Confessions of a Ballerunner

Essays on Sports, Arts, Culture, and Life

Archive for the category “humor”

First Bite Out of the Big Apple: The Rest of the Weekend in NYC…

No matter what city I visit, invariably I find myself drawn to the large urban parks: Mount Royal Park in Montreal, Stanley Park in Vancouver, Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, Shubie Park in Dartmouth, Centennial Park in Moncton, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in London, UK, Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, etc, etc… So, it is not surprising how affected I was by the beauty of NYC’s Central Park. My sister, a former resident of Toronto, tells me I would love High Park there; although I’m sure I’ve run through it several years back when I was in town and went out for a run with a group from the Wellington Street Running Room, I always end up sticking to a very urban route for my runs when in Toronto, mostly because there’s so much interesting people-watching and window-shopping to be had!..

Back to NYC…

On our first big day exploring the city, we took the subway and visited SoHo, curious to check out the reputed great shopping to be had. I was also interested in the opportunity to practise my street photography, which I was certain would not disappoint for unique scenery. SoHo was definitely a grittier neighborhood compared to Midtown, but had an undeniable vibrancy and some beautiful architecture to admire. You had to be really vigilant crossing the streets in SoHo, however, as it was a bit of a free-for-all with the carnival of cars, trucks, and people in a rush to get to their destination.  As for the shopping, we weren’t that successful; though I did manage to pick up a nice lemon-colored belt from Bloomingdale’s. Otherwise, we mostly came across super-trendy, hipster shops that catered more to the teenage or 20-something set. That night, we hit Broadway, and saw the Irish musical, Once, which we loved, at the Jacobs Theatre.

Day two was a Saturday, and had us spending several hours walking through Central Park after eating lunch on a park bench. I went crazy photographing the rowboats at the Lake. We also walked by the bustling Boathouse, but didn’t stop for food. After leaving the Park, we hit 5th Avenue and walked for several blocks on the Park’s perimeter until we came upon all the fancy stores like Bergdorf Goodman (which we didn’t dare enter) at 58th Street. And FAO Schwartz. And the Nike store. It was retail nirvana for a while before going on to 30 Rockefeller Plaza to venture to the Top of the Rock, taking a quick peek inside the MoMA‘s gift shop, and some more shopping at J. Crew. On our way back to our hotel in Times Square, we passed the the NBC Studios, where Saturday Night Live (one of our favourite comedy shows ever!) is taped, a street vendor selling New Yorker cover art prints (I bought two for $5), Radio City Music Hall, Magnolia Bakery (ok, I had to stop in while my sis continued on to the hotel).  When I finally made it back to the hotel, we decided to go out for pizza (which was awesome!) before meeting up with friends for some late night drinks at our hotel’s revolving rooftop restaurant. All in all a very full day.

Our last day, the Sunday, was really relaxed. We did brunch at Central Park and then walked along Central Park West until we hit the American Museum of Natural History. My little sis was quite thrilled to recognize the Museum from the Ben Stiller movie, Night at the Museum: by contrast, I kept being reminded of the Nanny Diaries with Scarlett Johansson. We decided to see the exhibit, Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, and Culture, which was the most interactive, educational exhibit I’d ever seen at a museum. Educators could’ve picked up an endless number of pointers on how to teach content to a diverse audience using various multimedia approaches including excellent infographics and typography. My little sis, a foodie, also loved it. We – or I – had hoped to dash down to Lower Manhattan to bike across the Brooklyn Bridge before our respective flights were to depart for Canada, but it was not to be. There was no time. (Sigh) I was a bit bummed by this missed opportunity since I had heard this was a photographer’s dream shot, but NYC is simply too large to even attempt to do in one weekend. It will clearly take several trips to see all the other neighborhoods I had wanted to see like the Meatpacking District, TriBeCa, Greenwich Village, etc. Until next time then, NYC; it’s been a slice… 🙂

Pax shop

After discovering the Pax Wholesome Foods shop following a run through Central Park one morning, my sister and I quickly became ‘regulars’ for grabbing quick, healthy lunches or brunches to take to the Park for an al fresco meal on a park bench under the trees. We loved how Pax posted the total calories for all their food; it made meal planning and purchasing decisions really easy.

People in Central Park

This was the scene in Central Park mid-morning on the Sunday of our trip. Tons of people were out enjoying the beautiful, warm day by foot, bike, in-line skates, or rowboat. We even had an interesting conversation with a jolly homeless lady, who reminded me of the elderly beggar lady selling tuppence a bag to feed the birds in Mary Poppins. Hearing we were visiting her city, she proudly recommended a bakery nearby for the best, freshly-baked cookies. (Clearly, she had sized up our sweet tooth correctly!)

Central Park carousel

Ever since seeing them all over Paris, I am drawn to carousels. Not to ride them, but to observe happy children bobbing up and down and all around on their trusty steeds. My favorites were the one outside of the Abbesses metro station in Montmartre, which I passed every day on the way to my flat, and of course, the famous carousel at the foot of the Butte to Sacre-Coeur Cathedral also in Montmartre. There were hints of a lovely carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg, which was mostly covered by a tarp the day I walked through that beautiful urban park. [Above: What a magical, whimsical childhood pleasure the carousel is. This colorful carousel in Central Park clearly enchanted the kids (and even the adults) who rode it. ]

Central Park bicycles

As I found out, NYC is quickly becoming a bike city. I was impressed by the reconfiguration of Broadway Avenue along Times Square, which had a protected, painted bike lane added to encourage cycling. If NYC can do it, then there is no excuse for other cities not to follow suit and encourage active transport. Bikes were also all the rage in Central Park. As soon as we approached the south entrance to the Park, we were aggressively solicited for a bike rental. As much as I would’ve loved to have ridden a bike through Central Park, I knew I’d be stopping every few feet to take a photo, so regrettably passed on the opportunity for this first trip.

