Beginning Fall 2015, I will review various books here and elsewhere. My review of Bradley Somer’s new novel Fishbowl can be found in the September issue of Alberta Views magazine.
Thanks to the the hours of help offered by my tech-savvy new teacher-friend Mike West, I have learned how to use iMovie and created a one minute book trailer for Sage Island. Better late than never, yeah?
Thanks to the hours of help offered by my tech-savvy new teacher-friend Mike West, I have learned how to use iMovie and created a short book trailer for Sage Island. Better late than never, yeah?
I’m into my fourth year as head coach of Calgary’s LGBTQ (and friends) Masters swim team, Different Strokes. I do my best to create imaginative workouts that are challenging and fun for the intermediate and competitive lanes. Our dedicated and intrepid assistant head coach (and founder of the club) Dan MacGregor typically coaches and teaches the new swimmers. Sometimes we switch places, and sometimes we recruit help if we can’t be on deck: thanks to Jim Ansell, Richard Goddard and David de Vlieger for their help coaching when we can’t make it to the pool.
Different Strokes Calgary (DSC) is a non-profit, volunteer run swim club inclusive of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and their straight friends—dedicated to the Master’s swim program philosophy of “fun and fitness for life” in an environment that is both positive and supportive. To this end, DSC attempts to provide a recreational, competitive and socially active atmosphere in which members may, at their option, participate.
Interested in getting your feet wet? Newbies are always invited to try a practice out for fun—and for free. Simply show up five minutes before practice so we can get your name, chat with you about your experience level, and answer any questions you may have. Everyone is welcome.
In February and March we were fortunate to acquire pool time at Calgary’s high-performance Talisman Centre. These additional practices were quite popular and we hope to continue offering multiple weekly practices in September 2015. In the meantime, we train on Sundays at SAIT 5-6pm until the end of June – followed by Sunday morning practices at Bowview (outdoor) pool during the summer. Check the website below for updates!
Different Strokes Calgary was co-founded by Dan MacGregor and James Cooke in March 1995 at the Lindsay Park Sports Centre. Coaching staff consisted of Dan, Nancy Ingram and Rick Matthews. Thirteen swimmers showed up on the first day. Over the course of the year the club grew significantly and has been growing ever since! We typically have 20+ swimmers in the water for most practices.
DSC is a member of Swim Alberta (and of course FINA)—as well as the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA), a governing body for swimming, diving, water polo and synchronized swimming. To date, club members have attended swim meets in different parts of North America, i.e. Washington DC, Seattle, San Francisco, and Atlanta to name a few). Europe destinations have included Paris, Reykjavik, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. Locally we attend meets in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
Every four years the Gay Games and/or the Outgames feature a five day swimming competition with participants from all around the world. Our past participation in these games were in Sydney, 2002, Chicago and Montréal in 2006, and Copenhagen in 2010.
The above mentioned history and mandate have been pulled from the DSC website. If you would like further information, please email the club email@example.com or show up on deck!
Beginning Swimmers (Typically Coached by Dan MacGregor)
Beginning swimmers are encouraged to come out and learn how to swim. Dan is top notch with many years of teaching and coaching experience. Dan is a busy accountant by trade so you may notice him vanish here and there through March and April (tax time!) but we do our best to ensure swimmers are always looked after.
Competitive Swimmers (Typically Coached by Samantha Warwick)
Samantha is NCCP Level 3 Certified with over 10 years experience coaching both competitive age-group athletes and Masters swimmers. Participants with a more competitive outlook benefit from a structured and progressive goal oriented workout programme. However, swimmers are not pushed beyond their comfort level or ability and can stop at any time when a rest is in order.
WHAT TO BRING
Swimmers must bring a swimsuit and towel, goggles and a swim cap. Investing in your own pair of training fins is highly recommended for both begninner and experienced swimmers, as we often integrate fin work into practices and most pool facilities do not have enough or the proper sizes to accommodate the majority. We recommend Team Aquatic Supplies for equipment purchases. The staff are knowledgeable, helpful and the prices are good. You can also bring your own lock for the locker room.
WHAT TO EXPECT
When you arrive on deck at the pool you will be welcomed. Choose the lane appropriate to your level of swimming. Lane 1 is for beginners and lane 6 is for advanced swimmers. Lane 2—5 are for varying degrees between beginners to advanced swimmers. At the Talisman Centre we have 4 lanes vs. 6 but the arrangement is the same.
Sadly, SAIT no longer offers a hot tub for post-practice debriefs. However the Talisman Centre does! As mentioned, after Tuesday and Thursday practices we relax in the hot tub where announcements are made.
