About Kate Barker

I'm a freelance magazine writer, editor and journalism instructor who is going back to school at the age of 45.

On student loans and birthdays

In a few days I turn 45. I don’t have any strong feelings about this birthday, one way or another. As my maternal grandfather, who lived past 90, was fond of saying when his birthday rolled around every February 14, “It beats the alternative.” Point taken, Cyril Valentine. (I’m not joking – that was the man’s name). So yesterday, when the phone rang, I was neither surprised nor disheartened to see it was my bank on the other end, and not a friend calling to arrange a birthday pint or two. I had been half-expecting the bank to call. The bank calls quite regularly, and always about the same niggling thing. The day had come and gone when my student loan payment was due.

I admit it. I have a problem paying my student loan on time, where I have no trouble at all paying Roger’s a ridiculous sum for the privilege of internet and TV service every month, or any other annoying bill that happens my way every 30 days. But the student loan payment sticks in my craw. It’s simple. I can’t believe that at my age, I still have to make student loan payments. That’s it, in a nutshell. It just plain pisses me off. So every second month or so, I play this silly game with the bank. They call, and I ignore the call until they start calling early in the morning. That’s when Kim, awakened by the phone in the wee hours, insists I take the next call. So I do. And the usual blah blah blah …. student loan …. blah blah blah ….. yes I’ll pay it today …. blah blah blah …. any reason why you were late with your payment? It is at this point in the conversation that I have been known to pause, and consider my answer.

Once, I told them that as a freelance writer, I had no choice but to take the same tack with my creditors that so many magazines do when it comes to paying their writers – paying them whenever the hell they felt like it, or, up to a year after invoicing, as is the case with some magazines. That didn’t go over too well. Yesterday, I just sighed, and was about to say, “no special reason,” when it occurred to me that we had to be nearing the end of this charade. “Hey,” I said instead, “I must be getting close to paying this thing off.”

I should bloody well hope so. It’s been hanging over me since journalism school at Ryerson, and I graduated way back in 1999. It was more than a little galling when, three years ago, I started teaching at the same university, and still had student loan payments to make. The bank really had a hard time with me that year. Some of you must be wondering how this could have happened, particularly those of you who place some fiscal value on my two undergraduate degrees, the latest one being the cause of this ongoing student loan fiasco. What can I tell you? No one goes into writing professionally for the money, although those of us who do go into writing professionally should probably also book some professional couch time. Not that many of us can afford it. Last night I was flipping the channels and came across this financial nugget – the starting salary for pro hockey players in Canada is 700 – 800 grand, and the average salary is 1.3 million, with some players earning 7 or 8 million. It seems to me they can afford any after-care required of concussions suffered as a result of beating the crap out of each other in front of their adoring fans, of which I am clearly not one.  But, back to my chosen impoverished profession and the student loan guy on the other end of the phone.

He tapped a few keys and said, “You’re right.” I only had $159.51 left to be considered student loan free. Oh goody. No more annoying phone calls. I thanked him, promising to pay the full amount owed that day. And it wasn’t a lie. I did it. Just in time to be going back to school again. This time, I hope to avoid student loans given my scholarship, income from being a GA, teaching one Ryerson class in both the fall and winter terms, and anything else I have the time to wrangle, work-wise, while I’m hitting the books. It will also be nice to turn 45 without having a student loan. Then I read this little charmer in the Star this morning: Why people face an increased risk of dying on their birthday. 

Happy birthday to me.


A BBQ, Mel, and why I love Toronto

Our BBQ has had it. Not that it owed us anything. Ten years ago we bought it for $120, assembly included. I had learned the hard way with our first BBQ, an el cheapo Grillrite that I paid about 60 bucks for — sweet. That is, until we got it to our old townhouse and started assembling the sucker after a few beers at about 3 p.m. By 8:30, I was gnawing my own arm off from hunger and ready to toss the SOB off our balcony. We never did get it put together the way the indecipherable instructions indicated. We had planned on steak that night. In the end, I think we had cold hot dogs.