Central Park Terrace detail

This is a view looking down from the upper Terrace in Central Park; the tree-canopied mall is to the left (up the stairs) and the Bethesda Fountain to the right. I took this picture on the morning I went for a run through the Park. I loved the architectural detail of the Terrace’s stonework. It actually reminded me a bit of the stonework you see along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa just below the National Arts Centre near Parliament Hill.

Central Park art vendor

All along the mall, there were vendors set up with their wares. I loved the colors of the artwork on display at this particular kiosk.

horse & pigeons

A queue of horses & carriages lined a section of 5th Avenue near the south entrance to Central Park. This white horse was particularly patient tolerating the aggressive flock of thirsty pigeons, each jockeying for a perch on his pail of refreshing water. A carriage ride through Central Park is an iconic thing to do, but something I would be more inclined to do in the fall or winter with a handsome suitor.

sidewalk book sale

After I was able to tear myself away from photographing the Lake and its boats from all angles, we exited Central Park and walked along 5th Avenue, where we spotted a sidewalk book sale. There were some beautiful, New York-themed, hard-cover childrens’ books on display, the artistry of which just can’t be duplicated on an e-reader.

Magnolia Bakery

On recommendation from a friend at work, I stopped in to check out the famous Magnolia Bakery on 6th Avenue and its cupcakes. My sister was spent from the long afternoon of walking, so she headed back to the hotel, leaving me to my own devices – a dangerous proposition considering my physical addiction to all things chocolate. Fortunately, I only emerged with two cupcakes – one for me and one for my sis. They were delicious! 🙂

NYC subway musician_B&W

On our way back from SoHo, we encountered this Rastafarian musician, who distinguished himself by his warm smile and chilled out demeanor, greeting various subway commuters as they passed by him, seemingly perfectly at home on his bench straddling the subway platforms. He also had an undeniable air of urban chic, perfectly put together in his long, flowing robe with leather pant leg peaking through; the curved chopines completed the look. I was compelled to pause momentarily in order to snap his picture.

subway platform_B&W

Waiting for the subway for an afternoon of exploring in SoHo.

NYC subway blur_B&W

Roz_SoHo graffiti

My little sis looking all bad-ass, hip hop chic in SoHo. 😉

SoHo street scene_B&W

Bustling street corner in SoHo with splendid architecture and where hipster shops – and aggressive drivers – abound.

SoHo foodtruck

Line-up for lunch at a food truck in SoHo.

Roz in SoHo_B&W

My sis seeking refuge under a canopy at Dean & DeLuca in SoHo before the drops of rain turned into a deluge and we sought shelter inside Felicity‘s old haunt. Unfortunately, Ben Covington did not serve us coffee.

yellow taxis_Times Square_B&W

This was a scene we passed many times during our extended weekend in NYC. Times Square is definitely an assault on the senses with it bright lights & neon colors, endless noise from cars & people, and all sorts of street smells – good and bad. It’s hard to imagine how much crazier it gets here for New Year’s Eve.

David Letternan cyclist

I was a bit awed being so close to the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the Late Show with David Letterman is taped. Staying in a hotel in Times Square was wonderful for a first trip to NYC.

pizza night

The photographer is usually more comfortable behind her lens. Street scene in Midtown on our way to a supper of pizza. Yum!

Roz & Heidi_Once musical_B&W

After dodging the raindrops in SoHo to grab a subway back to Midtown, I decided to try and snag some last-minute tickets to Once at the Jacobs Theater. I was in luck, though we were in the nosebleed section in the upper balcony. It was a beautiful, ornate old theatre, and the house was packed on that Friday night. As a huge fan of the eponymous film, Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova,and The Swell Season, I was thrilled to hear those familiar alternatingly joyful and heart-rending Irish songs played live by a cast of talented musicians and singers.

Once musical_B&W

Cast treating the eager audience to a lively musical warm-up prior to their performance of Once at the Jacobs Theater.

Skycraper & piston_B&W

While waiting for my sis outside the ATM, I noticed this interesting display of geometry and perspective along Broadway Avenue.

FAO Schwartz guard

Like I had done while visiting Hamley’s toy store in London, UK last fall, I posed (this time, without reluctance) with the affable ‘toy soldier’ greeting customers at the entrance of FAO Schwartz on 5th Avenue. (Toy shops are super-fun places to visit, especially when you have kids or nieces/nephews to spoil! I have to admit that I personally love toy stores and the traditional or unusual toys you can often find at these places. Also, I totally had to see the Big piano that Tom Hanks famously played.

The Big Piano_Heidi

This was awesome! I really had to cajole my little sis into doing this with me, though, especially since there were just little kids trying out the keys at first. However, it only takes one to start a trend and so after we had our 30 seconds of fun or so on the piano, more adults followed suit and we’re equally delighted by the experience. We’re all just Big kids in the end.

