Confessions of a Ballerunner

Essays on Sports, Arts, Culture, and Life

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Experimenting with still life and portrait DSLR photography

Well, my intro class in digital SLR photography at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa will soon be finishing (sigh). I have really enjoyed this class and am grateful for the DSLR Nikon D40 camera that a friend of mine loaned me so that I could take this class and see if photography was an art form I would enjoy prior to going out and purchasing my own DSLR camera (which can be quite an investment).

It’s clear to me that I still need a lot more time to work on the mechanics or technical aspects of shooting, but at least I think I have pretty good natural instincts for composition and story-telling. It’s figuring out those exact settings (the specs) I will need for a given shot that still seems to trip me up. You can always tell a seasoned photographer from a newbie by the former’s facility with rattling off the expected shutter speed, F-stop and ISO that will be needed for a shot. I guess I just need to be patient and practise, practise, practise. And, perhaps invest in a Dummies book for some remedial training.

As you may have noted from my previous posts, landscape photography is a passion. So is black & white photography. I also find people fascinating and would really like to learn to shoot portraits both in a studio (posed) and non-studio/street (unposed) setting. I find studio photography trickier though, since you require a fair amount of equipment, and importantly, you need to understand how to adjust/manipulate light and shadow. Studio is a lot less forgiving than outdoor photography, with the former requiring more technical skill, in my opinion.

We did two classes in studio: one with still life (objects) and one with human subjects (portraits). I preferred the portrait session probably because I’m generally more interested in human subject matter than inanimate objects. (Not surprisingly, any past career testing I had done revealed I was not someone who would be terribly well suited to engineering or related fields.)

This wine glass was deceptively tricky to shoot and get the rim lighting just right. I tried to do some correction in Photoshop, but still couldn’t bring the stem outline out. The background is also too dark. (Argghh!)

As I listened to my enthusiastic photography teacher’s tips during our two studio sessions, I couldn’t help but think how much more interesting and less intimidating high school Physics classes would’ve been had the teachers used real-life ‘case studies’ (like is routinely done in problem-based learning curricula in the health sciences). An illustration of how the principles of Physics are applied to real-life problems would’ve made learning Physics easier for people like me, who are stimulated by story-telling and who don’t visualize well in 3-D and are also mechanically-challenged.

For example, studio photography could easily double as a lesson in Physics (with the manipulation of light and shadow) or Mathematics (especially Geometry with the calculation of angles) — and Shop class, if you have a MacGyver-like inventor/photography teacher like I do! 🙂 There are also potential teachable moments for Biology, if you do macro-photography (e.g., use of a magnifying lens to make bugs look big and allow one to study nature up close) and Chemistry, if you do food photography (e.g., adding drops of glycerin to an aqueous liquid to simulate water drops or adding effervescent tablets to make beer look frothy).

This still life set-up was kind of random, but it was a team effort. I threw my watch into the scene and declared it a re-interpretation of Salvador Dali‘s “Persistence of Memory” painting.

So, all in all, I found the evening of shooting still life kind of frustrating. Fortunately, when we did portraits the following week, everyone shot the same models, so we had some real-time group-think on what shutter speed and F-stop to try. (ISO remained constant.) I was generally more pleased with the portraits I had taken, but still had some trouble toning down the shiny slot box in the background of photo # 2 (below) in Photoshop. Again, I guess it’s just a matter of practice and getting more familiar with Photoshop…

Dragon boat team racing: An Ottawa summer rite of passage

Ottawa has often been called a small big city. As a national capital, it is also a government town, where you or someone you know most certainly works for the public service. This can make the city rather stuffy at times, and then there’s summer with its extreme heat and humidity, and frequent risk of severe thunderstorms (which scare the crap out of me!)… [At least, Ottawa is THE place to be for Canada Day celebrations! ;-)]

Canada Day 2011: Crowds gather by the thousands on Parliament Hill to greet Prince William and Kate Middleton, Ottawa

Despite being a self-identified Nordic girl, myself, where cool temps and low humidity (and in winter, lots of snow! :-)) feature among my ideal climatic conditions for thriving, I have to confess summer in Ottawa is  beginning to grow on me. (Especially now that I live in a place with air conditioning — a must during the sultry days of summer in Central Canada.)

This will make my 4th summer as a resident of Ottawa; however, this year, instead of my annual pilgrimage (or more aptly, “escape”) back east to weeks of (usually) cool ocean breezes, salty air, and relaxed living in the Maritimes, I am spending the bulk of my summer in Ottawa owing to the fact I will be traveling to Europe in the fall, thus deferring my holiday time.

