the LAC

On a recent road trip, Dave and I visited the LAC. Sounds like an exciting open water swim destination, but, in fact, it stands for the Library and Archives of Canada. Fun, in a different sort of way for a couple of gradual students in History.

20130616-154208.jpg It’s an impressive building, all marble inside with a heavy security presence – who are all very friendly. What was more impressive was how close Dave managed to get us some fantastic digs near the archives. We stayed at the Albert on Bay which is literally a stone’s throw away. The hotel was far swankier than many of the dumps Kim has taken me to over the years. (Most recently, the fleabag motel we stayed in for last summer’s Barrie show, where I refused to take off all my clothes for fear of catching something nasty, comes instantly to mind.) Too bad I don’t have a picture of that place. Instead, here’s a shot of Dave, with a pre-archival beer in our fancy-ass hotel room before we set off to the Lac.

20130616-154700.jpg It was a most productive visit for me. The fact that it poured rain the whole time only added to the experience. (It’s not like we were wishing we were anywhere else.) I got to examine the personal papers of three different war correspondents while Dave acquired the services of an archivist to help him crack into some CSIS documents from the 1930s. CSIS makes it almost impossible for anyone to do any research about them in any time period, it would seem. Big surprise. The files are there, but the finding aid is kept top secret. Nice trick. Anyway, Dave did make some headway with the helpful staff while I was blown away by the view and the fact that the reading room is open until 11 p.m. Now I just have to write my MRP (that’s Major Research Paper in silly academic lingo.) I had best get started on that…


The List

I handed in my last paper to complete the course work for my masters on May 2. Since then, Kim has put me to work on The List. By work, I mean hard, physical labour that leaves us both exhausted and wishing for nine o’clock to roll around so we can call it a day and go to sleep. Last night I was even too tired to watch Mad Men.

Sad, really.

I had no idea this was her master plan when I set off to the reference library in late April and returned to mayhem. Kim had begun on a sub-section of Job One on The List—Paint the House. She had ripped out the front porch deck and privacy wall. “That’s great,” I thought. “What a good idea.” I knew we were going to paint the front of the house this spring. Neither one of us ever liked the colours we chose 13 years ago, but we couldn’t face the job again. Until now. I also knew there would be a lot of prep involved. I just hadn’t envisioned quite how much. In the meantime, Kim also began a project in the back, raising an interlocking brick pathway so that it wouldn’t be submerged in spring. In order to do that, she reasoned, she needed to get to the sand under our front porch. And in order to access the sand, we had to unearth the 14 years of scrap wood we’d stashed there. That was one trip to the dump in a rented van. There would be more. The picture doesn’t do justice to the Everest of crap we sent to the tip. Kim then muled at least 10 buckets of sand out from under the front porch to the back. I was still blissfully unable to help much, working on a 20+ page paper on the importance of the Toronto Bath raids to the gay rights movement. Lucky me. Kim endured spider bites and all things icky that lurk under porches. She pretty much built the sucker on her own.

Then she decided the limestone in the back garden also needed a lift. That required gravel, and lots of it. By then, my paper was done and I was on call. There were 14 bags of gravel in total. Thankfully, we have a dolly. “No problem,” I thought. And even, “This is kind of fun!” as I emerged from my academic lair, a pale and podgy thing, blinking into the light. Mel joked that after my year buried in books, I shouldn’t stand too close to an open window or I’d burn up. She wasn’t far off. Helping move gravel was strangely satisfying. I looked forward to the next job—power washing. It’s addictive. We power washed everything, all day long. An old orchard ladder even got  blasted. As you can see, I was quite happy to be power washing, in my Home Depot swag. It was still early days.

Moving on, or more accurately, up. Years ago, when we put deck boards on the balcony we never use, we neglected to factor in the effects of maple keys and leaves. They fell between the boards, and over time, formed a layer of deck-rotting humus. Time to pull them all up, clear out the guck, and re-secure the boards with no gaps in between. Sounds easy, right? Only we couldn’t just whir up the new power drill and effortlessly whiz out the screws, because I had stripped so many of them during installation. Out came the crowbar and much grunting and cursing from me. (I sounded like a character from Deadwood.)  And then, we had to re-cut the boards that fit around the house because the angles all changed after we closed the gaps. (Geometry was never my strong suit). Also, we installed heavy planters after we built the deck, so out came the circular saw. Kim cut the boards in order to lift them there. In short, this job was a bitch. It took us all day, and we still haven’t finished.  We bought some sheet metal to fit under the planters but haven’t quite got around to it yet. Here’s the precipitous view from the edge of our never-used balcony. The railing still needs to be reconstructed, but it can bloody-well wait until after we paint.