TopoftheRock_B&W

Top of the Rock with Empire State Building in the background. Word to the wise: the view is spectacular from the top (70 stories up on a super-fast elevator), but think twice about purchasing the photos; they’re a bit of a rip-off and you just end up being posed in front of a fake backdrop. We  were only permitted to choose  one measly $5 electronic pic (from the four that were taken), which was really poor quality. (I ended up Photoshopping it – see below.) You can, of course, get more expensive photo packages with the prints inserted into frames for you, but I’m not sure it’s worth it. Maybe if you were planning to propose (or be proposed to), or marking another special occasion. Even then… maybe best to just bring along a friend who’s a good photographer. Also, it’s probably more dramatic to view the city from that vantage point at sunset or at night. We went in the late afternoon, so the sun was really bright and hot!

Butterfield Market bike

We visited the Butterfield Market on Lexington Avenue in the Upper East Side for a quick al fresco lunch on a bench in front of their shop. Lovely, old neighborhood food market, but pricey!

Met Museum

Sadly, we did not have enough time to explore the exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but at least we made it inside and soaked in a bit of the scene on the steps. (I didn’t realize it was located on the perimeter of Central Park along 5th Avenue.) I did manage to pick up a wonderful hard-cover historical perspective on Central Park in the Museum’s store called Central Park: Then and Now.

Heidi & Roz at 30Rock_B&W_text

After initially receiving a corrupt electronic file of the picture we had taken with the fake backdrop of NYC at 30 Rock, I received one that was in color (while the background was black & white) and uncropped with the shiny black floor showing. Needless to say, I got to work in Photoshop and pimped the pic up a bit. Too bad I don’t know how to Photoshop in more glam clothes worthy of a ‘Vogue – New York’ cover shoot. (Oh well…)

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First Bite Out of the Big Apple: Weekend in NYC

I’ve visited a fair number of US cities over the years but surprisingly, never New York City. So, when my corporate wunderkind little sis suggested we meet up in the Big Apple for an extended weekend, I was all in.

Ever the planner and trip-maximizer, I happily marched over to the World of Maps shop in Hintonburg to pick up some pre-trip research materials, namely Lonely Planet’s Discover New York City, National Geographic’s Walking New York, a super-handy and compact Popout map of New York, and of course, the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine at my local newsstand. This systematic review of NYC was rounded out by consultations with NYC-savvy friends and colleagues along with studying a vast number of electronic articles and resources.

I figured, rather blusteringly on retrospect, that hey, I organized and executed a solo first trip to Europe last fall by myself, so how hard could it possibly be to take in all of NYC that I wanted to see on a 3 1/2 day extended weekend?

Afterall, I thought, I’m an infinitely curious person with energy to spare (especially when it comes to travel and exploration), I’ve got a keen sense of direction, and am a consummate strategist and contingency planner. Perfect, right? Wrong. Despite all of these desirable qualities for travel in tote, even I would be forced to admit that I am not super-human and this portfolio of assets, though valuable, would still not permit me to simply discard any notion of having to make rational choices or trade-offs and instead live like a hedonist in an economically-lawless utopia (or dystopia, depending on your view).

In the end, in spite of not getting to see everything I wanted to see, I still wound up with a good introduction to NYC. Kind of like making new friends at a meet & greet with a promise to meet up again for more than just wine & apps. Until next time then, here are a few slices out of my Big Apple trip. (More to follow later…)

Waiting for train into Penn Station from Newark Airport

Waiting on the platform for a train into Penn Station from Newark Airport, which was kind of sketchy…

On Broadway Ave outside our hotel in Times Square

Exploring Broadway Avenue outside our hotel in Times Square after rolling my suitcase (with a broken wheel) 14 blocks  through a sea of people to get to our hotel. As my little sis aptly observed, NYC is like ‘Toronto on steroids’. Indeed. Couldn’t have described it better, myself.

Interior of Marriott Hotel in Times Square

Interior of NY Marriott Hotel in Times Square where we stayed  overlooking the lounge below. The whole time, I was trying to figure out whether the design was representational or abstract. My logical-thinking left brain insisted that the repeating pattern of lines & curves was clearly a stylized rendering of musical notes and symbols along bars & staff lines as the hotel’s acknowledgement of being located on Broadway Avenue. Never did get around to validating this theory though…

View of Times Square from hotel window

View of Broadway Avenue/Times Square from our hotel window. It’s true what they say: New York never sleeps, though it was a lot quieter on the Sunday morning.

Grabbing a quick lunch at Pret a Manger near Times Square

When I was in London, UK last fall, an ex-pat friend there had introduced me to the popular Pret a Manger chain for picking up fast, healthy lunches. I was quite pleased to discover it upon arrival in NYC. They post total calorie counts for all their food, which is fantastic for helping one make purchasing decisions. Pax Wholesome Foods was a similar restaurant that posted total calorie counts for everything they sold. My little sis and I visited the Pax shop on Broadway in Midtown a couple of times to pick up lunch/brunch en route to Central Park for an al fresco meal under the trees on a park bench. Thanks to the posted calorie info, we discovered that a half-sandwich along with a small beverage and treat (usually a small cookie) provided ample energy to fuel an afternoon of walking the streets of NYC. It would be nice if restaurants in Canada likewise posted calorie info to help consumers (including travelers without access to home-cooked meals) make better food purchasing decisions.