Thanks to the HOURS OF HELP provided by my tech-savvy new teacher-friend Mike West, I have learned how to use iMovie (!) and created a short book trailer for Sage Island! Better late than never, yeah?
Part One: The Clothing Swap—Adventure of the Green Dress
An hour-long clothing swap kicked-off this busy event featuring Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton in celebration of their new book, Women in Clothes.
Earlier in the day I’d ransacked my closet for three pieces to bring. I decided on a strapless black and white dress and a pair of stylish baggy jeans I’d found in Barcelona, but the piece I was most excited about—the piece I really wanted someone to fall in love with—was a hand-made green dress (raw silk) I’d bought at a market in Shanghai three years ago. I knew it was a nice dress; the green really popped—but for some inexplicable reason I hadn’t worn it enough.
I arrived at Theater Junction Grand with my friend Kat. She brought a pink and navy dress, a silk skirt and a pair of funky tights. We made our way up the spiral staircase to the Theater’s lobby and into the racks where we accepted sticky-notes on which to write a brief story associated with each garment. For my green dress I simply wrote, this dress was hand-made at a market in Shanghai. On the jeans, perfect for Folk Fest.
What a beautiful green, I heard murmurs as I added my garments to the mix. A young woman with fun, messy hair eyeballed the dress and pulled it off the rack to hold it up to the halogens and run her fingertips over the silk.
Because she had longer hair in her author photo at the back of Swimming Studies, I did not realize until later that this woman was in fact LEANNE SHAPTON. She moved toward the change room. I called after her, “Can I see you in that if you like it?”
“Sure,” she said.
In the meantime I slipped on a black leather jacket and faced Kat. “Too big?”
“I think you can carry it.”
“I can layer it. Wear a sweater underneath.”
We headed into the change rooms where Sheila Heti was deciding against a purple top and Leanne fit very nicely into the green dress. She assessed the fabric and style before a big mirror.
“Can I take your picture?” I asked Leanne, still not registering who she was.
“Sure.” She let me take a few shots.
She scrunched a first of hair.
“I like it a lot,” she said. “But I think it might be a bit too shiny—for me.”
Alas. The adventure of the green dress would have to carry on.
Kat and I made our way back out to the racks where we ran into two women we know, Leslie Gavel and Laura Wershler. Leslie had the pink and navy dress that Kat had brought. “Hey, Kat brought that,” I said, and she held the dress happily against herself.
After festival photographer Radim Rybacek took this picture of us together (left), I asked Laura what she thought of the book. With a glass of white in hand and beaming under the dim lights she said:
“So, the book is one big sociological study of what women wear and why they wear it, and it’s incredibly interesting—probably much more interesting than it would have been if someone had actually done a sociological study.”
Laura caught sight of my green dress. Someone had put it back on the rack. “Look at this green!” she said, reaching for the hanger and moving past me toward the change room.
She emerged from the stall. The dress fit her perfectly. All the women in the room nodded, emitted collective sounds of approval. “I could maybe wear this to my son’s wedding next year,” she thought outloud.
Part Two: The Program—Why Do We Wear What We Wear?
“Clothing is not necessarily just about style and fashion,” host Shelley Youngblut opened the event, “but individuality.” She introduced both Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton and I threw my head back in embarrassment, groaning on the inside, now recognizing Leanne clearly. I’d seen her photo in the Globe & Mail last month. And she’d been with Sheila Heti in the change room. Duh.
Leanne read first from a piece in the collection called The Mom Coat by Amy Fusselman—an essay I imagine every mom will enjoy and relate to. The end of this particular essay was arm-pricklingly poignant: “I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s words, ‘Beauty—be not caused—It is,’” Fusselman wrote, “I think this speaks to the trickiest thing to embrace about fashion and style, which is that the product of all the effort is ultimately not that important. This is hard to accept because it’s absurd. But I think it’s the truth: you can’t actually make yourself beautiful. It’s similar to writing: what’s beautiful about writing is not the words. The words are a recording of the beautiful thing. The words are a recording of the beautiful thing in the person, the thing that becomes beautified only by action, and ultimately becomes most beautified only by the most beautiful action of all—love. This thing, this transmitter of beauty, is ultimately unadornable and undecoratable. It is invisible and it bedazzles. That we can’t see or touch it should not stop us from paying homage to it, and we do this by imitating it. We do this by sincerely and wholeheartedly beautifying to no end.”