Speaking of paint, the job that began it all—it turns out the dark green we found so enchanting in 2000 is now outlawed by the environmental powers that be. In order to get any kind of paint to stick to it, we have to sand it all down. Another day-long task to look forward to. Somewhere in there, we also built the privacy wall in the front and in so doing, entombed an electrical cord used for Christmas lights. Kim says we’ll rescue it, but I’m calling it a goner. Because by now, clearly, I’m fed up with all of this HGTV bullshit.

“Will this ever end?” is what I sincerely wanted to know at the beginning of the long weekend. Kim answered the way I knew she would. “We’re getting there.”

We still had “build fence” on The List. The neighbour put one up and we told him we’d do our section ourselves, to save Kim’s beloved plants from his guy who was clueless about stomping living things into green sludge. That was two years ago. It was time. Kim ripped down the existing section of listing old pressure-treated while I sulked.

I pulled this out of the ground. It was heavy.

I did help. I even managed to heave this great hulking beast of a concrete footing out of the ground. I don’t think I ruptured anything, which is a small miracle. Once the hole was dug, we mixed cement. I have early memories of helping my father mix cement. They aren’t particularly fond memories. But the post was in by late Saturday afternoon. Then, Kim promised, came the fun part.

The fun part took all day yesterday, from the moment it was decent to swing a hammer on a Sunday morning until about 7, when I was more than a little bit cranky. But we are, as Kim would say, “getting there.” We still have to recycle the former fence into privacy screens in the back and put up a few finishing touches (nothing is open today—thank god.)  It’s also  frustrating that 75% of the hard work we’ve done is imperceptible. Who can tell when a crawl space is cleared out, walkways are raised or deck boards on a never-used balcony have been refitted? Still, there has been some payoff. The wisteria flowered through it all, for the first time since Kim planted it 13 years ago, and the quince survived the construction as well. But we still have to cross off the first item on The List—Paint the House. That’s next weekend.

Piled High and Deep

So, it seems I’m a glutton for punishment. I’ve been accepted into the PhD program in History at York University. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. I’ve known for a while now. The news came the day we picked up our new kittens from a shelter on Feb.19.

Winston and Clementine - day one

Winston and Clementine were just under eight weeks old then. (Can you tell I got to name them?) Now they are rambunctious four-month old terrors and I’m still grappling with one last essay for my Masters course work while fretting over meeting with my Masters thesis advisor on Monday. So, I decided to blog instead of working on any of these things. I’m letting myself slip. I’ve earned it. My time management skills have been stellar all year long. By time management, I mean that I spent every waking minute working. Pretty much, that’s how I did it. That, and I have an awesome wife. Oh yeah — and I write fast. I may read at the leaden pace of a dyslexic Grade 4 student, but I’m speedy at the keyboard.That rather helps — being a writer and all. So, if nothing else I will breathe life back into this blog over the coming months as I enter a time-honoured tradition of gradual students everywhere — thesis avoidance. Speaking of which, here’s another nauseatingly cute picture of my kittens.

hanging out

In case you thought I’d died…

From the second foor of Vari Hall, outside the History Department at York (that my classrooms were so swanky!)

Okay, I’m a crappy blogger. Or, put another way, perhaps I’m not such a crappy grad student. I’ve been too busy to keep this up. But I may, in this moment, be having a psychotic break. That I am choosing to finally post an update on my back-to-school blog right when everything in my tiny ivory tower is either coming due or crumbling down, indicates one of two possibilities. I am either uber organized and, unfazed, am sailing serenely through it all, or I’m experiencing a profound just-fuckit moment. Let’s go with the later, because if you apply the principle of Occam’s Razor, it certainly fits.

This is pretty much what I look like all the time now. Badly dressed, confused, out of focus and constantly reading. Also, I need a haircut.

But in an odd way, I’m having fun. I’ve met some fabulous people. My friend Dave is amazing. I’ll tell you more about Dave in another post. And Karen Dancy, in the Grad History office is a total life-saver. She’s helped me out tremendously. I call her the hub. Here she is.