Swimmers bathing on a beach in Fundy National Park, Alma, New Brunswick

On guard along the ruggedly beautiful coastline of Lawrencetown Beach, Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia

The waters of the Atlantic Ocean churning up a storm on Lawrencetown Beach for the surfers, Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia

If you are someone who longs for the return of those wintry days of cross-country skiing in the hills of Gatineau Park like me, it becomes essential (i.e., a matter of mental survival) to find a way to embrace summer as you do the cooler seasons. Summer is not going anywhere and the planet is only getting hotter, so the best way to beat the heat is to learn to like it, or at least, adapt to it.

To this end, I decided to try something different this year. Paddling. Specifically, dragon boating.

Friday night paddling at the Rideau Canoe Club, Mooney’s Bay, Ottawa

Saturday morning regatta at the Rideau Canoe Club, Mooney’s Bay, Ottawa

I am an avid athlete and previously (exclusively) hard-core runner (until I got injured and had to change up my training plan to usher in a long overdue age of cross-training). Despite not being a bona fide swimmer just yet (though this is still a work in progress), I have always had a special affinity for the water. Likely this is partly explained by genetics (nature), as someone who was born and raised in the Maritimes. And, maybe partly an environmental (nurture) influence as I have fond memories of care-free days spent by the seashore as a young child at the family cottage.

Watching the boats from the dock at the Rideau Canoe Club, Mooney’s Bay, Ottawa

In my mission to embrace, or at least shake hands with, our notoriously steamy Ottawa summer season, I figured taking up paddling would allow me to build my core in a fun way (since I hate gyms), introduce me to new people I might not otherwise meet, and give me that connection with the water I crave. I had never really dragon boated before unless you count the one time three years ago when I was a last-minute alternate for a team that a running friend of mine (a steerer) was on. It had been a favor (or desperate plea?) since they needed someone in a pinch, and I was thought to be a good bet because of my aerobic fitness. [BTW, a full dragon boat crew comprises 20 paddlers plus the steersperson and the drummer, so it can be a challenge recruiting enough consistently, committed people. The boat, itself is a slim, 44-foot racer that seems to almost fly or hover above the water when great technique, timing, teamwork, and athleticism combine.] I ended up having a blast being out on the calm, sheltered waters of Mooney’s Bay under a beautiful, silvery moon during that warm summer evening. I had no technique, however, and didn’t realize that this team was actually a competitive, well-oiled machine, just days away from the big race. I think I probably splashed the guy seated in front of me with my awkward paddling a bit too much; fortunately, my relative, sometimes out-of-sync contribution could be absorbed by the predominant strength and synchronicity of the other seasoned crew members. [Interestingly — and perhaps, not surprisingly — I was not invited back to this team!? :-(]

Dragon boat teams practising on Mooney’s Bay, Ottawa

In Ottawa, paddling is a hugely popular sport among both competitive and non-competitive athletes. My theory for this much-loved activity is that there is just something innate, viscerally compelling, even spiritual about water and our attraction to it. To revel in its space. To contemplate. To connect. And in the case of the Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival in Ottawa this weekend — to compete, or at least to have fun being on a team and giving it your best.

Team “Draggin’ Blades” relaxing before the morning’s first race at the Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival

One of the main paths through the site; bikes, as the popular mode of transportation, could be found everywhere since there was no parking at the event

Display of personalized paddles from one of the more hard-core competitive dragon boat teams, Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival

Members of “The Gladiators” dragon boat team, Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival

The relatively short, outdoor paddle season in Ottawa  is a tease, however, running usually from May to October. Among our boating and paddling clubs, we have two venerable ones located within the city: the Rideau Canoe Club overlooking Mooney’s Bay in the southwest part of Ottawa and the host of the Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival, and the Ottawa Rowing Club — the oldest rowing club in Canada, boasting Sir John A. Macdonald (the first Prime Minister of Canada and founding father of Confederation) as its inaugural club president — located just below Sussex Drive in the tony neighborhood of Rockcliffe Park. I was wondering why the TH Dragon Boat Festival doesn’t rotate sites between the RCC and the ORC, but then I remembered that the relatively open, Ottawa River that serves as the waterway for the ORC can be quite rough compared to the usually gentle waters of Mooney’s Bay; as a result, the average paddler who frequents the ORC is probably fairly skilled in negotiating challenging water conditions and is necessarily an accomplished swimmer.  [For a great article on rowing and the Ottawa Rowing Club, check out “Where Water Moonlights as Soul – Five Scenes from the Ottawa Rowing Club” by Jamieson Findlay and Harry Nowell in Ottawa Magazine.]

Watching a crew return to the docks from their heat, Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival

The Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival is the premier event held every June on Mooney’s Bay, and is the race that most non-elite athletes and recreational paddlers in Ottawa train for. It is the largest dragon boat festival in North America with over 200 boats entered in the weekend’s races. This year marks the 19th edition of this non-profit, charity event with an expected attendance of 75,000 (including 5,000 paddlers) over its three days of competition and entertainment.

