Confessions of a Ballerunner

Essays on Sports, Arts, Culture, and Life

Archive for the category “Life lessons”

The accidental scientist

It was to be a marriage of convenience, this encounter, lasting for three years, no more. And then, I would most certainly move on. That was the plan. Although I had a notion of what I wished to gain by the end of this experience, the time in between remained a mystery. I was young, naive, and brimming with idealism, yet I felt a certain apprehension about this new adventure. It had all happened so fast, and now here I was about to uproot myself and move to Montreal like a bride to New France, not knowing what kind of life I was about to begin.
It had only been two years since I graduated from university. I should’ve been happy. I had a high-paying job, a comfortable lifestyle, and no debt. Yet, I wasn’t. I remember thinking, is this it? Is this what I studied four years for? It wasn’t enough; I needed more. And so, here I was, ready to trade in the familiar and the secure for uncertainty and a drastic change in lifestyle. I was going back to school.
Until this point, I had not imagined myself doing research. Sure, I was critical, analytical, rational, curious, and creative, but somehow I never connected these dots to research. Maybe it was that ill-fated grade 12 biology lab experiment when I sliced a poor, unsuspecting worm in sagittal section instead of making a gentle, superficial incision to expose the structures beneath the peritoneum. My lab partners, horrified by my lack of surgical precision, demoted me to note-taker for all subsequent dissections.
During my undergraduate years, lab work was an integral component of my health professional program. Yet, despite doing well, I remained largely unenamored with scientific experimentation – at least fundamental or laboratory-based research.
My MSc program at McGill would change all that.
Before coming to McGill, my notion of ‘scientist’ was a largely stereotypical one, in which a white lab coat-clad social misfit toiled away in his/her lonely lab for years on end conducting highly esoteric experiments with no real-world applicability. While that character sketch is not necessarily a fiction, it fails to recognize all the other types of non-laboratory scientific research being conducted.
At McGill, I was exposed to ‘clinical research’, in which people are recruited to participate in an experiment in order to answer a specific scientific question. My experiment was a randomized controlled trial of patients with untreated high cholesterol. We sought to answer whether prescribing a cholesterol-lowering medication affected patients’ concurrent efforts to adopt a healthy lifestyle. It was a formative experience, requiring me to play many diverse roles, including scientist, clinician, teacher, counselor, and entrepreneur. I had no idea at the time just how much I would love research and its many creative opportunities.
That was 12 years ago. Scientific research, rather than being a stepping stone, has instead evolved to become a core element of my professional career, complementing my clinical work and continually inspiring me to ask why.

 Image

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).

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

‘Bad Idea Jeans’ commercial or just another night out running…

RULE # 1: DO NOT EAT A BIG MEAL BEFORE RUNNING… OR SWIMMING… OR CYCLING… OR JUST ABOUT ANY SPORT.

You know the quote. It goes something like this: “the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result” – Albert Einstein. So, why do I still insist on ‘breaking’ the cardinal rule of running and loading up with a lavish meal before heading out the door?! It’s the same drill every time. I get home from work. I’m famished. I head to the fridge and nosh down on some dark chocolate-covered almonds, grab a peanut butter sandwich, maybe a slice of cheese and a glass of milk, then out I go, thinking I’m going to Usain Bolt myself down the canal path. Yeah, all that acutely consumed protein and fat is definitely the rocket fuel of world record setters. (Not!). If my gi tract could talk, I’m sure it would be cursing me for my repeatedly ill-timed and ill-composed food. Especially after only allowing my stomach a half-hour to digest it all. And yet, I repeat this pre-run nutritional pattern over and over again, thinking I’ll be fine this time… Insanity!

RULE # 2: DRESS ON THE COOL SIDE FOR YOUR RUN. (DON’T WORRY: YOU WILL WARM UP.)

Alas, Rule # 1 was not the only running rule I broke tonight. Because of being chilled by the ‘arctic cold’ air-conditioning blowing at me all day long at my workplace, I made a rookie error in judgment (oh the shame!) and overdressed for my run. Being overheated on a run due to excessive clothing is the worst. It’s no fun being cold either, but being hot on a warm, muggy night is just so unpleasant. (Especially when you add in the black flies that collide with your face, arms, legs and become fixed in place by your sweat.) Admittedly, tonight’s weather was a bit of a crapshoot for planning. When I biked home from work, the northeastern part of the city was filled with foreboding, dark, storm clouds with light winds out of the SSW while the south end was overcast, but bright and non-threatening. I originally was going to head out in shorts, a t-shirt, and (somewhat reluctantly) a ballcap, but then the heavens opened up and there was a torrential downpour starting just as I was about to go out the door. So, the last-minute plan B decision was to don a light jacket — my shelter against the elements. (Like a cat, I hate getting wet on a run unless it’s super-hot and humid and then the rain is soooo refreshing.) Bad idea. I have yet to find a running jacket for rainy runs that actually keeps me dry AND breathes. (Same conundrum with bicycle helmets.) So, I headed out, my black Nike cap’s long rim shielding my face from the rain, but the jacket acting like the predictable sauna I knew it would be, compelling me to unzip it most of the way and roll up the sleeves to my elbows to try and dissipate the extra heat. (I shudder to think how I must’ve looked like an older version of my 1985 tomboy self or an old school hip-hop dancer.) Of course, by now, I’m also having to contend with increasing indigestion… (So much for a fast time tonight.)

RULE #3: AVOID RUNNING DURING THUNDERSTORMS

OK, normally this is a rule I follow to the letter. (Like a Golden Retriever, I hate thunderstorms and would probably dive under my bed to hide when they rolled in, if I could actually fit under there.) I know what the stats say about it being highly improbable being struck by lightning, but why do we seem to hear more and more reports of this happening to people? Plus, Ottawa’s summer thunderstorm season seems to be getting a lot more violent over the past few years. (Hello, Bluesfest stage collapse last summer?) Anyway, this rule was broken tonight as my path was illuminated by a sudden, familiar flash of light and the distant rumbling of thunder. I contemplated turning around, but I was already more than 1/3 into my distance, and I wasn’t willing to scrub this run since my schedule was not free tomorrow night. I comforted myself with the fact that there were still a number of people out walking, running, and biking. So, it can’t be that perilous, right?.. I was running among trees however. What was that they say about thunderstorms? Seek low-lying areas? Stay away from trees?.. (Probably diving into the canal wouldn’t be a wise choice either — possibility of electrocution, picking up a skin infection from the pollution…) I began to take mental notes of where I could seek shelter quickly if the storm intensified. Being a regular runner for the past 7-8 years does confer a certain empirically-acquired expertise in weather-watching (translation: being a runner turns you into an amateur climatology geek), however, so I hypothesized from the drop in temperature, the appearance of the sky and the relatively wide intervals between the lightning flashes and responsory thunderclaps that this was a series of mild, fast-moving storm cells. In short, I wasn’t overly worried about funnel clouds and tornadoes. So, I continued on. Stomach still queasy, but on the mend.

During the last 1/3 of my run, it really started to pour. I’m sure I could’ve been mistaken for someone in a wetsuit by this point; my soaking clothes were just plastered to me. My stomach felt better though, so I was heartened. I was pretty much the only (crazy) one left on the canal path at this point, but had to dodge a new hazard: speeding cars sending tidal waves of water onto the path. Forget the running jacket — I now needed hip waders and a sou’wester!?..

When I finally sloshed my way up the walk to my house, I felt vindicated. I had done it. I had not quit. I had won the battle. It wasn’t the fastest run for me, but it was the second wettest. One of those ‘character-building’ runs. (The wettest run I ever had was in Montreal running a 21-k training run through Mount Royal Park and Outremont on an oppressively hot, humid summer day. When the rain finally came, it was a total monsoon — but a refreshing one! I remember wringing water out of my clothes like a sponge when I got home. It was reminiscent of that old Sprite commercial Zulu song, ‘Rain, rain, rain, rain… Beautiful rain…’)

Stoked and totally soaked from my run, I decided to head to the pool for an hour-long work-out. I had done the hard part — completed the run — so the pool work-out was gravy. Happily, the pool ended up being a great work-out and I felt so relaxed and energized afterward… 🙂

High Fidelity: A Musical Time-Traveling Tale of Two Relationships

If we are lucky, we eventually meet and fall in love with someone who becomes our partner for life. Our better half. Our moitié douce. Along the road to meeting ‘our person’, however, we may date many people, some of whom we may remember better than others…

What’s fascinating to me is the role that the music du jour seems to play both in triggering our recollection of events and in modifying our emotional response to these events. I’m not sure if this is a peculiarity for the musically-inclined or a general phenomenon. (I need to inform myself better about the science behind music and the mind starting with reading the works of Daniel Levitin and Oliver Sacks.) In any case, I often find when I hear a particular song begin to play, I can become instantly transported back to a specific time, place, person, or emotional state.

