Saturday, 19 January 2013

Eight Months and Change:"for one more day"

Vancouver Art Gallery, the old courthouse.

"Have you ever lost someone you love and wanted one more conversation, one more chance to make up for the time when you thought they would be here forever? If so , then you know you can go your whole life collecting days and none will outweigh the one you wish you had back."  Mitch Albom, "for one more day", Hyperion Press, New York, New York.  2006

"If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride" is a favourite saying of mine; every time I get dreaming about all the "what ifs" in life, I usually chastise myself by repeating that little truism until I finally understand that dreaming and wishing are best left for other people. In my life, it is best to just accept the reality that I am not terribly handsome or talented, I have not one ounce of charisma, and my daughter is never coming back for even a moment, much less a day.

 Still, in the wee hours of the morning, when the house is nearly silent, so quiet that the background noise of the filters on the fish tanks becomes a virtual waterfall to my vigilant ears, I sometimes ask myself "what if?".

There are just so many days with my daughter I would pick for a "do over". In fact, right now I would take any and all of them. On the other hand, if I had to make a choice, it would have been one of our "museum" days; those were all ours and ours alone.  On each of our museum days there was a sense of timelessness; the outside world and and its constant rush to the next new thing just disappeared. We two were an island unto ourselves, comfortable just to enjoy the art, artifacts and each others company. 

We fell into having museum days early on, just after we moved to Regina.  I was temporarily unemployed at the time; I had foolishly decided to pack veterinary medicine in and join the RCMP to follow my teenage dream. I had moved the entire family to Regina without any "plan B" (typical of me back then) and, as a result, I had gained three things quickly: a new home, a large mortgage, and all sorts of free time as the RCMP pondered whether I was worthy of their attention. I did not gain a job, and, as it turned out finally, because the RCMP finally decided I was not appropriate for their organisation.  "Too decision oriented" was their final decision. Anyway, I had to fill those days with something, so I explored Regina with my faithful side-kick Calista.

What do you do with a busy four-year old and tons of time on your hand? You visit the Royal Saskatchewan Museum...repeatedly.

As Calista grew up we kind of fell into a pattern of taking in every art show at Regina's Mackenzie Art Gallery on South Albert, just a few blocks away from the provincial legislature.  All our trips there were planned weeks in advance and were special days just for us; Roni did not have much interest and was just as happy to have her own special days with Calista.

 Now, the question becomes, which  day do I select out of so many?

 I don't: I create my own special day because this journal entry is all about "what if?"

 On the other hand, I do need some basis for reality, so I will borrow from two days spent at the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 20007 Calista and I took in the special showing of "Realism through Surrealism" or, easier to say, "Monet to Dali". It was a big show covering the pivotal years in art from the last quarter of the 19th century into the first quarter of the 20th. Paintings on display included many from masters recognisable to everybody; even convicts on death-row know the names of Monet, Van Gogh, and Salvador Dali. They might get Monet mixed with Manet, but that's OK; they were practically contemporaries.  The second show we enjoyed at the VAG was the 2009 show "Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art". Again the show was extensive, covering both art and artifacts of the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, with numerous works by Rembrandt and Vermeer. It was not until just now, as I prepared this journal entry, that I saw how these visits influenced my "darlin' daughter" (now there is a term stolen directly from Kelvin Orr; the older I get the more like my father I become).

"Morisot" by Manet. He was
a "Realist" who sometimes did
"Impressionist" style paintings.
"Low Tide at Pourville, Near Dieppe" by Monet.
He was an "Impressionist" who sometimes painted
"Realist" style paintings.

The Vancouver Art Gallery occupies the impressive old neo-classical former court-house seated right in the heart of Vancouver's downtown core.  While certainly not as visually stunning as the Arthur Erickson designed glass and concrete mountain that now serves as the provincial court-house, there is a real sense of history and grandeur about the hundred year old domed building that houses the art gallery.  I suspect that both criminals and witnesses alike approached the old building with trepidation as they mounted the long, stone stair case and entered the imposing front doors. In truth, our visits to the art gallery were as much to enjoy the impressive old building as they were to take in the art.

Of course, when Calista and I visited any art gallery or museum, there was always the problem of what to do with the rest of the family.  Roni, while refined and artistic in her own right, would rather visit a dentist for a root-canal rather than stroll through a museum. She just does not like "old" and enjoys photographs of art in books as much as seeing the real thing. I could explain to her all day that they just do not compare, but she just smiles and nods, sure that I am just trying to talk her into another tedious three hour tour. In 2009 we had the added issue of Calista's current boy-friend  being with us in Vancouver (a real mistake for all you parents of teen-aged girls; never take boyfriends anywhere with your family.  Maybe to the taxidermy shop to have them stuffed and mounted.).  Our solution was pretty simple that year: the boy got left behind to sleep, eat and entertain himself (easy to do; watching paint dry was probably  breath-taking for that genius) and Roni came with us as far as the Eaton's shopping centre across the street from the gallery. There is nothing like a little retail-therapy to stave off boredom.

If Roni were writing this journal, her perfect day would have been the exact reverse; I would be sent by myself to the museum while she and Calista shopped the mall barren.  We, of course, would then meet at Starbuck's after to exchange tales of the hunt, their stories likely much better than least from Roni's point of view. Calista always remained neutral. She never really chose between Roni and I; she was always true to both.

