October 2, 2019

A firm grip on mid-life


Forty is the new 30.

Heard that a few times in the past? Me too, especially this year as a lot of my 1979’ers join in the big 4-oh club.

Sorry, but no. Forty is the new 40. Be happy with that.

When I was 30, I had a noisy infant, with number two baby soon to be on the way. I had a job that was not permanent—a career stepping-stone, yes, but not the career I have today. I was down one parent in recent years then, and the other was fighting cancer at the time. To be clear, there is no lament about life at 30, and in fact, I was being retrospective and celebrating similar content about the end of my 20’s, when I turned 30.  But it was a very different place than where I am now.

And now, I’m 40. I have two older, competent, interesting, engaged kids. I'm headed toward the 14th anniversary of wedded happiness to my best gal. I'm in a career—yes, career—that I love and can keep growing into. My parents are both gone now, and I’m past my own grief of that and their happy memories live in my heart. All in, it’s a welcome way to start the next decade.

14,600 days later... 
No lament in the loss of more youth. I took up a new sport in the past year (rowing, for anyone paying attention) and it’s clear that you can teach an old dog some new tricks. Granted, this dog still has a lot to learn in that sport. It’s challenging and technical and I guess that’s what I’ve enjoyed about it. It’s good to keep testing the grey matter and learning new things. I have a new home this year, too—the previous blogpost will fill you in on that detail—and it’s pretty cool to start a fresh decade with a new abode.

If you look closely, there are a few sprigs of grey hair appearing in my eyebrows and hairline (nose and ear hairs, too, maybe?!). I welcome each new silvery addition. Growing older, and all the signs that provide witness to the passage of time, are privileges denied to so, so many.

I suppose the list of positives about being 40 could go on, but let’s keep it short and sweet. Life is better spent living in the moment and looking forward to what’s next than it will ever be looking back on what has happened (or didn’t happen). I’m a happy, healthy, wildly fortunate 40-year-old. I don’t know what I did to deserve what I have, but I’ll take it. I feel like I’m successful in most endeavours these days—that’s not an overnight thing, but a cumulation of a bunch of good days, great support and hard work that lead up to today. I’m a really freakin’ lucky guy. 

I have no major life advice at this time, in case you're curious. Be good, try to do good, and most things will come out 51 of 49 most of the time (that's my favourite 'old man' saying, FYI). 

Happy birthday to me. Bring on 40. 

Now pass the pie plate (a la mode, if you please!)



July 5, 2019

We moved!

Almost empty. 

A house is just a house. It’s the people inside of it that make it a home.

Today our family embarks on a new adventure. Yesterday, we moved out of the house we’ve lived in and loved for 13 years (lucky 13). There are a lot of memories packed into that space. Our first dog lived and died there, and where our second dog was ushered into our lives. Our son was born, hurriedly, on the bathroom floor, late on a June night some 11 years ago. It’s the front door through which we carried our daughter for the first time, home from weeks in the hospital after her premature birth. It is the place where we toasted my parents on their final trips to our home before their passing. It was the site of celebrating new jobs, report cards, goals scored, birthdays, Christmases and anniversaries. Backyard plays with friends from around the neighbourhood, special bonds formed with so many.


But all of these things, much like all the objects and possessions in the house, can be packaged up, and carried with us as memories, and friends can remain friends no matter where one lives.

A house is just a house. It’s the memories formed inside of and around it that make it a home.

So, we are taking on a new adventure. It is equal measures new and exciting, and familiarity.
Some 22 years ago, almost to this week, I first laid eyes on our new home. It is a place already full of memories for our family.  

One kid's bedroom. Without the kid, though, just a room. 
That requires some explanation, I know. So here we go.

That bathroom floor where our son was born!
As a 17-year-old, I first came to this place I today call home. My dad drove me from Kamloops on a warm day in June, 1997. A lanky kid, come to the big city of Vancouver to attend his girlfriend’s high school graduation.

In my mid-20’s, I stood in the corner of the living room of the same house on the West side of town, at a make-shift altar space cleared out. A slightly-less lanky kid saying ‘I Do’ to that same girl, and she the same to me, before God and gathered family.

And in my late 30’s (err, that would be now), a familial arrangement is made, one that will benefit multiple generations. 

The house (in case you haven’t figured it out by now), is the one that Kate grew up in. Her mom has been there for some 45 years, and she and her partner are ready to downsize… without going too far away. A laneway house is about to be built in the back yard. Kate, the kids and I have just moved into the main house. It will position Kate’s mom well to not have to take care of a big property, and for us to be nearby to help her in whatever way as years tick by. It’s a homecoming for Kate, for certain, having spent her first many years here. But it’s also a full circle for me, too, for all the memories I have in this place. 