How about you?

Do you remember the song that was playing the first time you & your now-partner were out at a bar dancing or cozied up at the corner table of the pub getting to know each other?.. How about when that retro radio station starts playing an 80s power ballad? Feel like you’re back at the junior high school dance all sweaty palms and giant teased hair? Or, what about that song that seemed to play everywhere you went, all summer-long, which, when heard now, instantly transports you back to those hot, lazy days spent at the cottage, beach, or just hanging out with friends?.. For those of us who are athletically-inclined, ever notice when you’re out running or working out at the gym with your i-pod on, the sudden rush of adrenaline coursing through your body the moment your favourite song starts playing, magically energizing you to run faster or push harder even when you thought you were exhausted? And finally, ask any couple about to get married about meaningful musical moments and chances are good they will readily cite several songs between them that they associate with a particular milestone or event in their relationship. (BTW, check out ‘The Wedding Singer’, if you’ve never seen it; it’s hilarious!)

To me, music can also serve as the chronological scaffolding against which a relationship narrative unfolds. Films make great use of music in this capacity all the time in order to more powerfully tell their story. (One great example being ‘Love Actually’.) I guess it’s of no surprise then, that I often feel like I am an actress in my own series of real-time music videos…

In the case of dating with its attendant highs and lows, the quotidian and the extraordinary, some of the music we are exposed to over the course of a given relationship can often evolve into an unofficial playlist or soundtrack for that relationship, creating a sort of musical memoir or timeline, whereupon hearing the first few notes of a particular song from that soundtrack, we may find ourselves inexplicably remembering some arcane aspect of that relationship.

With these ideas and observations in mind, and with inspiration from David Levithan’s (of ‘Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist’ fame) poetic, pithy book ‘The Lover’s Dictionary‘ and the must-see, classic, comedic film, ‘High Fidelity‘, starring John Cusack and Jack Black, the following is a two-part narrative or double-sided vinyl 33 RPM record. A snapshot of two very different relationships. One long and the other, short. One ambiguous, the other not. One of two highly similar personalities and the other of two seemingly disparate personalities. Both of which, set to music. Each with their own prevailing emotional tone. And like the complexity of great music, not so easily deconstructed…

Side 1: The Long Relationship

♥ God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Barenaked Ladies (feat Sarah McLachlan)

You were new to the office. I’d  already given out Christmas cards to everyone else. Although I hardly knew you, I suspected you were someone I would want to get to know. Since I was shy, I surreptitiously left a card for you in your mail slot — a sort of ‘welcome to the team’.

♥ Wherever You Will Go – The Calling

I didn’t know it at the time, but you were trying to get my attention. In the morning, before the sessions started, and after careful consultation with a close colleague, you had dashed out to the local bakery and bought me a large cylindrical tin of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. Since I know of no better way to start the morning off than with a hefty dose of chocolate, I wasted no time locating a large soup spoon and pried the lid off.  (I hope I paused long enough to thank you.) You just stood there, watching me, completely amused by my child-like (or Cookie Monster-like) unabashed eagerness to break into that tightly-sealed tin. This was the first time you would learn of my chocolate addiction, which you would go on to indulge for several years.

♥ 03′ Bonnie & Clyde – Jay Z & Beyoncé

I remember the first time you asked me out to lunch. You called me under the guise of comparing notes on a business issue. Instead of resolving the relatively straightforward matter by phone, you instead asked me if I ‘ate lunch’. Recognizing the subtext, I excitedly began to do a little happy dance on the other end of the phone; it was if you had (finally) just asked me to marry you. (I hope I didn’t sound too emphatic or breathless in my ‘yes’ response.) This was your initially, cautious way of getting to know me better — an apparent working lunch. Except the ‘work’ part lasted only minutes; you were much more interested in cracking my hard, outer shell… We would continue our weekly or bi-weekly ‘clandestine’ lunches for two years, often only mildly concerned of the time… Our favourite spot was the atrium or eating al fresco on the adjacent terrasse overlooking the park below. What I remember most about that first summer of our series of lunch dates was how every day felt warm & sunny even if it was pouring outside; I was so happy being in your company.

♥ Clocks – Coldplay

It was a summer of seemingly endless sunshine. You were glued to the Tour de France — you were always a huge fan of Lance Armstrong. Like the familiar piano riff refrain or a cyclist in the Pyrénées barreling down the steep descent, there was no turning back. I knew I was falling for you. Little did I know I had actually boarded an unpredictable rollercoaster ride. 

♥ Fallen – Sarah McLachlan

Undeterred by the remnants of Hurricane Juan swirling eddies of brightly colored leaves and horizontal rain in our path, we soggily make our way to the Hill, our shared inverted umbrella having surrendered to the gale. I keep stopping to take photos while you instinctively reach for my bag and take the umbrella, my devoted ad hoc photographer’s assistant. We seek shelter inside the great halls of Parliament, then climb to the top of the Peace Tower to take in the panoramic views of Ottawa and Gatineau, then amble like Jack & Jill down the rolling grounds to the Supreme Court, before retracing our steps down the street to check out a black & white urban photo exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. Finally, we make our way over to D’Arcy McGee’s to warm up in a cozy corner of the pub with a pint of Guinness (you) and some food. Forget Paris or Rome — during that rain-soaked afternoon, Ottawa was the most romantic city in the world.

♥ Turn Me On – Norah Jones

I twisted your arm to skip the business function you had to come with me to see The Group of Seven exhibit over at the art gallery. You knew nothing about art, which surprised me; you were so intelligent, so well-read. I was studying a painting when you leaned over and whispered into my ear about how phallic you thought Lawren Harris’ ‘Old Stump, Lake Superior’ painting was.

♥ White Flag – Dido

“I can’t bear you being angry with me” you said… “I would ask you out in a heartbeat”… “I like you much more than you realize”… I recall your pleading, emotional words uttered only weeks before as I now walk hurriedly down the hill in the pouring rain, tears streaming down my face. I can hardly see. I have to catch my train home.  You had just revealed you were involved with another woman. 

♥ Take on Me – Aha

You reflexively cranked the volume on your car stereo. A wide grin spreading across your face as you grooved to the beat. I cringed like a teenager embarrassed by an uncool act committed by a parent. You were trapped in a musical time warp, happy to remain firmly ensconced in the 80s of your youth. These were your comfort, care-free years, it would seem. I wonder, were you truly happy then?

♥ I’ll Be – Edwin McCain

I had just taken you out for a birthday lunch at a Szechuan restaurant downtown that we both loved. Afterward, you had to go back to the office and I had to catch a train. We lingered on the busy street corner against the blowing snow. As I began to secure the hood of my wool coat over my head, you leaned in to kiss me. You brushed my mouth. You had never kissed me before. I wasn’t sure if you had meant to kiss my cheek and simply missed. Two-cheek kissing was just a cultural norm in this city, a social greeting akin to a handshake.

♥ Du Plaisir – Don Juan soundtrack (Félix Gray)

You asked me to go to the premiere of this French musical pop opera with you. You had been given two tickets by a business associate. I thought, how romantic this was going to be: it was almost Valentine’s Day. You suggested we meet at the theater. I suggested we walk down together. At intermission, you quietly asked me for change to pay for your drink. Your colleagues were amused; they asked how long we’d been married. You became very uncomfortable.

♥ Come Away with Me – Norah Jones

You must have snuck into my office early that morning. The package was large, heavy, carefully wrapped with an envelope appended. I was not expecting anything from you, but I still held out hope. You had given me the most beautiful card along with the coveted David Silcox hardcover coffee table book on ‘The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson’. You couldn’t have given me a more perfect gift.

♥ Two Socks – The Wolf Theme – John Barry (Dances with Wolves soundtrack)

You pull me in, you push me away. You pull me in, you push me away. I don’t want to play your game anymore.

♥ Mr. Brightside – The Killers

Perhaps it was in the spirit of solidifying our new friendship. You suggested we go biking sometime. Come again? We never exercised together previously, and even though I recall you saying that you used to cycle competitively when you were younger, you did not strike me as the athletic type. A fast half-marathoner myself, I was fit, but I knew biking was a completely different work-out from running. (I knew my competitive nature would also not deal well with being left in your dust.) You were handy, and offered to come by my apartment to tune up my aging bike. I straddled the crossbar to steady the bike as you examined the front wheel. We never did end up going biking.

♥ One – U2

Except for the music, we sit in a comfortable silence as you drive the familiar, winding route to my apartment. This is your favourite band. I am lost in my thoughts and the melody. You break my reverie abruptly like a non-sequitur, talking about the insectarium you keep with her. You happily proclaim how you & she are the ‘geek couple’. I feel a momentary pang even though I know we are just friends.

