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Monday, 24 March 2014

Hogtown Diaries, Part Three (and featuring a guest appearance from The Hammer): Fox-trotting with the Polar Vortex

Growing up in England, snow was a rare bird. When it came the nation rejoiced. Well the kids did. A chance to frolic and play in a new kind of nature, raid the carrot drawer for that snowman’s nose ~ and often bag a day off school.

Even those who loved school danced on the (snowcapped) rooftops, secretly craving a break-from-the-norm. The adults enjoyed the scenery, watching their kids play and chuckling at the mandatory traffic chaos. Providing they weren’t caught up in it.

One way or another, the excitement was palpable.

But the snow spells didn’t last. We blinked and, as fast as they came, they’d gone again.

In Canada, of course, winters are ~ on the whole ~ a different story.

My first seven years as an adopted Canuck were out west, where B.C.’s rainy winters mirrored England’s. A little depressing at times, but more a mental test.

Out east, as people would often remind me, the climate’s a tad cooler.

As I can now verify.

In a nutshell... it’s been FREAKIN’ COLD! Granted this season’s been one for the ages ~ but still. Nothing could quite prepare me for what lay in store.

~  ~  ~

I mainly travel by foot right now ~ so daily tasks, such as grabbing groceries, have come with unique challenges.

This past December and January I was living in downtown Toronto, on the crust of Little Italy. Scuttling back from Mirvish Village during a blizzard, lugging several bags of shopping as the bone-gnawingly chilly wind howled like a lonely werewolf and mucus gushed from each nostril like a Niagara fall, forced me to dig deep. First for a foot-long Kleenex. Then an extra layer of resolve.

I felt my fingers turning blue as my army camouflage Honest Ed specials caved under the pressure of keeping my hands warm. Or at least a degree of blood circling.

Things rose to a new level on a recent trip in my new hometown, Hamilton. Power-walking back from Fortino’s, I made a restaurant pit-stop and howled in agony as I defrosted my durable digits. The eatery’s owners must have wondered who on earth they’d (very kindly) ushered into their washroom. This was a new kind of washing.

I’m an avid runner and train almost daily. Aside from a trio of ice-heavy days during the Polar Vortex stretch, I’ve braved the elements ~ however Arctic-like they’ve been.

Ploughing through the teeth of a freezing flurry, my eyelashes often formed icicles during an easy 10. I had to prise them open with garden shears after surviving the expedition, squirrels scampering for their lives as mini-shards of ice pinged randomly into the cityscape.

On two successive runs in December I grew a stalactite on my chin ~ C for chin as opposed to ceiling ~ after drooling for umpteen miles into my freezing balaclava. I resembled a 17th Century poet who’d time-travelled back to the Ice Age.

~  ~  ~

I’ve been in Hamilton over seven weeks now and am impressed how the city handles the cold. Rolling up its metaphorical sleeves and embracing the challenge.

During my first week we had a fresh batch of snow. Gearing up for a run as darkness fell, I expected challenging conditions. How wrong I was. Most of the floodlit streets were bordered by blissfully ploughed sidewalks. Like freshly shorn sheep or beautifully sculpted art. I’d had a magical route carved out for me by a generous blend of man and machine working in orchestral-like harmony. It was very cool. In every sense.

Our biggest foe, of course, in tackling the freezing froid is the ice. If you’re good on skates it helps. I grew up gliding around on studs (cleats) ~ not blades ~ but have tapped into my inner Charles Hamelin (during his first Sochi 2014 event) these past few months to develop Olympic-like prowess on the slippery stuff. It’s served me well.

To the Ontarians, and every other Canadian province whose folk strap shovels to their backs and stoically endure these eyeball-popping spells year-after-year, I salute you.

Because, make no bones about it, these winters are an endurance sport ~ and this one’s been an Arctic version of America’s Badwater Ultra-Marathon (thankfully our Witney Portal ~ spring ~ is now in sight... PLEASE GOD!).

But I’m glad I’ve gone toe-to-toe with it.

Experiencing my first full-ON Ontarian winter I’ve found out what I’m made of.

That skinny white boys from Her Majesty’s fair isle can stoically adapt.

And that you can look bad-ass in tights.

Providing you add a balaclava or three.