Sheila then read from two pieces, one amusing, the other sad. The first was from This Person is a Robot by Leslie Vosshall and Heidi Julavits; A smell scientist sniffs coats in a busy New York City restaurant’s coatcheck closet. You’re going to have to check this one out for yourself to do it justice.
The second reading was from Clothes on the Ground, an essay by American writer Julia Wallace who has spent three years interviewing garment workers in Cambodia. Here, from the perspective of a young garment worker named Leap: “I used to think that if I could have one quality and beautiful bra like I make, I would be really happy and I would be very beautiful. But it’s impossible. These bras are for export, and the price of one of the bras I make is almost equal to my salary. While working, I hold the bra up in front of my face, then I ask myself who is the woman who will wear the bra I am sewing. I also wonder how the woman in those countries are so rich and lucky to wear these expensive bras while the person who makes that bra just wears a very cheap one bought from the pile of clothes on the ground under the umbrella. So I feel jealous.”
Leanne returned to close the reading portion and to say that Women in Clothes truly runs the gamut of perspectives on clothing and fashion.
A special guest was invited into the discussion that followed: fashion designer Paul Hardy. He brought some of the unclaimed clothes from the swap and shared the attached stories with the audience:
My husband loves me in this shirt, yours will too…
I last wore these jeans on a date night; I think they’re lucky…
However many blouses with blue polka-dots she acquired, the fact remained: She looked terrible in white with blue polka-dots. Please save her from her sad Ghost World existence. Breathe new life into this dating number…
The discussion with Sheila, Leanne and Paul—led by Shelley—was animated and interactive. They discussed the book—the interviews, survey questions and the volume’s unique physical design. They’d wanted the collaboration to look more like an art book than an anthology which they most certainly achieved. The book includes essays, poetry, art work and photography—a beautiful result of their shared fascination with our global obsessions, accumulations, preferences and personal narratives around clothing.
Paul Hardy offered meaningful anecdotes of his experiences as a fashion designer working with individuals. “Everyone’s got a story,” he said. “Life in its essence is about relationships.”
At the end of the session, several audience members were invited to answer questions onstage. The first woman, Mary Susanna, wore a necklace adorned with a small Boston Terrier pendant.
“Why a Boston Terrier?” Leanne and Sheila asked her.
“Because my best friend is a Boston Terrier.”
“Do you have any rules around shopping?” they asked a man named Bob.
“I don’t shop,” he said. “I buy.”
“What do you find beautiful?”
“It’s not about whether you’ve won the genetic lottery [like we were talking about earlier]. It’s the sense of the individual…in her own right.”
Thank you to 2013 Leacock Winner Cassie Stocks for passing her baton in this “Tour de Blog”—a literary relay for Canadian writers to answer the same four questions about their writing. Links to other writers who’ve participated can be found at the bottom of my post. I now pass my baton to Calgary-based nonfiction writer and blogger, Shaun Hunter.
What am I working on?
I’m rewriting YET ANOTHER draft of my second novel—a story that follows twenty-six year old Jace Bell as she attempts to make sense of her double-life as extroverted bartender and outpatient of invasive (secret) medical procedures. The story alternates between Montreal and Cuba and involves a complex relationship with a troubled med student negotiating challenges of his own.
I’m also working on a collection of stories/essays on themes of Medicine in Literature and magazine articles that explore movement, endurance sport, brain chemistry and the body.
I recently did some blogging for Wordfest in October, Calgary’s international literary festival, and interviewed one of Australia’s biggest authors, Christos Tsiolkas, about his latest novel, Barracuda. The story follows a talented young swimmer with a working-class upbringing, cutting between the boy’s life and that of the adult man many years later, still angry at the world but more comfortable in his skin, with himself and his sexuality.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I’m drawn to exploring scenarios that place my characters in challenging and unusual situations that test their mettle. I love to play around with unique (and sometimes unsettling) ‘voices’ in fiction, even if my characters are not consistently likeable, or sabotage themselves along their path. Nobody is perfect. Perfect characters are boring—oh, and they don’t exist in real life anyway.
Why do I write what I do?
To echo what Cassie wrote, “I write to explore issues and characters that intrigue me in some way.” Over the past number of years I have become more and more interested in the relationships we have with our physical bodies on all levels: aesthetically, medically, athletically, sexually and so on. How we feel in our skin has great power over our choices and perceptions. The more I learn, experience, overhear and encounter only deepens my curiosity around our physical existence, medicalization, and how these shape our psychological and emotional worlds, our relationships with others, and ultimately how we decide to live our lives.