♥ Timeless – Kate Havnevik

 I know the minute I cross that airport security threshold, things will never be the same. I am about to leave you, this city, my friends. It takes all my will to maintain my composure in the exchange of hugs and emotional good-byes… Alone,  I dissolve into involuntary tears as the bewildered, uncomfortable security personnel awkwardly expedite my processing through the checkpoint.

♥ Nowhere Warm – Kate Havnevik

Late fall. The commute home is long, mostly rural. It is a route I am well familiar with, traveling the 400-km round trip two to three times per week to try my hand at academic teaching. Thankfully, the surroundings are scenic — a tapestry of colors. I am driving alone, far from you, but you are nonetheless never far from my thoughts.

♥ If You Want Me – Glen Hansard & Maketa Irglova

Heavily bundled against the icy chill, I am running alone around the frozen lake. It is the middle of a long, bleak winter and the snow is blowing, an almost daily occurrence. The path is deserted and largely inaccesible by snowdrifts. All is quiet. A post-apocalyptic scene. It’s been 8 months since we parted ways. Do you think of me still?

♥ U Want Me 2 – Sarah McLachlan

I’ve had time to heal, to move on, to forget you. It is a warm, mid-autumn evening. We reunite as friends after more than a year apart over an intimate supper in a leafy neighborhood bistro. We catch up, falling into easy conversation as if no amount of time has passed. The food is wonderful and the wine we picked up, the perfect accompaniment. The comfortable, safe rhythm of the evening is suddenly shattered by the bomb you drop in telling me you’ve split with her… For a moment, I no longer discern your voice or the ambient noise around us. Did I just hear you speak the words I thought I would never hear? And if yes, what does this mean? If anything. My mind starts racing. Since when do fantasies become a reality? There is still residual heartache, anger, unresolved feelings from a protracted, unrequited love. The old familiar chemistry rouses itself regardless, like resuscitated embers in a long burning, slowly dying fire. Are these feelings real or are they simply the last vestiges of nostalgia or a yearning for the happier, uncomplicated days of the past? You invite me back to your place.

♥ Winter Song [Album version] – Sara Bareilles

You meet me at the train station that morning. Your tall, lanky figure striding elegantly across the platform to greet me. My original flight home for Christmas had been cancelled. I have a 4-hour lay-over before my new flight leaves. We decide to go see ‘Valkyrie’ downtown. You apologize for your compulsive, running, whispered commentary about the history behind the plot. I don’t mind.

♥ Hot N Cold – Katy Perry

I am back in town on business. It is a cold, late January day. We are just friends. You offered to put me up for the night at your place. You join me and a mutual friend for supper. I notice you’d become quite close with her since I’d left. I hate that it bothers me. You hardly look at me the whole time we are at the restaurant. By contrast, the two of you seem wrapped up in your own private conversation, only peripherally aware of my existence. Une complicité notable. I know my friend would never pursue you, but would you dare pursue her?.. The meal ends, and you begin to make entreaties to her to join us at your place. She knows better. She says she has plans, a date. This piques your interest. You spend a few minutes asking her about this date. You and I finally head back to your place. I am still feeling confused by what I observed… You leave me in your cold living room for what seems like hours as you decide the moment we enter your house that you have to shovel snow off your walkway (and perhaps that of all your neighbours’). There is no food in your fridge. The bathroom is not cleaned. Why am I here?

♥ Mad – Ne-Yo

The night is fading fast. I have just returned from a low-key supper out with friends. It’s my birthday and still I have not heard from you. We had not spoken in weeks after that last phone call. I had done my best to push you away once and for all, more for my benefit than yours. It was for the best, I thought. Even so, I never expected you to comply. A loneliness envelops as I decide to call it a night. Then the phone rings. It’s you… Three hours later, I sleepily, but contentedly (if not a bit guiltily) shuffle off to bed.

♥ Young Forever (feat. Mr. Hudson) – Jay-Z

You would’ve preferred the Alphaville version. I hate that you chose to leave. Your children are beautiful; I can see you in your oldest. I hope they will be ok without you.

♥ Quelqu’un M’a Dit – Carla Bruni

The same trees stream past my window. Same sign posts. Same traffic snarls. Nothing is overtly changed even though everything has. I am driving home in a cab from the airport after a surreal weekend of attending your memorial service and then flying out across the ocean to give a presentation. Life goes on even when one is extinguished.

♥ Le compteur – Karkwa

It felt strangely like a homecoming of sorts. Meeting up with old friends and colleagues again. I was dreading seeing everyone, sharing stories, reliving the trauma… Staring out the window of the decelerating train, the city and its familiar skycrapers come into view against the dull, still-grieving, grey sky. How changed the city seems without you in it. 

Side 2: The Short Relationship

♥ Miss Independent – Ne-Yo

It wasn’t meant to be a competition, just a group training run. I found you intriguing, but probably way too cool for me — if you even were available (unlikely). We chatted during the warm-up and then you took off with the rest of the speedster guys. I tried to catch up to you, but you were too fast. I contented myself with admiring you from afar. You were very tall and more solidly built than most of the guys. You also cut a powerful stride.

Whatcha Say – Jason Derulo

I was new in town and wanted to take some cross-country skiing lessons across the river. I had been given a recommendation for an instructor, a guy I didn’t know. For reassurance, I polled several acquaintances, including you, to see if anyone knew this guy and what he was like. You knew him personally, corroborated his skiing competence, and confirmed he was, in fact, not a stalker.

♥ When Your Mind’s Made Up – Glen Hansard & Maketa Irglova

I was so pleased you came to my house party after training. You brought beer. I’m glad you stayed as late as you did. Did you know I had always had a crush on you? I think it was the vaguely British accent I thought I detected, which I found out later you didn’t have.

♥ Use Somebody- Kings of Leon

You were moving into new digs — an upgrade — and were looking to offload some junk. I was interested in the old easel  you had spoken of since I had planned to take a painting class in the fall. (I admit I was surprised to learn you were artistic.) I had to keep bugging you for it for what seemed like weeks. Finally, one afternoon after work, I got home and noticed a sturdy wooden easel propped up against my window on the veranda. Santa had finally come.

♥ The Suburbs – Arcade Fire

We hadn’t seen each other in two years. We were supposed to meet up for drinks at the neighborhood bar. I arrived first; you were late. I thought you might be. (I know I shouldn’t criticize — even if it’s just in my head — since I am not the most punctual person, myself.) You looked amazing, though, more handsome than I remembered. I still couldn’t believe you had asked me out. We ended up having to leave — there were no tables left. I was slightly annoyed by your poor planning. We drove to a hip, new wine bar uptown instead. I drove us since you walked. (I think I impressed you with my perfect parallel-park — on the first attempt)… With no reservation, we had to perch ourselves at the bar, side by side. You angled yourself to face me while I somewhat nervously sat facing the bar. I stole sideways glances to study your face and your lovely shaggy hair, as you knowledgeably selected a tasting plate of charcuterie and wine. You were so talkative, congenial, tangential, interesting. Vastly different from anyone else I’d been out with… What began as an imperfect evening turned out perfect.

♥ Sous le ciel de Paris – Juliette Gréco

You introduced me to your favourite brasserie. You were like Norm from the Cheers sitcom; the waitresses all knew you. I immediately liked its old French ambience of exposed wood beams and brick walls juxtaposed against the unexpected old-school jukebox and paper Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling in the anteroom. We grabbed a quick supper — you didn’t need the menu — and then we headed off to the movie. It was a weird, tense, moody, highly metaphorical, hauntingly atmospheric arthouse film. My overanalytical mind was hyperstimulated. When the film ended, however, it was you who offered the most astute, detailed review and analysis of the film. I was astounded by the extent of analysis and cinematic critical appraisal you offered, along with the endless array of obscure symbols and metaphors you not only identified but deftly interpreted. I felt like an uninitiated first-year film student listening in awe to her eminent cinematography professor.

♥ I am the Photographer – Memphis

You insisted on cooking me supper that Sunday night. I needed space and time to think, slow things down, get caught up on sleep. I went to a Baroque strings concert by myself that afternoon with your encouragement. You weren’t much of a classical music fan, yourself. When I showed up at your place later, you had things well underway in the kitchen, even offering me a plate of hors d’oeuvres and wine to savour as you put the finishing touches on dinner. Afterward, you were keen to introduce me to your dual passions of music and videography. I was equally enthralled by your evocative, exotic travel films set to moody, atmospheric music as I was by your rollicking extreme sports adventure films set to classic guitar rock. You were an artist, a story-teller with a singular focus of communicating your narrative through your audiovisual artistry. I remarked how you really should think about entering your work into a film festival.

♥ Change the Sheets – Kathleen Edwards

I keep refreshing my e-mail every few minutes, waiting for you to confirm our plans for tonight. It’s mid-afternoon, and I am growing increasingly annoyed by your delayed RSVP. I am tempted to tell you I have plans, to punish you. Yet, I want to see you. Do you assume I will always be available when you want me to be? Why do you always live so impetuously? What’s wrong with planning ahead sometimes?

