Sunday, February 14, 2016

"We said we'd walk together..."

It's true that Valentine's Day is NOT my favourite holiday. Hubby and I don't exchange gifts. We don't go out for dinner anywhere. There are no grand, romantic gifts of flowers at the office.

But that doesn't mean that we are not romantic in our own little way. He is the king of bringing home "just because" gifts, like a piece of jewelry from one of my favourite local boutiques. And I once hand wrote him a journal of my memories from our entire first year together. So yeah, we've been known to make people groan at our sappiness.

Which is why when CBC Ottawa Morning had a little give away for the couple who shared the best story about "their song", I just had to flex my romantic muscles and tell ours. I mean, the prize was a good one - cooking lessons for two at the Cordon Bleu School. But I also just knew that we could win this, because the story of our song is just that good!

And so, on Thursday morning, I dropped Hubby off at work, pulled over into a visitor's parking spot somewhere on Tunney's Pasture (what a bureaucratic image this is), called the CBC Ottawa Morning voicemail box, and told a little story. The next day, I listened nervously to find out if we were the winners. And just before 8 o'clock, there was Robyn Bresnahan, announcing the winning clip. And then I heard MY voice, telling Ottawa about our song. Hubby seemed genuinely touched that I had submitted the story in the first place. We both got a little misty eyed at our memories as we did a little happy dance in our kitchen to celebrate winning such a great prize.

Ottawa is a small town, and tonnes of messages on Twitter and Facebook and email started streaming into Hubby and I, including from people who had heard about the contest but missed hearing us on the radio. Unfortunately, there is no link to share with you. But I can use this blog to tell you the story of our love song. With a little more embellishment since I don't have to squeeze it all into one minute. And with some pictures. Cause everyone likes pictures.

So here goes...

When my husband and I got married a few years ago, I knew that I wanted to surprise him by singing a song to him during the ceremony. And since my love of the Boss is legendary, it is probably not a shock to anyone that I chose a Bruce Springsteen song, in this case, "Should I Fall Behind."

I have always loved this song. It is about sticking together regardless of the obstacles that life might throw your way, and drawing on one another's strengths to pull you through. But now, on the eve of my wedding, this song took on a whole new meaning. It was the perfect message for kicking off our lives together as husband and wife.

And so on our wedding day, to Hubby's great surprise (and everyone else's too), I stepped forward to sing to my soon-to-be-husband. Who, it must be said, got just a little bit teary-eyed.

A few shots of me and Hubby as I surprised him with a song on our wedding day.
But when this song was really solidified as our own was not until 10 months later, when we went on a late honeymoon to Peru. For most of my adult life, I have wanted to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and in May of 2010, we joined a group of Canadian and British tourists to do just that. 

The Inca Trail is a 4-day, 43 km hike at elevations significantly higher than those to which I am used. To put it into perspective, Ottawa sits at a lowly 70m above sea-level. Cusco, the beginning of the Inca Trail, sits at 3,400m. Machu Picchu itself is slightly lower at 2,400m. But during the hike, you climb to the highest point of 4,200m, known as Dead Woman's Pass. This is a long, windy, up-and-down kind of trek, and even though it does not require technical skills or specialized training to complete it, all who undertake it are warned of the possibility of altitude sickness. The locals implore you to chew coca leaves and drink coca tea to ward off its symptoms, but the real trick is to go slow and steady to give yourself time to adjust to the thinness of air at these heights.

But I am not your everyday Jane. I am a former bodybuilder. I am a runner. I have a resting heart rate of 60 bpm. I am one of the fittest people that I know. And I am also one of the most competitive. And although I have had a low-grade headache since landing in Cusco, I have armed myself with pocketfuls of coca leaves, a couple of litres of water, and am ready to hit the trail. Day 1 is a piece of cake. So on Day 2, as we begin to climb the infamous Dead Woman's Pass, I make up my mind that I will be first of our group to the top.

I was not the first. I was the 3rd, hot on the heels of another couple in our group (but I am okay with being behind them because they have more experience than me, having just done Everest base camp a few months earlier). Hubby was 4th, just one step behind me. The view was spectacular. We stared out along that pass, proud of ourselves for our accomplishment and in awe of the view at 4,200m above sea level.

A little tired, but mostly ecstatic to be at the top of Dead Woman's Pass, 4,200m above sea level.
And then we started our descent. My low-grade headache turned into a pounding drum in my head. Despite sweating from a day of hard labouring, I started to feel cold. My heart started to rise up into my throat. And by the time we made it to camp half an hour later, I could barely stand upright. The head guide brought me straight to our tent and ordered me to lie down. He went for the first aid kit and started administering some kind of traditional remedy. To this day, I have no idea what it was. But I know that it did not work. Because within an hour, I was violently ill.

Altitude sickness.