How does my writing process work?
In a PERFECT WORLD without obligations and distraction a.k.a “day pollution,” I’d write every weekday between 8am-1pm, and spend the rest of the afternoon working on my event series for the WGA, doing hot restorative yoga, running, swimming, listening to music, and fuelling my spirits with friends and my husband Dave each evening. But I have yet to achieve such a perfect balance. Realistically, my writing process is a somewhat jumbled version of the above, broken-up by responsibilities and other activities. I need a pair of pyjama pants for every day of the week, and the occasional absinthe martini and Cuban cigar don’t hurt the process either.
Ali Bryan Leanne Shirtliffe Bradley Somer Janie Chang Theodora Armstrong Kathy Page Lorna Suzuki Barbara Lambert Matilda Magtree Alice Zorn Anita Lahey Pearl Pirie Julie Paul Sarah Mian Steve McOrmond Susan Gillis Jason Heroux
As mentioned, my last race was thirteen years ago. The race was one mile, from South Cove in Battery Park City to Pier 25 in Hudson River Park. I was visiting New York with my friend Patty and the swim served as early, possibly-useful research for eventual sections of Sage Island (still an evolving idea at the time). “Can’t be that dirty, right?” I said when Patty confirmed my online registration. “I wouldn’t swim the East River though,” she grinned.
We wandered around Battery Park in search of the race start, arriving late but in time for the course briefing and for an organizer to jiffy-marker 19 onto both my shoulders. I tucked my hair under a cap. The countdown started. An air horn blasted, and we were off, a pod of water birds in a cloud of froth. The course ran the length of a seawall where Patty could follow me on foot, cheering and hollering under the sun. Twenty-four minutes later I slapped my hand against a gangway ladder, marking my finish. Someone hosed me down. Patty and I celebrated with blender drinks on a friend’s rooftop patio—accessible only through a window—overlooking Manhattan.
Imagine my dismay when I arrived at the BCNSWIM race check-in this morning to find I was assigned number 19. Out of 320 swimmers, the same number I was given thirteen years ago in NYC! Of the 320 registered swimmers, only 53 were women. I collected my cap and secured time chip around my ankle. An organizer drew 19 on my shoulders with a marker.
Dance music pumped from loudspeakers at Port Forum Beach. The conditions looked okay except for the breakers crashing onto shore. Swimmers warmed-up behind the surf, loosening-up their arms and legs like responsible athletes. I sat on my towel and bought a Coke and water from a random guy selling pop and chips out of a plastic bag. I had absolutely no idea what to expect as a result of this experiment other than a) I wanted to complete the swim, and b) I preferred not to finish last.
The pre-race briefing was held completely in Spanish. I understood nothing save the countdown. A countdown sounds like a countdown in any language, and then you run into the ocean and try to stay close to at least one other swimmer. At least this is my strategy.
Diez. Nueve. Ocho. Siete. Seis. Cinco. Cuatro. Tres. Dos. Uno! We ran into the ocean and dove into a swell. The fastest swimmers took off in a drove. I swam steadily with competitors to either side. The pack thinned out and I knew there were swimmers ahead and behind me. The water temperature was about 25C. Warm. No wetsuits allowed.
I approached the first buoy, overjoyed to notice that a swimmer had taken up residence to my left. We stroked in unison around the giant orange bobble. Underwater, I could see that her swim suit had a comic book pattern.
We took turns sighting, keeping each other on track toward the next buoy. She had smaller arms than me. Actually, she appeared small in general, and for the first half of the race I had two predominant thoughts: You can swim 2500 meters, I told myself. And: Please don’t be twelve. I really didn’t want to pace this race alongside a child, as endearing a thought as this may be. Wait. Were children even allowed to register for this? I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t sure. You can swim 2500 meters. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Please don’t be twelve. You can swim 2500 meters. Please don’t be twelve.
We rounded the third orange buoy at 1300 meters and raised our heads simultaneously, unable to see the next marker. We bobbed in the swells, and she said something in rapid Spanish. “No comprendo,” I said. “Sorry?” Together we sunk into a trough and caught sight of another buoy. “Over there,” I waved. She pointed, “Allá, allá!”
We swam toward the 1500-meter buoy. She was not twelve. She was definitely an adult. After 1500 meters, we didn’t realize that we’d started to zigzag. The swells pushed us around. We’d stop and look for the next buoy, see nothing but ocean, and put our faces back down to keep swimming. We swam so close together our arms would sometimes graze. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Sight. Back down. Swim.
