen times in races. Imagine the thousands of training miles she has logged to prepare herself.

I try, but frankly find it difficult to imagine.

If pressed, she will reveal an encyclopedic-like knowledge of anatomy, nutrition, sports-related injuries, and optimal training practices. Knowing her is like having a coach, sports medicine doctor and nutritionist at your fingertips. She is much more forthcoming and willing to share her knowledge, less so with her victories. In the past few months, her off-season, she won the Vancouver Diva on the Run 8 km race, and the Sigge’s 30 km Skate Ski race in Callaghan.

In the last couple of years she has focused on the Half Ironman distance, and success has been rolling her way, finishing on the podium frequently at major events. Last week she was named to the team representing Canada at the Elite Long Distance Triathlon World Championships that will be held in Nevada this fall.

“This sport is a stimulus for challenge. I believe the human body has a limitless potential if trained properly, and love to see how well I can hone this,” she says, when I ask her about her continual dedication to her sport.

A little story to illustrate her passion: I remember I was training for a race when my knee started hurting. To me, this meant I was injured, and I needed to halt my training until it passed. When I mentioned this to Christine, she asked me what I was doing about it. Confused, I said, well, nothing, I’m injured. I told her my symptoms, she diagnosed them instantly and sent me to a chiropractor. After a few sessions of active release therapy I was back on the road.

To many people, pain is a reason to stop. But for athletes like Christine, pain is simply a puzzle that needs to be solved. She just works harder until it’s fixed, whether the answer is massage, stretching, a nutritional change, physiotherapy, active release or rest.

Whereas I would take hundreds of training miles a week as license to eat freely and with abandon, Christine looks at nutrition as the cornerstone of a successful training program. She focuses on a balance diet of protein, carbohydrates, and fats by eating fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, with an emphasis on foods rich in antioxidants. She is a big believer in additives like Udo’s Oil for recovery and stamina, and sips on things like Vega shakes between workouts, an optimal combination of carbohydrates and hemp protein.

She is currently being coached by her long time training partner, friend, and hero, Jasper Blake, a Canadian icon in the triathlon world. He has been focusing on speed, intensity and strength, while integrating rest weeks into her program. As a result, she feels energetic and excited about her upcoming season, which kicks off this month and will culminate in the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in September, and now the Long Distance Triathlon World Championships in November. Both events will be held at Lake Las Vegas, Nevada.

On top of everything she does, she somehow makes time to blog about her race experiences. I particularly love this because it is here, in her blog, where I see the dedication and focus she has for her sport, more so than the odd occasion where we meet for lunch or drinks. She writes poetically about this object of her affection, beloved triathlons. It’s hard for readers not to be equally enamored, even from our armchairs.

Here’s to you, Christine, for motivating me to get out for my workout even when it’s raining, and for teaching us all that modesty is a beautiful thing.

Mothering in Volumes

May 7, 2011 11 comments

How does one say Happy Mother’s Day to a mother who went so far beyond the typical realm of motherhood that she had NINE children?

Here we all are - Mom is feeding me in the background

As the last of the litter and the runt in the pack, I stood to gain a lot from her incredible patience and selfless work.

Constantly in motion, she went about her business and endured the craziness of our household without any frustration. As a mother of only three children, I’m not sure how she accomplished this feat. The noise level alone would be worthy of earplugs.

If she wasn’t in the kitchen she was doing laundry or vacuuming or washing floors. And consider, if you will, having six children under the age of eight, and no such thing as disposable diapers? No dishwasher? No microwave?

With part of the gang at my sister's First Communion

The funny thing is, my siblings and I wonder at her work ethic, but she just shrugs it off, saying it was nothing next to what her mother did. She comes from yet another incredibly strong woman, with thick skin.

My mother was one of fourteen children. She grew up in a small village in Newfoundland, in a small three bedroom house: one bedroom for her parents, one for the girls and one for the boys. They slept on mattresses made of horsehair, three or four to a bed, and long before luxuries like indoor plumbing. I imagine it to be like the fishing village version of Little House on the Prairie. There was a one room school house and lots of chores for everyone. Surviving the frigid North Atlantic winters that lasted into July was a task in itself.

When my mother was thirteen, she was enlisted to help her aunt in Nova Scotia, whose husband had died in the war. The distance between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, in those days, was not easily traveled. This essentially meant leaving behind all that she knew, to help someone she had never met.

Despite how hard this must have been, Mom talks fondly about her Aunt Mary. Childless, she treated my mother like her own, and sent her to nursing school in Halifax when she finished high school. While in training she met my dad, and after graduating got married.

Folklore has it that on the eve of her graduation ball, my mother swung from the chandelier at the Lord Nelson hotel in Halifax, fulfilling a dare she had made to her classmates for years. She was a bit wild and full of fun, that woman.