There was nothing to do for me but to rest. And so I curled up in a ball inside of my sleeping bag - with a bucket strategically placed right outside the flap of my tent - and I tried my best to sleep. Nausea and the headache prevented me from getting more than an hour or so, and I'm sure I kept the whole camp awake with me that night as I paid the price for climbing Dead Woman's Pass too quickly.

The next morning, I skipped breakfast to stay in bed a little longer. The head guide came to me with a bowl of quinoa porridge and implored me to eat. "We have a 17km hike ahead of us today. You will need your energy." I could not muster any more than 4 or 5 bites. But I knew that there was only one way off of this trail, and that was to make it all the way to Machu Picchu. So I crawled out of the tent, stiffened my resolve, and concentrated on simply putting one foot in front of the other until we arrived at the next camp.

We spent that day above the clouds, exploring Inca ruins along the trail. The views were so gorgeous and so inspiring, that I somehow found the strength to keep moving forward, despite being able to hold down no more than a half of a bun and a few sips of soup at lunch time.

A day in the clouds, exploring Inca ruins on the Inca Trail.
And then, with about 3 or 4 km left to go until we reached the camp, I began to run out of steam, as nausea overtook me yet again. One by one, the members of our group passed me by, even the slowest of the slow pokes from the previous day's ascent to Dead Woman's Pass. By the time the last person had passed us, I was practically crawling along, willing myself not to throw up. I looked up at Hubby and said, "You go ahead without me. Go and catch up to the group. The guides will take care of me and make sure I get back to camp. I'll be okay."

Hubby told me not to be ridiculous, that he would stay with me until we got into camp together, and that it didn't matter to him how long it took. We argued back and forth for a few minutes, and then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Jay, what song did you sing to me on our wedding day?"

And there it was. The first line of "Should I Fall Behind" loud and clear in my mind.

"We said we'd walk together, baby come what may..."

And I just...

started...

to cry.

Hubby put his arms around me, as I cried not-so-softly into his shoulder. I felt ashamed of myself for being so stupid as to climb up 4,200m so quickly. I was upset at myself for ruining our honeymoon. I was still so damn sick that I could barely stand up straight were it not for him holding onto me. But mostly, I cried because I knew in that moment that we were absolutely meant to be together. That our song was more than just a song. It was a vow for how the two of us would spend the rest of our lives together. In moments of weakness, one of us would be the other's strength.

After a few minutes like that, I noticed the guide kind of awkwardly waiting for us to get going. So I gently pushed Hubby away, and teasingly called him a jerk for making me cry. Then he took my hand and we slowly walked the final few kilometres into camp.

I woke up the next morning feeling well enough to finally eat something. And while not my normally energetic self, I was able to keep up with our group for the final push into Machu Picchu itself. Which was incredible. So incredible that it made being sick for most of the hike entirely worth it.

Finally standing at Machu Picchu.
But mostly incredible because I did it with Hubby. Who never once let me fall behind.

Happy Valentine's Day. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

On zebra print and other signs of aging

Last night, I sent the following message to three of my best friends:

"I am sitting in a hotel room. In Bethesda, Maryland. Drinking chamomile tea. And wearing a... wait for it... zebra print negligee. And I'm by myself... This, ladies, is me staring 40 right in the face..."

Before you get too worried that this is going to be an R-rated post, what with me talking about negligees and all, I want you to stop and think about what I just said. A zebra print negligee. Who in the world finds a zebra print negligee remotely attractive? Except maybe a zebra... So no, dear reader. I promise you I am not taking you down a torrid, sultry path. Because there is no zebra in this story.

The garment in question. Or shall I say, the
questionable garment...
Really though, this garment is patently ridiculous. So ridiculous that I'm really not even sure why I have it. Let alone why I packed it for a 2-day business trip to the suburbs of D.C. I mean, normally, I wear a Bruce Springsteen concert tee and shorts to bed. Plus, I don't even like overt instances of animal print! Come to think of it, I honestly can't even tell you how this little ditty came into my wardrobe in the first place. Did Hubby have a momentary lapse in taste and buy it for me? Or worse, did I have a momentary lapse in taste and buy it for myself?

How it came to be lounge wear in my personal collection aside, there I was, at a Marriott hotel in Bethesda, MD, at 11:54 pm, having just come back from dinner with friends in a kitschy American eatery owned by none other than Ted Turner in Crystal City, VA (from one interstate D.C. suburb to another), sipping on a chamomile tea, climbing into bed with my Kobo, wearing a silly looking zebra-print negligee, with nary a zebra in site. And I just had to tell my best girl friends about the ridiculousness of it all. Mostly because I knew that it would make them laugh. But also because I had one of those self psycho-analysis moments where I see my life - and the decisions I make about it - in perfect clarity.