Karen a.k.a the Hub




Over-stretching my brain is not unlike training my plus-sized body to do ridiculous feats, like hobble down a trail for 25 km with a cold, or swim for four hours straight.  And once again, I’ve discovered that being as stubborn as a pit bull with a bone isn’t necessarily a negative quality. I’ve also discovered that being an old scholar is not unlike being a fat athlete. In both cases, people just don’t see you coming.

I’ve had this experience several times as I huff along a trail. “Good for you!” This, always from the conspicuously thin in their colour-coordinated lycra. They say this to me as though they were speaking to a child who has achieved the miracle of a finger painting,  or a creaky old dog that manages still to beg on command. I hold my tongue. I even smile. I should tell them to go to hell, but I’m not that brave. I think it makes them feel simultaneously superior and magnanimous. They get to puff up their scrawny little chests like stringy roosters and encourage me, or, more accurately, encourage the person they think I am; a fatty who finally got off the couch. They would never guess that I’m a bonafide trail runner, and wouldn’t believe I can swim 10 km. I don’t let them bother me. I tell myself that they are dicks, even if I am jealous of their outfits (no one makes flashy women’s running clothes for anyone thicker than a stick).

I’ve encountered a similar dickishness in my latent academic pursuits. “You’re a student?” is guffawed, usually with no attempt to cover their obvious shock that such an old git could be hitting the books. The person continues to stare at me like I’ve sprouted Vulcan ears. (A geeky aside: If I have to bear being looked at like I’m wearing a homemade Star Trek outfit, I’d prefer to be seen as Bajoran. I always thought Ro Laren was hot.) I tried not to let these comments bother me either. But I confess, at first, they did. I wondered if I was really capable, if, perhaps, I was too old, and that maybe, I just wasn’t up to the job.

I was wrong. It’s tough, but I’m actually doing really well. I’m even considering applying next month to do my PhD. So I don’t let the funny looks bother me anymore. I just smile, think ‘dick,’ and pick up another book. Now, if I could only find the time to get back in the pool or hit a trail.


Bunny in the headlights

Jen, David and their 'congrats on being in grad school' gift

There’s a reason it’s taken me more than two weeks to write a single word about being a gradual student. I think a friend and colleague said it best in a recent email. “I found that grad school sometimes made me wonder how I had got out of high school.” And this from someone whom I classify as scary smart.

Her email made me feel a lot better. I needed to feel better. If it wasn’t for my stellar cardio-vascular conditioning at the moment due to excessive swimming, I’d be in danger of keeling over from heart failure. I’m sure of it. I’ve been that tense.

Most of my stress boils down to simple math. The amount of reading expected is exponentially higher than the ability of any mortal to complete, understand, and discuss intelligently. Keep in mind that the mortal in question in now 45. While my work at Ryerson makes me more confident in an academic environment, it has still been 13 years since I was on the other side of the desk. This is going to take some getting used to. Throw into the mix a few complications, and you’ll see why I’ve been a bit of a wreck for the past few weeks.

My negative sense of direction is epic. I can’t read a map and am incapable of reversing written directions. I don’t know why. I just know that this spacial deficiency doesn’t get any better with age. I think it gets worse. I got lost at least four times in my first week—the first time in sheeting rain, trying to retrace my steps back to the car. I needed to find my car, because I was scheduled to teach my first class at Ryerson, and though I thought I had left in plenty of time, the misplacement of the car coupled with the fact that people forget how to drive in the rain, resulted in a Def-Con 4 level panic. I was rescued by a lovely young woman who pointed me in the right direction. I just made it to my Ryerson class on time, though I was a little damp. Since then, there have been several instances when I had to pull over, whip out the cell phone and ask Kim where in hell I was. Once, I turned left on Finch instead of right, finally realizing something was amiss when I passed Bathurst and still there was no sign of the ramp to the 400 south. Oops. Kim got me home via Yonge to the 404. But that shouldn’t happen any more. Like a horse, once I learn my way home, I can generally get there. I just need a few practice runs.

Did I say run? Walk more like. Better yet, crawl is a more apt descriptor of the 401 westbound from Toronto anytime, any day. Really. On day two, I left the house at 6:30 a.m. Plenty of time to get to the York pool by 7:30. Nope. That week I was reading about the theory of relativity in Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space. Great book. It made me think that the 401 westbound is in its own space-time continuum. You never appear to move, but eventually, you somehow get to where you are headed. In this case, it took more than an hour. I managed to get a few lengths in the pool, and wondered about a transportation Plan B. (No, not the TTC.) Years ago I realized that if I needed to get anywhere in Toronto by a specific time, I shouldn’t rely on the TTC. So I don’t. And since I can’t read on a bus, any time spent on the TTC is wasted. I’d rather waste it in my car with my own music, thanks. Plan B involved the 407. I now have a transponder to add to my parking at York costs. I opted for the cheapest parking, by the way. It’s a $10 lot hell and gone from my classes, but at least it’s not too far from the pool. I figure I can beat off sexual predators with my snow scraper. I’d rather pay the roughly $600 a year and freeze my ass in winter than shell out the $1,000-plus for the privilege of garage parking closer to class.