At the core of the old court-house is a traditional rotunda that extends up to the top floors of the museum. Around this core lies the old stairwells, now filled by escalators, that gave access to each floor. In 2009 the centre of the rotunda was occupied by what I guess could be called a sculpture; "ought apartment" by Reece Terris. It was a multi-level series of apartments each depicting a different decade starting about 1950.  Calista loved it but I found it a little disturbing: half the furniture in the exhibit could have come right out of any of the homes I grew up in.  Heck, I am sure one of the light fixtures from the "seventies" apartment came right out of my parent's cabin by Okanagan Lake.  I think that is the first time Calista looked at me as "old"; my life had been included in a museum.

In 2007, the Vancouver Art Gallery was filled with paintings from the Realists through to the Surrealists. Calista and I had a prior history with the "Realists" and the "Impressionists", having taken in smaller shows featuring both of those movements back in Regina.  At one time Calista could name almost all of the famous painters from the "Impressionist" movement, though by 2007 the only name she could immediately recall was Monet, the original "Impressionist".

An unappreciative art critic of Monet's era had coined the term in a disparaging critique after the unveiling of Monet's painting "Impression: soleil levant". The "Impressionists" departed from the earlier art standards by dispensing with details and hard lines and concentrating on the interplay of light and colour within the scene they are trying to depict. The paintings, typically done out-of-doors, were done quickly with bold, short, heavy strokes, thickly applied ("impasto") brightly coloured paint. Calista loved the bright colours; she adored Monet and treasured a poster I had given her for Christmas years earlier.  We still have that poster dry-mounted and hung in our spare bedroom. A framed art card of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" still decorates her bed-room (Van Gogh, strictly defined, was a "Post-Impressionist", but why split hairs?)

One of the "Waterloo Bridge" paintings done by Monet during
his London years. This is the poster that hangs in our spare room.
"Ink Nation HDR" by Calista: Impressionist painting by
camera; its about colours and light.

The designations of Realists, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists are so arbitrary that each painting has to be judged independently rather than just assuming that a painter  can be comfortably grouped with one movement or the other.  While Calista probably had an idea of what each group stood for (she was the one who pointed out to me that Van Gogh was properly called a "Post-Impressionist"), back in those days the only painting I knew was "Traditional", "Impressionist", Salvador Dali and Picasso.  Everything else was pretty much a mystery. I now realize that most modern painters have had a go at any one of a number of styles and the entire grouping system is pretty much a sliding scale rather than a definitive pigeon-hole.

 As a rule of thumb, the Realists painted common subjects as realistically as possible, a departure from the idealized, symbolic paintings of the traditional past. The "Impressionists" went one step farther and tried to catch the transient nature of this world by painting quickly to get the overall "impression" of the scene.  The "Post-Impressionists" pretty much diversified into any number of quite different styles as they tried to re-invent painting altogether. For me, it all was a moot point: I had two categories: art I understood and art I didn't understand. Calista liked it all.

Probably the most memorable paintings of the 2007 season were the Van Gogh paintings. They proved to me that looking at a photo of a painting is not looking at a painting.  The bright vibrant colours of Van Gogh are diluted and the thick, impasto texture of his broad brush strokes disappear in a photograph. Calista must have stood for ten minutes in front of Van Gogh's "The Poplars at Saint-Remy" as she absorbed the vibrancy of the master's painting. Both of us could have enjoyed those moments in silence much longer, but time and tide waits for no man and the gallery was crowded that day.
Van Gogh's "Poplars". This photo does not
even come close to the real thing. Never pass
up a chance to see paintings in person.

We had our humorous moments too, punctuated by a derisive snort by my little princess. In the Surrealists gallery, towards the end of the tour, was a painting by Chaim Soutine called "Still Life with Ray fish".  I recognized the subject and blurted out that it looked identical to a still-life painting done by Chardin over 150 years earlier. The American tourist standing next to me was suitably impressed and must have thought I actually knew my topic. Calista looked at me out of the side of her eye and asked if I had read the index card right below Soutine's Surrealist homage to Chardin.  I swore I hadn't, but I'm not sure she believed me since it was about the only intelligent thing to come out of my mouth all day.  I had already made an ass out of myself by loudly exclaiming that I finally understood what Picasso's "Blue Period" was all about. As far as Calista was concerned, she could dress her dad up, but you just could not take him anywhere cultured.

Chardin"s variation of "Still Life with Ray fish
Soutine's version as seen "through the looking glass.

Picasso's "La Vie": Ok, so now
I know why it was his "blue" period.
This was before he started painting while
wearing a kaleidoscope.

Of course Salvador Dali is probably the best known example of the Surrealists. Calista liked his work but felt that it was more "comic book" than painting.  It's kind of funny though; reading about Dali you realize that he was a bigger than life cartoon character; pretty much like that girl I knew and loved so much.  We spent a fair bit of time in the Surrealist gallery, at the expense of most of the "Avante-Garde" paintings and all the sculptures (with the exception of a variation of Rodin's "The Thinker"; I was disappointed until I realized the small version on display was just one of many copies Rodin completed in his career). One of the Surrealist paintings Calista and I really laughed at was a homage to Manet's "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe" by Max Ernst; it involved a scantily clad flat-fish with big, nasty sharp teeth and an egg plant.  Both of us assumed the artist had smoked a lot of herbs while painting that piece.