Now, I loved my old BBQ. It wasn’t fancy, though it had a green lid, which I thought made it a bit special. I cooked many a meal for friends on that grill, with a few spectacular disasters. (The calcified remains of a particularly gooey chicken marinade comes immediately to mind. And the time I forgot it, after a few too many white wines, and we were seconds away from having to call the fire department before Kim heroically did something to put out the flames. The blackened lid was forever after a reminder to grill sober). I had replaced its guts twice. I didn’t even mind when its grill rusted out toward the end of last summer and the retrofit version didn’t quite fit. The front end of the grill was elevated a good inch higher than the back.  No problem, I thought. Kim likes her steaks medium while I prefer mine passed through a warm room. I cooked mine far from the flame and Kim’s close to the action. They were done at the same time. I thought that was cool. But Kim said it was time for a new grill, and I love to shop. So Mel, who was visiting this weekend, got roped into coming with me to Lowe’s. (We left Kim happily at home.) I’d seen the flyer, and spotted a deal. Besides, it would be nice to have a new BBQ in time for my birthday next weekend.

For a second it looked like we would make record time. Lowe’s, unlike Home Depot, actually has staff on hand to help you. Mr. BBQ instantly steered us to the grill I wanted, neatly talked me into $20 extra for a custom BBQ cover and had the box loaded for us on a dolly all inside of 10 minutes. That’s how I like to shop. In and out, done. I paid, wheeled it out to the car, and, since poor Mel was useless today with a sore back, had a Lowe’s guy named Sujan waiting to help me stuff the box into my car.

But the box wouldn’t stuff, despite Sujan’s manly efforts and my un-spacial suggestions. Mel wisely procured a tape measure. It was never going to fit, either in the backseat, or the trunk of my Mazda 3. This wasn’t the first time I missed my old truck. I had opted to get the thing home unassembled, despite past experience, because I was assured assembly isn’t the pain in the ass that it used to be, and also, frankly, because I didn’t want to wait and pick it up another day. Now I was stymied by the proportions of my rather sexy but somewhat impractical car. Damn. But hey – how much could delivery be?

75 bucks. Ouch. (Assembly, btw – free.) So much for the deal. On sale, the BBQ was $158.  You can see why I was unimpressed with the situation. Enter the good Samaritans.

Imagine standing in a stinking hot parking lot at Lowe’s on a Sunday just before noon. Can you think of any other place you’d rather be? Right, just about anywhere else. A couple had been perusing the BBQ aisle, and I’d offered them my flyer, since I didn’t need it anymore. That was the full extent of our interactions before this moment in the parking lot.

“My husband says we can help you out.”

“Pardon me?”

“With your BBQ. We have a van. We can deliver it for you.”

I was gobsmacked by the generosity, and the Brit in me instantly declined. Thanks so much, but no, that’s too kind, etc. etc. We don’t live near here. But she was serious.

“Where do you live?” So, I told her. It was a good 20 minutes away. “Hold on,” she said. And went to consult with her husband. Two seconds later she was back. “No problem. He’s happy to do it. Because there’s no way you girls are getting that into your car, and the delivery charges are crazy.”

I couldn’t argue with that. But I couldn’t ask them to do it for nothing. “So throw him a few bucks for gas,” she suggested. Good idea. Done. And thanks so much.

Mel was very quiet during this exchange. It all came down to a basic  difference in our personalities. As Mel said later, “I’m naturally suspicious.” Mel worried that they were conning me. That didn’t even occur to me, until Mel suggested perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to let complete strangers load a brand new BBQ into their van and drive off with it. I know that Mel had a point, but I thought no, there is no reason not to trust these extraordinarily generous people. So Mel bit her lip. People have complicated, busy lives. Driving out of your way for complete strangers is going to screw up anyone’s Sunday. It turns out that Leanne (we had finally shared names) had arranged to meet  a friend at a paint store not far away. After making a call, it was clear that she would miss her friend, who was doubtless enroute to said paint store. So, we could either split up, and meet at my house after the paint store meeting, or… I said we’d be happy to follow them to the paint store and wait. I’m not a complete idiot, and Mel’s wariness had by then rubbed off a bit on me.

I guess Leanne just likes to do decent things for people. She gets a 50% employee discount at the paint shop, so we watched while her friend happily  loaded up with a ton of paint and accessories and saved a bundle. Then I led the way home. Matthew then helped me carry the BBQ box to our back yard, where we surprised the hell out of Kim and then all sat down together and had a get-to-know-each-other visit over beers. It turns out that Leanne loves to garden, so Kim gave her the tour and sent her home with some plants.