After the whirlwind of week one, Jen and David came over for dinner. Kelly, who so kindly put us up in Port Stanley this summer, was also here doing the Cabbagetown arts festival.

Dinner after week 1

Jen and David gave me a framed map of Canada in 1763 and 1783 that came from an old history text. I love it. It will hang in my office, where I can appreciate it while I’m banging out academic papers and hopefully not tearing out my own hair. So far, I’m up to date on my readings but have yet to begin my GA work, researching any papers or even thinking about my thesis. But hey, at least I’ve finally figured out how to get home from class.


Two milestones in one weekend


On Saturday morning, Kim and I met Amanda here, at Cherry Beach, this summer’s primary training spot. It was a perfect day for a swim, but we didn’t. We were road tripping to Welland for the thing we have been working so hard towards all season: the Masters Swimming Ontario and Swim Ontario’s Open Water Provincial Championships 10 km race. We were supposed to take it easy, which wasn’t hard since is was also Mel’s 50th birthday on Saturday. Mel invited all of us to Tina’s new place in St. Catharines to help her celebrate.

I was born in St. Kitts, and when I’m there, we try to stop in and see my Aunt Rene who celebrated her 92nd birthday in February, though she’d probably be hopping mad if she knew I announced that fact in a blog. So the three of us had a visit with Rene, who was keen to hear about the swim and wished us luck. She used to enjoy swimming in the sea near Chatham, Kent, which just proves what I’ve always said about Rene; she’s way tougher than me.

Mel’s party was well underway when we arrived at her place a few hours later. Tina and Jodi put out an amazing all-local spread that included smelts, perch, and Niagara produce. Lori, Jackie and her partner Ann rounded out the group. After noshing, we all headed out for a unique birthday event: Roller derby.

I would never have described Mel, the ultra runner, as fragile or delicate, until I saw her happily sandwiched between two champion roller babes. They could crush her like a bug. Way to go, Mel. Needless to say, I had to behave myself and couldn’t have quite as much fun as the birthday girl clearly did. But I did get to drink a couple of beer and relax, with every need I could possibly have taken care of by Tina, a.k.a. hostess of the year.

Our host and ultra runner extraordinaire: Tina

Amanda and I tried not to think too much about the swim, but that was impossible. I did manage to get some sleep, but Amanda was too keyed up to get any. So early on the morning of August 19, we woke up to freshly brewed coffee, a continental spread courtesy of super-hostess, and a set of nerves so wrangled that I’m surprised the nervous energy vibrating between the two of us didn’t wake up the whole house. We set off with Kim to the race.

As this was also the site of the FINA world junior open water championships, the event was more official than anything I’ve taken part in before. All athletes had to have

Amanda getting her timing chip

ID badges and pass through security to enter the starting area. There was even a tent marked “Doping.” It was a little intimidating. After getting inked (I was number 77) and fitted with our timing devices, we listened to the pre-race instructions, when I learned that I could not wear my watch. That threw me. Okay, it more than threw me. I was in a panic.

Before I knew I had to ditch the watch


My goal was four hours, but I feared it might take me 4:15, and the race cutoff time was 4:30. Without my watch, how would I know if I was going to make it or not? What if I got pulled? How awful would that be? These were my troubling thoughts as we made our way to the starting gate.

The atmosphere on the dock where only 19 swimmers were getting ready for the 10 km was tense to say the least. Nobody knew what time it was, not even the security detail watching over us. Predictably, I was stricken with a sudden urge to pee, but didn’t go to the loo for fear of missing the start time. It was a good call, because suddenly we were told to get into the water and had our hands on the dock waiting for the air horn. In the end, we barely had a second to get ourselves together. I just managed to turn to my left and squeak out a ‘good luck’ to Amanda before the horn sounded.