Manet's "Dejeuner sur l'herbe"
Since Manet was a Realist, we
must assume women actually
dined naked in France back then.

Max Ernst's version "Dejeuner sur l'herbre": maybe he smoked
some herbs?

Calista's version of Surreal: Time Travel

Time Magazine's "Dali". Done "old school" with black and
white high speed film, many, many takes, a patient bunch of cats
and a crazy Salvador Dali.

In 2009, Calista and I enjoyed paintings from the other end of the spectrum: the master works of the golden age of Dutch Art. The subdued palate, the extreme life-like detail and the ultra-smooth texture of the Dutch works were such a departure from the previous showing.  At the time I thought all I was doing was exposing my daughter to history and great art, but now, with the 20/20 vision that a retrospective view affords all of us, I now see that she was learning classic composition and attention to detail that appears in so much of her own work. This one trip, of all of our museum visits, shines through in her photography and I am just so glad we took that time.  Even if it cost me a fortune because Roni was enjoying some aggressive retail therapy over at the mall as we toured.

Willem Claesz-Heda 1634.
 "Still Life with Beer Tankard"
Calista Jasmine Fleming 2009: Still Life with
Wine Glass and Grapes.

Meindert Hobbema 1666
A Watermill

Calista Fleming 2011
A Waterfall.
Rachel Ruysch 1716
Still Life with Flowers.
Calista Fleming 2009: Still Life with Rose Petals. It's a photograph.

Vermeer's "Delft" 1661

Calista's Vancouver 2009.  This would be her "Blue Period"....or it was just cloudy that day.  I have this framed in my office.
Gerrit Berckheyde 1672 Town Hall on the Dam,
Calista Fleming 2009: Parliament Buildings on the Lawn

Rembrandt 1661Self-Portrait

Calista 2011 Self Portrait.  Way prettier than Rembrandt and
almost 500 years younger.

Jean Baptiste Greuze 1800 (French)
"L'oiseau mort"


Calista Fleming 2012
"Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk"

While actually seeing paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer (and lots of others too), perhaps the most exciting thing at the gallery for Calista was the full sized "Camera Obscura" the VAG had created at the end of the tour to demonstrate one way the Dutch masters had achieved such realism in their paintings.  Calista had actually experimented with a simple camera obscura in her introductory photography class back in Regina so she understood completely how the technique worked. Since many of her own paintings in her art classes were traces using a modern version of the camera obscura (a projector) she did not consider the technique "cheating" in the least. Opinions differ, but both Rembrandt and Vermeer are still considered the pinnacle of the Dutch Golden Age while nobody remembers their detractors anymore. Calista spent nearly half an hour examining the two rooms that formed the "camera obscura". I just played and did goofy poses trying to get a laugh out of my serious young daughter. She finally forced me to move along elsewhere while pretending she didn't know me.

Camera obscura. That's me, dancing on my head.

In 2009, once we left the main exhibit, we toured the rest of the Vancouver Art Gallery. I never felt I had properly visited the gallery unless I had spent some time with the Emily Carr collection. I find some of Ms. Carr's depictions of the wild BC coastal forest to be so vivid that I can practically smell the rotted cedar and the salty air. While I now live in the middle of that rain forest, at the time we were simple prairie folk and there was almost a mystical, religious feel to the Carr exhibit. With Calista in mind, I also wanted to take in the photo exhibition by Anthony Hernandez, a street photographer famous for catching the urban blight that was Los Angeles through the seventies and eighties with candid shots of the city dwellers.

Mr. Hernandez has a message and I am sure Calista understood with her photographer's eye and artist's soul, but for me his work fell into the category of "art I don't understand".  It's kind of like most of the Avante Garde school of art or anything by Jackson Pollock: it's all really good, but just not for me. I am kind of a caveman; I get the charcoal paintings of buffalo on the cave wall because it's  a simple statement: catch big critter, kill big critter, and then eat big critter.  For my art, you need to keep it simple because I just not that complicated. Calista, on the other hand, was complicated and becoming more so with every passing month.   I still believe her art would have hung on the big gallery walls somewhere if she only had her chance. But then, if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.

If I had just one more day, I would see all those art pieces again with my Calista. We would gaze in wonder at Van Gogh, laugh at Dali, covet Monet and excuse ourselves for mistaking him for Manet. Calista would once again analyze and re-analyze the camera obscura as she built one for herself in her imagination.  We would discuss the composition and lighting of the Dutch masters and dream of being able to compare them to the Venetian masters in person, in Venice, together. I would talk to her one more time about how I would just love to see the Caravaggio in the Irish National Gallery and she would remind me that I was talking about a different nationality from an earlier era. I would just love to have my Calista back for just one day, if only to hear her tease me again about what a hopeless red-neck I can be from time to time.

We would finish that "one more day" by meeting Roni at the Starbuck's in the Eaton's Centre (now a Sears I think, but we would make it Eaton's again, because in my "one more day" everyone gets a mulligan).  I would pretend to complain and maybe have a fake heart-attack over all the money Roni had spent shopping, Roni would rant at me for having bought yet one more art book (two in this case, since we decided to have both the 2007 and the 2009 exhibitions in our "one day"), and Calista would sit between us, never taking a side but being absolutely loyal to both. Things would be as they should be and all would be right in my world.