A yellow blur slid across our horizon. We bobbed like seals. Lifeguards on a paddleboard. A fit of Spanish broke out between my pacer and the guards. We’d started swimming off course, I gathered as much from the gestures alone. They motioned for us to bear left. She turned to me, pointed in that direction, nodded, “Okay?” “Okay!” I said.
The final buoy came into view. We picked up the pace. How had I forgotten the adrenalin of the finish, when the dark water brightens to a sandy glow, lighter and lighter until you can grab the sand in your fist and crawl onto your feet?
My comic print pacer ran up the beach and finished four seconds ahead of me. On the other side of the finish line, where officials retrieved our chips, we released our goggles and grinned at each other. “Thanks,” I said. She was in her early twenties. “Good job,” she said. There were still at least 20 women behind us, and I sat on the beach to watch them swim into the finish. A few were towed in on boards and escorted up the sands by the Creu Roja. When the results were posted I ran my finger over the names, Raquel, Natalia, Manuela, Rosa, to find her, one name above mine: Melania.
Hello, World! I’m sitting in the same hotel bar for the third evening in a row. Warm air skitters over my papers. There is wine. There is a small bowl of complimentary popcorn. There are bulbs on the orange trees throwing romantic light on the tables. I’ve just swallowed two muscle relaxants with a multi-vitamin. They will take 45 minutes to work.
I’m in Barcelona for the 15th FINA 2013 World Aquatic Championships where my husband is part of the Canadian delegation as President of Swimming Canada. We’ve already attended the men’s and women’s 10K marathon races and pool swimming will begin in three days, on July 28. July 28: the same day I am scheduled to participate in my first open water swim race in thirteen years. Have I trained for this race? No. Do I have shoulders in rehab? Two of them. Did I throw my back out last week for no good reason? Yes.
Why am I going to swim a 2.5km open water race in three days under these circumstances? Because two months ago I told myself I would. Seventeen years ago I swam my first 10K on no training, and the experience changed my life. I was not swimming at the time, never mind in shape. I was cultivating the onset of dreadlocks and a dubious future. Somehow, during this phase—the details being age-appropriately fuzzy—I happened upon literature about the Vancouver Open Water Swim Series. I peered at the brochure. Swim the Burrard Inlet? I’d always wanted to swim a channel. Did I have to barista or pump gas at the station that day? No? Perfect. I declared myself qualified.
Two weeks later I tucked my waist-length-extension-braid-dreads into the back of a purple wetsuit, and set out to swim across the shipping channel, a 10K distance from Sandy Cove to Kitts Beach. My father and brother sat on a boat for over four hours as I turtled my way across the inlet, emerging a delirious raisin.
Long story short, after that first 10K, I joined a competitive team and trained Monday through Saturday for a year. Up to eighteen hours a week. The next summer, my 10K time dropped from four hours to two and a half. I continued to train and race for four years and eventually became a coach, and later, a writer. Swimming—long distance, open water in particular—had an enormous impact on my life. I’m not sure I appreciated then just how much the long swims were teaching me about perseverance. This may sound obvious, but crossing a channel is a metaphor for overcoming just about every possible struggle.
When you swim long distances, you are constantly reminded that the best way to respond to unexpected currents, rip tides, rogue waves and bad news, is to relax in the turbulence as much as possible. Breathe. Stay calm. Do not make decisions based on fear. Try not to project, over-think, panic, or punch relentlessly against a current. This wastes precious energy. Above all, you learn to recognize (and snub) the insidious voice that says: Stop. You’re not good enough. What are you doing? You’ll never finish this. Who do you think you are, anyway? Loser!
Somewhere along the way, over the past decade out of the water, I have forgotten some of this. I have developed a burgeoning sense of trepidation. Instead of tucking twenty-pound hair into the back of a cheap wetsuit and asking, “What’s the worst that can happen?” I now ask the same question, brow furrowed, one eyebrow lifted, “No, really,” I lean into a scenario, “What IS the worst that can happen?”
Today marks the 3-day countdown into my July 28 re-immersion and the launch of this blog. Here, I will write about people, places, second-novel-writing-hell, jellyfish, writers, artists and swimmers, alongside other adventures deemed noteworthy and/or metaphorical and/or poignant.
Approximately fifty people have said that perhaps my writing process would benefit from a *side project* when I need to step away from the novel I am working on. “A side project will refresh your headspace when the novel loses momentum or you need to take break.”
Well, here it is.
Hop on board, intrepid skippers. There is wine. Complimentary popcorn. Muscle relaxants. Life vests available in the event of a disaster.