♥ Le pyromane – Karkwa

You persuaded me to go to that sketchy nightclub — which was my original, uninformed, uncharacteristically impulsive idea — with you and hear ‘my’ band play. We strategized about how to get tickets: I would be downtown the next day, so I would try and pick up a pair.  I biked over to the club in a downpour after work, but the club was closed. I made a second attempt later that night after my art class finished. Again, the club was closed. By this time, I was having second thoughts about this idea because of how seedy the neighborhood was. You called me when got my e-mail update. Instead of allowing me to back out, however, you reassured me it would be fine, that we really should go, and that you would attempt to find tickets at a local record store tomorrow. When you came up empty, as well, we just decided to take our chances and show up (which is so unlike me). We got in. The place was just packed, especially with French students and young 20-somethings; we were probably among the oldest people there, but we didn’t care. The vibe was great and so was the music. I remember how close you stood behind me, as if to protect me as I — then, we — swayed to the rhythm of the mesmerizing, atmospheric melodies. It was an amazing night. I felt so free and secure.

♥ Sweet Dominique- Adam Cohen

I love your car. Remember the time we nearly started rolling down a hill after we accidentally released the parking brake? I was so embarrassed. You thought it was awesome and said you felt like a teenager again.

Comme une rosée de larmes – Ludovic Bource [The Artist soundtrack]

The theater was packed, and so we had to sit away from our usual section, and find seats in the balcony. You had your customary large bag of popcorn and I decided to try a lemon-ginger tea (which I ended up partially spilling on myself shortly after we took our seats). It was our first night out — the first time we’d seen each other in three weeks. Before your trip, going to see a film was becoming a regular activity for us, but the routine felt different this time. Our chemistry felt different. There was an uncomfortable awkwardness, like you might expect among acquaintances or strangers, as if we had lost the familiarity we had built before you went away. When you reached for my hand, your touch felt polite or dutiful, not spontaneous, romantic or desirous, like it had on previous occasions. I knew I shouldn’t have — risk of self-fulfilling prophecy and all — but I began contemplating the possibility that this would be our last time together at this cozy little repertoire theater that you had introduced me to and I had grown to love. (It was my usual way of preparing myself for potential disappointment instead of remaining neutral or optimistic.)

♥ Dog Days Are Over – Florence + the Machine

It is a bone-chilling winter night as I trudge my way through the snow to your place for supper. A relatively short distance, I use the walk to clear my head, lighten my mood, gather my courage. I am scared. I cannot shake the sense of change in you since you returned from your trip. Are you still interested in me? Is there someone else? Truth be told, I never expected us to last beyond one or two dates. But we did. And now, I never expected to have the chance to feel this way again. Now I am afraid of what I have to lose…

♥ Don’t Go to Klaksvik- Leif Vollebekk

The next morning, you were determined to free my car from the patch of ice on which it had become immobilized. I had called CAA the previous afternoon, but they said they couldn’t access my vehicle because of the long, narrow driveway. Armed with a box of roadside tools, a metal shovel, and a huge bag of salt, you freed my car in no time. I was grateful , relieved, and felt overwhelmingly protected by you. You, however, were visibly bothered and confused by the fact that I hadn’t called you for help in the first place. I had lied and said it was because I was just being stubborn, wanting to solve the problem on my own. The real reason was because I didn’t want to start thinking I could rely on you for these kinds of things when I wasn’t sure if you were someone who was going to stick around…

♥ Teen Angst – Louise Burns

Luddite. That’s what I felt like sometimes compared with you. You were the minimalist, clean-design-aesthete, with your McLuhan-like i-phone-4 appendage. By contrast, I was the ‘maximist’ (as in maximal clutter in minimal space), eclectic (or non-committal) aesthete, with ‘vintage’ Motorola Razr fliphone sans keyboard. It took me forever to text you back since neither brevity nor typing are among my virtues. I think you thought I was seeing someone else… You actually said I made you feel lazy with my jam-packed schedule of daily exercise and leisure activities on top of my busy work schedule. I replied that maybe you just work smarter…

♥ Somebody That I Used to Know – Gotye (feat Kimbra)

At my suggestion, we had made plans to meet up at your place after I went for one of my regular swims at the local pool that night. The wind was howling furiously through the trees while the freezing rain added exclamation by violently pelting your living room windows.  You had just revealed, rather reluctantly, that you had recently started seeing someone else. Someone you had innocently and unexpectedly met through an introduction by friends while away on a trip. I was initially stunned and speechless, completely unprepared for this revelation. You also said you weren’t so sure I was fully healed from a previous relationship. (I thought that was just a red herring.)… In my mind, there was no way for us to continue seeing each other, as much as I tried to reconcile your need to also see others before you settled into another serious, committed relationship. The fact was, we were at an impasse… Although I was the one who officially ended things, you did not protest; I knew you had reached the same conclusion. You wanted to be free while I wanted to be attached.

Dating Don’ts: Applying the ‘Scientific Method’ to Dating

Let’s get one thing straight: what happens in the lab should stay in the lab, right? Easy for you to say if you’re not a researcher or science writer, whose brain functions in analytic mode 24-7…

When I go on a first date with someone, my prospective mate could be forgiven for thinking he had walked into a courtroom for a surprise cross-examination or high-pressure job interview instead of a casual date.

I’m not the greatest at small talk, but I can do it… when I have to. My preference, however is to just get to the point relatively quickly — particularly on blind dates or on-line meet-ups — to determine whether there actually is a connection and therefore a point to the date. Which makes the meandering way in which a date can unfold problematic for people like me. I’m going to chalk my little personality quirk for efficiency up to a combination of my INTJ (“scientist”) Myers-Briggs personality type and Keirsey Rational temperament. I’m all about uncovering the truth and have this compulsion to plan or strategize.

Dating is not data though. It’s about people: you and your date (assuming you are not on a double date, or have asked two or more people out on this given date — which you haven’t, ’cause you’re too decent for that). In real-time. No control groups or experimental mice, rat, or ferret models; ditto for Petri dishes, study patients, or scientific papers for a systematic review & meta-analysis. No slightly geeky but witty crack team of CSI-like researchers to back you up either.

It’s you and you alone. Well, you and your date. The point being you are “on”, so any natural tendency to defer to the flagellated bacterium under your high-powered electron microscope (as the case may be) or equally captivating big, extroverted personality in the room is no longer an option (unless of course, you’ve brought your i-pad with you and you decide to skype your chatty, vivacious BFF in, which could backfire on you, because your date might actually end up liking her instead of you — assuming you decide you are attracted to this guy).

And so, under such pressure to perform, I tend to treat dating much like a job interview or athletic competition, where the rules of engagament are well established. So, of course being competitive, I summon my A-game to win — which is a tricky outcome in a dating context, in that what exactly you “win” isn’t always as clear as it is in a job interview or road race…

If only dating could be conducted like a controlled clinical trial designed to answer one fundamental question: ‘Is this a good guy… for me?’… 

Imagine how useful such a controlled experiment (see Figure 1 below) could be on those occasions* when you’re juggling dating more than one person at once — but not on the same date — and need to make careful comparisons between candidates in order to decide which person with whom you are interested in potentially forming a long-term relationship or meaningful chemical reaction. [*NB: not my preferred approach since I hate multi-tasking, notwithstanding the fact this kind of conundrum is also a relatively rare event for me]

Figure 1: One example of a design for a controlled clinical dating experiment

At the risk of totally geekafying this post (if I haven’t already), I sort of had a non-randomized active-controlled, two-arm cross-over trial (as illustrated in the above schematic) going for a brief period last fall that then morphed, or converged, into a prospective (single-arm) observational study (sorry, Mr. Architect guy).

All this to say, my inner scientist truth-seeker ultimately aims to determine the answer to that most fundamental of questions (in case you’ve forgotten: ‘Is this a good guy?’) in the most expedient way possible, and then, if I judge that he is not, my alter-ego economist/strategist then kicks into high gear and seeks to minimize the opportunity time +/- cost trade-off of this unsuccessful date by devising a proper exit strategy that ideally saves face for both of us.

But backing up a step, any scientist (worth his/her salt) or good critical thinker should ask, ‘well what is YOUR definition of a ‘good guy’?.. Good question, since this definition is inherently subjective, and thus will vary depending on who is doing the defining. 🙂

I like to think I will simply recognize him intuitively when I meet said potential Mr. Right, but the truth is I clearly have no clue – or at least I didn’t until recently. (20-20 hindsight + bad timing seem to be my dual nemeses).