After a couple of years, my oldest brother was born, and the other eight children followed at regular intervals. Her nursing career was interrupted while she surreptitiously cared for her own ward at home.

I think about this and I’m impressed all over again. Kate Plus Eight has nothing on my mother, who unquestionably just did it all, without giving any of it a second thought.

When I was eleven or twelve my mom went back to work full time as a nurse, and worked her way up to being head nurse, where again her patience and hard work were put to the test. Talk about a life of servitude.

My father died of cancer in 1993, a devastating blow for all of us, and somehow my mom has persevered and continues to inspire us all. For her eightieth birthday seven of us nine children, plus her brother and his wife, celebrated by going on a Caribbean cruise together. We packed a lifetime of fun into those seven days, our motto was rock it till we dock it. And that we did.

Rocking it till we docked it

Happy Mother’s Day, mom, you continue to be our beacon, our guiding light, our inspiration. You are an amazing person and a woman to be reckoned with. But we’re still not sure how you did it.

Who Do You Love?

May 5, 2011 6 comments

I am coming out of the closet, in my own small sense. I was nominated as one of Vancouver’s Top Mom Bloggers for 2011. A very nice nod of approval from VancouverMom.ca. If it’s the equivalent of a peck on the cheek, I’m presenting mine for a lipstick stained kiss.

Otherwise, I was content to keep this between them and me.

But upon further researching last year’s contest, I realized to my horror they show the results of the voting. Keeping this little secret to myself will be a big mistake when I register zero votes, and I look like the equivalent of the kid who gets picked last for Red Rover. Having been there and done that, I really don’t want to revisit my youth.

It’s down to the wire – voting closes tomorrow – so if you would be so kind as to click on this link and cast your vote, I would be forever indebted to you. In fact, I just might give you a Junior Mint the next time I see you.

As you can imagine, if you know me, this act of self-promotion leaves me squeamish and with sweaty palms. But saving myself from embarrassment ranks even higher on my list than asking for help.

It’s not about blogging domination, for which I clearly lack the killer gene. It’s about coming out of this contest with a marginal amount of composure, so that I don’t need to wear a bag over my MothersTonic face when running my errands around Vancouver.

Unlike our federal election, one vote really can make a difference – these are slim margins we’re talking about. Save me from becoming the blogging equivalent of Michael Ignatieff. And I did promise you a Junior Mint.

Like Riding a Bike

May 4, 2011 2 comments

Similar enough, but one is twenty years younger

Life is like riding a bicycle – in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.  ~Albert Einstein

Nothing says midlife crisis louder than a shiny new set of wheels. But in my case, it was a two-wheeled vehicle for which I pined upon hitting forty.

For the record I don’t think it was a midlife crisis. I just really wanted a new bike. It was time.

I watched with envy as cyclists breezed past me, shiny and sleek in their brightly coloured jerseys. I wanted a piece of that action, but my current mode of bike transport was twenty years old.

Looking at its mangled frame floods me with memories of Melrose Place, Desert Storm, cheap beer, and drama.

It had carried me around my university campus and around the streets of Vancouver before I owned a car. It had been run over by my roommate when I had dropped it on our driveway (sorry roomie; I know I was hard on you for that), was rebuilt and continued to roll.

More recently, the stuffing began falling out of the seat, so every year I added a piece of duck tape. Finally, when it was all duck tape and no seat, my husband said, “Really?” as I dusted it off for our family bike ride. I gave in and bought a new seat, but the bike continued to shine in my eyes, all fifty pounds of it. Rusty, but otherwise bright as the day I bought it. A perfect indigo blue with neon pink accents. A mountain bike built before shocks were invented, it was perfect for commuting, not so much for trails or triathlons. It had its limitations.

I loved my old bike, but even I, faithful as I was, recognized its shortcomings.

As my fortieth birthday loomed, there was one thing and one thing only on my list: a new road bike.

To secure my future purchase, I registered for the Granfondo, a bicycle race that starts in Vancouver and ends in Whistler, a 130 km journey with substantial elevation gain. My bright blue Trek was not going to cut the mustard, new seat notwithstanding.

On one of those spanking new road bikes, how hard can it be? They are so light that the mere thought of pedaling propels its slight form a kilometer or so. It’s not like I’m running 130 kilometers. Surely there will be coasting involved.

And so, for the sake of the race and to celebrate my midlife, I bought a carbon road bike. It is featherlight and built up in all the right places – a high performance model. In the small print I spied the words guaranteed to finish the Granfondo in four hours and it was a done deal.

It should be noted, I’m not the first to trade an old model in for a new one at this point in life.