Thursday evening diners at Eataly

On our first night in NYC, my little sis, her work colleague, and I decided to check out Mario Batali’s Eataly on Fifth Avenue for supper. I was particularly curious since the combination resto-market had come highly recommended by several friends. It did not disappoint! The space is huge and the vibe energetic, sophisticated but unpretentious (thank goodness, since I was not exactly rocking my most chic self in jeans & sneakers). It clearly looked like the go-to spot for the after-work crowd. After hearing we wouldn’t be able to snag a table for supper for close to an hour, we decided to check out the bar scene and soak in the atmosphere in the interim.

Eataly is a combination restaurant-market, so expect to see many people come in for different purposes including to pick up groceries, mingle and enjoy a few after-work drinks with co-workers, or relax over a leisurely supper with friends in the restaurant space. I personally thought Eataly had a magical, almost festive quality about it, making it a potentially great spot for a date or a celebratory outing. Speaking of dates – sort of, I was flattered to be approached by a well-dressed, lean, fit man while waiting in line for some stracciatella gelato on our way out of Eataly.  The guy, a silver-haired, smooth corporate type from Brooklyn, looked exactly like John Slattery of Mad Men fame. He chatted with me in line and then proceeded to buy my gelato. (Guys take note: buying a girl ice cream is always a good call compared to offering a cheesy pick-up line.) ‘John’ happened to also be out with two other variously intoxicated, but well-attired businessmen, who then (like loyal wingmen) proceeded to engage my sis and her colleague in sidebar conversation. After a while, and especially since everyone but me was sporting a wedding ring, we girls decided to conclude the evening festivities, much to our prospective suitors’ dismay. We quickly made our way out into the night, and after failing to hail a yellow cab despite our best efforts, we made a run for the nearest subway station under an inadequately-sized single umbrella as it began to rain again. [Above: The ‘meat market’ at Eataly.]

Wine & appetizers at the Eataly bar

The bar scene: Where we, along with the after-work crowd, initially congregated at Eataly. Small, elevated rectangular tables served as the anchor for delicious food & drink, animated conversation, and  the requisite people-watching. It was standing room only.

Enjoying wine, cheese, and a charcuterie plate

My comparatively more food & wine-savvy little sis & her colleague ordered a nice charcuterie plate with cheese along with some wonderful wine. It would be easy to spend the entire evening simply enjoying these delicacies, as the couple next to us seemed to be doing

After-work crowd enjoying drinks & apps and plenty of socializing

After-work crowd enjoying drinks & appetizers and lots of socializing at Eataly.

Running route along western side of Central Park

After our memorable, epicurean night out at Eataly, I was keen to get up early and go for a run in Central Park, which I had yet to explore. As someone who much prefers running on quiet trails in the woods to unforgiving asphalt in a noisy, urban, concrete jungle, Central Park turned out to be a little piece of paradise for me. [Above: Running route along western side of Central Park with the famous San Remo apartment cooperative in the background.]

Central Park mall

The lovely Central Park mall, which reminded me of the time I spent walking, running, and cycling through London’s Hyde Park last September, and to some degree, the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. NYC nannies with their precious charges, dog-walkers,visual artists, food and NYC knick-knack vendors, and musicians could all be seen along the route.

Central Park mall

A couple is spotted walking under the protection of their umbrellas along the Central Park mall on a cloudy morning marked by occasional light showers.

View of Bethesda Fountain near upper Terrace

Toward the end of my run, a view of Bethesda Fountain through the trees from the upper Terrace in Central Park.

Central Park St. Bernard puppy

I spotted this gorgeous, 4-month-old St. Bernard puppy named ‘London’ lounging at the  steps to the Lake in front of Bethesda Fountain. Of course, I had to pat him (he was so soft!) and chat with his gracious owner.

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

'London' contemplating the beauty of Central Park

‘London’, like a Wordsworth, clearly contemplating the inspiring beauty of Central Park (all the while, unaware that I was crafting an elaborate dog-napping plan once I hit upon on a suitable diversionary tactic to distract his owner. ;-)).

Nostalgic gelato shop near south entrance of Central Park

Central Park had made such an impression on me that previous cloudy morning that for the remainder of my stay in NYC, it became somewhat of a ritual for me (and my sis) to visit this urban oasis each morning/early afternoon before hitting the busy streets and shops for a packed day of sight-seeing. [Above: Nostalgic gelato shop located near south entrance of Central Park.]

Father and son watching the boaters on the Lake at Central Park

Father and son contentedly watching the boaters on the Lake at Central Park on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Four children gather at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park

Scooters and children seemed to be everywhere in Central Park. Here, four young children pause from their spirited play at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

Talented children's singing ensemble performing in the Terrace Arcade in Central Park

Soaring, angelic voices could be heard from the ornate Bethesda Terrace Arcade in Central Park from a talented children’s musical ensemble. We encountered performers  of all sorts in the Park, including a lone saxophonist and a lively crew of very athletic tumblers.