Case in point: a few months ago, I did meet a potential Mr. Right, but didn’t recognize it until too late, because of the specious scientific paradigm I had been operating under to that point about the type of personality I believed my Mr. Right should invariably possess in order to be my ideal fit — the yang to my yin, Mr. Darcy to my Elizabeth Bennet, Pierre to my Marie Curie

I’ll never know for sure now, because I wasted a lot of time while Mr. Potential Right and I were dating, harping on the improbability of our association, fit, and long-term compatibility. You see, normally, I attract guys of the somewhat nerdy scientific persuasion (I know, you’re shocked) despite being a reasonably well-rounded person, myself (avid athlete and love of the arts & culture scene). One of these nerdy-science guys whom I had particularly fancied for quite a while was exceptionally brilliant (a descriptor I do not dole out often), articulate, and could write so beautifully (hello, Robert Browning). I also felt like we spoke the same (often flowery, neo-Victorian) language when we first met. In many ways, I was convinced he represented a better version of myself. (Eureka!) I was sure I’d found my Mr. Darcy at last. OK, maybe the Sheldon Cooper to my (much cooler, more socially aware) Amy Farrah Fowler. 😉

Well, sadly, it didn’t work out. Turns out Sheldon and I were a bad fit despite his meeting the lion’s share of my itemized, imaginary Mr. Right wishlist, except for maybe some of the really important stuff (which, of course, I would only learn in hindsight). And this leads me to the eventual realization (and new scientific paradigm) that I came to in missing my recent opportunity with Mr. Potential Right: it would have been a complete disaster for me to be with a guy who shared 95% sequence homology with my personality make-up (i.e., was a close carbon-copy of myself). Imagine the combination of two intense, serious, competitive, hyper-analytical, impatient, demanding, perfectionistic, critical, intellectualizing scientific types — together… as a couple… Wow, what a recipe for fun!? Sounds more like a train wreck waiting to happen. In my state of protracted love-blindedness, however, it sounded more like a match made in ideological heaven to me until my moment of (delayed) enlightenment post Mr. Potential Right’s serendipitous arrival into my life.

So, at the risk of recall bias (i.e.,  reviewing one’s romantic past with strictly rose-colored glasses), I decided to try and reach out to Mr. Potential Right, after recognizing that my obssessive analysis about our ‘differences’ was really just an outward expression of my anxiety or fear about the distinct possibility that we might have actually been very compatible (or complementary) as a couple because of our differences.

Which leads me to my own ill-advised (20-20 hindsight) personal version of the ‘mail-order brownie romantic entreaty fiasco (see post “Dating Don’ts: Professing one’s love via mail-order brownies” dated March 25, 2012): I decided to reach out to Mr. Potential Right one month after we ended things in the spirit of rolling the dice, seizing control of my life, and taking a risk to see if we could give things another shot.

Since, more often than not, I tend to chicken out with the whole raw, uncomfortable feelings stuff (like a true INTJ, sadly…) in favor of retreating to the relative safety of pontification and intellectualization — which has the untoward effect of making me appear deceptively rational, stoic, and completely emotionally unaffected — I decided to try a different approach to show my softer, sensitive side: a grand artistic gesture! 🙂

I came up with the whole concept while out running one night (solitary running can really be a great catalyst for creative thinking/ideas — just maybe not this one): I would do a series of hand-drawn, colorized sketches on progressively smaller (and differently colored) envelopes – think Russian (Matryoshka) nesting dolls complete with brief recipe card-sized notes (serving as narrative or the ‘pitch’, in case the drawings alone came across as hieroglyphs) — that would tell a (hopefully) compelling story about our (all-too-brief) romantic interlude, and whose overall message would be to ‘give us another chance’. Brilliant, right? Maybe for a Nora Ephron or John Hughes rom-com. But in real life? Probably not so much. Anyway, I had fully committed to my artistic vision and hopelessly romantic plan, so there was no turning back. One sunny afternoon, I stealthily slipped the finished chef d’oeuvre into his mailbox and then waited — not in the bushes or anywhere else near his home, just so we’re clear I’m not some crazy stalker — in anticipation of our most certain joyous reunion à la Jane Austen grand dénouement.

After several days then weeks passed, I realized (sadly) that he wasn’t going to go all John Mayer or Adam Cohen and serenade me with his acoustic guitar from the street outside my bedroom window, nor was he going to one-up me with an even grander artistic articulation of his undying affection for me. I just wasn’t going to hear from him, period.

He had more than likely moved on, turned the page on me, and was probably happily dating someone else by now. (Probably someone far easier to be with, too.) I had lost, not in the competition sense of the word (which can easily be misconstrued when it’s me), but I had lost my chance to be with a really secure, interesting, intelligent, funny, outgoing, athletic, artistic, kind, caring, perceptive, sensitive guy, who also happened to be incredibly attractive — all (or at least, in big part) because I thought being so different from each other in temperament was a bad thing when it turns out it is probably exactly what I need in a partner.

And so, I can do nothing but move forward, having learned from this experience, with the hope that I am now better equipped to recognize the next Mr. Potential Right I will meet. (Hopefully, he’s wearing one of those unambiguous signs you see people wearing or holding at the arrivals gate at the airport in order to flag me down!?)

{As a postcript, I have Mr Potential Right to thank for encouraging me to express myself more creatively, and it was this failed Matryoshka mail experiment that was the catalyst for reconnecting with the kind of art I love doing and in launching this blog.}

The Great Re-Set: Part 3: The Unexamined Life…

Suicide. The word still brings a chill when I hear it spoken.

I remember the day when I got the call. I had just returned to work from summer vacation. I remember the hesitation, the anxiety, the evasiveness, the urgency in my friend’s voice as she delicately informed me that she had news, but preferred to relay the details to me in-person, indicating that she would be driving up to have dinner with me that night. Since her social calendar was usually booked solid and she lived two hours away, I knew this would not be glad tidings, and I was not one to postpone urgent matters.

I persisted, telling her that whatever news she had to relay, I could handle it, and that it was silly to drive all the way up here when she could just inform me by phone. I could sense her resolve weakening, and I reassured her again. Even though I had no basis for the thought, in my mind, I knew that something terrible had happened to Michael*. He’s been in a car accident, seriously injured, in hospital, I thought. Just tell me, the voice in my head demanded with growing impatience as she continued to discuss logistics related to her impending drive up. Finally, my rapid analytic thinking, wild imagination, and increasing anxiety made an unfathomable hypothesis.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” I blurted out in a matter-of-fact, ostensibly unemotional, detached tone, as if, like a police officer or trauma physician, I were somehow accustomed to presiding over such events. I waited, breathless, for her response.

“Yes, he’s dead. Took his own life last night”, she finally conceded. And then, tentatively, “Are you ok?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” I answered automatically, ever the one to manage a crisis by trying to impose calm amid chaos. “There’s no need for you to drive up here tonight,” I continued, “though I appreciate your concern.” In reality, my mind was racing and my immediate external world became distant, almost tangential, an amorphous reality. When our conversation ended, I just sat at my desk numb, in stunned silence. I did not cry, I just wanted details. I needed to review and evaluate the evidence for her outrageous claim. What time did this happen? By what means? How did people find out? Is he really dead? Where is his body? How could this have possibly happened to someone like him? Someone I thought, no matter how bad things became, he would always emerge from his crises. He always had, or so I had thought…

In that instant, life as I knew it had changed and would never again be the same. Innocence was lost in that moment. Life really was finite. That youthful disregard for time and belief in a seemingly endless supply of days was gone.

Less than five years earlier, I had lost a close relative to cancer. It was devastating, but the impact on me was different. It had been a lengthy battle, there was a steady decline, the outcome was sadly not unexpected. The family had had time to prepare themselves. In the case of Michael, there was no obvious warning: one minute he was living and breathing, larger than life; the next minute he was gone, reduced to nothing but basic atomic elements in the form of ashes in an urn.

I now understood the intent of the discomforting lesson a former professor had attempted to teach our class of health professional students many years previously. She was an older professor, perhaps approaching emeritus status, and she was clad all in black like a sister in habit when she appeared as a guest lecturer. Her message was about death and dying, and her basic question to the class was, given the choice between a slow death or a quick death, which would you choose? We all shifted uncomfortably. After a few minutes of allowing us to contemplate, she presented her own choice: a slow death. Why? Because it’s much easier on loved ones than a sudden death.

I don’t remember much about the rest of my day at work. I just know that I had made it through the day without tears or any outward signs of distress, and then had gone directly home. I had a piano lesson that night and resolved to keep it. When he had politely asked how my week had been, I remember telling my piano teacher rather perfunctorily that a close friend had committed suicide the previous night and then proceeded to play my assigned pieces like I had every other week… When I returned home, I remember speaking to my little sister by phone that night while hovered over my toilet scrubbing the bowl, and then spontaneously letting out what could only be characterized as a wail of heartbreak, uncorked from the recesses of a very tightly-capped bottle. My uncontrolled, emotional reaction caught my normally rational, stoic self completely off-guard. I’m still supposed to be in shock, I remember thinking. And, and more importantly, I was also not entirely convinced this news was to be believed. So, just what was it I was reacting to?

