Friday, 18 February 2011

What I've learned from squirrels.

Growing up in an immigrant family in a bigger Canadian city, I didn't get to see a lot of wildlife. Other   than the occasional trip to a petting zoo or Parc Safari, my occasional companions on my long adolescent walks were stray cats and meandering dogs, pigeons, seagulls and gray squirrels.
At that time I had quite the affinity for seagulls.

First of all they could fly. And I always wanted to fly. In fact I wanted to fly so badly, that one year, I didn't say the word "Super" as in Superman for an entire month in hopes that the powers of Krypton would somehow radiate down to me and give me that ability.

Some years later, when studying physics, I became quite disillusioned and disgusted by superhero flight when I could not reconcile the abilities of levitation and propulsion with the extant gravitational forces of the Earth.

Still, some of my most favourite and happy dreams still involve flight, but it is anything but effortless, I have to start flapping and only then, do I achieve lift. But I digress.

Secondly, seagulls reminded me of the sea, of the ocean and of large bodies of water. I know that somehow my roots are in water and I must make a pilgrimage back to that vast expanse every few years to regenerate and recentre myself.

Thirdly, seagulls reminded me of a favourite vacation I had, on the seaside at Old Orchard Beach. This was the family vacation that I think of when I try to remember good memories with my father and mother.

Lastly, the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and later, the movie, created indelible ways of looking at myself, my potential and the world around me.

But when I wasn't trying to fly, there were squirrels.

They were everywhere. They were wild, but they were friendly, not like pigeons. They didn't run away, but wearily tolerated people and often lived side by side. And they didn't have all the baggage that dogs bring or the attitudes brandished by cats.

There was a boy, Trevor P. who had a pet squirrel. I'm trying to remember the squirrel's name. But this squirrel lived in Trevor's house. He was gentle and smarter than a dog - the squirrel, not Trevor. I always saw that squirrel as free, but he always stayed close to Trevor. One day he died. I think he got run over by a car. That's the last I ever thought of that squirrel until now.

I've been in a relationship with a squirrel  for about six years. Her name is Nutty Rodante. My daughter gave her a first name. The last name is from me and it is a convoluted nod to both a favourite radio play and to someone with whom I spent several of my formative years.

Girl squirrel, how would I know, you are asking? She has teats and has a yearly litter. Nuff said.

So Nutty has lived a parallel life to mine for a number of years. Sometimes she visits everyday, other times I don't see her for months on end. Sometimes I meet her new brood, and other times I don't. Several years ago she introduced me to Miss Nutella, her daughter. I haven't seen Nutella  in several years. Last year Nutty introduced me to the triplets. Before the snows came, there were only two. Traffic is cruel like that.

But Nutty continues to thrive. I rarely see her when it is -40C, but every so often, especially as it warms up, she pops out and sits at the window and clicks for nuts. And she comes scampering when she hears the front or the side screen door.

Nutty prefers walnuts, but she'll settle for almonds. The doesn't overly like peanuts and she turns her nose up at pumpkin seeds, berries and my favourite granola mix, Choo-It.

Last year, Nutty started a Facebook page, with a little help from her friends. She has social network friends in more diverse places than I do. I help her with the pictures, but she gets others to help with her status updates. I understand that Nutty has also sent a video into to America's Funniest Home videos, although I don't really think anything will come of that. Canadian content doesn't often make it down south.

But Nutty is still very much a wild squirrel. She is as friendly as she wants to be. She doesn't tolerate abrasive strangers and she has a routine to which she likes to keep.

The lifespan of Grey Squirrels, I understand can stretch to 20 years, but is usually about 5 years - if they make it past the first year! Their lives can be nasty, brutish and short, but I hope that I have contributed to her quality of life, even a little. My neighbours don't really like the idea of a friendly squirrel, as they look at their attics uneasily. Neighborhood dogs, of course, go OUT-OF-THEIR-MINDS. And cats? They are afraid of Nutty.