THE END

Monday, 20 January 2014

Life Jim, But Not as we Know it ~ Part Two

AGED 13: Move to England's south-west ~ Glozzurrrrsheeeerrr, to be precise. Our family causes a rumpus in the sleepy hamlet of Quarhouse as we move into our new home: Spring Cottage. Who knew a big, fat removal truck wouldn't squeeze down a country lane the width of Mick Jagger's waist? I also quickly make an impression at my new school St. Peter's High (Gloucester) when I park my butt in Anthony Holmes's seat for Mr. Fleming's maths class. Anthony returns from a school skiing trip to Italy and politely asks me to shift a place over. I oblige and we become fast friends ~ remaining so to this day. Despite now living 4,500 miles apart.

AGED 14: Head to Saint-Brieuc in Brittany (northwestern France) on the annual Third Year exchange. My pen-pal is Eric ~ a year older and about a foot taller than the rest of us. And most of humankind, for that matter. Eric had to repeat a year (something our Gallic educator friends were pretty hot on) though I'm not sure whether this was due to screwing up exams or absenteeism. Rumour has it Eric made a great sideline terrorizing local communities ~ just for fun, of course ~ as a life-size Godzilla impersonator. One trip highlight ~ like literally a 'high'-light ~ was my kamikaze walk around the castle walls atop Mont St. Michel. A 400-foot drop to sinking sand was never more than a few inches away. What was I thinking? Well mainly... how can I most impress Delphine? The fair French maiden I had the hots for. Was she impressed? Not a jot. Just thought I was a pocket-sized lunatic. I also experience another rush-of-blood to the head (not fuelled by flaming loins this time, as I recall) when we go awanderin' in Saint-Brieuc's back country and attempt to cross a river via stepping stones. There's one jump that's tantalizingly out of reach. Or is it? Eric, whose stilt-like legs ensured he only had to step across, goads me into going for it. I can't resist. "Easy!" I lie. "Watch this!" I focus hard, summon all my courage and... soar like a salmon, making the jump. "See! Told you I could--" ... SPLASH! I hadn't accounted for the forward momentum. "The water's GREAT. Coming in? Anyone got a towel?"

AGED 15: Pass GCSE maths a year early (aged 15) though freak out after my result (a Grade C) gets lost in the mail. Looking back, this seems a slight over-reaction. After a summer assembling jewellery cabinets and playing Tetris with cardboard boxes (for my parents' design business), the Fifth year ~ and bulk of my GCSE exams ~ pulls into view. I start a paper round just before Christmas (1988). Perfectly timed... Yuletide tips! My maiden route took me through nearby Bourne ~ more village with a small 'v' ~ before I graduated to one featuring Bourne with a dash of France Lynch. Not sure if there was Gallic significance to the latter's name. Though, to be fair, I rarely plunged into the heart of Lynch's bosom. One theory, going back an age or three, claims the town's folk were famously 'lynched' by the fearsome Gloucestershire mob ~ led by Chip Cooper ~ who tied them all to a giant cheese before rolling them down a nearby hill. The move ignited a craze that's held firm to this day.

AGED 16: Two months before my GCSEs, I discover golf. I don't remember the exact moment this happened ~ though it may have been watching Nick Faldo win his maiden Masters in 1989. Or perhaps it was arch-rival and fellow Brit Sandy Lyle getting up-&-down from a bunker 150 miles (OK, more yards) out to become the first Brit to bag a celebrated Green Jacket 12 months earlier. Lyle's carefully choreographed victory jig was one for the ages. We had a golf course (Minchinhampton Old) located on the other side of the valley (to Quarhouse) and my buddy Marc and I spend countless hours sneaking onto the Par 5 12th, when no-one's looking. Mainly to evade our nemesis, the membership warden. "Are we members? Absolutely! Not of this golf course... per se. But of something I'm sure. Let me get back to you on that." We hiked up Brimscombe hill whenever we could, hitting balls with an old half-set of clubs Marc had been donated. This was something of a calamitous development for my academic career. Around this time I also bag my first proper Saturday job: kitchen assistant at Diner's Den. Free pizza (of my choice) for lunch made it all worthwhile. Back when wheat and I got along.