The route was a circuit – specifically, four loops of 2.5 km. I couldn’t clearly make out the orange buoys from one end to the other. Psychologically, that’s a bit difficult. For the first half loop, I just tried to do what I usually do – stay to the right of Amanda’s wake and find a rhythm. This time, I had Adele in my head and thankfully not Frere Jacques, which Mel gleefully tried to insert as an ear-worm the night before. Amanda pulled ahead of me, as I knew she would, by the last third of the first half loop. Then I knew I was on my own. At least, I thought I was on my own.

In my mind, I looked forward to the halfway mark that would come after two loops, or 5 km. To date, that’s the longest race I have ever swum, so if I wanted to bail after that point, I rationalized, then no harm no foul. Also, I knew then I could pause at the feeding dock and try to down some Gatorade. Historically, food always works as motivation for me – even gels and Gatorade, apparently. And maybe, just maybe by then, I could relax enough to finally pee because I still had to go, quite desperately. It took a long time, but at the halfway point, I was actually feeling pretty good. I had to concentrate so much first on finding the dock and grabbing the Gatorade from the volunteer without touching her or the dock (which would mean disqualification) then on actually getting the Gatorade into me by flipping onto my back and being an otter for a few seconds, that there was no time at all to relax let alone unclench. (Read bladder still full). I didn’t realize that Kim was there filming it. She was there the whole time, walking beside me up and down the embankment, for the entire race. I was never alone, not even for a second.

After a few pulls of Gatorade,  I was gone, striking out for the end of lap two to do it all over again. The sugar rush didn’t last long. Working towards 2.5 loops was hard. By then, I’d been lapped by the fastest 10 k-ers, and had been swamped a few times by the speedy 5 km racers who hit the water half an hour after us. I was feeling old and slow and wondering if I’d even make the cutoff time when I rounded the far end buoys marking the end of 2.5 laps. Then I saw them.

Right there, at the far end of the course, in a screaming yellow canoe, floating amidst all the officials and lifeguards and uptight FINA types were, from bow to stern, Lori, Mel and Tina. I couldn’t believe that they managed to sweet-talk their way onto the course, but they did. I was the only one with a cheering flotilla. As I swam

My race from the perspective of Tina, Lori and Mel in the canoe

that long length back to the feeding station to end lap three and start the last leg, they paddled with me. Although I couldn’t see them for most of the last lap because they were to my right, I certainly felt them there. Kim also gave me a huge pick-me-up at the feeding dock as I was finishing lap three. She told me my time was good, that I was under three hours at that point. That was a huge relief because I had no idea how I was doing.  After three, I knew I’d make it. There was no question. And Kim filmed my finish. Here it is. 10 km finish

Pretty bloody proud of ourselves

Amanda’s time was fantastic: 3:29, making her first in our age category. And I was 19 minutes behind her, at 3:48:08.5, coming in second. My first objective once I crossed the finish line, realized my legs would work, dragged myself up the ladder, out of the water and into the arms of my support team? Find a bathroom.

Feeling fine if a little dehydrated after 10 km and a pint

After the race, Jodi took us to a great spot overlooking the harbour in Port Colborne, where I inhaled two pints and a cheeseburger and after some prompting from Lori, what felt like gallons of water. At lunch, we even discussed possible future swims.

I didn’t realize it, but with an official 10 km race under our belts, it opens the door to a whole new world. We are now qualified to enter races like swim around Key West: a 25 km marathon swim in stinking hot weather with sea life to contend with – you know – jelly fish, sharks. Sounds like fun. Sitting there with our cheering section and the birthday girl, both Amanda and I were also thinking about some other swimmers.


Tina and Jodi in Port Colborne

Lori, suggesting perhaps I drink water with my beer







When we began our race, 62-year-old Diana Nyad was already in the water, in what could be a 60-hour swim and her fourth attempt to swim without a shark cage from Cuba to Florida. She’s still swimming as I type this. It’s day 3.  And when we started our race, 14-year old Annaleise Carr had been in the water for about 15 hours of what would eventually take her 27. Last night just before 9 p.m., she  became the youngest to swim across the traditional 52-km crossing of Lake Ontario. I can’t even describe my admiration for them.

Amanda, me and our fantastic support team

Thanks to Kim, Tina, Lori, Mel and Jodi for making our swim truly memorable. No matter what happens on our next adventure, I can never lose with these wonderful women in my corner. Lucky, lucky me.