View of the San Remo  across the Lake in Central Park

Wherever we walked in Central Park, I always found myself drawn back to the Lake to admire the scene of dozens of rowboats before me. It brought back fond memories of the all-too-brief afternoon I spent in Oxford, UK, last fall when I happened upon punters under the Magdalene Bridge. (Now, that was romantic on a scale of Lord Byron. (sigh)) [Above: Couples and families enjoying leisurely paddle across the Lake in Central Park with a view of the San Remo in the background.]

Fit couple in foreground enjoy leisurely paddle on the Lake in Central Park

A very fit, tanned, attractive middle-aged couple in the foreground articulates the romance of a paddle on the Lake perfectly, particularly as the woman enjoys a chauffered ride on the water like Cleopatra with her Mark Antony on the Nile.

Young boy stares longingly at the remote-control sailboats on the Conservatory Water in Central Park

I came upon another lovely water scene at the Conservatory Water in Central Park, where a young boy stares longingly at the remote-controlled model sailboats gliding atop the pond in Central Park. A model sailboat-hire kiosk was located nearby, where children and adults alike indulged in this time-honored activity dating back to more than 135 years. Even E.B. White‘s beloved Stuart Little sailed these storied waters.

Swimming: A Yearning for the Life Aquatic

Summer, 2012

I’m out for another evening work-out on another sweltering summer night in the city. I have never seen Ottawa looking so dry. Alarmingly so. We have not had rain for more than a month, and the straw-colored grass is just thirsting for water. During the day, it looks as if we live in a giant wheat field like the one depicted by the 20th century American realist painter, Andrew Wyeth, in his tableau, Christina’s World. An odd  juxtaposition of happy sunbathers can be seen along the canal near the Corktown footbridge soaking in the intense sunshine seemingly either blissfully unaware or undisturbed by the desperate, drought-like conditions surrounding them. As night falls, our sun-scorched earth becomes a version of Van Gogh‘s ominous Wheatfield with Crows, where pedaling along the parched Arboretum‘s lonely bike path expectedly triggers the doleful a-hink-a-honk chorus from the hundreds of resident, apathetic Canada geese, floating disinterestedly on the warm lagoon waters.  A small, skittish cohort suddenly breaks away in V formation, having decided to seek skyward sanctuary; their remaining feathery flâneurs left bobbing over the small series of waves generated from the wake…

Another day, another night of heat. The wind has changed, and so the smell of smoke from a brush fire in the city’s west end now permeates the warm, humid air, causing me to defer my run until tomorrow morning in favor of a swim indoors. I’ve just started working out at the university pool since my community pool is closed for the summer for much-needed renovations to its dilapidated roof and ventilation system.

The Quest to Conquer the Fear

The university pool is a hard-core, 50 m competition pool filled with water tending on the cold side, conducive for supporting top performances by its varsity swimmers; my unassuming community pool, by comparison, is only 25 m in length with a balmy ambient water temperature perfect for more casual or leisure-inclined swimmers. I was slightly intimidated by the prospect of kicking around on a flutterboard in this big pool, imagining all those aspiring Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin swimmers lapping me several times over…

I am still learning to swim properly. It’s not so much the physical aspects of swimming that elude or intimidate me, but the considerable psychological baggage I carry for deep water that I can’t seem to unpack. It’s been more than a year that I’ve been incorporating pool work-outs into my athletic routine, but I am growing impatient with the plateau I seemed to have hit in my swimming progress.

My interpretation of the famous Edvard Munsch painting, The Scream.

I took some adult lessons last winter, which began with promise, but then I seemed to lose momentum. I struggled fruitlessly trying to master the art of treading water without exhausting myself from the effort. I’ve tried both the ‘bicycle’ and ‘egg beater’ techniques, but my legs and arms invariably tire after moving about at Mach 8 or like the powered-up propellers of Porter‘s Bombardier Q-400 turboprops. I cannot seem to get myself to slow down in the belief that I will float. By contrast, the rest of my less fit classmates easily mastered this essential water safety skill. I was discouraged, but soldiered on, albeit dispiritedly as I watched my peers transform into confident, competent swimmers, effortlessly completing 25 m up and 25 m back. I would achieve no such breakthrough.

During the in-between time of my lessons, I mostly stick to my security blanket routine of non-stop laps up and down the 25-m section of shallow water at the university pool supported, of course, by my large, trusty red flutter board. Because I kick away vigorously and continuously for almost an hour, the effort usually provides a decent cardio (and muscular endurance) work-out and most importantly, a much-needed cross-training break from the unforgiving, repeated pounding my lower limbs have sustained from all the years of exclusive running.

Physically, I do not look like someone who cannot swim. In fact, I probably look like someone who swims well — possibly at a Master’s level. With my focused, hour-long flutterboard sessions, I would often be queried by curious swimmers in the adjacent lanes about what I was training for; I did not fit their image of a non-swimmer and so they were always more than a little surprised to learn that no, actually I was still learning how to swim.

What is it about Deep Water?

I don’t eschew the deep end of the pool entirely. In fact, I often enjoy doing laps on my flutterboard there especially to avoid the usually crowded lanes of the shallow end or getting hit in the head by a wayward ball from the rambunctious pick-up water basketball games among the 20-somethings that go on concurrently in the adjacent leisure lane. When I’m relaxed in the deep end, I imagine myself being supported on top of a giant bowl of Jell-O or a very big waterbed; I can easily sense the difference in buoyancy between the shallow and deep end. When I’m not relaxed, work-outs can become suffused with anxiety, where I experience a hyperawareness of the depth beneath me and a consequent need to remain within relatively easy reach of the pool’s side wall; I still persist with my work-out, but I am relieved when it is over and I can exit the deep end.