Who says  Toronto is  cold and anonymous? I love this city.

And the guy at Lowe’s didn’t lie; assembly was  a synch.


First swim

I’ve been itching to get into the water again at Cherry Beach, ever since my swimming buddy Amanda let me know weeks ago that the water was a balmy 18 C – about as warm as it ever got all last summer. Bronchitis scuppered any plans to join her shoreside, until this morning. 

Before 8, I was in the car, singing en route to Cherry Beach. I rarely sing. I can’t sing. I was just so damned happy to be going swimming again. Kim Lumsden was on the beach with a pod of triathletes in their wetsuits, waiting for her to put them through their paces. I was chuffed when she introduced me as someone she trains with – and as someone who swam Alcatraz without a wetsuit. Ok, I’ll admit it. I was dead proud to be introduced as a swimmer by one of the coolest swimmers ever. Kim has swum across Lake Ontario. Twice. The first time was when she was 19 and only the 11th person in the world to accomplish the feat, and the last time was in 2006, when she was 49 and, at the time, the oldest person to have swum the lake. An interesting aside, there have only been 56 officially recognized solo swims of Lake Ontario, and only about 50 swimmers, given super-stars who did it more than once, like Kim. She tells me that there are 10 swimmers hoping to swim Lake Ontario or Lake Erie this summer. Good luck to them.

Amanda arrived and we left Kim’s pod for own little adventure. The water felt more like 15 than 18. It certainly wasn’t horribly cold. There was no face-sting factor, which tells me when to be mindful of hypothermia, and no chop. It was perfectly comfortable (once you’re in, that is). We struck out for the gap and took a moment to enjoy the view of the CN Tower from that unique vantage point. Then we swam back to the lifeguard dock, and headed east, close to the shore, to the point. On the way back, we opted for a more direct route. Total water time was about an hour and five minutes, and about 2.5 km.

This summer, we hope to swim across to the Leslie Spit early one morning with a few more swimmers, for safety. Maybe we’ll swim to the island again this year. We just have to watch out for the pesky harbour patrol and kite boarders on windy days. Can’t wait.



It’s been 68 years since Operation Overlord. Yesterday, I thought it fitting to re-read Ted Barris’s Juno. I had forgotten how good it was.

I had forgotten details like, on the night of June 5, a BBC newscast was interrupted with reports containing the phrases “Eileen is married to Jo….It is hot in Suez….The compass points north….The dice are on the table.” Those words signalled the French Resistance to start blowing up specific infrastructure targets because the invasion was imminent.

I had forgotten that some Canadians had unusual and dangerous jobs to do leading up to D-Day, like the brave souls manning two X-Craft midget submarines off the coast of France, waiting to guide the first landing craft to the beach. The weather delay meant the five men in each vessel risked asphyxiation.

I had forgotten the grim detail of how many Canadian mothers lost more than one son: nine pairs of brothers and three brothers from one family, The Westlakes, were all killed in the Normandy campaign.

I had forgotten.



Ode to a Former Naval Person

One summer, a few years ago, I decided to read all six volumes of Churchill’s take on WWII. Why, is what most people want to know. I’m not sure. I like to set myself epic tasks. I think I had just read War and Peace and was feeling smug. Anyway, I spent many, many hours in the garden with one of these thick, red-linen bound, first run books at my side. And I got through them all, from The Gathering Storm to Triumph and Tragedy. I knew then that as far as history goes, I had to take in quite a bit of these 1948 – 1953 tomes with the salt shaker on hand. Case in point:

Winston Churchill began his career as a journalist in the South African War where he was a special correspondent to The Morning Post. I use the term journalist loosely. Churchill was never prone to letting the facts get in the way of a good story. In his autobiography My Early Life, he claims to have been a witness to one of the most famous handshakes of the era, between Sir George White and Lt.-Col Hubert Gough after he rode in with troops to relieve Ladysmith in 1900.

“[We] galloped across the scrub-dotted plain, fired at only by a couple of Boer guns. Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome. On we pressed, and at the end of a battered street of tin-roofed houses met Sir George White on horse-back, faultlessly attired. Then we rode all together into the long beleaguered, almost starved-out Ladysmith.”  In fact, Churchill was miles away, and didn’t arrive in Ladysmith until the evening. (A delightful Churchillian tid-bit I learned from reading Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War.)