LOST swim – 3.8 km in waves

If I  look a little nervous here, that’s because I was. The marine forecast today called for metre high waves on Lake Ontario. Fun. I woke up at 6 a.m. to the unsettling sound of rolling thunder all around. It didn’t bode well. I recently discovered the hard way that I get sea sick in high

seas. My friend David said it best. He suggested that I get nauseous while reading in a bathtub. He’s not far off. The idea of getting queasy made me queasy enough to down some natural ginger Gravol, but I feared it may not do the trick in waves that could easily swamp a small vessel. But, I’m not exactly one to quit, and I’m  also a firm believer in the placebo effect, so I figured what the hell. I also kept a constant mantra going in my head that was a bit Dorothy-like. “There’s no need to chuck, there’s no need to chuck…”

Ninety-odd swimmers were waiting at the foot of Maple Grove street in Oakville by 8 a.m. to take on this route in the nastiest conditions this race has experienced to date. Most

were in wetsuits, but there were a few naked swimmers like me, including the inspirational Colleen Shields, a double Lake Ontario crosser whom I had the pleasure to meet a few years ago at Kelvin’s swim camp. Today Colleen was supposed to be going for her third crossing, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Her swim is now postponed until September. Colleen is

in there somewhere, along with me and all the other naked crazies. The worst part was waiting to get on with it, but eventually, we were all in the water bobbing around like sea lions . Here’s a short video: they’reoff (iPhone & iPod)

The waves were okay at the beginning, and then again, at the very end, but in between it was like swimming in the sea. We’d flop down into troughs and then get slapped in the face by the next wave. But the ginger worked and I just kept on going. At one point, I churned through a miniature log jam. I think someone dumped a truckload full of lawn and garden trimmings into the lake. I think I ate a twig at one point. I certainly swallowed a few mouthfuls but only inhaled water once – not bad, considering the fact that I was breathing into the oncoming waves. (Still not breathing bilaterally – oh well.) It was a good swim. The times aren’t posted yet, but hey – I wasn’t last! I only wish my swimming buddy Amanda could have been with me. In the end, I met another Amanda; Amanda Lee Kelessi. She’s the cute young thing pictured here. I asked Kim to take our picture (not because she’s a cute young thing…) but because she is taking on a Lake crossing on August 24. Best of luck to her. Kim took a video of me coming in, so here’s a clip. theend (iPhone & iPod)The guy cheering every one on at the finish is Madhu Nagaraja, who recently became the 50th person to solo swim across Lake Ontario.

I feel ready for next week and the big 10 km race. I did manage to get a three hour swim in last week in Barrie, so hopefully that means I can swim four. What’s another hour? At least there won’t be waves – it’s in a canal. Right now, I’m also thinking about Mel. When I started my race, she started hers – another epic battle. The Dirty Girls 24-hour ultra. Go Mel, go!

My achilles heel

I get seasick. I can’t read in a car or even on a train. I can’t even navigate in motion. If asked to check a map or a GPS while riding shotgun, I can only scan it once, maybe twice, before waves of nausea sweep over me.

I always knew this could be a problem in open water. I just didn’t realize how much of a problem.

This morning was supposed to be our epic three-hour test swim before the 10 km race in August. It began inauspiciously. I had an alarm clock failure. Fortunately Kim woke up at 7:30 – just enough time to put me into a complete panic. She helped to get me sorted while I flew around the house in a state. I’m easily rattled by things like being late. I hate being late. Fortunately Amanda was having a slowish morning herself and she told me to relax as I was heading out the door fumbling with the phone and my heavily laden swim bag. Today, I carried ‘supplies.’ I had a mesh bag, water, gatorade, gels and empty kitchen catchers and string to MacGyver an extra buoy so we could mark a distance closer to 500 metres than the existing buoy line at the beach.

I arrived at Woodbine just as Amanda did. While we futzed with rigging up our makeshift buoy, and attaching the mesh bag filled with our refreshments to another buoy, I fretted a bit about the conditions. There were breakers and swells. This would be a challenge, we both agreed. But Amanda wasn’t feeling too talkative. We just got on with it. At 8:35 a.m. we stood together beside our new buoy, gave each other a half-hearted cheer, and got underway. We had already established that on this swim, we would act as though we were in the race, which essentially meant no standing, no stopping, no chatting. We could swim up to the mesh bag, grab a few swigs of water and a gel if we wanted, but that was about it.