As for our kids, they too, have existing memories from this house, and they don’t have to feel quite so nervous about a move as new schools await and a different way of moving through the world is now upon them. We hope, among many things, that the kids will nurture a deep sense of appreciation for what family supporting family can look like. Many cultures are smart enough to know that intergenerational living has benefits for all involved, and we’re hoping to model that.

Another kid's room, now empty




It will be a while before the dust settles on the laneway house project, so there is still some maneuvering to be done before this new arrangement is totally underway. In the short term, we also have a lot of boxes to unpack, so pictures of some finished spaces will come soon!

Kate has asked me a number of times if I feel sad for leaving the house that we first bought together, renovated multiple times, built a family in and weaved ourselves into the fabric of the neighbourhood. I don’t feel sad. I never feel sad for moving on from a place. It has always been this way for me. I am always interested more in looking forward to new beginnings.

Nino takes his final front porch
siesta at our now-former home. 
After all--need I say it again--a house is just a house. It’s the memories formed inside of and around it that make it a home.  

And I will carry those memories with me, always. They don't get left behind, and best of all, there is no packing or unpacking of boxes required to get to them. 


Welcome back home, Kate


May 29, 2019

Going forward backwards - A rowing adventure

I've been fairly quiet (here on the blog, at least) about something that has been occupying A LOT of my time in the last eight months. 

Despite my life-long passion and love for kayaking, in all its bow-facing (err, forward facing, for you land lubbers) magnificence, I've recently started going backward in a rowing shell. 
Pretty proud, and feeling very fortunate, to
'Rep the Leaf' for Rowing Canada

And I've recently had the opportunity to represent Canada to do it, too, at the 2019 FISA International Para Rowing Regatta in Gavirate, Italy!

This is somewhat of a surprise, given that as recently as: 
  • Seven weeks ago, I’d never been in a pairs rowing shell, and that's what I was going to have to race!
  • 17 weeks ago, I’d never been in a rowing shell, of any sort, period.
  • Eight months ago, I hadn’t even approached anyone at Rowing Canada about their para program.







The super strong young guy doing all the work in the boat
is named James. He's my pairs partner! 
All in all, the timelines to go from nothing to representing Canada appear pretty short. And I suppose in many ways they are. But the truth is, I’ve had my eye on a moment like this for around seven years, having spent many hopeful seasons gearing up for canoe/kayak, only to have upper limb classifications slowly but surely stripped out of the para disciplines of that sport. I was never able to make a leap to international competition. Hence, a switch to rowing. I feel I still have some high-performance effort to give, and this time, the only thing that will dictate how far I go is how much effort I am willing and able to put into it, rather than a board/executive decision to axe my classification from the competition. 

So, in summary, I've decided to look backward to go forward. 

I’m tall, and I’ve always been involved in sport, which means I’ve spent a lifetime of being told I should try rowing. Still being a little obsessed with boats, I decided to cold-call Rowing Canada, as the summer of 2018 came to a close, to inquire about para-rowing.

The timing was good.

They were hoping to identify a potential crew member to pair with a big, young guy in Ontario named James, who himself had only taken up rowing at the start of 2018. He was tall, like me, And enthusiastic, like me. Oh, and he’s mostly blind. If pieces fell into place fast enough, perhaps we could be ready to race together in the spring of 2019.

I won’t bore you with the details of everything that went on to turn this kayaker into a potential rower in the space of eight months. It did involve a lot of time at the gym, though, to develop some decent leg muscles for the first time in my life, and yet more time sitting on a rowing erg, building up stamina and working on technique from the safety of dry land. 

One thing I was always resistant to with the thought of rowing, was the exceptionally regimented learning curve. Start with an eight-person crew boat. Learn the terms, understand the processes, row in that crew as a beginner for a time. Then, if you’ve proved your worth, progress to a quad or a four. Develop more skill there, and then perhaps move into a double. Hit the elite level, and row in a single.

Yeah, I didn’t have time for any of that.

I have a slight 'rowing hands' problem at the moment' 
I literally rowed three times in a coxed fours boat (four rowers, one oar each, and a fith person, the coxswain, sitting in the boat guiding the way and calling out commands) before shipping off to Victoria for a week-long para training integration camp with Rowing Canada para athletes. There, I met the current team and my prospective future partner, James, as well. Still, fours was the name of the game. Fair enough. It was icy February water, and balance was still a small issue. 