Guilt.

A completely irrational, unjustified emotion. The sad truth is that there is often very little one can do to prevent a person, intent on taking their life, from doing it. And when it comes to males in particular, they more often than not accomplish suicide, because of the more violent means with which they select to harm themselves compared with females. Nonetheless, I was a health professional. Someone with a degree of training in recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental distress. I was supposed to save the world, save Michael. In my mind, I had failed in this duty to care for my patient. Except, Michael wasn’t my patient. He was my friend. Any attempts at critical evaluation would have inevitably been obfuscated by the personal biases or subjective rationalizations we have or make about our loved ones that serve to confound and shape our opinions. In short, we cannot be wholly objective with the people we love, which is why doctors, for example, are not permitted to care for family members.

Another sad reality was Michael and I had drifted apart. I now lived in a separate city, and I had only maintained loose contact with him over the past 2 years. Yet, he was still my friend and I still thought about him often. We would usually get together whenever I came to town. Over the years of our friendship, we had shared many intimate conversations, and so I believed I knew him well. Knew him well enough to know what level of burden he was able to personally bear.

If he was in so much emotional pain, why didn’t he reach out?

I last saw Michael two weeks before he took his life. I was in town for a wedding, and had suggested we meet up and have supper downtown. We had not seen or spoken with each other in months. I was somewhat nervous about seeing him again after the way we had left things, but I felt compelled to reconnect. I was back in town afterall…

I remember being somewhat surprised by the way in which he initially greeted me: an unusually tight, lingering embrace accompanied by, “I’m so glad to see you.” As if I were a long-anticipated soothing balm or emotional refuge… Ours had been a complicated, sometimes stormy friendship and I had learned to doubt the meaning behind actions that I might otherwise have construed as bearing the slightest hint of romantic intent in tone.

In all the years I had known Michael, I would never have characterized him as a happy-go-lucky person. He was anything but. A complex personality, fiercely independent, Michael was deeply intellectual and reflective by default. He was a problem-solver by nature, and over the years, he’d certainly demonstrated his considerable proficiency for solving quandaries big and small… He had family and friends who loved him. A great career. Seemingly everything to live for… Yet I can distinctly remember observing very early on in our acquaintance an underlying sadness in his eyes that revealed an uncensored vulnerability beneath that tough veneer, which had only endeared him to me more.

The supper we had — our last supper — was poignant. I saw a level of defenselessness that I’d not witnessed previously. On retrospect, there were emotional undertones and conversational cues that signalled all was far from well. And yet, the possibility that my friend would not get through his troubles (as he always had) — that he might take his own life — was so inconceivable to me as to not even enter my consciousness.

I remember the first time I asked someone if they were thinking about harming themselves. It was a role-playing exercise, part of my training toward becoming a residence assistant (RA) during my undergrad at university. On the surface, it looked easy. As I watched successive pairs of RAs-in-training play out the scenario to the larger group, I couldn’t understand why the people playing the role of RA or counselor were struggling so. Then it came to my turn. I was paired with a very tough, no-nonsense girl, by whom many of my counterparts often felt intimidated. She played the role of the student-in-crisis while I played the role of the RA. She immediately went into full character, donning a rough-around-the-edges, withdrawn, passive-aggressive, sharp-tongued personality. She rebuffed every attempt I made to reach out to her. Knowing the major objective of the exercise was to assess risk of self-harm, I clumsily tried to re-route the conversation in that direction. Finally, perhaps taking pity on my struggle, my colleague relented in her method-acting, and offered me an opening to pose the question I was charged with asking. I fumbled, awkwardly searching for the right words. I don’t remember exactly what I said, just that I had cobbled together something marginally intelligible. Mercifully, our facilitator intervened and the exercise was stopped. I now appreciated how deceptively difficult such conversations can be, but at the same time, how vitally important they were. It would be incumbent upon us as student-counselors to acquire a level of comfort and competence in initiating such conversations, should the need arise with our fold of student-residents.

It was only several days later when I’d had more time to replay my (last) night out with Michael — to reflect, analyze, deconstruct — that I began to genuinely worry about him and his emotional well-being, and his tendency to withdraw… I was on vacation, my annual summer respite. I had another wedding to attend. It was to take place in a small fishing village on the east coast, the hamlet’s little white wooden Catholic church overlooking the sparkling bay at the foot of the rolling verdant hill. I was so enchanted by the idyllic beauty of it all that I impulsively decided to send Michael a text message. My underlying purpose, however, was to check in with him and see how he was doing; commenting on the scene before me was my indirect, unobtrusive approach of reaching out. It had been a week since I last saw Michael. We ‘d never exchanged texts before — it just hadn’t been our manner of communicating — so I was not even sure he’d respond. To my surprise, he did, within minutes. It was a terse message, not uncommon in and of itself, particularly when he was busy. It stated simply, “Sounds great. Enjoy!” (It was to be my last communication from him.) I remember making two somewhat paradoxical observations about this message: one, it felt a bit dismissive and two, it seemed uncharacteristically effusive — a sort of ersatz enthusiasm one might convey to someone in order to not only reassure or alleviate perceived anxiety, but also to create distance to quell any further prying inquiries. I contemplated calling him, wrestled with the pros and cons of doing so, all the while not quite sure what I would say or how I could find out how he was truly feeling. In the end, I reluctantly decided not to call, thinking (wrongly, on retrospect) that he needed his space. Perhaps that vague, but persistent concern I had about Michael for the past week, was simply another case of me simply overinterpretating things. I decided to shift my focus and rejoin the weekend wedding festivities…

The last attempt I made to reach Michael was the night of my return from summer vacation. A week later. I had called during the late afternoon, but got his voice mail. I left a message trying to balance what I still preceived to be his need for space against my own concern about his well-being (and my desire to support him). He always returned my calls. This time, however, I heard nothing. As the afternoon wore on into late evening, I began to grow increasingly anxious. While the possibility he might harm himself still never crossed my mind, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was dreadfully wrong. For some reason, I was convinced he had been in a serious car accident. Perhaps because I had recalled how, on occasion, he could make me nervous with his impatient driving. Having to work in the morning, I decided to get some sleep and that I would try calling him again tomorrow. Tomorrow turned out to be too late; he was gone…

I can only remember one other time when I felt the closing of one chapter of my life and the beginning of a new, uncertain one. It occurred following the loss of a job I had once been passionate about, when I walked through airport security, leaving my friends behind and the city I had loved and called home for almost 10 years. I remember feeling like I was crossing over a threshold, an imaginary divide, embarking on a new uncertain adventure, a new life, away from everything I had known as familiar.

Where was Michael now? Was he watching from above? Did he die peacefully? Were his plans for taking his life already in place when we had had supper that final time? Why didn’t he tell someone, seek help? If I hadn’t looked him up when I was in town, would he have even bothered to say good-bye to me?..

This fall will mark three years since Michael’s death. Although I have largely moved on from this painful event, it has left its indelible imprint on me and those of my friends who also knew him personally. It has made me view life through a different, more thoughtful, philosophical lens than my age-matched cohorts. It has also had a significant impact on my career aspirations, personal relationships, and leisure time activities, particularly around the choices I make with regard to how and with whom I spend my time. Life is a gift, and the time with which we have been bestowed — precious, ephemeral, and finite…

*not his real name

The Great Re-Set: Part 2 – A brand new job in a brand new city…

Moving to Ottawa wasn’t exactly love at first sight for me. It was definitely no Montreal (downtown Ottawa practically becomes a ghost town after 5:00 pm) and as for being a national capital, it felt more like a small town masquerading as a big city. But my initial reasons for moving to Ottawa were more strategic than the job for which I was recruited: I was conveniently located between Montreal and Toronto, where friends and family resided and where some of the most innovative medical/health research in Canada takes place…

I was also on a high from having just returned from one of the best trips I’d ever done to this point: a weeklong visit with my little sister who was living in Calgary at the time. It was my first visit to Calgary, and we ended up doing this fabulous road trip through Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper. I was just in awe of the Rockie Mountains, glaciers, pristine emerald lakes, and lush forests. This was the type of scenery of my imagination — what I had always idealized as distinctly Canadian. On a par with the Canadian Shield. Both landscapes immortalized by members of the Group of Seven.

[Photo taken near Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, October 2008.]