But wishes aren't horses and beggars can only walk.  Dreaming is for dreamers and it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. Calista tried to teach me that, but it was a good lesson that fell on deaf ears.

It was a cold day in Powell River, Catmas was just a few days away and she wanted to get sun-rise at the airport.
She found frost on the Smart Car instead and then came back to bed.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Seven Months; 21 days: A Sporting Life

Taken early one cold morning in late November: the view from the stern of the ferry as she left her new home
and headed west to her chosen and beloved home in the Comox Valley.

There are seminal moments in every person's life that burn themselves into your memory so clearly that to recall them is to relive them. Personally, I have a peculiar memory in that I remember practically everything that has ever happened in my life. I frequently surprise my family by recounting events in our history that they had forgotten entirely. My brother Ivor, to this day, does not remember throwing a spent mortar shell at me when I was about ten. Accompanied by a friend, he and I had been hiking through an old WWII army training ground and we had stopped to investigate a massive red-ant hill which grew out of a peculiar depression beside the road. He remembers the shell, he remembers his friend Scott being there as we dug into the immense ant hill to retrieve the ancient brass, but he cannot remember who caught that shell when he threw it high and ducked for cover. I remember like it was yesterday; the sweat dripping down my back as the late August sun beat upon my pudgy shoulders, the heat of the newly excavated artillery shell as my fumbling hands nervously caught it just before it hit the ground and the anger welling up in my heart as I realised that Ivor had no idea if the shell was live or spent when he lobbed it my way.

This kind of memory is wonderful in many ways; it allows you to relive the best moments of your life.  My first glimpse of the long legged beauty I was to eventually marry; I remember thinking that a boring dude like me would never get a date with someone like Roni. I still am embarrassed that I had to down a couple of stiff drinks with the boss (these were the eighties, so having a drink or two with the boss after work was accepted and even expected in some cases) before I found the courage to ask Roni out on our first date.  I botched that first date in the worst way, but it was certainly a sign that I had found the right girl. I forgot to turn off the pager that evening and I ended up taking this poor city girl on an emergency call into the cold of the flat lands around Lethbridge. She forgave me, but I have no idea why since the call was a particularly messy and gory emergency that ended up with us having to drive back to my apartment with the windows rolled down to diffuse the pungent smell of manure, blood and fetid infection that covered my clothes. My halting proposal months later was juvenile; I had not ever bothered getting a ring before I dropped to one knee. Our wedding was a patchwork quilt cobbled together more based on a pragmatic budget rather than a romantic dream. The memory that has been most clear just this last week was the timid way Roni broke the news to me that she was pregnant; I was standing in the tiny closet we used as an X-ray dark-room in Whitehorse, sifting through un-filed radiographs looking for a specific case. The mix of fear and joy that filled my heart that day will be just as vivid the day I die as it was that day over 22 years ago. All those memories are  as crystal clear in my mind's eye as the view out my kitchen window as I type this.

Unfortunately, for every "yin" there is a "yang" in this world.  I also remember the exact details of the day Calista died. The fateful phone call, the lonely drive home already sure that she was either dead or dying, the long approach to my home where there was an ominous RCMP squad car and the ubiquitous soccer-mom van owned by the victim's services representative. There are no "fuzzy' edges on this memory; I can still taste the salty tang of my Roni's tears in my mouth as I tried to kiss her pain away. They tasted just like my own tears as they flooded down my cheeks. There are worse memories than that though; having to choose between burial and cremation the next day or writing my daughter's obituary less than a week later are two tableaux I wish I could permanently erase from my memory. People who dream of having total recall need to understand that there is a curse attached to a gift like that.

A friend with which I have exchanged correspondence with for nearly two decades passed on his condolences just before Christmas. My friend is possibly the best amateur writer I have ever had the pleasure to read; his prose flows like a cold glacial stream over ice; it is clear, crisp and sparkles with genius at every bend and rapid. He has self-published a couple of well-received books (with limited circulation) and I wanted his advise on how I should go about publishing this journal. Rob, while considerably younger than I, has an old soul and he can always be trusted to give some worthy advise.
For serious karateka. He still
writes beautifully, but its
a pretty esoteric subject.

a great read even if you
are not into karate.

 In his first note to me, Rob passed on an ancient Japanese adage: "Waza waza no sanzai", or the "three curses" of life. The first is to lose your children in old age, the second is to lose your spouse in middle age, while the third is to attain your life's ambition in youth.  Experiencing any of these is to be cursed because each destroys your reason to live; you are left adrift in a storm, your compass shattered and your rudder lost. Rob's advise to me was to completely re-invent myself. The focus of my life to this point, Calista, is lost. Roni and I need to find some other way to focus our life so we can return our ship to an even keel and get back on a plotted course to a safe harbour. Good advise that I just cannot take right now; sometimes you just need to drift with the storm before you can see the evening sky turn red and have some hope for a peaceful dawn.