AGED 17: I fail the first of four driving tests (in the UK). My lean towards perfectionism was an issue. Well, that and mowing down an old-age pensioner (JOKE! The mowing was more of an upward motion). It's also true that the pressure and intimidation factor compounded with each test. Finally, beta-blockers came to my rescue on Test #5. That and NOT mowing down an old lady (JOKE! She wasn't that old).  I've now taken seven driving tests ~ including two in Canada ~ so it's become something of a part-time hobby. Also bag a job at the Debenhams (department store) restaurant, Intermissions.

AGED 18: Realize my golf addiction has got slightly out of hand, after I essentially flunk my A-Levels. D-E-N were my grades. Did actually get an A for my English Lit coursework. But that was only worth a third of the total mark. Which shows I really F'd up the exam. Like actually earned an F. Though my provisional place at the College of Ripon & York St. John has now gone for a Burton (I needed B-C-D to get in), I am still able to nab a college place ~ through Clearing: Computer Science with French at Staffordshire Polytechnic.

AGED 19: After a year in Stafford ~ I was able to switch from (computer) science to the arts two weeks in ~ my department moves to Stoke. So I'm forced to relocate. End up in the front room of a sloping house in the suburb of Etruria. Park Lane this wasn't. Housemates Eric & Ernie keep me entertained. Eric freely admits he's only here to drink. Alcohol, I mean. And he would graduate with Honours.

AGED 20: Flunk university exams and return to the family's new home in Hardwicke, Gloucester, where I work a night at a milk factory before bagging a part-time gig at a diesel injector factory. My buddy Ant calls it "making flutes". Which I think was pretty close. Get promoted to 'machine operator' and end up spending 18 months at Stonehouse-based Lucas EUI Systems. Mainly work evenings, so I can pursue my golf dream.

AGED 21: Get my handicap down to 8, but this doesn't cut the mustard. Realizing I'd now need to get a 'proper' job/career, I reignite the journalism dream. Submit a golf course guide I'd written to one of the local Gloucestershire weeklies (the Stroud News & Journal, where I'd done work experience at school). They call me up and get me to cover a rugby match the following Saturday. My report is the back-page lead the following week. No doubt a slow week for sport, but a feather in my shiny new journalist's cap. The following week, my golf course guide (to Painswick) makes it to the back page. I get referred to the Glos Citizen ~ more specifically Deputy Sports Editor, Terry Palin.

AGED 22: After working essentially as an intern three days a week, my soon-to-be buddy Shep and I are offered the chance to work for three months ~ the Summer of '95 ~ on the Summer Pink 'Un. We're paid 60 quid a week and are now living the dream. Or pretty close. Get to be a roving reporter at the English Open (Forest of Arden). A young buck, Lee Westwood ~ seven days my junior ~ was starting to make his mark on tour. Seemed like he had a lot of potential. Whatever happened to him?

AGED 23: I take the NCTJ Pre-Entry journalism course at GLOSCAT, needing this to earn a full-time slot at The Citizen. Meet buddies Steve, Nat and Jon (Land) on the course. Steve and I are able to land jobs as reporters on The Citizen ~ though I have to retake one of my exams. Finished top-of-the-class in shorthand though; only guy to pass 120 WPM in teeline (NCTJ requirement was 100). Work on news for three months, before snapping up the chance to replace Mike (Richards) as the Citizen's football reporter. Yippee! Learn how to ski via six lessons at the Matson (Gloucester) dry ski slopes. Spend Yuletide '96 skiing in Austria.

AGED 24: Steve and I train for our first marathon ~ London 1998. We're both doing it for charity; I'm representing Guide Dogs for the Blind and raise 800 GBP for the cause. Raising the sponsorship was tougher than the race--just kidding. It was WAY tougher.

AGED 25: Trying to break four hours in London, I'm a shade outside ~ 4:08. But that first one's all about finishing. Having been a roving reporter, covering Gloucester City then Forest Green Rovers, I leave the Citizen for pastures new: The Western daily Press. Actually finished on the Friday (September 30) and started my new job the next day (covering Swindon Town V QPR).

AGED 26: I run two London Marathons: the first aged 26 and one day (April 18th, 1999); the second, aged 26, 364 days (April 16th, 2000). The former is a disaster, as my festering stomach issues rise to the fore and wreck my day. A creamy pasta dish, doubling as both my birthday and pre-race dinner, is the main culprit. I see the inner decor of too many portapotties this day. Plus, a pub close to the 7-mile mark (somewhere in Woolwich, I recall). Final time is 6:18, after I'm forced to walk most of the way. 363 days later I return to clock 3:41; my first Sub-4-hour time and some kind of redemption.