At first, I was excited. Sure, it was daunting, but I also enjoy muscelling my way through tough conditions. And I did, initially. Amanda struck out for deeper water, but I stayed closer to the buoy line. For the first kilometre, we stuck to our usual pattern. Amanda  is stronger and faster than me, so I typically swim off her right flank, back  a ways, but never out of her sightline. As she turns to the right to breathe, she can spot me easily in my neon cap, just as I can pinpoint her ahead and to my left. It works well, and we both feel secure together out there in the open water. Amanda just got her NLS certification and is the definition of sensible. Kim doesn’t worry when I swim with her, and, I hope, her partner feels the same way about me. But today wasn’t typical.

There was a section I immediatly dubbed The Washing Machine. It was weirdly predictable, running on an angle between two buoys at the west end of the beach. As soon as I hit it, the water became an impenetrable, roiling sludge through my goggles lens, and the waves hit me from seemingly every direction. It was a proper bitch slap section, and for the first few runs, I loved it. This was a tough swim, so it effected our time. I passed Amanda and called it out to her, as I was the one wearing a watch. It was 9:23.

“But we’ve only done two!” she was perplexed. Almost an hour in, and only a little more than two km was under our belts. I shrugged, but clearly this bothered her. She powered on. And as she found her new, faster pace, the first bouts of nausea hit me. I tried to ignore them. But that’s the thing about seasickness. It will not be ignored. I didn’t tell Amanda.

I tried to think of other things, to work through it, to ‘dig deep,’ as athletes and individuals with more guts and glory than I refer to it. I guess I’m just not that strong. Eventually I even stopped playing my inspirational/comforting soundtrack in my head. (Lately, it’s been Christina Aguilara and Chris Mann’s rendition of The Prayer). Not even Christina could help me out there. I felt wretched. I had slowed down considerably. Amanda passed me and checked in. “What’s up?” she wanted to know, as I had slowed down so much. I told her. She looked worried, then told me to swim in to shore if I felt like I was going to puke. I told her I would and she continued on. So did I, but several times I stopped swimming altogether and just bobbed around, trying to quell the heaving in my gut and shake off the shivery eruption of goose bumps that pimpled my arms and made me shudder. “Fuck Fuck Fuck!” I yelled out loud in frustration at one point to no one in particular, thinking I really ought to call this thing off. But I’m stubborn. And, apparently, I’m stupid when I’m feeling stubborn. I put my head down and swam on, for what seemed a long time, slightly off course into deeper water well beyond the buoys. Without realizing it, I had swum smack into the cauldron of The Washing Machine.

While there, being tossed around by those suddenly seemingly garagantuan waves, I couldn’t get my bearings at all. I couldn’t see my markers. I couldn’t see Amanda. And while I knew I wouldn’t drown, because I just refuse to give up that much and even if I did start to puke, I was certain I could do so without inhaling water, I admit it; I was scared. Because it was then that I finally understood, in a real, physical way,  something I had never before truly comprehended; how good swimmers can drown not that far from shore.

Amanda found me shortly after that. She suddenly appeared out of the surf, looking like a very serious mermaid. “Hi,” I said. “It’s 10:19.”

“I don’t care,” she said. “I’m calling it.” That she couldn’t see me freaked her out. She was right. And I should have listened to my gut and called it myself. On the beach, still reeling from nausea, Amanda did most of the talking. She chalked this one up to a learning experience. And before we take on any epic swims together than involve sea swells and breakers, I have to get the seasickness in hand. Gravol and Red Bull, perhaps? Amanda suggested a mariner’s magnetized bracelet. There’s a drowsy-free Gravol type drug available in the States too, I’ve heard. But this much is certain; we won’t swim out of each other’s sight ever again.

I’m sure no one cares except for me and Amanda, but we swam 4 km today. All things considered, that’s not bad.




Training daze

Open water swim camp

This 10 km swim looms sooner than later, and I’m in a bit of a frenzy trying to get as much lake time in before the big day on August 19. Almost daily, Amanda and I have been meeting at Cherry Beach in the early evening and swimming two to three km. But in this bizarre heat wave, the water at Cherry is now a bath-like 25 degrees, and very organic. Frankly, it’s gross, and we just aren’t enjoying it anymore. So we’ve ditched Cherry, in search of clearer, cooler waters. Yesterday, along with Thea, our new young swimming buddy, we met at the foot of the RC Harris water treatment plant for an 8 a.m. dip. It was a great, hour long swim. The morning before, we were at Woodbine, where we swam over to the next beach, bobbing offshore from the Leuty Lifeguard station. It was another great swim, but nowhere near 10 km. I’m nervous about this one. Maybe I’ll feel better after a longer training run. I did a three hour swim a few summers ago, on a freezing cold miserable day in early June at Kelvin’s swim camp.