Most parents get their children involved in sports for all the right reasons; health, fitness, socialisation, sportsmanship, and discipline. While just about every sport will boast of their superiority to the exclusion of all other activities, I have come to the conclusion that any activity that offers the child a frequent, consistently challenging and varied exercise routine is just fine.  Certainly there are sports that develop cardiovascular fitness better while others focus more on mind-body coordination, but anything that keeps the kids interested, challenged and active is better than the pathetic existence glued to a computer screen that many of the upcoming generation considers a " worthwhile hobby". Unfortunately, once their child is immersed in a sport, so many parents forget their original good intentions and start dreaming about Olympic gold or NHL contracts.  I, personally, was as bad as any rabid hockey-mom.  In retrospect, Calista would have done better if she had never got involved in competitive swimming but instead looked at a sport I had no experience with whatsoever.

In life it is so easy to lose focus. You won't
find any loss of focus on this HDR of a
Harley-Davidson engine.

Roni and I tried all the standard activities that parents think their daughters might enjoy and thrive in.  We tried gymnastics; she liked it, but was never going to really excel at it. Even when she was only four it was clear Calista was never going to be particularly petite or terribly graceful. There is no doubt that all the best gymnasts are more elfin that amazon, and that just did not cover my girl. Roni got her involved in dance and Calista actually spent four or five seasons learning modern jazz and "hip-hop" dancing.  Technically Calista had all the right moves, but truthfully she had little sense of rhythm and absolutely no "soul" when it came to dance. While many of the girls who shared the dance floor with her became progressively more immersed in the "dance culture", it was clear that Calista was just "phoning it in" by the time she was ten or so.  It was swimming that was a constant throughout Calista's early years; first all the levels of lessons and eventually she just seemed to fall into competitive swimming naturally.

As she danced, you could see her thinking
about it hard. It kind of killed the "soul" and
the art of the dance.

But she did get to practice her posing,
something that really paid off later in life.

Since I had been a pretty decent competitive swimmer (eventually battling my way through to the 1980 Olympic trials before I topped out as just another "also swam"), you would think that it would be me that really pushed Calista into swimming, but it was actually Roni. Roni, bless her heart, had all the right reasons for Calista to be a good swimmer, and I am not sure she ever lost sight of those good reasons. I only wish  I could say the same for myself.

Roni cannot swim a stroke. She actually sinks like a rock and could drown in a bathtub given the chance.  Anywhere near open water Roni actually starts to tense up; riding in a speed boat is a white-knuckle experience for her and anything tipsy like a canoe is completely out of the question. Sometimes even the ferry to Courtenay seems a bit small for her when it is crossing the wide, blue Straights of Georgia (aka: "The Salish Sea")  Roni hates the fact she was never enjoyed water sports and always swore her girl was never going to suffer the same embarrassing fear of water. Typical of perfectionist Roni (if you wondered where Calista got if from, just look to my better half), being able to just "dog paddle" well was never enough; Calista had to go all the way with her swimming lessons.

Calista raced through all the red-cross levels just about as fast as any child can.  She was quite ambitious and the fact that she got achievement awards for each level helped feed that ambition. By the time she was seven or eight it was clear that we had found something she really enjoyed doing. It quickly became obvious that the twice yearly red-cross sessions were not going to keep her busy enough, so after a family discussion Roni and I looked into the local competitive swimming clubs.  I am not sure that Calista liked the "competitive" part, but the training was exactly what she needed; she was happy and eager to make it to every training session. It was about this time that dad started to lose sight of the true goal of the training and perhaps began to catch a little podium-fever.

Calista's first swim-meet was almost her last. After over six months of training three times weekly, the last meet of the season was an out-of-doors meet at the ancient Olympic-length pool in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.  The pool itself was probably four or five decades old, but the building servicing the pool, still housing a decrepit empty indoor pool, was actually a historic building left over from the early days of the last century. Everybody involved in swimming dreaded the facilities but loved the annual swim-meet because it is usually was sunny and hot in Saskatchewan by the third weekend in June.  Typically everybody came home with sunburns and lots of ribbons. Even the parents used to get involved by participating in a fun "masters" relay (the older you are, the more likely you were to cheat) during the intermission of the third day of the meet.  The first year Calista attended this meet was a ten-year exception: it was cold and pouring rain as we left Regina for the hour-drive to Moose Jaw and things did not get a lot better as the day wore on.
I think her exact words were "I can't believe you
are making me swim today". I admit it was darn
cold on deck that day.

Happy in the heated water. The smile disappeared as soon
as she got out on deck. She also was not quite sure who was
taking her picture without her glasses.

Once we arrived at Moose Jaw, my "large and in-charge" attitude kicked in. Calista was freezing and crying, in complete disbelief that we were actually making her swim. Her attitude did not improve when she saw the very rudimentary dungeon-like change rooms in the basement of the hundred-year old building. By the time she exited the cave-like basement change-rooms her chin was jutting out, her teeth were clenched and she was already shaking. From cold or anger, I don't really know which. The situation out on deck was worse; the wind was gusting and the coach, a teen-ager barely out of high-school was confused as to which lane the kids should warm-up in and what she wanted to do for warm-up training.  I saw my daughter turning a reddish shade of blue as her anger combated with her hypothermia and I finally lost my composure.  I got up, told Calista to get her ass in the water and just start swimming. Her coach gave me a sharp look since she was still puddling around about "warm-ups" and I bluntly pointed out that the pool was heated and likely the best place for the well-chilled young swimmers until the summer squall finally let up.  I won the day, but it was a Pyrrhic victory; if I kept on winning battles with that coach I was going to end up well bloodied and finally lose the war. I am not sure the young lady ever forgave me and the swimming community in Saskatchewan is pretty small. I ran into her many times over the years Calista competed and I never got a very warm reception.