To be continued...

Monday, 11 November 2013

Life Jim, but Not as we Know it ~ Part One

AGED 0 (April 17, 1973): Shoot out of my mum's womb (at Leicester Royal Infirmary, England) a day ahead of future Olympic champion Haile Gebrselassie (he shot out of his ma's womb at a hospital in Ethiopia, just to clarify). This would be the only time I finished ahead of Geb.

AGED 1: Reveal a penchant for playing the saucepans. Future career as a rock band drummer perhaps?

AGED 2: Break my nose slamming into the corner of a brick wall during a kamikaze ride on my toy milk float. As a result I have a split-profile view; one side Atkinson (the hook), one side Fox (ski-slope).

AGED 3: Realizing the life of a milkman likely isn't for me, I teach myself to read ~ becoming engrossed in newspapers ~ and recite random passages to anyone who'll listen. Less 'noise pollutive' than the saucepan-playing, Ma and Pa suck it up as my audience.

AGED 4: Impatiently give my two-year-old sister a helping hand to take the plunge on a friend's slide ~ and she slips off the side (of said slide) breaking her arm. Oops. Sorry Sis! Happily the arm did make a full recovery and go on to have a successful career in limb-related endeavours. But I learnt a valuable lesson. Don't push people off slides. Unless they REALLY deserve it.

AGED 5: Bawl my eyes out after being dropped off (and apparently abandoned) on my first day of school. My view of the British education system did improve over time.

AGED 6: Drown my sorrows in a carton of milk (as in the udder kind ~ sorry...) thanks to the then daily tradition of kicking off school break-time by downing a quart of Mother Nature's finest bovine-rearing juice. Clearly I was a lactose intolerant waiting to happen.

AGED 7: Proudly guess the word "photograph" during a First Year Juniors game of hangman. My prize was being crowned "teacher's pet" for a fortnight. Our family later moved 30 minutes up the road to Loughborough ~ which counts Seb Coe and Paula Radcliffe amongst its famous university alumni. I become everyone's favourite 'new kid' at Holywell Primary when I bring a brand new football (/soccerball).

AGED 8: I join the local Thorpe Acre Cubs pack. All went well the first few weeks. Until one day the Akela accidentally set the hut on fire. The following week he managed to nail a piece of iron into his hand. With a midnight tour of the local woods next on the menu, I quit. So convinced our hapless leader would make it three-for-three.

AGED 9: Back at school, my 79er is smashed to smithereens during the quarter-finals of the school conker* championships. I'm distraught, but quickly pull myself together and focus on finding a new conker. 

*Conkers were hardened horse chestnuts which ancient Brits used to create a popular school sport; all the rage in the days before Quidditch.

AGED 10: Win a prized place in the school's First 11 football team following a dazzling display in a weekend 7-a-side tournament. However, my dream is shattered when I have to relinquish my spot because of a conflicting trip to the dentist.

AGED 11: Richard Knight & I are runners-up in the annual Holywell ping-pong (doubles) tournament. We tied local club members (and hot favourites) Nathan Booth and Daniel Gray at one-game-all in front of an engrossed school in the main hall (similar to the Great Hall at Harry Potter's Hogwarts, only less plush), only to lose the decider. Receiving our silver medals in assembly was still a proud moment.

AGED 11 (still): Start high school ~ at De Lisle RC Comprehensive ~ and score twice in the First Year football (/soccer) team trials. I earn the 'golden' No. 9 shirt for the season opener and flex the back of the net five minutes in to give us a 1-0 lead. We build a 5-2 first-half advantage ~ then mysteriously fail to show up for the second half. I mean, we were technically there (as in, ON the field) but may as well have taken an early shower... as we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (and lose 6-5). I start Game 2 as No. 9, but miss a sitter with my head (I was only 4 ft 3 in my defence... or attack, depending which way you look at it). As a result, I'm hauled off at half-time and only make the bench for Game 3. I come on at half-time in Game 3 at right-back (in our defence... now charged with quelling their attack). I then play the rest of the season at right-back. So less a case of right back where I ‘started’ and more one of right-back where I ‘finished’. Right? I'll get my coat.
 