In spite of this long-standing fear of deep water and the challenge this presents to learning to swim, I have perhaps surprisingly always derived a great deal of artistic, spiritual, and intellectual inspiration from being near water — especially oceans and lakes. I think it is this desire to one day be able to safely canoe, row, or kayak solo in open water that most fuels my desire to learn to swim.

If I think back to my youth, there was a time when I delighted in going to my community pool for public swims to cool off during the hot summer months with my friends and sisters. Like most kids, I took swimming lessons, even excelling in my early series of Red Cross classes; however, I had not yet reached the level at which classes would be conducted exclusively in the deep end.

One day, during one of those care-free summer afternoons of my youth spent at the local pool, I remember wanting to try jumping into the deep water in such a way as to minimize splash. I was not a slim kid and so my jumps into the pool tended to be more on the ungraceful, cannonball side. I was also becoming increasingly aware of my slightly excess corpulence as a girl on the verge of puberty coupled with a generally increased self-awareness of physical appearance.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the outcome of my attempt at a rip entry jump. I jumped in straight, entering the water feet first with pointed toes like an arrowhead. However, I must have let myself descend too far since I began to panic. Fortunately, survival instinct kicked in as I was able to claw my way back up to the surface without drawing attention to myself. Hovering over the side of the pool, alternatingly gasping for air and clearing my throat of the water I had inhaled, I remember physically trembling as I thought about how differently this experiment could’ve turned out. Sadly, I don’t recall ever returning to the pool after that incident.

A Cautious Reacquaintance with Water

Fast forward many years later to the summer of 2011 when I decided to finally go back for another go at learning to swim with confidence and proficiency — and to tread water, all because of being sidelined last summer by a running-related injury and a determination to preserve my hard-earned cardiorespiratory fitness.

I can still remember that first Friday evening last summer when I tentatively slipped into the shallow end of my community pool. Why is it that pools are always so uninvitingly cold upon initial immersion? I recall the two young, teen-age (or so I thought) lifeguards confidently sitting sentry on their chairs, and how they would generously dispense stroke improvement tips to the eager, mostly novice or average-ability swimmers in the pool, a motley assortment of parents with their young children or toddlers, a few teenagers, some senior citizens, and me. Flutterboard-shod, I stayed close to the wall that night, but did venture partway into the deep end under the watchful eye of the lifeguard. My ankle, wrapped securely in Kinesio tape, was a curious enough accessory to behold as to prompt an inquiry from one of the lifeguards. We engaged in a chat about possible differential diagnoses for my injury, along with my long hiatus from the pool, my fear of the deep end, etc. I remember how reassured I felt when the lifeguards asserted that I would have nothing to fear under their watch. One of them also encouraged me to don a pair of goggles whenever I came to the pool for a swim. He explained that I might feel less anxious about the water if I could open my eyes and see where I was actually going. He was right.

The Comfort and Characters of the Fishbowl

After a few more drop-in visits to this modest community pool, a certain comfort with the staff, the facilities, and the other swimmers began to develop. I decided to commit to this pool and took out a 3-month membership. For the rest of that summer, my non-running fitness routine would consist of daily cycling and visits to the pool 3-4 times per week or more; my ankle tolerated this regimen well. In the process, I had become something of a regular at the pool, recognizing, and often chatting with, other regulars. This pool felt comfortable; it felt like my pool. I renewed my membership and my routine continued through the fall, winter, and spring, replacing the cycling with some cross-country skiing in the winter.

My imagination being what it is, it was inevitable that I would start to create visual stories or character sketches in my head about some of the other swimmers at the pool. This mental storyboard game I would play also proved to be an effective distraction strategy, increasing my comfort in the water by turning my thoughts away from the water, itself.

Cast of Characters

Inspector Clouseau was a year-round mustachioed (not just for Movember) swimmer, whom I could always count on to release a torrent of water over the lane buoys that separated us as he thrashed his way past me down the Fast lane. He was constantly working on his arms, wearing a flotation device between his legs so he wouldn’t have to kick.

Gargle-Mel was a member of the senior water-walkers crowd, who bore an uncanny resemblance to an old boss of mine. I always knew when he was in the water before actually seeing him because of the distinctive gargling sounds he would make underwater, which I would hear from a lane away as he trotted up and down the deep end with his flotation belt cinched to his waist.

A couple of times, I crossed paths with scowl-faced Maxine, who reminded me of her grumpy elderly doppelganger of greeting card fame. Maxine would often swim next to me in the leisure lane, and would lambaste me for any amount of splash I might inadvertently kick up from my powerful lower limb outboard motor.

The Indomitable Frogman was a weekend fixture in the pool. He always distinguished himself by his alarmingly nude color swim trunks and, despite his advanced age and glacial breast stroke pace, was either completely oblivious or didn’t give a whit about the traffic jams he would routinely trigger behind and beside him as a queue of swimmers (including me & my flutter board) successively manoeuvred (or leap-frogged) their way past him…

Wednesday evening swims were among the busiest sessions at my community pool, where accomplished, fit swimmers could often be seen chasing or racing each other in the Fast and Very Fast lanes. Wearing goggles was a must because of all the splashing, thrashing, and churning of water. On some nights, the water could become so rough that I had the impression of swimming in the open water free-for-all of a triathlon.