In Saskatchewan, swimming is a little inbred; the same kids compete in the same events at the same swim meets every year. You can pretty much predict who is going to win each event just by looking at the "heat sheets" before the swim meet even starts. Everyone has their standard routine and we all have choice terms for the parents and coaches of "the other teams".  There was the loud coach with the piercing whistle that always had profuse and firm advice for everyone, there was the swim-mom who was unable to sit still for even a moment; she got skinnier ever year we saw her as she nervously rocked from foot to foot on the pool deck, there was the permanently upset mom who might have been her daughter's personal coach (we were not sure; she was always telling her kid what to do or what she did wrong) and, of course, there was likely all sorts of choice terms sent our way by those parents.  Calista was probably known as that "dancing kid who never takes off her goggles".

racing at UBC's Empire Pool just for the
joy of racing. She had no hope of
winning: the unseen competitor in
the background was Brent Hayden, world-
record holder

Calista had many endearing idiosyncrasies; some of them done by habit, some of them done out of necessity. One thing many people never knew about by Calista is that she was just about blind as a bat; without her glasses (or contacts later in life) Calista thought anybody around her might be her coach or her parents.  She couldn't  clearly see the pace clocks, her team mates, or even the end of the pool when it came time to turn. Roni realised that it was a major issue pretty early on, so she tried to solve the problem by buying very expensive corrective swim goggles. The new goggles worked really well; so well that Calista would wear them whenever she was on a pool deck without her glasses.  I must admit that it looked a little goofy, but everyone that knew her understood. Everyone else assumed she was just really anxious to get racing. And, for the most part, she was anxious to get racing for one reason and sometimes for another reason altogether.

My daughter was amazing at how well she internalised stress.  No matter how stressful the situation was, Calista always appeared to be just as cool as a cucumber. If one of her friends was fussing about a relay event or a big race, she was likely to tersely tell them to "suck it up". The only thing you might notice if Calista was nervous about a race would be that she would tend to gently dance when she was behind the blocks waiting for the call from the referee. There would be a slight rhythmic bob through her head and shoulders and a subtle little sway to her hips; it was the only time she actually had good rhythm and it was to music only she could hear. There was once, at a interminably long swim-meet at the ageing Harry Bailley pool in Saskatoon that her dancing beat had a decidedly less than subtle rhythm; she was actually hopping from foot to foot anxiously and literally exploded off the blocks when the gun went off. Roni was enthralled as she saw her daughter, usually well back in the pack, surge to the front of the heat and lead from wall to wall. At the end of the race Calista did not pause for the rest of the swimmers to finish, nor did she bother checking her time; she was out of that pool and practically half-way down the deck before the last swimmer touched the wall. Roni was concerned about the rush and tried to flag her down; all she got was an angry snap reply of "I have to pee; get out of the way!".  From that day on we used to joke that she should always race on a full bladder. I'm not sure she saw the humour.

Very few parents can say that they were present when their child reached their absolute pinnacle in their sport. I was actually there and it was not at a swim meet, but in a morning long-course training session down at the Lawson Pool in Regina.
The Lawson Pool at full Olympic length and the bright
yellow Omega timing pads in place. Things have not changed
much since I competed; those yellow pads are still ridiculously
slippery to push off when you are racing.

she won her share of medals and they still
hang in her room today. She kept them as
mementos rather than prizes.

 The Lawson Aquatic Centre in Regina is a pretty good pool. It was one of the several "Canada Games" pools built back in the seventies. They all followed about the same design and I must admit the first time I walked into it I thought I had time-warped back to New Westminster BC circa 1979. I almost checked myself for a "mullet" and a pair of platform shoes. The pools are all 8 lanes, Olympic length with a massive movable bulk-head so the pool can be adjusted from one 50 meter pool (with a small 15 meter "teaching tank") or two 25 meter tanks separated by a 1 meter wall of fibre-glass. The pools all have excellent wave control and are very deep, so they tend to be very calm and placid even when filled with competitive swimmers training. The pools are what competitive swimmers call "fast" because when the pool stays glassy calm a swimmer is only battling their own limitations and not the currents and waves..

Stroke correction with National Coach
Tom Johnson. He was once my coach.

The fall Calista turned 16 she was swimming better and faster than she ever had before. She had trained much of the preceding summer, had attended a swim-camp with Tom Johnson, the Canadian National coach at the time, and had really trained hard all fall. That girl was really fit that year, keeping pace with many of the senior boys for most of the tough work-outs her coach threw at them. In late November the team was preparing for a big meet in Winnipeg and the coach had been resting them a bit and doing lots of speed training. Coach typically finished off his sessions those days with some hard 50 meter sprints. That particular day I had finished my own easy work-out early and was lounging in the hot-tub waiting for Calista to finish up training. I saw her step up to the blocks paired with one of the senior male swimmers, a boy who usually could leave her in his wake without much effort.  I could see she was pretty pumped up and I had noticed she was training very well that day, so I thought something special might just be ready to happen.  When the coach whistled the start, I saw my girl explode off the start and, stroke for stroke, she challenged that boy all the way down the pool. When the pair finally touched the wall after 50 meters of flat-out racing Calista was in the lead and had gone her personal best time by nearly a second. She was so amazed at her performance she smiled all the way to school. No words passed between us about it; I'm not sure she ever knew I saw her beat that boy. I always wanted to tell her how proud I was of her, but our car was filled with her friends as I chauffeured them all to school and I missed my opportunity.  I just assumed I would have another chance when she swam even faster at a swim-meet.