AGED 12: Score 98% in the First Year maths exam. Only Emma Griffin (daughter of our maths teacher, Mr. Griffin) matches me. I'm proud, but also secretly lambasting myself for spurning 2%. I realize I could have an issue with perfectionism.

To be continued...
 

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Hogtown Diaries, Part Two: Channelling my Inner Drake

SO... I'd heard that, as a skinny white guy from Her Majesty's land of Royal Rain where the smiling sun boasts an appearance schedule roughly equating to that of Halley's Comet ~ i.e. once every 75 years ~ the legendary Hogtown summer heat would be my nemesis during Project Toronto:

The Goliath to my David; Lord Voldemort to my Harry Potter; Big Bad Wolf to my Goldilocks.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my daily Vitamin D fix as much as the next guy. But when it reduces my constitution to a feeble, gibbering mass of sweaty unproductiveness with the energy of a morbidly obese sloth, I have to take a rain cheque. Like, literally a "rain cheque"... to the weather gods. "Name your price! I'll pay ANYTHING. I'll mortgage my, err... running shoes. Just PLEASE, give us some cooling RAIN!"

Legend had it that Toronto's famous HU-MEAT-ITY would spark many such desperate pleas across the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) for at least a week. And possibly six.

Of course, I cockily brushed aside any "outrageous" claims I might struggle to adapt to TO’s Humongously Hot and Humid spell. Christened 'H3' by scientists. "Hah-HAH! The famous Hogtown heat?! Do me a favour. It'll be a BREEZE! A warm breeze, granted. But a breeze none-the-less!"

Of course, in reality I was completely in denial. And secretly bricking it.

July was game-time, with possibly a little sting-in-the-tail for August. So rumo(u)r, a herd of historians and those esteemed experts of who-knows-where had reliably informed me. Anytime from 0000 on July 1st, the tsunami of Ontarian heat could roll into town, sweeping all before it ~ and leaving the rest of us in hiding; sweating for our lives. But exactly when in July would it be?

I stayed with friends John and Toni for the last 11 days of June ~ after touching back down from Ol' Blighty ~ hiding out in their basement and being somewhat oblivious to the changing tide of temperature.

July's first two weeks swung by in a blitz of stormy unpredictability. Monsoons took centre stage, flooding several parts of Greater Toronto and, in some cases, forcing runners and rats to run or swim for their lives, side-by-side.

It was also hot ~ summer was definitely here ~ but not H3 hot. My nemesis was apparently biding his time. Some even wondered whether the endurance weather may bypass Toronto this year. "Some" obviously meaning 'me' and "wondered" being subtly disguised as "hoped".

And then it happened.

Monday, July 15th clicked into life. And the H3 beast, creeping up on its prey like a burglar tiptoeing through the night after ransacking some poor rich boy’s mansion, pierced the bubble of clouds and breathed fire across a vulnerable, unsuspecting Hogtown.

This was Scorchio on a new ├╝ber-plane or planetary level. Unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. Accuweather.com claimed the temperature for the Monday-to-Friday period (July 15th-19th) would average somewhere in the mid-80’s. But its RealFeel was 100+ degrees. Holy CRAP.

What had I done? This was freakin' RIDICULOUS! How much to sell my body to get back to BC? "Taxi for one to Pearson!"

But somehow, some way, I knew I had to try and survive these five days for the sake of my macro goal ~ to give Toronto the Full Monty of energy and attention for at least a year (Accuweather.com forecast a juicy dip in temperature when Saturday came). And avoid melting into a pool of molten DNA.

My recollection of events from those five days is something of a blur.

I did run every day (I think). But it had to be done early. And when I say 'early', I mean EARLY. Like 4 or 5am. Before dawn's crack and any cocks had done their doodledoo-ing with the gusto of a global tenor star. Any later than 5 in this heat and you were in danger of engaging in something vaguely resembling running for 10 seconds, then unceremoniously expiring on-the-spot, with smoke and steam shooting from every orifice.

That first day, I do remember heading back outside after my post-run shower (fairly pointless) and breakfast, feeling like I'd just been sucker-punched by Klubber Lang (that’s Mr. T ~ B.A. Baracus from The A Team ~ in Rocky 3). WHOOMP! 