I'm the one with the jacket over my swim suit. Yeah, I was a little cold...

At the time, it seemed inordinately daunting. It didn’t much help that I put it to music in my head.(Specifically, to the theme from Gilligan’s Island … “A three hour swim, a three hour swim…”) But I got through it, albeit mildly hypothermic (I couldn’t really feel my flippers by the end) and suffering from wicked heartburn through the last half of the ordeal. (Apparently, I was breathing all wrong and swallowing air – who knew.) In three hours I covered about seven km and I have no reason to believe I’m any faster today, so, the 10 km should take me about four hours.

A four hour swim … Jesus Mary. Why am I doing this? Let’s not sugar coat it. Here’s the reality. I am a fat 45-year-old with hip bursitis. My time for making any significant athletic achievement was forfeited 26 years ago to too many cigarettes in too many pubs while having way too much fun. I stopped being an athlete the moment I left home at 19 – that’s the sad truth. I was an athletic kid, but never a star. I was always the helpful guard who rarely got one in the basket. I ran cross country, always finishing mid-pack at best. I was an okay softball player and an okay swimmer, but I never made the podium – not even close. I was a dependable plodder. I’d get the job done. I wouldn’t quit. That was my thing. I’d get there, if it killed me. I guess that attitude hasn’t really changed. But lots else has.

When I think back now on the times I’d go out alone for a 10 km run when I was 14, I know  it was because I was, as all teenagers must, working stuff out. Granted, I had quite a bit to work out. I’m not complaining, but let’s put it this way. It wasn’t easy being 14 and gay in 1981. That I decided to lace up a pair of Nikes and hit the road in my red cotton running shorts and non-wicking tee-shirt instead of hitting the streets looking for heroin is obviously a relief now, but not something I can really take credit for. Frankly, it probably could have gone either way. Sports, back then, and running, in particular, was clearly an important coping mechanism.

cross country meet circa 1985ish - notice no one's behind me...

But I’m not running from anything anymore, at least, nothing that I’m aware of. And I’m not hiding anything. Well, nothing on par with being a teenaged lesbian in the early to mid 1980s. So why bother? Why set myself a ridiculous task than no middle-aged woman needs to accomplish. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone. But for some reason, I really want to do this thing. It doesn’t matter if I’m last – and I will be. I just want to do it. To have swum 10 km. That’s all. It’s a challenge. It’s my thing.

I have a little problem …

I’m a hoarder. I admit it.  I don’t have cupboards full of stacked margarine tubs from the ’80s, or garbage bags full of holy orphaned socks, chipped mugs or birthday cards  from friends I no longer even know. I’m selective in my obsession. It’s books that I just can’t seem to part with.

Once, there was a forced cull. I can’t blame Kim, really. She was the one who schlepped most of my books to their current home – my office on the third floor –having schlepped them there from their former home, in another office, on another third floor. This earned her the right to say enough one day, when I arrived with stacks “rescued” from my brother-in-law in North Bay. (He too, has a little problem). Also, Kim built my bookcase. It was a birthday present one year. I went away for a weekend, and when I came back, she surprised me with this wall-to-wall bookcase in my office. Let me repeat: She built it, alone, in a weekend. Yes, I married wonder woman.

So Kim gets a say when things get out of hand. The first time it was painful. What if, one day, I needed all three of my copies of Twelfth Night? I’m not too sure how I ended up with three. Granted, one was my mother’s teaching copy with her cramped notes filling the margins. That’s the one I opted to keep. My point is, it was a thin play, and by my losing two copies of it, the emotional wrench equated to barely a dent in the pile still to be sorted. I managed, with Kim’s help, to get it under control. But that was years ago, and the books kept piling up.

Yesterday, I undertook another cull, in anticipation of my problem soon getting completely out of control. This time, it was my collection of magazines that got the boot. Sorry Toronto Life, but I just don’t need any of you from 2005. It actually felt good to make a little wiggle room on the shelves. But it won’t last long. I know I’m an addict. And it doesn’t help that my friends are enablers. Mel, for instance, made this for me and enclosed a gift card  for York’s bookstore. David and Jen are equally to blame, giving me the superb two-volume collection Reporting WWII. Stacks are growing, beside the bed, in the living room. There are even accretions forming in the kitchen. A copy of John Keegan’s Intelligence in War was recently bespattered by pasta sauce. Oh well. Like I said, I have a little problem.