She was probably making some sarcastic
 quip or just enjoying the sun

Calista missed that next big swim-meet. The  weekend that meet was held conflicted with her "Improv-Games" at school and her "Improv" team was depending on her help to compete in the acting competition. Calista always chose friends over personal goals, and there was no exception this time. She chose to stay home despite the fact she was at her peak. Calista's swim-coach was less than understanding; in fact, her never really forgave her for missing that meet.  Upon his return from the swim-meet he basically announced that he no longer had any time for kids that train yet do not compete. He was no longer wasting one more moment of his time on Calista. From that moment on you could see that he was "just phoning it in" when it came to my daughter. I can pretty much date her decline in competitive swimming from that swim meet she missed.

Her coach. Ok, maybe I am exaggerating; the orangutan
is probably smarter and better looking.

Less than a year later, after months of being ignored by her coach and bullied by her team mates for spurning the attentions of a certain boy, Calista quit swimming altogether.  I had seen the decline and I had tried to reverse the tide by hiring a stroke-coach to do a little remedial correction her own coach seemed unable or unwilling to do, but the writing was on the wall. Its hard to stay motivated when your coach abandons you and your friends turn on you. Calista never came close to matching that one blistering sprint again, but for one glorious moment she was queen of her world..... and I was there.

One of her team mates stretching
before work-out. In truth, gorillas
have more manners than many
of her former friends.

After spending most of my teenage years as a competitive swimmer hovering on the far edge of the coveted elite Olympic levels and then another ten years as a "swim parent" (while simultaneously teaching karate to teen-agers and young adults) I have some observations on competitive sports, coaching, and raising children.  We, our entire society, have missed the point. We focus on medals and success coming from the talented few and, for the most part, discard the "also rans". The point of sports should be "sportsmanship" in the older sense of the word: dedication, self-discipline, fair play, and overcoming adversity.  Unfortunately, once podium-fever takes over, we all seem to lose track of our primary goal in sports: raising healthy, decent children who rise to a challenge and enjoy the effort rather than just the results. I sincerely felt that while I competed, while I was raising Calista, and while I actually taught karate. Where I made my mistake with Calista is that I forced her to hang on too long, after her coach had given up on her and her team had turned on her: I truly believed that swimming was a superior fitness regime for my girl and I ignored the psychological pain the betrayal of everyone around her.

My rant is not about some idealised world where everyone wins and gets a "first prize" medal for simply participating. Its not about helping children develop and maintain self-esteem or any of that new age rhetoric.  Its about helping our children become physically fit while developing self discipline. Self-discipline, to me, means winning and losing with grace. It means loving the challenges rather than the results. It means training and racing simply for the joy of enjoying your young body. Parents who scream obscenities from the stands, coaches who only support the potential champions and governments who divert all the money and resources to a few Olympic hopefuls at the expense of youth development are compromising the entire next generation.  We probably would be all better off to completely ignore the Olympics and concentrate on getting the average child to enjoy participating in sports. Just get them challenging themselves and stop worrying about the results. By the end of her swimming career, Calista had managed to stop worrying about the end point and had learnt to just love the training.

Once Calista left swimming with a coach, she tried to keep up her fitness levels by training with me each morning. It worked for a while, but the toxic atmosphere on the pool deck with her former coach and team mates just one lane over from the public swimming lanes was more than she could handle. She asked to try boxing; she had tried it out in high-school phys-ed classes and had loved the calisthenics. She had no intention of ever stepping into the ring and actually hitting anyone; she just wanted to train for the sake of training. She understood long before I ever did that it's the athletic challenge that creates the value in sport rather than winning some competition.

Flushed from the hour of continuous calisthenics before
slapping on the wraps and the gloves, she is strapping up
while seated on the edge of the ring she never actually entered.

Calista spent over a year at the venerable old Regina Boxing club, a home-town tradition housed in a hundred-year old building in the warehouse district just north of the downtown.  The hardwood floors of the third floor open space are bathed in the sweat of generations of adolescent boxers, the numerous heavy bags repaired with multiple layers of duct-tape, and the walls are covered with pictures of famous champions of decades past. There was a real sense of brotherhood there; the least member of the club was as valued as the rising star because they all had to endure the brutal calisthenics hour each training session before they ever got to lace on the gloves. Calista was passionate about her boxing and, despite never actually sparring, considered herself a "boxer" in spirit if not in reality.  Much of her passion came from training with the cherished Roland, the man who became a real coach to her. Roland has no idea how lucky he was to be married already; I suspect my daughter might have set her cap for him if he had been single.

The heroic Roland: Olympic athlete in Beijing and really very
charming when you could understand him over his thick
Caribbean accent. My girl adored him and trained her heart
out for him.