Walking for groceries, my pace slowed to an 8-hour mile. If I went at night, when it was about 0.00000012 of a degree cooler, I just had to hope I could make it back in time for breakfast.

In fact, walking anywhere or even trying to do regular lightweight activities, such as scratching your ass or swatting a fly, took a gargantuan amount of energy. It was like walking around in a remake of The Truman Show ~ except this time the set was a giant microwave oven.

The Little Italy abode I now called home was a tiny apartment which retained heat like a greenhouse. Its portable air-conditioner toiled manfully to spray out something vaguely resembling cool air. But Hogtown’s H3 was a rare beast. Flocks of brave souls had melted under its formidably fierce glare and been forced to retreat from whence they came. My A/C was doing its best ~ but unfortunately proving as effective as a chocolate teapot.

Trying to sleep was ugly. I lay atop my loft queen slowly roasting to a crispy duck consistency and sweating like a sumo wrestler trying Bikram yoga for the first time. I now had only three days to go, but wasn't sure I'd last that long.

I needed a major intervention. Something in the Bobby Drake lending me his 2013-reinforced Iceman suit type of range. I needed those ice-tastic superpowers!

And right on the cusp of losing the will and/or ability to live, the intervention came. Striking me like an ice bucket to the head... falling from 800 feet.

The fridge! Of COURSE. I had an ice-making machine residing right below the very spot I was resting my head on a sweat-sodden pillow.

Before you could say: "Bobby Drake, who would win in a bare-knuckle fight between you & Peter Parker ~ no superpowers allowed?", I'd abseiled down my loft bunk ladder and was now standing upright doing an airplane pose in front of an open fridge-freezer door. I knew this probably wasn't very eco-friendly. But at this precise moment in time, I didn't care. I'd found heaven again. 

For the rest of those three days, as H3 continued to wreak heat-related havoc across Hogtown, I managed my days with intermittent spells at the blissfully air-conditioned Starbucks, Shopper's Drug Mart ("Yes, I know I'm taking three hours to decide between raw or dry roasted peanuts, but you have to err on the side of contemplation when it comes to life's big decisions.") and College-Shaw branch of the TPL (Toronto Public Library).

Communal A/C never 'tasted' so sweet.

Then, at night, I hung out a fair bit either outside or, on occasion, inside the fridge. Being as I only ever have five items in there at any one time, there was plenty of room. I moved the Fab Five down into the salad crisper and set my sleeping bag down on Shelf 3. Perfect. I slept like a log. Albeit an icy cool one.

And when the weekend finally arrived, and the H3 relented ~ swarming off to terrorize some other poor city with its stifling HUMEATITY ~ I reflected on a mission well accomplished
.

It was an ice feeling, as well as a nice one. I enjoyed hanging out in the fridge so much I decided to move in there permanently for the remainder of my stay.

Well, I didn't want to take any chances ~ just in case old H3 decided to pop back round for coffee. Plus, I can't think of many cooler things than trying to literally ~ and metaphorically ~ emulate the founding member of the X-Men.

The Iceman Cameth... and he Stayeth!

THE END


Monday, 22 July 2013

Hogtown Diaries, Part One: When Egg Met Apple

Trying to crack the career code in B.C. had left me hovering dangerously close to destitution's lap and having to flog most of my priceless 'stuff' just to pay the rent. Amid the financial (and emotional) chaos I was, however, able to hatch an escape plan. To start again at the age life famously ‘begins’: 40.

In the town famous for its hogs: Toronto.

Arriving in May 2013 with barely a dime to my name, I knew sacrifices and compromises would need to be made as I initiated a Mike Holmes-style* renovation to my financial foundations. And attempted to restore my career to its 'glory' days.

Which meant budget accommodation. And, more precisely, subletting some student digs for five weeks.

Now student digs, as we all know, can be quite terrifying. I’m not sure whether it’s the new-found freedom – or parents that did all the ass-wiping for their kids during those first 18 years. But students, generally, are clueless when it comes to cleanliness. Or they simply don't care. After all, there are more important things to focus on. Like getting blitzed most nights of the week.

Any which way, if you're a pretty clean and tidy dude (cleanliness is definitely next to Godliness for me; in fact, as a converted atheist, it's now Top of the Pops) enduring a stint in the House of Student is going to be some kind of colossal compromise.