This doesn’t make me admire Churchill any less, although, as someone who teaches journalism students the importance of fact checking and telling the truth, it should. But this is Churchill. For me, he was always larger than life. I had long been fascinated by The First Lord of the Admiralty who signed his letters to FDR ‘Former Naval Person,’ and who delighted in writing KBO to the wartime president of the United States. (Keep Buggering On).


And like everyone, I’m still moved by Churchill’s speeches – particularly his famous address to parliament, thanking the RAF during the Battle of Britain, delivered at a time when England was bracing for possible invasion without American support. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few

He did so much in his long life, certainly not all of it good. This was the man who, as First Lord of the Admiralty,  was responsible for the decimation of Anzac troops at  Gallipoli in 1915, a disaster than nearly cost him his political career. He was widely considered to be an eccentric old fart for calling on re-armament in the post WWI years. Always a prolific writer, then painter, who probably suffered from depression ( he referred to it as The Black Dog), he was such a wonderful contradiction. I think that’s what I find most compelling about him.

The ashtray, incidentally, was given to me by my Aunt Rene, who proudly served in WWII in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and who knows, first-hand, a hell of a lot more about Churchill than I do. I treasure the ashtray, and smile to think that at one time, people crushed out their butts into his Keep Buggering On smile.

Course selection time

It seems that I have until June 1 to sort myself out in this regard before the online bun-fight begins. Let’s hope all 30-plus of my fellow gradual students in history aren’t dead-set on taking the following courses:

Modern Cultural History — I have high hopes for this one. It seems like something that the inimitable Prof. Geoff Smith from Queen’s would love. (Geoff was kind enough to write me references for gradual school. Thanks Geoff. I still owe you that pint.) Here’s the course outline, if anyone is keen.

I need to take another year-long course, and was so hoping to dive into Modern European Cultural History: War & Peace in the 20th Century, but sadly, it isn’t offered next year. It would have been perfect background for my thesis (something to do with Canadian war correspondents). Oh well. I opted for this instead: Europe: 1815 – 1945. I’m glad I recently read Stephan Talty’s  The Illustrious Dead, a grim and fascinating take on what took down Napolean’s army on its ill-fated traipse through Russia. My favourite bit — a detail about how survivors stacked their comrades’ bodies like cordwood to stop the winter wind from blowing in.

Two half courses plus my thesis will fill out my course work. For something completely different, I’m going with Low Law and Petty Justice. I do hope to learn all about when the British obsession with property rights  began (death by hanging for theft of a loaf of bread and all that lovely stuff). That’s in the fall term. In winter, I thought I’d round out my Canadian content with State and Society in Canada: 1945 – present.

Now I just have to get the okay from the university, pay up, and register for the courses. Oh, and read. A lot. Right now I’m burning through The Damned by Nathan Greenfield, about the Canadians at the Battle of Hong Kong and as POWs. Chilling stuff.


Wonder women

This clip says it all. Way to go, Mel. She did it – 100 miles in 27 hours and 20 minutes, roughly. The official results aren’t yet posted. Tina kicked ass too, covering more than 120 km before her metatarsals gave out. She wisely stopped before doing herself permanent damage.

Here they are, admiring Mel’s new 100-miler belt buckle (it’s the same as Tina’s). I don’t aspire to one. I’m quite happy where I am, a mere mortal when it comes to trail running. And yes, I did make it after all. It wasn’t pretty, and it certainly wasn’t speedy, but I did cross the 25 km  finishline (dead last, I’m sure) in four hours and 19 minutes. Mission accomplished. I’m so proud of Mel I could burst. 

Bad timing

Tomorrow is the big day. The big run. The thing I’ve been training for quite seriously since early January, beginning with an 8 km snowshoe trek up the side of a mountain in minus 30 degree weather. (That was fun…) My last run was on Sunday, a lovely if somewhat sticky mid-morning jaunt to the end of the Leslie Spit. I decided to forego a run early this week, as I figured that helping Kim schlep pottery all weekend counted towards some sort of workout. No problem, I thought. I’m ready for this.I’ve even run the distance once before. I know I can do it. I’m pumped.