It still took until late March to get me into a pairs boat (two people, one oar each, no coxswain), and it was a shaky, steep learning curve. What's more, everyone I've met that knows anything about rowing whatsoever always says the same thing: "OH. Pairs. that's the hardest boat to row!"

THANKS for the info! 

Prior to our departure for Italy, James and I were only in a pairs boat together across the space of three days. Arriving in Italy, we had five more days to train together before spending a couple of days racing. 
I will say this: the outcomes of the racing were not the main point of this trip. International classifications take place at this regatta, and so both James and I had to go through our own classification processes to be cleared for international competition in the PR3 class. 
That was the driving factor behind attending this particular competition. With that checked off the list, it was time to race. 
The week in Italy and the racing marked MANY firsts for me: 
  • First time rowing on an actual 2000m course 
  • First time racing a rowing shell, period. 
  • First time racing in--at times--VERY challenging wind conditions
  • First time wearing the maple leaf! 


The 'Spirito de Lago  / Spirit of the Lake' watched over  the
racing venue (you'll see more of her in the videos linked below) 
Dealing with the wind was exceptionally challenging for me, steering a boat that I'm still very much learning to row, with an incredibly strong partner in James, and trying to match his ability. But it was a great experience, and I'm looking forward to more (except for the punishment my nubile rowing hands are experiencing. I am slowly but surely building up some good callouses, but I have suffered to get to this point). 

It's by no means a clear shot to the Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020, which is the longview on this whole rowing experiment. The one and only boat I would qualify to race in is a 'PR3 Mix 4'... two men, two women. There are two other PR3 men racing in a pair and both have deep experience, so there are four of us guys competing for two seats, and one alternate slot. The point is, of course, to put together the fastest boat for Canada. It's not all about me, at all. 

Anyway, that's the stretch goal. for now, I'm just keeping up the training, gaining more time on the water, and enjoying the new experiences. 

It was my first time in Italy, ever, and you can be damn sure I ate
alllll the pizza and pasta and drank the coffee. 
For some of you who follow my YouTube channel already, you may have caught a few episodes of my trip diary. For the rest of you, here's the whole playlist! I did one video each day in Italia, and it will give you a sense of what we got up to while we were there! 

To all those who have offered their wishes of Good Luck to me, I thank you. Your support is greatly appreciated! There's a lot of work ahead and it's still unclear how the chips will fall, so stay tuned! 


April 17, 2019

Remembering Margie


At five feet two inches tall, you might miss Margaret ‘Margie’ Kay Smith-Wingert if you passed her on the street. With her with size six shoes and a slow, only-slightly-steady walk, you might see that diminutive woman and pass her off as meek and mild.

She was anything but.

Margie, aged two 
Margie at St. Anthony'; her first communion. 
As a three-year-old, Margie, born in small-town Iowa, lost her mom. She and her older siblings were under the sole care of their father, but in time, they were all given up to live at Saint Anthony's Orphanage, Sioux City, Iowa.  Margie and her siblings lived there for a few years, and some of Margie’s earliest memories were of the nuns, and the communal bedrooms. Margie and her siblings were all adopted to different families, without decent records of who went where. Imagine being a young child, set adrift into middle America with a new family.



Life over the years after that was not always kind or easy for Margie, but through it all, she maintained her faith in God, and an optimism about life that can only be described as admirable. Margie loved to laugh, and with a big voice and traces of her mid-western accent, there was no mistaking Margie when Margie was talking. 

Margie thrived against some of the odds she faced. Various work roles found her bouncing around a bit in her younger years--Denver, Portland, and Seattle were among her stops.  It was there in Seattle, Washington, in the early 80’s, that Margie applied for a nannying job for a doctor’s daughter. That doctor was my future mother-in-law, and she needed someone to take care of my future wife, Kate, age four at the time. My mother-in-law reflected recently on the phone interview she had with Margie, saying she was head-and-shoulders the best applicant she had. A face-to-face interview firmed up the deal, and that was that. 

So began a life-long relationship with Margie.

Margie and Kate

Margie moved to Canada with my wife’s family after a few years in Seattle, and continued working, helping to raise Kate until Kate was 10 years old. She came to them a stranger, but left as one of the family. She also gained her Canadian citizenship along the way. Canada was Margie's new homeland. 