Hundreds of team tents or campsites lined Mooney’s Bay Park along the shore, Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival

As you may have gauged by now, dragon boating is something of a subculture in Ottawa, much like that of Ultimate Frisbee (the allure of which I never really understood). Although people of all ages, sizes, and cultures participate in dragon boating, there is a preponderance of university-aged kids and newly-minted 20-something grads who make up the majority of crews. Women, in particular, seem to be drawn to the sport (there are several breast cancer survivor and/or fundraising crews), but encouragingly, quite a few guys can be found within the mixed team crews. Since there is a certain amount of power and muscular endurance required to be a competitive crew, having a number of guys on your team is a definite asset in mixed competitions. [Note to the guys: You might be wise to look at dragon boating as not just an opportunity for a great core work-out on water, but also as a chance to meet nice, (usually attractive), fit women; one of my good girl-friends, in fact, met her husband through a dragon boat team and they are engaged to be married this summer.]

Because most people seem to be veteran dragon boaters, the newbies (and few who don’t already belong to a team) must sign up on a wait list on the Rideau Canoe Club’s website and then bide their time to be contacted by teams in need of extra members. There are recreational crews for beginners, as well as intermediate and advanced-level crews; although I was tempted to at least indicate “intermediate” on my application since I am athletic and a quick learner, I knew my strength was in my lower body, so I convinced myself to err on the side of “beginner” so as to not overpromise on my skills and risk under-delivering on my performance. [If you’ve read any of my previous posts, risk aversion is unfortunately a recurring theme for me.] The accepted trade-off, of course, is that a recreationally-focused crew may not be as aerobically fit as me, nor as competitive.

Pumped to paddle

Mixed crew getting ready to board their boat at the dock

I ended up joining a semi-experienced team called the Draggin’ Blades, who had recruited a few extra walk-ons to fill the spots left vacant by some of the past year’s crew. We had a weekly practice schedule of Friday nights on Mooney’s Bay with an experienced steersperson/coach. [I was surprised and delighted to learn that when you sign up for a dragon boat crew, your registration fee — which is very reasonable — includes the cost of coaching.] Our coach was great: very organized in her coaching plan for each practice, positive and extremely patient. We learned how to paddle properly, then how to paddle in sync with each other, then with tempo, all while building up muscular endurance and having fun out on the water.

We were not so fortunate with the weather, however, for our first few practice nights. On what was to be our second night out on the water as a team, we were preempted by a vicious thunderstorm, in which an 18-year-old boy was tragically struck and killed by lightning as he took momentary shelter under a tree in a nearby park, not far from Mooney’s Bay.

The week following, we had a torrential downpour (fortunately, not accompanied by a thunderstorm), but the practice proceeded nonetheless, albeit shy a full crew. Oddly enough, I enjoyed this practice. True, we got absolutely soaked to the skin, despite rain gear, but it reminded me of my days of hard-core training as a runner in Montreal when I would once in a while get caught in monsoon-like rain. These are the character-building training sessions. And, there is an unmistakable sense of pride and accomplishment — and noticeable boost in positive energy — that invariably accompanies the completion of a tough training session characterized by less-than-ideal conditions. Such character-building sessions always remind me of the famous World War II morale-boosting slogan created by the British government, that is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, particularly in Ottawa: Keep Calm and Carry On.

After a grueling set of practices last week (one of which was a make-up for that earlier thunderstorm) and our last one this past Friday night, we were ready to throw down the gauntlet on Saturday at the TH Dragon Boat Festival.

Boys will be boys: Several guys – not sure if drunkenness was a factor – decided to go for a post-race swim in the Bay

Our first race was to be at 11h50 with staging at 11h20. Because the race is a massive undertaking, eight teams at a time are asked to ‘stage’ or line up in a corral-like area as another eight proceed to their assigned docks. While these 16 teams are in a holding pattern on shore, another eight teams are out on the water at, or making their way, to the starters’ blocks for their 500-metre ‘heat’. Approximately every 9 minutes, a race occurs until the entire field of 200 teams is processed. Each team gets two guaranteed races or heats on the Saturday: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The top 75 mixed teams and top 24 women’s teams advance to the final round on Sunday. [There are no all-men’s teams at this event.]

Waiting to enter the staging area

When I arrived on the scene at Mooney’s Bay Park an hour ahead of our race, I was met by a sea of tents and campsites (often creatively decorated), and thousands of people milling about. It was like a dragon boat version of Woodstock or a huge frosh week event at a major Canadian university. It was great! The excitement in the air was palpable (and audible) as paddlers proudly clad in their team colors and various accoutrements could be found rallying their respective teams with cheers, performing group stretching exercises in an open section of field, or sitting contentedly in a big circle on lawn chairs socializing and chilling out (and hydrating) before or after their race.