This zebra thing has nothing to do with fashion (clearly). And everything to do with me turning 40...

That's right. I turn 40 this year. In precisely 10 months, in fact. Gulp.

Now those who know me well know that I have been very vocally and vehemently fighting this milestone birthday for over a decade now. Since my actual 29th birthday, Hubby has been inviting friends to celebrate my 29th birthday. Every. single. year. And they all joyfully play along, clogging my Facebook page every year with "Happy 29th!" messages and little winky faces.

Everything was right on track for me to celebrate yet another 29th birthday in November 2015 - the 11th, to be precise. Hubby and I were in Winnipeg for the Grey Cup. My Ottawa Redblacks were playing in the big game. The Ottawa Citizen got wind that I had traveled to see my team play. So they sent a reporter out to track me down and interview me. He must have read this post about how growing up, I thought my parents were throwing me a big birthday party each year when in fact, they were just throwing a Grey Cup watch party. Because he asked me all about it. It became the centerpiece for his story about my love of football. And it was a great article. Except for one thing...

He stated in his article that I was turning 40...

This article came out a few days before my actual birthday. And friends who saw it posted it over and over and over again on social media. Which means that everyone and their dog saw it. So on my actual birthday, instead of saying "Happy 29th, J, wink-wink", I got "Welcome to your 40s!!!" messages. All. Day. Long. When I walked into the office the day after my birthday, my assistant had a cake waiting for me, lovingly in the shape of a football, with "HAPPY 40TH" scrawled across the top. And she got me a Happy 40th birthday card, signed by a whole bunch of my team.

All of this was ONE WHOLE YEAR EARLIER than my actual 40th birthday!

No, no, no, no, no, no, NO, NO, NO, NO!!!!! I am still supposed to have one more year of being 29!!!! It's a mathematical fact!!!! Everybody knows that you get 11 29th birthdays before you turn 40!!!! Not 10!!!! 11!!!! Oh cruel world, what ever have I done to deserve this!!!!

Believe me when I say that I shouted from the rooftops that it was not, in fact, my 40th birthday. Although I'm not proud to admit this, I even considered asking the Citizen for a retraction. Because I was not yet ready to face - one whole year earlier than anticipated - that my 30s were truly and rather quickly coming to an end. I knew that I had two choices before me. I could either continue to rage against the tick-tock of time, or I could just accept that I am, indeed, a woman on the cusp of her 40s.

A small dose of introspection made me realize that I could no longer fight this stark reality. My body, after all, has been giving me signals for a couple of years now of the impending doom that is my 40s. Somewhere around a year and a half ago, my metabolism gave me the middle finger, demanding that if I wanted to keep my 29-inch waist, I could no longer eat ice cream and chocolate every other day. Despite weekly yoga sessions, my knees practically graze my ear lobes whenever I sit cross-legged. And in the past six months, going up and down stairs hurts so much that I told my real estate agent (we are in the midst of house hunting) that our next home must be a bungalow. My body is clearly trying to tell me to give up the fallacy of the repeated 29th birthday.

So if my body is ready to accept the dawn of a 5th decade on earth, why can't my mind? What is so difficult to accept about being forty, anyway? It is, after all, just a number. It does not take away or give me additional success. It does not take away or give me any more love. It is simply a repeat of the day I was born.

And so somewhere during the past 2 months, and I can't pinpoint precisely when, I decided to start listening to that steady tick-tock of time. I've stopped eating chocolate every day, and accepted that from here on in, maintaining my waist line will take more discipline. I've come to terms with the fact that I could do yoga 7 days a week from now until the end of time but that it won't undo decades of abuse on my body. And I seriously am looking at bungalow after bungalow after bungalow for our next house.

And, I'm wearing animal print negligees to bed. Not because I find them particularly attractive. But because, at a certain point in a woman's life, it is just okay to wear animal print. It's like a rite of passage, a welcome to that age where you don't have to give a shit anymore about what people think of you because you've walked a path in life that includes success, sorrow, joy, contempt, and every other gamut of emotion. You have earned those (zebra) stripes. Or leopard spots, if you prefer. And you don't have to apologize for any of it.

And so there it is. This ridiculous looking zebra-print negligee - and it is ridiculous looking - is actually my emancipation from a life of denying the progress of time. It is a symbol of the hard-fought battle that has been my life up until this point. It is a mark of all the successes and defeats that I have had. It is...

Oh, who the hell am I kidding. It is a ridiculously ugly zebra-print negligee and I really don't know why I own it, or why I packed it instead of one of the other more me-like sleepwear outfits I own. But I did. And I'm wearing it. And I am quite sure that I would have never worn it in my late 20s or early 30s.

But I'm not in my late 20s or early 30s anymore. I'm knocking on the door of 40. And it's probably time that I start being proud of that.

So bring on the damn animal print.