Margie, unfortunately, began to suffer from trigeminal neuralgia. A surgery attempt to solve the problem only made it worse. Margie would be on opioid pain medications for the rest of her life. That made matters difficult as the pain and medication made it impossible for Margie to do meaningful work, and prolonged medication use led to all sorts of other side effects. She had the shakes, suffered from painful kidney stones, detached retinas (she went blind in one eye in recent years), and more. Over the years her intersections with the health system were many. There, too, she wasn't always noticed. She had a few close calls for being sent home when there was a real problem that got dismissed. Given all her medication use for her neuralgia, one could easily dismiss her as a confused addict. But, her determination and optimism kept her going.
...............................

Over the years, Margie had managed to reconnect with her siblings, all of whom lived in the U.S.. Their upbringings were all pretty different, based on the families they were adopted into. Margie was thankful to have their connections. Between her Smith clan and her Wingert clan, it expanded her world to be able to include in-laws, nieces and nephews. She was able to travel now and again to visit them, and the advent of Skype and facetime calling kept her in regular touch.

.................................

I first met Margie when I was 17, maybe 18 years old. Margie was still very much in Kate’s life. Living in Surrey next to Vancouver, she’d come out for the occasional supper or family celebration, like our wedding, and for birthday dinners. She would fawn over our kids, bringing them little trinkets or stuffed animals every time she visited. 

"Aunty Margie" with Sacha and Heidi in 2015.
Heidi still wears that dress, which Margie gave her.

To them, she was their aunty Margie. Heidi, my daughter, was a particular benefactor of Margie’s collections of bracelets, costume jewellery, little dresses, dolls and stuffies.  Margie didn’t have much money, but she was always such a giver. Not just of things, but of her time and her warm spirit.
Margie would talk a lot about her church—she was a faithful Catholic—and about singing in the choir, one of her absolute loves in life.

Margie was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2018. As the cancer progressed, it was the loss of her singing voice she lamented about most often, never mind the tumours all over her body, especially that one late in the game which threatened to shatter her femoral head inside her hip joint. No, Margie didn't complain much about that. She missed her singing voice. 


In the fall of 2018, no longer able to live in an unsupported place, she came home. Home to Kate’s mum’s house, where she’d spent all those years taking care of Kate as a little girl.
One more Christmas Tree for Margie
Home to some of the extended family she’d made for herself. Her sisters came up to visit at different times, and friends came calling as well. Some time passed, and we brought her faux Christmas tree over. Our kids helped her decorate it, old Christmas favourites playing on the iPad as Margie reminisced about Christmas' past. 

When the time came that she could no longer be supported in the house, she spent a few weeks at the Vancouver General Hospital palliative care ward. There was a hummingbird nested in a tree just outside her window. In First Nations culture, the hummingbird is seen as a healer and a bringer of love, good luck and joy. Margie loved that she had one nearby, and saw it as a positive sign.

A few weeks on, a hospice bed was found for Margie. There, too, Hummingbirds came to feed just outside her window. She decided that maybe those little birds were some of her guardian angels. Margie was an animal lover. She talked in her final weeks how she hoped heaven had a doggy daycare where she could tend to some puppies for her eternity. 

During her weeks in hospice, she had lots of pastoral care visits, visits from friends, one of her sisters came to stay with her for a long stretch, and we visited, too, of course. 

It was there, at St. John hospice on the grounds of the University of British Columbia, her journey ended. She passed peacefully, surrounded by some of that chosen family: Kate’s hand, which Margie had held so many times before, was there to hold Margie’s as she took her final breaths. There’s something about that which just seems so right to me.

Today we’re all thankful that Margie chose to answer the ‘help wanted’ ad for a nanny job, and we know that Margie’s been delivered into the hands of her loving God in whom she placed all her faith and devotion, and that she is reunited with the mother she lost so long ago, and that she is feeling no pain. During her funeral mass, Father Paul Smith noted that there are many roads in life. On Margie's road, there were a lot of potholes, but that doesn't mean she didn't experience a full, rich life, full of love and laughter despite some of her odds. 

Before her time was up, Margie wrote many of us letters, which we all received this week. In her shaky hand, she wrote to those she held dear. I was lucky enough to be on her list. I’m not going to share precisely what she had to say, but I will paraphrase this piece:  she promised that once she got to heaven, she’d make sure to say hi to my mom and dad for me, and to tell them 'thanks' for the way they raised me.

But that was just Margie. Giving a million times more than she ever got, I think. 

No doubt the pearly gates were flung wide open for you this week, Margie, and you strode through with big-hair-don't-care-attitude, singing praise that you've finally arrived at your Forever Home. God's noticed you all along, Margie, and he's glad you're around to liven up the place. 

You will be missed, “Aunty Margie”. We love you lots.