Since this was my first time participating in this event, I wasn’t sure what kind of secure storage options would be available if any, so I erred on the side of caution (i.e., the case of no secure storage), making sure that everything I brought I could wear. [Hopefully, I adopt a similar, minimalist strategy when I have to pack for Europe!] This meant cycling to the event with my PFD (personal flotation device) securely fastened to my body. [As Stacy London would say, everything was “locked and loaded” to the point I could hardly breathe!?] I couldn’t help but feel particularly ridiculous as — in order to plan on the possibility of no secure storage area — I purposefully left my bike helmet at home. So there I was, riding along the canal paths at top speed with a life jacket on, but no helmet! People must have thought I was nuts. Knowing where my priorities lay, I did manage to squeeze my tiny, compact purple, point-and-shoot Sony Cybershot into the tightly zipped compartment of my diaphragm-crushingly tight PFD, however. (I was determined to ensure I would remain afloat should our boat capsize, so I cinched that thing pretty freakin’ tight!? I won’t get into all the issues I had with PFD-inflicted chafing. Suffice it to say, it will likely be comfortable to wear when the weather is suitable for long sleeves and possibly a turtleneck sweater.)

CIBC breast cancer survivors/research fundraising crew. Love the ballerina tutu!

Old school-dressed ice cream vendors, Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival

After spending some time wandering with my camera across the grounds, taking in the carnival-like atmosphere, it was finally time for our team’s first race. We assembled in the ‘corral’ as the race officials took attendance and the teams rallied their crew with cheers, and then proceeded to Dock 5 before heading out on the water for our heat.

Staging area: Eight teams await the green light to proceed to the docks

At the docks: choosing our paddles and putting on our PFDs before boarding our boat

Boarding our boat for the race

All aboard and ready to paddle off to the starting line buoys

I was seated on the left side near the back of the boat. We began with a short warm-up of light, easy strokes then a series of 3 x 5 power strokes followed by our race pace. We then settled into our lane, hunched forward with paddles across our knees in the ‘set’ position waiting for the “Ready! Ready!” cry from our caller/drummer and then the official “Attention, please!” from the race marshal on the floating dock to our right. The final signal to go was the starter’s gun. And bang! We got off to a powerful, fast start, slicing our way through the water with our blades. All you could hear was the sound of the water against the paddles [it’s really important to avoid the dreaded kerplunk! sound, which is akin to executing a belly-flop in the pool versus a graceful dive] and the yelling by each boat’s drummer, calling out the strokes. At about 1/4 of the way into this 500-metre race, we were suddenly and unexpectedly (at least to those of us on the left side of the boat) broad-sided by an aberrant boat from the lane to our right. I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next. Were we done? Did we just pick up and go? Some of us had stopped paddling completely, not wanting to ram the boat further while others continued their strokes. It felt like an eternity, but then our trusty coach/steersperson piped up authoritatively and told us to keep going. And boy, did we ever have to kick into high gear! We essentially had to repeat our start from a dead stop and rebuild the momentum we had accrued prior to the collision. We were well behind the leaders, but then something very cool happened. We started really accelerating. Powering our way through the water to catch up and pass not one, not two, but three boats! Of course, as a paddler, you must keep your eyes on the person in front and beside you at all times to ensure synchronicity of strokes (and maximum efficiency), and so as a back-end paddler I missed this drama in real-time, only hearing about it post-race. We ended up placing a very respectable third place in our heat, and were especially energized (as were our drummer and steerer) by our incredible mid-course comeback. This was definitely a character-building race, and we were excited about what we could do in our second race, having finished this heat well despite the initial setback and critical loss of time.

A fleet of dragon boats coming into dock, leaving dock, or finishing their heat

Instead of hanging out at the venue all afternoon until our next race — admittedly, mostly because I had no desire to use those port-a-potties! — I opted to bike back home for lunch since I only live 15 minutes away by bike and knew I had some delicious pasta salad with chicken waiting for me to replenish my glycogen stores. 🙂

Our next race was to be at the end of the afternoon at 17h10, so I made my way back to the site for 16h00. It was a long break spent lounging around or relaxing until our next heat. I had some concerns that maybe we wouldn’t be pumped enough for our next race, where you are matched against crews with similar times from the morning’s races. As before, we made our way through the staging area or corral and then down to the docks. Interestingly, this time, we were told by our assigned dock’s marshal that we were going to be on a ‘lucky’ boat, which had apparently enjoyed a disproportionate number of wins this day. She seemed so sure of her prediction, as to almost dismiss the possibility that ‘her’ boat would not come out on top again. It appeared she had issued us a challenge, perhaps there was even money riding on this particular boat, like a great thoroughbred racehorse favored to win at the Belmont Stakes.

Post-race debrief after leaving the dock area

Post-race walk off the docks: You either saw the triumphant strut or the silent march, depending on how teams fared

With a few last-minute switches — I had noticed during the first race that the woman behind me had a longer reach than I did and so had asked her to swap seats with me, and then I swapped again with the woman beside me so that I could be on what was probably my ‘natural’ , more powerful (right) side — we were ready to throw down the gauntlet again.