Among the talented Wednesday night swimmers were a couple, The Great White Shark Lady and her husband/partner, Scuba Steve. I was forever baffled as to why the Shark Lady would always opt to swim in the Medium lane when she so clearly belonged in the Fast lane. When she entered the pool’s waters, she would inevitably swim circles (figuratively-speaking) around everyone else in the Medium lane seemingly without breaking a sweat or exceeding her resting respiratory rate. Scuba Steve, on the other hand, was a regular in the Very Fast lane with the other hard-core swimmers, including some strong women. I felt like I was at Marineland watching a frisky dolphin as I admired Scuba Steve’s powerful flip-turns off the wall underwater as he progressed through his series of successive 25-m laps. I would always marvel at how he never misjudged his distance from the wall.

There were other interesting characters, as well, such as Waltzing Matilda who, like so many of the older adults in the pool without a swimmer physique per se, nonetheless seemed to just dance on water with her effortless, graceful interpretation of the breast stroke. She would almost certainly never break a sweat, looking more like a proper lady at a Victorian ball waltzing up and down the pool in her imaginary floor-length frock. 

One of the more fascinating characters to observe was The Amazing Flying Lake Trout. If I were going to cross paths with him, it would almost assuredly be during one of those busy Wednesday night sessions. His appearances were almost theatrical, with his grand entrance parading not one, not two, but three full-length towels, which he always carefully draped in parallel (like Patrick Bergin‘s character would’ve done in Sleeping with the Enemy) over the observation deck. Next, instead of beginning his lane swim in the shallow end as was customary at our pool, he would walk over to the deep end, greet the lifeguard on duty, and then unceremoniously launch himself from the deck like a WWE wrestler atop the ropes in the ring executing his finishing move — in this case, a sort of bouncy butterfly stroke into the Medium or Fast lane. The tidal wave generated from his entry and subsequent pounding, single fin-like kick of his feet had the effect of clearing the lane in which he was swimming, as the other swimmers quickly strategically switched lanes or waited for the tsunami to pass before continuing their work-out. The energy that the Flying Lake Trout would’ve expended with his inefficient stroke must have been considerable, which made it all the more remarkable how he was able to swim a series of brisk 25-m laps before taking a break.

Sauna-Addiction-Lady, by contrast, was not a swimmer that I could tell, but she would always come to the pool on Saturday afternoons with her swimming family. While her husband and children frolicked in the pool, she would disappear into the wooden, poolside sauna shack, spending an inordinate amount of time luxuriating inside. One weekend afternoon, she emerged so completely red-faced and dehydrated that I thought she was going to faint. A couple of ladies were concerned enough to offer her water, despite her protestations and assurances that she was fine. Personally, I do not understand the allure of the sauna and the desire to make oneself dripping hot, but then I also do not understand Bikram yoga or people who choose to take their vacations in tropical areas. I chock it up to being a Nordic girl, but maybe I am part amphibian…

And then there was Mr. Even-Though-I’m-Old-Enough-To-Be-Your-Father-I-Can-Still-Rock-A-Speedo…  Why is it that men of a certain age — those nearing or at retirement age, who still hit the health club — seek to attract the attention of women at least 25 years their junior? What’s wrong with pursuing more age-appropriate women? Having had enough unwanted, poolside encounters with said men, I’m seriously starting to wonder a) how old I actually look and b) what kind of unintended signals I may be giving off. One such awkward encounter occurred last spring with an older man, whom I initially thought was just engaging in friendly, professional chit chat about our common industry. So when I agreed to go for coffee one afternoon, I did so on the assumption that it would be for professional networking. The thought that he might have been interested in me never crossed my mind as he was clearly old enough to be my father. However, when I began the conversation with an animated analysis of where I thought the industry was headed, Mr. Speedo’s true intentions were suddenly and awkwardly revealed when he interrupted my diatribe, lamenting how we always seemed to talk about work… [For the record, just in case there was any uncertainty on the subject, Speedos should be outlawed for all but competitive male divers, such as Alexandre Despatie.]

What It Will Take for this Aspiring Fish to Earn her Fins

To finally become a swimmer, I am going to need to find the right instructor and the right pool. Someone patient and creative, and perhaps with a gift for psychology. In particular, someone who knows how to teach and work with adults, which is not the same as teaching and working with kids. Kids are fearless and mostly uncomplicated, more apt to bounce back from setbacks.

In the meantime, until my community pool reopens, I will keep exposing myself to deep water at the university pool while dodging stray basketballs. It may also be time to leverage that analytical brain of mine and check out a couple of well-reviewed books on swimming (Conquer Your Fear of  Water by Melon Dash and Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton).

Savoring a wee bit o’ Guinness at work…

I’ve always identified with Irish culture for some reason. I’m not sure why. Like many Canadians, I can reach back into my genealogy and extract an Irish root or two, but the reality is my Dutch and British lineage remain closer to the surface.