Calista eventually followed Roland to help him set up his own boxing club in downtown Regina. For the first six months Roland's club actually trained out of the dojo down at Midwest Karate. As a result I got to know him quite well as I sat and watched the training sessions. The work-outs appeared to be an ever-changing  program of calisthenics, boxing drills and obstacle courses that developed the fighter's coordination.  Roland had a very scientific approach to boxing and he loved Calista's dedication and willingness to follow his instructions exactly without trying to inject any of her own opinions into the mix. Of course, since boxing was all new to her, Calista had nothing to inject.  I believe Calista was Roland's first female member when he finally opened the "Black and Blue Boxing Club" in the heart of Regina's downtown.  I used to go down to the club after work and after training at the karate dojo just to watch my girl train. After watching her thrive under his tutelage I regretted keeping her in swimming as long as I did.  At least my complete lack of knowledge about boxing would have kept me in the good graces with Roland; even if I had given any advice, it would have just been a joke to everyone but me.

Hardly appropriate for boxing, but it was
fun to take her pictures in her hardly
used graduation dress.
Over the last three years Calista lived in Regina, boxing became her anchor around which her day rotated. She convinced Jared to join "Black and Blue Boxing" and eventually he brought his sister Brittni down to the club to join the fun. Brittni sort of became a little sister to Calista and I believe that leaving Brittni behind in Regina hurt nearly as much as abandoning Jared. Of course there was a few tears over leaving Roland and his club that she helped start (Roland dedicated a page on his website to Calista when she died). Things completely changed when she got to Powell River; everything she once enjoyed and depended on was gone and she had to start anew.

Powell River has many wonderful qualities, but when it comes to organized sports, unless it's hockey, your choices are pretty slim.  The few sports outside of hockey that do survive in Powell River try really hard, but the isolation of the village really limits the participation.  The other problem is the ageing demographics of the population; the average citizen here has either less hair or more gray hair than they would prefer. There are not too many people drawing a pension interested in trading blows in the squared circle. Calista tried the local boxing club; she enjoyed the coach but found the sessions were a relaxed drop-in program that did not compare to the regimented, scientific program that Roland had offered. Calista needed that hard-driving heart-pounding training session to really enjoy training.  Boxing did not survive the move to Powell River; we still have three practically new pairs of boxing gloves in the basement and I have her wraps sitting in my desk-drawer at work (still un-laundered from their last use; I just can't do that).

In many ways, the loss of swimming and boxing was good for Calista; it forced her to look around and try a bit of everything. In many ways, her last 18 months of life were the most rounded, balanced times of her life. She tried yoga and loved it, she routinely lifted weights and regularly attended all sorts of aerobics classes at a local gym called "Coast Fitness", a five minute drive from my veterinary clinic. She tried "Zumba", whatever the heck that is, she swam periodically with me, she even tried running (she inherited my knees, so that was sporadic at best). By the time Calista moved to Courtenay she had found her own inner self-discipline; she no longer needed a coach or anyone to crack the whip. She cracked her own whip; and it showed. Hell, even the coroner and the pathologist commented how physically fit she was when she died.
She tried snow-shoeing! The girl that was most comfortable in
high-heels and form-fitting skirts was out doing the back-country
duck-waltz with her friend KaReen.

Calista attended a brutal "boot-camp" session at Coast Fitness just five days before her death. She visited the gym for a weight lifting session and some basic aerobics just eighteen hours before her death. In all those years of hard training in swimming, over all those hours of sweating at the boxing club and throughout so many sessions of "boot-camp" training Calista never showed one sign of any cardiac issues. Not once.

A product photo she did for Coast Fitness. She
fussed over the exact shade of orange for hours on this one

So, we come full circle back to why does a healthy young 20 year old girl just drop dead one morning a few short moments after awaking? If we swallow the coroner's suggestion to date, then we will accept that she had harboured this "Long QT" syndrome for her whole life like a terrorist bomb ready to explode at any time. I did a little research on those syndromes, and it remains a possibility, no doubt. The problem here is that the vast majority of those syndromes rear their ugly head during strenuous activity, especially aquatic sports. Long QT usually has some warning signs hidden in the patients history; unexplained fainting episodes associated with exercise. In Calista's case there was never any collapsing episodes during any of her training or even when she was racing. This is a girl that used to swim the 1500 meter race nearly every swim meet. Statistically, the odds against "Long QT Syndrome" are astronomical: only one in ten thousand people suffer from Long QT and of those, only 5 in 100 will actually die of the disease. Multiply those together: the odds of Calista dying from Long QT is 5 parts in one million.  Needless to say I have started buying lottery tickets since Calista died because Roni and I are obviously afflicted with "long shot syndrome".  Or the bureaucrats down at the coroner's office have found the "easy button" and decided to just keep on pushing it until we accept their decision.  It would be a little more palatable if I had not been the first one to suggest "Long QT Syndrome" in the first place. I wonder what they would have said if I had suggested "alien attack."

Taken at Willington Beach on one of our last Photo hikes.
Sometimes the flow of life takes you over the rapids and throws you on the rocks.
I just try to remember that there is probably calm water downstream. Unfortunately, in
the real world the calm water down-stream is usually filled with the carcasses of dead salmon.