Spying another potentially rogue boat with dubious steering [having an experienced steerer, I learned, is so important!], we made it our goal to go out hard at the start to pass them so we would not have to concern ourselves with the possibility of another mid-race collision. We got settled into our assigned lane, crouched low and forward with paddles across our knees in the ‘set’ position, and waited expectantly. “Ready! Ready!”… “Attention, please!” Bang! We were off like a Jamaican sprinter out of the blocks (or so I like to imagine it this way).  We began with the usual set of six powerful start-up strokes — 1/2, 3/4 , full, full, full, full — landing them like a polished, competitive diver making a splashless, rip entry into the pool. Then it was 3 sets of 5 powerful strokes with blade completely buried below the water’s surface. The familiar 5-4-3-2-1 countdown (or mnemonic of “start-to reach it out”) next led us into our race pace rhythm of long, consistent high-cadence strokes that we had to sustain until the last 75-metres of the race, at which point, we would throw down for one final sprint to the finish line. This race felt like higher stakes than the first. The effort also felt harder and longer than the first race. Our drummer and steerer urged us on repeatedly and excitedly, shouting louder as we began to gain on the leader boats and subsequently began passing them one by one. We were almost to the finish line; it was then time to give it everything we had left in the tank. We dug in, and ripped our blades through the water for one final push. It was enough: we clinched first place in our second heat in dramatic fashion — another come-from-behind effort, and another victory for boat # 2. Our soothsayer at dock # 2 had been correct in her prediction all along and greeted us with genuine happiness as we paddled over to the dock to disembark and make way for the next team.

When we exited the boat, we were regaled with a recap of our performance as seen from the shore by one of our teammates’ friends. Apparently, we had been an exciting boat to watch as we ‘made our (tactical) move’ to surge ahead, all chronicled from the shore by the British announcer over the loudspeaker. We were told that our power and acceleration was clearly visible from the shore. [Why can’t there by an instant replay?? Or, a big screen to show the highlights of the race to the completing teams once they clear the dock zone?]

Despite our strong and exciting racing performance, we unfortunately did not qualify among the top 75 mixed teams for the Sunday finals. Normally, I would be disappointed by this outcome, as a very competitive person, but I wasn’t. I knew we had had two really good races and shown a lot of character coming back as strongly as we did after that collision in the first race.

Maybe I’m not just an individual-sports person afterall. Who knew dragon boating could be so much fun while still being competitive? I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful new summer sport for me…

Team “Draggin’ Blades” all smiles before their first race

The Great Re-Set: Part 4: Finding my way again…

On the day I learned of Michael’s suicide , I knew that the lens through which I had viewed life to this point — particularly, my life — would be irrevocably changed.

For years, Michael had been my close friend and confidant. We had worked together. At one time — and arguably throughout much of our acquaintance — we had been more than friends; alas, timing had always prevented a romantic relationship from taking root. Nonetheless, the depth of my connection with Michael was such that I never imagined a day when he would not be present in my life in some way.

In the weeks and months that followed his death — after the memorial service, after the acute period of official mourning had ended, after life was supposed to return to ‘normal’ — I began to realize that I could not rouse myself from this dreadful, windowless space of a nightmare I was in. Michael was dead. This was the new reality. There would be no more exchanges of e-mails, phone calls, pages, or texts. No more teasing. No more birthday or Christmas cards. No more car rides home after work. No more visits or long evenings spent lingering over a supper at a charming restaurant. No more wondering how Michael was or what he was up to at a given moment…

When I think back to what I miss most about Michael, it is the conversations we used to have about everything and nothing. While our collective intellectual curiosity made for interesting, broad explorations of topics, it was the ease with which we related to each other that I miss most. We spoke the same language. There was a mutual understanding, a connection. In French, we would be described as having a certain complicité. In the early years of our acquaintance, we were known to engage in a written repartée of wordy one-upmanship. A thinly veiled guise perhaps for what was a blossoming affection but (sadly) impossible courtship.

It’s interesting how life’s monumental events can serve to obfuscate one’s recollection of what life was like before the sentinel event. Think of September 11th, 2001. How innocent, fuzzy, and even Utopian life appeared prior to this infamous date. It would seem that September 11th, 2001 has become a precipice or modern-day historical dividing line, much like B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno domini or after death). I’m not entirely certain if this kind of historical gravitas is a construct we might uniquely associate with calamatous events or whether events characterized by momentous joy would similarly constitute a re-set of one’s life; however, I suspect if you were to ask anyone who has met and married the person whom they believe to be the love of their life, he/she will probably confess to having a hard time recollecting the details of their life prior to meeting their love.

One thing I can remember with absolute clarity before Michael’s death was a particular fictional — and on retrospect, eerily prophetic in some ways — book I had coincidentally decided to read, following months of buzz from various bestsellers lists. It was The Shack by William P. Young. On top of rarely reading works of fiction (which I can’t quite reconcile as a self-identified creative type), why I had chosen to read this particular book with its tragic and existential subject matter only weeks before Michael’s suicide. It seemed almost like divine intervention to me. An unexpected emotional preparatory course in how to grieve, how to forgive, and how to let go.