And I’m sick. Here’s a picture of me taken at the show on the weekend,  slogging through the last bits of Granatstein’s history of the Canadian Army and rather enjoying it, while unknowingly incubating a virus. There were a lot of sneezy, coughing people at the Distillery this weekend. (I’d like to blame Prince Charles, but he came by a day later.)

Yesterday morning, Kim mentioned that I wouldn’t stop coughing and asked if perhaps I needed my ventolin.  I hadn’t noticed. So I took my puffer, mainly to appease her, and continued coughing. About 12 hours and  many puffs later, I was drinking black coffee in a steamy shower hoping my lungs would cooperate because I didn’t much relish a trip to emerg. The coffee and steam did the trick. And in the middle of the night, it became apparent that the asthma episode had been kicked off not by poor Toronto air quality, but  by a cold. What a pisser.

Now, I understand that there are more important things, that I shouldn’t whine, that I’m not really sick, and that I should be thankful because god knows there are plenty of people who wish they only had a cold and were missing a stupid race. I know. You’re right. But I’m not feeling very magnanimous right now.

It reminds me of when I was a kid, and I’d always get sick before big, exciting events. Like the time when I was 15 and I landed an acting gig on that old ’80s sitcom Hangin In. When it was time to film, I came down with a wicked case of strep throat. I am still hoping to go tomorrow, see how I feel, and give it a whirl, if possible. After all, if I could film four days with a fever and the feeling of having swallowed razor blades, I should be able to run for a few hours with a cold. That is, if my lungs and Kim let me.


I’m a writer, editor, and, most recently, have added university instructor to the list of things I do for money.

Kim and me, on another adventure

It didn’t take long to figure out that I love teaching, so I’m taking the next step and getting my master’s degree. Inspired by John Irving’s term for grad school in The World According to Garp (a place where you gradually learn you don’t want to be a student any more) I decided to keep track of my experiences  in the history program at Toronto’s York University. When I start in September 2012, I’ll be 45.

Along the way, I fully expect to lose my mind and my glasses on a regular basis. In the interests of maintaining sanity, I hope to continue with my strange athletic pursuits: running my first 25 km trail race, looking for another epic swim adventure and who knows what other crazy, ill-conceived test of my questionable mettle.

Join me and my long-suffering wife Kim Henderson, who will no doubt put up with my latest misadventure with her usual good humour, grace and endless patience. I certainly couldn’t do any of this without her.

Enjoy the ride.

Kate Barker

10 day countdown

The three amigas training at Albion Hills

In 10 days, I run a 25 km trail race at Sulphur Springs. Let’s be clear: I’m a swimmer, not a runner. I am not a natural land animal, and would much rather bob along in freezing water than lug my guts across an arid, rocky course. I blame my friend Mel, the one on the right, who will be tackling the 100-mile race that day (at least 24 hours of solid running) and Tina, on the left, who completed the 100-miler last year and is going for it again. I am in awe of both of them, but I still blame Mel for talking me into this. Years ago I ran (not well) and enjoyed it, but that was in high school. I have no illusions about this — I won’t mind coming in last. At least, that’s what I tell myself. (Kim raises an eyebrow at that one. After 15 years of living with me, I guess she’d know.) The point is, I decided to take Paula’s advice and run a “fast” 10 km, 10 days before the race, in order to improve my performance at the big event. Paula is a runner extraordinaire, who routinely makes the podium and does super-woman feats, like qualify for the Boston Marathon. Paula will be there too, running the 25 km with me. (When I say with me, I mean she will be a flash of fast-drying fabric at the starting line, as she whips past me to join the lead pack.) Since today is the magic 10 day marker, I decided what the hell, I need all the help I can get. This morning I ran my “fast” 10 km  at the Beaches and was shocked to find my time shaved by nine minutes. Either I got the start time wrong, which is entirely possible, or I have literally been dragging my ass since training began in January, which is entirely probable. Hell, Paula can probably run 10 km in nine minutes. At any rate, according to Paula’s math, I’m as good as I can hope to get before the race. And while I am looking forward to the run, and especially to cheering on Mel and Tina, I am more impatient for Lake Ontario to warm up so I can start swimming again. I’m toying with the idea of going for the 10 km open water race in Welland this August.  I’m not really sure why.