Speaking of the Group of Seven, if you’re a fan — particularly of Tom Thomson — you must see the Canadian film, West Wind – The Vision of Tom Thomson. I saw it a couple of weeks ago and loved it. I found it particularly (and unexpectedly) moving seeing and hearing about Thomson’s singular focus, his passion — his creative calling or vocation — to paint (in this case, nature in all its colorful, seasonal splendor in Algonquin Park). There are even some previously unseen paintings on display. Lots of great commentary by various curators and experts in art history, too. (I first fell in love with the Group of Seven at the 2003 exhibit held at the National Gallery of Canada. After that, I just couldn’t understand why my grade 12 art teacher always used to diss these guys’ works… What resonates as great art can be so subjective, I guess.) Another more contemporary Canadian landscape artist, whose works could be thought of as a modern take on the Group of Seven style (as seen through stained glass), is Tim Packer (a former cop turned full-time artist, which is a pretty cool and interesting career change). I tried to pick up a small, limited edition framed giclée print downtown last month, but I missed out 😦  — I’m sure because of a story that ran in the Ottawa Citizen promoting an upcoming exhibition of his work.

Getting back to my move to Ottawa…

I had to initially live in a downtown hotel for about a month and a half, which sounds posh, but it wasn’t really. (It wasn’t that kind of hotel.) It may be hard to believe, but hotel living can actually get pretty frustrating and tiresome after a while. It’s not really your home; you’re just squatting there temporarily. Finding an apartment in Ottawa was tough, though, especially in late fall. The housing/rental market was and continues to be very tight, and I refuse to live in a condo box. I need my space and connection with the outdoors — just not in suburbia. Eventually, I found a first-floor flat in a triplex in a vibrant, eclectic, urban neighborhood close to the canal and to the downtown. I moved in to my new digs on a snowy day in December, which would herald the start of the coldest winter I can ever remember experiencing — and I generally like winter with all its snow and cold (just not regular temps of -30 C!?)… I had seriously thought I’d been dropped off in Nunavut, not Ottawa. Ottawa is apparently one of the world’s coldest national capitals. I suspect that infamous distinction could be changing, however, with the milder winters of late along with the sizzling summers we regularly get. Ottawa is definitely a city of extremes, including of extreme athletes…

[Picture of typical architectural style of many triplexes in my neighborhood with wild, often overgrown gardens, Summer 2009]

So my new job… Let’s just say it was an adjustment, having never worked in government and not being a willing conformist by nature. I also had to learn Bureaucratese, a language with which I was previously unfamiliar. (Check out this playful video for a sample of the third most common language spoken in Ottawa: http://www.youtube.com/embed/OtLL7pLM-yE) I wouldn’t say I’m fluent or a regular speaker of the lingo now, but I have developed conversational proficiency (out of need).

The work I do is far from a perfect fit, but I wouldn’t have necessarily known that going in. I’ve learned that, like my entrepreneurial dad, I don’t like to be told what to do and how to do it. Nor do I like a lot of rules or meetings for rules’ or meetings’ sake. Or hierarchy. I was also somewhat surprised to find out that I don’t love technical writing or sifting through ginormous amounts of data either… And, I’ve discovered, I actually prefer not to multi-task, at least on things that require a lot of thinking; it just takes too long to refocus when you’re constantly interrupted and having to shift gears…

So, I guess as much as I enjoyed working in a hospital emergency department in a previous job a few months before, I probably wouldn’t have made the best ER doc, had I pursued a career in Medicine. I don’t have high idea productivity (I have quality but not quantity) and I like to stay focused on the task at hand (where the ER can be Grand Central Station) — unless it’s mindless stuff and then I can develop situational ADHD. I can’t picture things in 3-D very well (definitely a problem for performing invasive procedures), and my biggest shortcoming, arguably making someone like me incompatible with ER medicine, aside from my strong aversion to the smell of vomit — I am the most unmechanical person you’ll ever meet. IKEA furniture assembly — except for maybe the most uncomplicated of tables — all but stymie me. I’ve screwed up the simple installation of a Brita filter on my kitchen tap. I’ve even destroyed some sections of wall trying to hang up framed pictures without first trying to locate the stud (that’s of the non-human variety). A couple of days ago, my toilet stopped working. I thought, ‘oh maybe I can just find a good Youtube video to guide me on how to fix it’, but me playing plumber would be akin to an SNL Bad Idea Jeans commercial!? (Fortunately, good sense prevailed and I called an expert instead.)

All this tangential prose to make the point, rather emphatically: don’t count on me to be able to figure out how to do a bronchoscope insertion without severing vocal chords or anything else that gets in the way… But, could I ever give a master class on parallel-parking! 🙂 (Stall-parking? Maybe not. I know, I don’t get it either…)

[Picture of Bank Street Bridge – familiar landmark to the running community of Ottawa, Summer 2009]

Aside from the work in Ottawa not panning out as I had hoped (despite some internal lateral movement – can you say, bureaucratese-speak?), I’m persisting with it for now while I figure out my next move. (I know, slippery slope to a relapse of inertia. Duly noted.) On the personal side — and to compensate for the professional side — I did hook up with an amazing, hard-core, mixed running group. The people were wonderful, and it was such a nice change to run in the company of fast, fun, fit athletes and to enjoy some variation in my work-outs. I would run with the group twice a week and by myself two more times during the week, including running the equivalent of a half-marathon (~ 21-k) every Sunday. OK, admittedly, running a half-marathon distance every weekend was an insane ritual on my part, and I would eventually pay for that excessive mileage (without benefit of cross-training) that I’d been stubbornly logging for 5 years. It certainly was not a part of the group’s approach to training and the coach had actually repeatedly warned me that I needed to periodize my training or risk an injury sidelining me. (He was right, of course.)

In the meantime, working as a square policy peg in a round hole + intensive training (running) was my initial dance rhythm in this new city of Ottawa back in 2008-2009, but this relative comfort and routine would soon be upended again by a life event so profound as to make me question or re-evaluate almost every aspect of my life. The construct of existentialism, and my own life’s purpose. I would never again view life the same way after this event…

Dating Don’ts: Professing one’s love via mail-order brownies

I am terrible at dating. Seriously.

Let me be perfectly honest: I am not the most prolific dater, but the dates I have been on have been mostly disastrous and/or really awkward. Especially the on-line meet-ups and blind-date fix-ups. For whatever reason, they never seem to work out for me.

One of my more memorable, one-hit-wonder dating episodes included being fixed up by a well-meaning friend with her ex-boyfriend (I know, that should’ve been an automatic red flag – let’s call it mistake # 1), who was not fluent in English and who was a lab scientist.

Mistake # 2 was carrying on a prolonged e-courtship before even meeting in-person. This is how you get into trouble creating expectations or an idealized version of this person based on all your hopes and dreams for your Mr./Ms. Right, which are probably innumerated on that list (either written or in your head) that you deny you have about all the attributes your perfect partner must possess or radiate… (I think, more than anything, I was hesitant about going on a date with this guy and e-mail was a stalling tactic and not part of some larger stated strategy of honing my French writing skills and perhaps impressing this guy in the process.) Eventually, I bit the bullet and we ended up going out on a date to a great little neighborhood seafood bistro (my recommendation) in a hip, very French part of town. I had been to this place a few times before and knew the service was impeccable, the ambience charming, and the owner-chef sympathique. The place was packed that night and had a great vibe. The food, as usual, was fantastic. Ahhh, but the chemistry between my date and me was anything but sizzling. (I remember feeling so uncomfortable by the permanent blush on his face as he attempted to speak to me in broken English.) I had bought a new outfit for the occasion – a turquoise INC sweater with matching floral appliqué, skinny, dark boot cut jeans and high-heeled black ankle boots; by comparison, he had worn something perfectly suited to a casting call for the Big Bang Theory. When the meal ended and the bill arrived, the waiter placed it at my date’s side of the table. My date looked over at me and innocently observed how interesting it was that the waiter would be so quick to assume that the man would be paying the bill. (Mistake # 3 – going out with someone with poor social graces and possibly a cheap streak.) I was not impressed, as he had been the one who had asked me out. (Ergo, he should pay, non?) Rather than get into a heated debate about gender roles and expectations, however, I exercised diplomacy (an unfortunately infrequent inclination on my part) and suggested we split the bill. We did, and then we made our way out to our respective vehicles. The whole time I was praying he wouldn’t try to kiss me, and turned up my reserve a few notches as a means of discouraging any such potential encounter. (I also had extra height in my favour, as I was already taller than him, and with the help of the heels, rather out of easy reach.) After lingering for a few awkward moments, we… shook hands (I know, brutal – mea culpa, it was a very Temperance Bones move on my part, but it served the purpose) and then (mercifully) departed without any verbal (or written ;-)) commitment to see each other again. I was relieved… A few days later, I was picking up my mail and noticed a tattered Laura Secord box inside my mailbox. Curious, since I am a hard-core chocolate addict (though admittedly more than a bit on the gourmet side – ok, “chocolate snob” – so Laura wouldn’t have exactly cut it for me), I took the box upstairs and opened it. It contained a half-dozen homemade chocolate brownies!? And, it was from the scientist! I was horrified.

[Above: This is a Sharpie marker cartoon sketch I did and then colorized in Photoshop.]