Although I have previously experienced the loss of loved ones to death — my Dutch grandmother had died less than 2 months before Michael — it is the shock and surrealism of losing a loved one so abruptly, such as by suicide or sudden death, that the rational self, so accustomed to order and fairness, can’t help but plunge into questions of why in an attempt to make sense and restore order to the chaos which has beset one’s world.

In my case, trying in vain to reconcile an answerless question eventually spawned more difficult questions. Where is Michael now? Can he see me?Is he watching over his loved ones? If he does see the living, does he see the sorrow he has inflicted? Can he perceive our thoughts? Will I ever see him again?

There is a painting by the early modernist, 20th century Russian-born artist, Marc Chagall, that I find captivating, called Birthday (see below). The seemingly quotidian but ethereal imagery depicts a powerful, vivid narrative to me. Although I am not certain of the true meaning behind this painting, to me it represents a woman in mourning in her sombre, black dress, going through the motions of marking a birthday — perhaps her own birthday — while a sad, ghostly male figure hovers longingly overhead desperately attempting to reconnect with his former lover (perhaps wife) through an impossible kiss, in defiance of the Laws of Nature and his departure from the land of the living.

Birthday by Marc Chagall

Following several weeks of grief counseling, one of the other ways in which I sought solace and healing after Michael’s death was to enroll in an introductory acrylic painting class through the Ottawa School of Art. Artistic expression, I thought, would be a way of releasing grief, freeing myself from some of the residual sadness and uncertainty I still carried post-counseling while exposing me to a new activity and new people. I had not painted since high school, so I was somewhat apprehensive about stepping back into this medium, which had never felt as natural to me as drawing. The class turned out to be very therapeutic. I discovered I was able to completely immerse myself in the activity for hours at a time, often foregoing scheduled breaks.

After producing several ‘studies’ or practice pieces (see below), I decided it was time I brought in an old photo of Michael to paint. I viewed it as an opportunity to conduct an unspoken conversation with him, while seeing what kind of emotions might percolate to the surface as I studied, contemplated, and interpreted his image on canvas. I believed this exercise would force me to sit with the last vestiges of my acute grief and articulate some of the emotions that had not yet found their expression through words. I did not share any details of this choice of subject matter, however, with my teacher or classmates, other than that he was a good friend. I spent several weeks working on this painting [not shown], struggling at times to get his facial features just right, and then finally reached a point where I felt I was done. Since I am not one to believe art is ever truly ‘done’, I took this to mean I had made peace with his death. I was ready to move on to something else. Something different. Something new.

Red Pepper, acrylic, 2010

Sadness, acrylic, 2010

Cape Spear Lighthouse, acrylic, 2010

Sunset over Lake, acrylic, 2010

Mordecai study, acrylic, 2010

My Oma (Dutch for grandmother) was always tough on me. Loved to argue, push my buttons, say hurtful things sometimes. I couldn’t understand why she’d behave in such ways sometimes; she was cognitively intact. It was only at her funeral that I learned the incredible details of her immigration to Canada (thanks to my aunt — a very gifted storyteller and amateur historian), how she left her family and a comfortable, upper-middle-class life in Holland for a rural, uncertain, financially-constrained life with her husband and a new family on the way in eastern Canada. What struck a particularly poignant chord with me, however, was learning about how she had met her husband so serendipitously on a daily commuter train to/from work in Holland. Their painful separation during the war — her eventual husband/my grandfather having to go into hiding because of his participation in the Dutch Underground resistance movement. And then their just as providential, joyous reunion in a food stamps line in Holland after the war…

These experiences inevitably would’ve shaped her worldview and in that moment of hearing this story, I felt a connection with her that I hadn’t felt before. Suddenly, I was able to feel her pain, her loneliness in her aging, widowed years, and the impatience directed at her children and grandchildren for embracing life’s opportunities and adventures and not squandering one’s time. In that moment, she seemed both fearless and vulnerable to me. The thin veil pulled back, a great humanity revealed. My oma had been entreating — not chastising — me (and others), it seemed, all these years to take more risks (like she had) and live more courageously and therefore, fully.

Fear is a powerful, negative, often paralyzing, psychological force; its origins often not readily accessible by the conscious mind. In the two weeks preceding his suicide, I know that Michael feared how his life would evolve as a consequence of some major life changes. Although I will never know the precise why, if indeed there is an identifiable precise why, answering the unanswerable questions has become less important to me. What has become more important to me in the almost three years following Michael’s untimely death, however, is finding my inner courage to live a purposeful, meaningful life not just for my own personal benefit but for that of my broader community. Professionally, this means having the courage to seek out resonance in my work, where I make regular use of my natural talents instead of being contented to play it safe and remain an under-actualized square peg in a round hole. Personally, this means confronting the fear — much like I did with Michael’s painting — to sit with it, feel it, and then move past it. [I am presently reading my third book by the very wise, articulate Harold S. Kushner  entitled, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World.] To choose to be in relationship in spite of the fear of losing a loved one. To reframe my thinking around change in order to recognize that not all change is bad and some change might actually be good. And to remember that reward is not possible if one never ventures to take a risk.