But Nutty is growing long in the tooth. Every time I don't see her for an extended period, I wonder if she is on a trip somewhere, or if she has gone on to that final sojourn. I've learned a lot about life from this squirrel. It has taken me some time to realize it, but every interaction with her reminds me of this, even as I realize that it could be our last.
  • Don't assume that the people around you notice what you've done, they usually wont.
  • Get lots of exercise, you never know when you might have to sprint up a tree.
  • Always create options and alternatives, you may never need them, but you often will.
  • Don't eat just anything. Take the time to be choosy and you will live long and healthily.
  • Don't eat everything all at once, always stash a little food for later, you may get hungry.
  • Trust strangers to a point, and know that all friends were once strangers too.
  • Trust friends completely, but know, that sometimes, friends may break your heart.
  • Cars, no matter how fancy, are just oily, tasteless metal husks. Useful, but often not worth the hype.
  • A run through the park will cheer up even the darkest of moods.
  • Keep civil relations with all neighbours -- the ones that want to eat you may share a common enemy.
  • Groom your fur often and keep your nails and digits healthy. 
  • Realize that not everything is always what it may seem.
  • Never go too far for too long from your tree, you may become lost without it.
  • Be kind and respectful to those around you, no matter how small and voiceless. 
  • Do what you are good at and learn to love it, everything else will follow. 
  • Take the time to smell the flowers and reflect, you never know what the future will bring. 

Monday, 14 February 2011

Chicks with sticks and lads with lances.

One of the responsibilities of being a parent who encourages one's children to engage in healthy, sport-filled activities is that, occasionally, the parent must volunteer for events for that child's sporty activities.
This past weekend, the parents of several children found themselves volunteering for 9 hours at a track and field meet.

Now I use the term "volunteering" somewhat loosely. Showing up and helping is mandatory for all parents. Oh, and I use the term "helping" somewhat loosely too, because what is involved is usualy more akin to hard labour than answering telethon telephones.

At previous track meets, I have found myself holding a gun, pointing it at the roof and threatening to use it if someone crosses the very real line in the sand too early. The labour part of that otherwise glamorous, wildwest-style sojourn involved picking up, moving and setting up hurdles. Then taking them all away. I'm not quite sure why they don't just schedule the hurdles at the end of the day, but I'm more the type to shoot first and ask questions later.

On another occasion, I was given a clipboard and asked to herd small children who are encouraged to jump into a sand pit. I had to sequence their jumping by age, last name and past performance. Oh, and then I had to rake the sand, just for good measure - or perhaps better measure.

Then there was the time I was given a pylon and told to place it in front of the bar after every unsuccessful high jump. Easy eh? Try doing it 675 times.

Thankfully, with indoor track and field meets, I have yet had the pleasure of encountering javelin catching or discus retrieving, but I'm sure that too will come. No, this weekend I had the rare pleasure of volunteering - and becoming a Level 1 official, I'm told, of a sport whose nascence must have involved using long, straight branches to leap over obstacles in the jungle. Either that or some hardcore X-treme high jumpers bet each other over who can jump highest with an old javelin. Sort of like three dudes in Hawaii betting each other who's sport was more extreme.

So for nine hours, I had the rare plyometric pleasure of stepping on and off and on and off of the pole vault mats and hoisting the cross bar up with the aid of a specially jerry-rigged, worn out, duct-taped pole.

What was especially challenging was that my "station" was strategically positioned between the mat (and flying, plummeting and otherwise airborne poles and jumpers and the track. The track, as previously described had, not only runners, but people with guns and others who were  moving hurdles and waving flags and just generally being annoyingly efficient and active.

While doing my time, however, I did have the pleasure of seeing (and facilitating) a group of very healthy young men and women who hoisted poles 4, 5 and 6 feet longer than their bodies above their heads and then running with them faster than I can run at full tilt with the finish line in sight.

These chicks with sticks and lads with lances then would find a little space to plant their pole and, suddenly, they would be airborne. Almost in slow motion they would climb higher and higher only to cross over a thin threshold, and then, gracefully return to the ground triumphantly.

Or, they would hurtle through the air, arms and legs flailing and would plummet back down to Earth, displacing with them every movable and semi-static object.

There was one young man, who successfully made jump after jump after jump. At the very end, it wasn't that he couldn't clear the height. I'm sure he could have. He just couldn't hold the pole up any more. And by the second failed attempt, when he announced that he wasn't going to try his third attempt, he looked no different, than some of the athletes I've seen cross the finish line after a 13-hour swim, bike, run.

Experiencing this level of exhaustion amidst  triumph gave me some rare insight into the nature of commitment to sport. I have never really thought that much about one sport being harder or easier than another, but I've always harboured notions that triathlon took so much more effort than most other competitive sports.