How did he get my address?? (And, more importantly, what might he have put in those brownies?? Safe to assume not money like we used to get inside the cake at kids’ birthday parties back in the 80s.) I didn’t know what to do with this unusual gift, so I took it into work and showed it to a couple of my good girlfriends. I didn’t tell them what was in it, but as soon as they opened the box and saw the brownies, all three of us suddenly burst into uncontrollable laughter. (Of course, the boss walked in on us and once he heard the story, began defending the guy’s brownie outreach as unique and endearing!? Perhaps my boss, too, had engaged in some mail-order pastry hijinks back in the day?..) I know, it’s terrible to make fun of this innocent gesture (assuming the brownies were not in fact laced with chemicals — we never did sample them), especially since I have made my own fair share of faux pas (but those are other stories for subsequent posts…). Likely, this guy was well-intentioned, but there was something so comical about receiving homemade brownies in a beat-up, recycled box of chocolates, instead of actually receiving the original chocolates (in a nice box). It was like saying, these chocolates are too good to give away, so I’m just going to scarf them down myself (or perhaps apportion them for other potential, more promising dates) and save the box, whip up a batch of Duncan Hines brownies and impress the pants off this girl with my baking skills, creativity (and fiscal responsibility)… As my wiser-than-her-years little sis had pointed out at the time, however, I likely would’ve cut this guy some slack had we connected at all on our date. It’s true. If you think about follow-ups after dates, if you’re really interested, it’s not so much what they do to follow up but that they follow up — and promptly. As an example of my own potential ‘mail-order brownie mishap’, I can remember impulsively picking up a questionable gift for a guy I was crazy about that probably would’ve freaked a lot of other guys out or left them a little bewildered. It was a kids’ book and though this guy had a couple of young kids from a previous marriage, I had primarily intended it for him to lift his spirits (he had been having a bad week) and give him a good laugh. The book? Walter the Farting Dog. Not exactly sexy or high-brow literature for this erudite guy. Oh well, thank goodness, the object of my affection thought it was hilarious and really appreciated my gesture of caring. (Or, he did a very convincing acting job.) I was lucky, but I also knew my ‘target audience’ better, too… [As a postcript, I’m happy to report that I heard that — despite this inauspicious date with me — Mr. Scientist did go on to meet a lovely girl and have a family.]

The Great Re-Set: Part 1: Losing my job and sense of self – Beginning the journey of self-rediscovery

Have you ever been rocked by a life event or series of life events so profound that the lens through which you viewed yourself and your life path as you knew it was permanently altered? I experienced the first of two such events about 5 years ago when I lost my job. It happened by e-mail —a perfunctory, unceremonious message stating that my contract would not be renewed. Adding insult to injury, the e-mail was written by an individual whom I had, in those comparatively young, impressionable, early professional years, viewed as a friend and in some cases as a nurturing maternal figure. I was completely unprepared for this dramatic turn of events, and remember sitting at my desk, staring at my computer in a state of complete shock. My mind vacillated between thoughts of how this could possibly befall me of all people (a misplaced pride), and what ever was I going to do next? In those years of working at this job, I had settled into a certain rhythm or routine, and as a result never seriously contemplated life after this job and without these co-workers (several of whom were close, personal friends), even though I knew that the day would eventually come — of course, on my own timetable — when I would feel it was time to move on…

There were signs, of course – there always are. Some subtle and not so subtle – that all was not well in my organization, including an escalating interpersonal conflict, but I had been at this job – a clinical role – for almost 10 years (initially as a student completing a Master’s thesis), and I had assumed (wrongly) that my performance record was of such a calibre as to render me untouchable. What hubris! I don’t know how this perception of invincibility took root as I am inherently somewhat on the anxious side with perfectionistic tendencies, driven to improve and never satisfied with just meeting a benchmark or expectations. And yet, over time, gradually and almost imperceptibly, I would acknowledge in retrospect, that a certain boredom or complacency had set in, and I had found myself feeling less excited and stimulated by my work and by some of the people I worked with.

[This is a photo I took last summer at one my favourite beaches – Lawrencetown Beach in Nova Scotia – known for its rocks, ruggedness, crashing ocean waves, and powerful riptides. It’s a great place to walk, think, and listen, and marvel at the surfers braving the cold waves of the Atlantic and the incredible, raw power of Nature.]

Instead of making plans to move on, however, as one should when one’s clearly maxed out one’s role or job, I had somehow (incredibly) convinced myself that I was comfortable and satisfied (!?) with the status quo, rationalizing that it was ok to settle and ignore feelings of restlessness, because people settled all the time and were happy — or so I thought… Besides, I further reasoned, there was no mechanism for advancement in my line of work anyway, so there was ostensibly no place for me to go, no higher echelon to climb. I therefore had to settle at some point, right? Adding further complication, and perhaps my own single biggest mistake, was the many close, familial-like attachments I had formed at this organization. As someone living away from most of my family and being more on the introverted side (but not purely so), I’ve always found it tough putting myself out there and meeting new people – be it in a professional or personal context. (I would be the last one to work the room at a cocktail party!) I had met many wonderful, like-minded, educated people at this academic place, some of whom were students and others, clinicians. I had really felt at “home”; these were truly my peeps… All this to say — which might be a controversial notion for some — is that I think it can be risky to cultivate such close personal relationships with people at work; and in my particular case, essentially blurring the lines (on occasion) between work life and personal life. Don’t get me wrong, some of my happiest memories were made with people I had met through work. But, it was a mistake for me to use these relationships as a justification to overlook the growing disquiet I was feeling with my job. I am certain that it was because of the fear I had of losing these valued friendships coupled with a belief that I would never find a better job if I left, that I got myself stuck in an unhealthy state of inertia for far too long.

Looking back, I am convinced I should’ve moved on from that organization two years after completing my MSc, and not seven — when the first signs of restlessness appeared on my internal radar. Although it still wouldn’t have been easy emotionally to have exited so early, I would’ve most assuredly left on a high note and probably retained a couple of key professional contacts to support future academic or professional pursuits…  Though it does not change things, I often wonder how different my professional – and perhaps even, personal – life might have turned out had I left sooner rather than later… (Fortunately, time really does heal wounds, and I can honestly say that I have reconciled with all but one of these previously strained professional relationships.)

Losing a job is an incredibly humbling experience. Sadly, it is an all-too-common occurrence and one that many of us will experience either personally or through family or friends over the course of our professional lives. In my case, I lost not only my job, but more importantly, my sense of self or the identity I had assumed while I was a part of that organization… I didn’t know who I was professionally anymore, and sought the advice of a career coach to help me figure out who I was, what my natural talents were, and what kind of work I might love doing. (This was only somewhat helpful, as the cost of longer-term, in-depth coaching was prohibitive for me.) After several, unsuccessful months trying to find new employment and keep myself afloat financially, I finally realized I would have no choice but to move back (temporarily) to my hometown (in another province) and in with my parents in order to recalibrate emotionally and re-establish myself financially. Inevitably, I did lose touch with some friends, and saw other friendships change in the case of those with whom I stayed in touch. It was not an easy time… I was also carrying a lot of anger and resentment about the way in which I was let go. Moving back to my hometown, however, was probably the wisest decision I made. I had the unwavering support of family, and eventually, I met some great new friends, whom I am still in touch with. I also had a fantastic experience working at a local hospital and as a teaching assistant at a university – both of which challenged me in new and exciting ways, especially in becoming more flexible, adaptable, and self-aware. I read Eat, Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, which resonated deeply with me. (The movie? Not so much.) In addition to validating the emotions I experienced related to the loss of the job, I also learned to accept a certain ambiguity in life, and that the belief I held that I exerted some kind of master control over most aspects of my life was pure fallacy and fiction. In short, I spent a lot of time reflecting, and in the process, learned a great deal about myself and what makes me tick. (The process continues to this day.)… Eventually, my confidence began to return and perhaps as a litmus test of how my thinking had evolved in this period of reacquainting myself with myself, I took a leap, applied to a specialized doctorate program. I got in, but then pulled the plug at the last minute, because this time, I chose not to ignore the increasingly nagging feelings I was having after my acceptance: just because I had been on a certain professional path since I was 18 didn’t mean I had to stay on it (despite the encouragement and what I perceived to be the expectations of others), especially if I didn’t love this path – or even really like it. The cost of such an ill-advised investment would’ve been incalculable…

About a year and a half after my move back home with my parents, I was recruited to work in Ottawa. Although I was feeling, looking, and doing better than I had in a long while, living back in my hometown, I was quite sensitized to the fact I had overstayed my last job and did not want to make the same mistake again of falling into that dangerous comfort zone of status quo coasting that can be the slippery slope to inertia. So, I took another more calculated risk, and relocated to Ottawa to try my hand at government work — a completely new sector for me — and embark on a novel adventure in a brand new city…

Post Navigation