“Courage is acting in spite of fear” – Howard W. Hunter

Adventures in comparison bicycle-shopping in Ottawa

Last June, I sustained a running injury to my right foot. I wasn’t sure what I did, but running any amount of distance resulted in pain, swelling, and stiffness. My range of motion (including dorsiflexion) was also reduced because of the swelling, which made running up hills difficult and uncomfortable. Fearing I had torn a ligament or had incurred a stress fracture, I reluctantly decided to stop all running as a precaution until my foot was able to be assessed. To that point, I had been running three times per week, including 21-22k (or a half-marathon) every weekend. The idea of losing the considerable cardiorespiratory fitness I had built up over the years was inconceivable to me, and so overnight I had to metaphorically ‘flip the switch’ and transition to activities that would preserve (or, at the very least, mitigate any loss of) my fitness.

Bicycle along Front Street East in downtown Toronto

Since I had already been using my aging, but trusty, purple Trek mountain bike for commuting back and forth to work every day, I simply decided I would just have to up the ante and add a separate 20-k bike work-out every day. However, I wasn’t sure if daily cycling would be enough to safeguard my fitness, so I also decided to face my fear of deep water and check out the community pool nearby. [My swimming adventures/misadventures will be chronicled in a subsequent post.]

Not surprisingly after biking almost every day to/from work and then at night for exercise last summer and fall, my 17-year-old Trek took a beating. Since I still needed it as a commuter bike, I decided I would have to look into getting a hybrid bike that would withstand work-outs on both the road and trail.

The freedom and pleasure that comes from riding a bike: a Sharpie sketch colorized in Photoshop.

Shopping for a bike is no small task — especially if you live in an über-athletic city like Ottawa (or Vancouver) where there is no shortage of sports stores and the specialty, independent, neighborhood bike shops — with their exclusive, often non-overlapping  lines of bikes — can be found on just about every other street corner. As someone with little mechanical inclination or in-depth knowledge of cycling, comparison-shopping for bikes became akin to collecting, synthesizing, and analyzing data for the purpose of answering a complex (to me, anyway) research question.

I decided to do what any good researcher would do: conduct a field study or pragmatic trial (since a controlled trial would be impractical, if not next to impossible). I visited several shops (a sort of non-random sampling of the population), and conducted extensive bike-related Q & A interviews with the sales staff who approached me. (Lucky them! And no, I did not formally consent them into my research study! ;-))

Bikes in a Queue, Rideau Canal, Ottawa

One place — store # 1 — I was particularly impressed by, for both knowledge and service, advised me that most bikes within a given price bracket are comparable in quality. What becomes important to the purchaser, however, is the after-sale service and the shop’s location. All things (or bikes) being equal, it was better to pick a place close to where you live, and which provided great service. Good advice, I thought. And, very customer-focused as opposed to being solely business-centered. This salesguy scored big points with me for his honest advice.  His shop was fairly conveniently located, but unfortunately, they didn’t have the kind of hybrid bike I was looking for at the price I had in mind. I really wanted to do business with this shop, and had even test-driven a decent retro-looking da Vinci hybrid bike. In the end, the bike was not aerodynamic enough and more importantly, it exceeded my budget. I felt bad. The guy was so nice, knowledgeable, and passionate about bikes. On top of the great advice he had given, he even offered me a spare metal pant clip that they had lying around (to protect my trousers when commuting to work) so I wouldn’t have to purchase a set. (Tip: Velcro clips are not a good alternative; they just don’t stay securely fastened.) A small gesture, but again, super customer service. Other businesses could learn a lot from this place. (On a related note, I similarly had a great customer service experience at this store in the winter when I had brought my classic xc-skis in for cleaning after applying an absurd amount of Klister wax — my first time trying this highly tenacious, but effective wax — to my skis to maximize my performance in spring skiing conditions. When I returned to pick up the skis, the technician who had cleaned and re-waxed them actually ran out to my car as I was packing the skis away just to explain exactly what he had done and to reassure me that the ski wax he had applied would be perfect for the weekend’s forecasted conditions. I was impressed. This guy was clearly passionate about his job and obviously took great pride in his work and in delighting his customers. I’d definitely be back.)

My next bike store (#2) — even closer to my ‘hood — had a powerful-looking, slick Stevens hybrid on display, which wasn’t as stylish as the previous store’s candidate with its boring combination of grey, red, and black, but it still looked racy and fell within my budget. I decided to take it out for a (joy) ride.