It took this experience in volunteering to realize, in the midst of my own personal exhaustion from being on my feet and working for 9 hours, that the difficulty of any sport is directly related to the attitude, effort and intensity of the athlete. Sure, endurance events take a lot out of us. They bang up our bodies and challenge our wills. But so do other sports, if the athlete commits himself or herself completely to becoming as proficient and as excellent as s/he could be.

So too does any endevour - such as working or raising kids or helping ailing parents. It is the complete commitment to the activity that takes all the effort. Anyone can show up and get a t-shirt and and finishers medal. Believing in what you are doing and why you are doing it is what it is all about.

I worked for nine hours and had this epiphany.

My child sat for roughly the same time, waiting for a turn with the pole. He then proceeded to jump higher than he's ever jumped.

At a competition in a city 9 hours away from where I was, my other child used an entirely different stick to push a small ball into a square net. That child too gave everything and returned home exhausted and hoarse, both from the journey and from the experience.

I still have so much to learn about endurance, competition and what really goes into effort.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Days go by...time stands still.

So I'm now in the thick of the off season in the middle of a year that I am not pursuing any major events. Of course I'm already registered for the Great White North triathlon and the Queen City Marathon, the RPS Half Marathon and I'm considering the Gopher, no major events. Sorta kinda...

I was doing a 750m time trial in the diving tank of the pool yesterday and thinking about races, and whether or not I will miss them if I don't register. Of course I'm doing the time trial because I'm considering a sprint aquathlon in March.

There is something you have to understand about doing laps in the deep tank of the pool. Usually, there are no ropes to calm the water. There seem to be more jets creating currents. And, of course, stopping and resting is considerably more complicated - especially since one can't stand and the bulkhead is a bit of a reach. All this makes for the closest thing to open water swim on this side of the of the outside.

So, I'm swimming in the deep tank thinking about the the Splash and Sprint - the adjacent picture is of me exiting (in the shallow end) of that race) - and I start to think about the relativity of time. This isn't too much of a stretch because, when I'm swimming, I can't really do any kind of math - how many laps I've done, how many back and forths equal 100 metres, what the hell those arrows on the swim clock mean?

Think about time passage in a race. Morning of the race,  time just seems to fly by...before you know it, you are already running late for getting to the site. Once you are there, however, things seem to go into slow motion. As if somehow time has been added to the clock - unless you forgot something, like to put on a wetsuit or go to the bathroom, and then time speeds faster than normal.

I've noticed the same phenomenon near the finish line. One km from that line, time blurs a little, as does distance. It seems that you have much more distance to travel, but with each stride or stroke, your pace surprises you. It is a much misunderstood phenomenon why people look at their watches at the finish line. It isn't because they want to know how well (or poorly) they did - it is because they are confused by what time their watches say and they are trying to synchronize it with the official race clock. Really!

But none of this is why I was thinking about time. I was thinking about what happens to time in the middle of the race. While you are halfway through the swim, or the bike ride. Or when you have just as much distance to run as you have already run. When you are far away from cameras and volunteers and spectators. Just your brain and that miscreant pile of flesh, bone and sinew that comes along for the ride. 

It is precisely at these moments when time somehow becomes infinite. You have no time to waste, but you have lots of time to spend. If you speed up you will have more, if you slow down you will have less. But you will only see how much you have saved or spent at the end of the race. Before that time you are floating...timelessly. There is is nothing but possibility,

The Dairy Queen I passed in Morden, MB
I remember doing on HIM and passing a Dairy Queen and thinking, I could just jump in for a Blizzard and I could still finish the race in good time. Now, part of that reasoning was fatigue-induced delirium, especially since I don't overly like Blizzards. But the point holds that time had become difficult to quantify.

It is a bit like walk breaks...It doesn't seem like you are taking up that much time when you walk during the run - until you look at your final time. While you are walking, it is as if time is infinite - that's why they feel so good, it almost seems like they are going on forever - until someone passes you, or some "friend" sees you and yells at you to "move your fat ass!"

It is these timeless moments that I relish the most during races. Not the fat ass part, but the being in the moment, losing the sense of time and hearing and felling nothing but what's going on inside and beside me.

Will I miss not doing as many races this year? Oh yeah! But I won't miss the start or finish, I will miss the in between. It is a bit like a sandwich. For me all the best parts of the race are what's between the two ends. That is where I learn, that is where I grow, that is the most painful part - but the part that I remember most.
The swim will segue into a highway. Anyone can start or finish a race. It takes real effort to have a metaphysical and temporal epiphany right in the solar plexus of the event. It's about time!