McTavish Avenue as a whole is a leafy street in the quirky suburb Cabbagetown, an artistic haven north-east of downtown featuring the biggest batch of Victorian architecture in North America. The area was also once so poor Irish immigrants had to grow cabbages in their front lawns for food (an option I was considering).

Cabbagetown has since been gentrified (which means it's... become more manly?) and now majestic exteriors abound on many a street. However, the tale (sic) wagging on the inside can often belong to a very different puppy.

All seemed well as my cousin Mark dropped me off and I was greeted at the door by a pleasant young chap with the face of a 12-year-old, but the height and voice of someone more advanced in years. Perhaps 15. Kind of like a 21st Century Donny Osmond.

The house was split into two apartments: one up, one down. Donny led me up the stairs to the main living area of Apartment B; my new home for the next month and a bit.

As I hauled a bag the size and weight of a handsomely fed buffalo carcass due north, I eagerly anticipated a lounge/living area that mirrored the attractive-looking pad from the Craigslist ad. How naive I was.

The view that welcomed me caught me in the Queensberries like a Cantona kung-fu kick**. There appeared to have been a nuclear incident in the living room. Or, at the very least, a World War or three.

The beige carpet (aren’t they always?) was splattered with so many stains it must have technically been 51% red wine. Or ‘red wine’. I shuddered to think what 21st Century student drinking games might entail. Possibly a new version of strip poker, where the loss of a round resulted in the forfeit of flesh? Or to be more exact, a limb?

Suffice to say, if these carpets could have talked there’d have been enough material to fill all 32 volumes of the 2010 Encyclopedia Brittanica. How the hell do landlords get away with this? And why, more to the point, do students put up with it?

I took caution assessing the furniture. One example was a smallish white cupboard upon which the communal microwave was perched. Possibly a relic from IKEA’s maiden batch of North American houseware, this piece had apparently been ridden like Red Rum winning the Grand National at some point (perhaps during one of those World Wars?) and was now on its last legs. Literally. Whenever I opened the microwave door the cupboard rocked from side-to-side, creaking in pain and appearing poised to collapse and die. If I’d accidentally sneezed at the wrong moment, it would surely have disintegrated to dust.

On the second day of my stay I attempted to vacuum up some of the ‘evidence’ to make the area more palatable. However, the VC had also seen better days—apparently afflicted with some kind of respiratory issue. On its inhale, it would suck up an item or two. Then, on its exhale, spit that same item back out… along with a little something extra ‘for the weekend’. Its hopes of competing with the all-singing-all-dancing Dyson Supervac were now a rapidly fading dream.

My room had a couple of weird stains of its own, but my sub-letter did an admirable job of whipping it into usable shape. Having come close to accepting her offer to refund my first rent installment, I decided to embrace the challenge of surviving here five weeks. It was unquestionably a great location. Plus, finding alternative digs at this 11th hour would have been one hippopotamus-sized pain in the posterior.

With my room habitable, it was now merely a case of surviving the sharing of the communal areas. Namely the kitchen and bathroom.

Sharing a bathroom with two female students (well, one who’d just graduated) would be fine, I thought. They were a tad messy, and one seemed to have the memory of a fish. She frequently left lights on, toiletries open and once even a special ‘message’ in the can. But generally this worked out OK. Sharing with two guys would have been a different matter. I still have nightmares about an overnight stay in Milwaukee during U.S. Thanksgiving weekend in 2003. The dirt and grime that oozed from every pore of that house was so bad I refused to sleep there. We ended up kipping on the friend of a friend’s friend’s couch. It put me permanently off a life of grime.

Sharing a kitchen with two girls proved more challenging.

The now working housemate was generally clean and tidy. Sometimes a bit of fried egg spillage had to be tiptoed around when I descended post-run for my giant bowl of cereal, fruits and nuts. Or some errant popcorn kernals sidestepped. But that was all.

The other, however, lived on a different planet. Every time I followed her into the kitchen, it looked a food bomb had just exploded. The stove top was decorated with fried egg at various stages of manufacture, pools of coffee and/or soy sauce (often a blend of the two) freely seeped across countertops and splashed up kitchen cupboard doors, while random pieces of salad (usually kale but sometimes cucumber) and three kidney beans (always three) were scattered liberally across the floor tiles like leaves from a deciduous tree in the fall.