The problem with this second shop is the history that I have had with its hit-or-miss customer service. It’s weird, because there always seems to be plenty of staff around — young 20-somethings buzzing about the showroom — but every time I visit this place, I almost always have to seek out the staff instead of vice versa. Not cool, especially since I purchased my road bike from this store. I have also found that their mechanical servicing has been a bit hit-or-miss, too, when I’ve had to bring in my decidedly unflashy, cheap commuter bike for some tweaking. We’re not talking catastrophic oversights here, but I have had to come back on several occasions to deal with unresolved little mechanical problems that nonetheless impacted my bike’s performance. It made me wonder if my old Trek bike suffers from a sort of ageism at this store as there seems to be a particular focus on supporting competitive or elite cycling and related bling despite a mixed clientele. There are definitely some pretty flash, upper-end skus in that store. In any event, I liked the way this Stevens hybrid bike rode; it was fast, powerful, and I noticed it seemed to fit me better than my commuter bike, which is a bit small for my long limbs. However, never the one to rush a major decision — especially when a not-so-insignificant amount of cash is involved — I decided to check out one more reputable shop before I made my purchase decision.

Cyclist out enjoying an afternoon ride in the Arboretum, Ottawa

This third and final store has a great vibe to it, much like the first store. As with the first store, I had also previously done business with store #3 when I had purchased a great set of skate skis for xc-skiing. (Subsequently, my sister had also purchased a set of classic skis from this store, on my recommendation, which she continues to be very happy with.) In addition to store # 3’s great ski products and advice, I was given the name of a wonderful xc-ski instructor when I wanted some help improving my classic technique. Given my past success at this place, I was therefore optimistic I would find an appropriate comparator bike here to complete my field study.

Bikes are a popular mode of transportation for completing errands in Ottawa’s trendy Glebe neighborhood.

While this third store caters well to both the hard-core cyclist and the rec rider, the first store is probably more focused on the rec (or intermediate-level) cyclist. Store # 3 is also a well-known shop with a great reputation among the athletic community — both for cycling and cross-country skiing — with knowledgeable, friendly staff, but unfortunately for me on this occasion, a limited selection of hybrid bikes owing to an apparent, recent run on their bike inventory.

As I studied store #3’s  leftovers, an astonishingly handsome young teenage salesguy, who looked like he’d just stepped out of a preppy Tommy Hilfiger magazine shoot approached me. (My reaction immediately made me think of the recent, provocative essays by Globe & Mail writers, Ian Brown and Margaret Wente on the topic of the propriety of admiring and being admired by those much younger than oneself.) Since I could — biologically speaking — have been this boy’s mother, I forced myself to return my focus to quizzing him with my mental set of prepared bike Qs. It was clear he not only knew his stuff, but was charmingly and refreshingly a bit shy. Curious to know where this knowledge came from, I learned he was a competitive xc-skier on the junior international circuit and cross-trained by cycling in the off-season; he similarly loved skiing in Gatineau Park. After asking me about my intended use for the hybrid (e.g., errands vs exercise) and the budget I had in mind, he recommended a white Giant bike. This hybrid bike was the most aggressively styled of the three with its road bike-like aerodynamic design, bullhorn handlebars, and thin tires. I could tell it would be fast, and was assured it would keep pace with the road bikes along the canal paths and parkways. I decided to take it out for a spin. It WAS fast! And, lighter-weight compared with the other two I had tried. However, I was unsure whether it possessed enough stability for me; making turns could be a bit dicey (especially if there was any amount of rain on the road), I noticed, depending on my speed. I returned to the store, still unsure about the ultimate suitability of this bike. Mr. young, chiseled good looks salesguy, although interested in making the sale, wisely did not attempt to pressure me when I indicated I needed to try out the Stevens bike one more time at the other store.

That weekend, I took the Stevens bike out again from store # 2 (with the spotty customer service), racing it all along the canal paths, seeing how fast it would go, how my legs felt on it, and how well it kept up with the sample of road bikes out there. It passed with flying colors. (Pun intended.) Although not quite as fast as the Giant bike from store # 3, it had that little extra bit of stability I wanted. So, I took it back to the store and proceeded with the purchase and selection of accessories (i.e., requisite bell, front and back lights, and fenders to guard against big puddles). The order for the installation work was placed and I left, confident I had made the right choice, though knowing I had made a potential trade-off for a lower-level of customer service.

Bikes parked for the Sunday morning Famers Market, Ottawa

A couple of days later, I returned to store # 2 to collect my new bike and bring it back to its new home. I am now the proud owner of a nuclear family of three bikes: my matriarch Trek commuter mountain bike, my teenage Opus road bike, and now the new baby — the unassuming yet racy, Stevens hybrid bike. Needless to say, I will not be having any more bikes; my two-wheeled family is now complete! 🙂

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