I think it’s the Irish traditional music that most stirs me. I’m not one to be coaxed onto the dance floor easily, but when I hear the sound of Irish music playing — usually in a pub — my otherwise rhythmically disinclined body is compelled to move with the beat. Like a self-possessed metronome, my foot cannot resist the siren call to keep time with the music.

My first exposure to Irish culture was during my university days as a very green undergrad student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Known for both its talented pool of local musicians and density of bars and pubs packed into a relatively tight downtown core, an evening out at a Halifax pub (or pubs) was (and still is) THE thing to do starting on a Thursday night and continuing on into the weekend. While pubs and bars have come and gone over the years, some venerable ones remain like the Lower Deck on the Halifax waterfront — a must-do experience for the first-time Halifax visitor.

Despite my affinity for Irish culture, I  have yet to actually set foot on the Emerald Isle. The closest I’ve come was this past spring when I had an opportunity to go to Dublin with my sister, who had to be in Ireland for some international business meetings. Were the airlines tickets more affordable in the context of a week-long stay, I would’ve taken advantage of this chance to visit Europe for the first time. Alas, it was not to be. My sister did go, however, and did enjoy her brief, first-time trip to Europe. Unfortunately, she is not so identified with Irish culture as me and also has little interest in photography, so the images I have of Ireland remain those that I have collected and stored away in my imagination over the years through books, movies (e.g., Leap Year and a very handsome-scruffy Matthew Goode), photos, and magazines.

One of my friends at work, who married an ex-pat Irishman (whom, I imagine has a lovely accent), recently returned home from a five-week family trip in Ireland. I can’t wait to catch up with her, and hear how her trip was, what adventures she had, and if she ran into any Gerard Butler look-alikes (yes, I know he is actually Scottish, but he did play an Irishman quite convincingly in P.S. I Love You, a movie whose only redeeming quality was the presence of Gerard Butler and Jeffrey Dean Morgan) or Allan Hawco à la Love & Savagery (very charming Irish-Canadian film collab).

In any event, I was on the phone when my friend popped by my cube to deliver some Irish bounty — a dark chocolate bar. I was intrigued: a real Irish chocolate bar! I don’t think of Ireland when I think of European chocolate. And Guinness?.. I do recall having once come across a recipe for a chocolate layer cake, in which Guinness was specified as an ingredient… Normally, I hate beer, but maybe all it needs is a little chocolate…

My morning half-pint

Since I had made it to mid-morning without a single chocolate pick-me-up after the requisite dose at breakfast (selected from my always well-stocked dark chocolate stash— and no, we’re not talking Cocoa Puffs or Nutella, or any of that other fake stuff masquerading as chocolate), I carefully unwrapped the bar. Within seconds, my cube started to smell like D’Arcy McGee’s or The Old Triangle! That’s all I needed: my manager thinking I had gone all James Joyce or Ernest Hemingway with my tortured technical writing assignments. Just how much Guinness was in this bar, I wondered — after quickly devouring two squares…

For a moment, I was transported back in time to that enchanting, rainy, cold, fall afternoon along Wellington Street in Ottawa when the remnants of Hurricane Juan were kicking up a blustery storm of wet, fall leaves. We were soaked, my tall, dark, handsome, eloquent Irishman and me, after an afternoon spent playing tourist at the Parliament buildings, Supreme Court, and Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. We had decided to head over to D’Arcy McGee’s to warm up. It was the first time I tasted Guinness. Michael had insisted I take a sip from his pint. Not wanting to disappoint, I raised the glass to my lips and took the most skeptical of micro-sized sips. I remember how it tasted as burnt as it looked. Michael just laughed and said it was an acquired taste. I told him I’d stick to my hot chocolate and warm, chocolate lava cake…

Hmmm… No amounts listed on the ingredient list. I decided to err on the side of caution and not imbibe — I mean, eat — anymore and risk having HR refer me to the Employee Assistance Program for a drinking problem. I put the bar to one side of my desk with a single piece of paper over it like an alcoholic trying to conceal his liquor in paper bag, hoping the scent of Guinness would be somehow magically stifled. It wasn’t.

I was sure my cubemates in the adjacent cube would soon catch a whiff of that unmistakable scent and get up to check who had brought in liquor to work. I should say, that if I actually worked in a non-geeky job, I would be the very last person people would consider as the bootlegger or closet-alcoholic. However, my job being the inherently geeky job it is, geekiness is all relative; the only uncertainty is just where along the geekiness spectrum I fall. I finally hit upon a decidedly non-creative plan, but a plan, nonetheless. I would stuff my bar into my filing cabinet where I also stored my purse and coat. Problem solved — I would keep the thing sealed and out of sight for the rest of the day.

Because of a series of protracted, severe thunderstorms that hit the city in the waning hours of the afternoon, I decided to wait out the inclement weather since I was without coat or umbrella (not that that would’ve been too wise to use in a thunderstorm), had come by bike, and also had to peddle through a densely treed park on my way home. Two hours later, I finally decide to take my chances and venture home as hunger has now trumped fear. I reach for my stored backpack and purse and note the pub-like ambience that hits me again as I open the cupboard to my locker — henceforth, pub door. I hastily stuff the chocolate booze bar into my purse and quickly and steathily make my way out of the office, grateful that only the last diehards of the geek squad remain…

May you have warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night, and a smooth road all the way to your door. 

Sláinte!

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