How the kitchen wasn’t ravaged by ants, I’ll never know. I did find one the size of a Chihuahua edging its way across the tiles one afternoon, and had to politely usher it out the back door via a glass and coaster (OK, when I say 'glass and coaster', it was more like 'vase and table mat').

I subsequently had a word with my housemate ~ let's call her Alicia ~ requesting she clean up her act: literally and metaphorically. She did her best. For a while.

Until one morning, when I gingerly approached the kitchen following a morning run. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Which could have been workout-induced wind, but turned out to be more.

I could hear somebody in the kitchen. It would be Alicia, cooking breakfast. I peered cautiously around the corner, bracing and trying to steel myself for what lay in store. I knew it could be life-changing.

What greeted me was something akin to the scene in the famous (although not famous enough) Popcorn video performed by Muppets legend The Swedish Chef. Every kitchen appliance was on full-blast, some for no apparent reasons, and had been joined by several guest 'performers'.

Perilously balanced at the edge of the sink was a laptop, playing some strain of rap music by an artist whose name I'd likely need three attempts to correctly pronounce. Various other electronic items, presumably belonging to Alicia, were also sprinkled liberally around the work surfaces, including an iPhone, Kindle and what appeared to be a digital voice recorder (she was studying journalism). Her backpack was wedged in beside the toaster.

Amid all this electronic excitement, Alicia was attempting to cook what vaguely resembled an omelette. Eggs were certainly involved. And mushrooms. Red pepper. Kale, I think. Plus kidney beans at some point (three, of course). That was a given. I couldn't see the pan, but all of my housemate's belongings – plus every young, free and single workspace and cupboard door were now handsomely bedecked in the contents of an omelette grenade.

If you didn't know it was a kitchen beforehand, you wouldn't have recognized it as one. And it was surely only a matter of time before the dramatic climax to the Popcorn song (see the YouTube video here) was reprised in our apartment. Except the egg-to-popcorn ratio would be greater. I pictured the raccoon-sized ants doing a team Lambada behind the skirting-boards in celebration.

My first thought was disbelief and a feeling this surely could not be happening. Had my consistent cleaning up and impassioned plea been unceremoniously ignored? I don't expect people to live like monks, but a certain level of consideration to fellow housemates should be a given. At least on my planet.

However, I then had a strange epiphany. Perhaps it was what you find beyond your tether's end. There were no bright lights (aside from the inferno of eggs and orgy of electronica) or chorus of angels AHHHHH-ing in realization. But I was overcome by a dual-pronged wave of resignation and e mpathy. Alicia was doing her best at this particular moment in time, and I needed to appreciate that. For all I knew, she was just as freaked out by this crazy-ass English guy with mild OCD and an obsession for cleanliness.

As such, I adopted the time-honoured philosophy that goes back, ooh... literally YONKS: if you can't beat 'em (that's your housemates, not the eggs), join 'em. So, instead of The Swedish Chef waving the white flag (see the video), I surrendered to the situation; strapping on my eggproof suit and venturing forth.

I offered to help Alicia finish cooking her breakfast, and she invited me to join her. It was like trying to spin 10 wild-and-crazy plates keeping the hyperactivity of that kitchen under control. But somehow we made it, and all seemed well again (relatively speaking) in the House of Student.

We sat down at the (surprisingly sturdy) dining room table and eagerly prepared to eat. I tucked into my plateful and raised a stacked fork to my mouth. Poised to deliver a first mouthful, my eyes were suddenly and inexplicably drawn to my housemate's plate.

With my fork suspended in the air and a blob of drool now abseiling down the side of my mouth, I felt compelled to speak.

"Alicia, I may be hallucinating here... but is that an iPod in your omelette?"

THE END

** Mike Holmes is a Canadian (and probably North American, if not global) DIY icon.

** A famous (for the wrong reasons) football (/soccer) incident from the mid-1990’s involving then Manchester United and French star Eric Cantona.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Happy New Year and THANKS!

A huge THANK-YOU to everyone that's been following and supporting my fledgling blog -- and keeping an eye on the progress of my "75 Humour Column Posts by the End of 2012" challenge.

The goal certainly sharpened my powers of focus and discipline -- and it was immensely satisfying to get that 75th posting live by around 11:30pm on December 31st. That made it 51 for December.

I'm now taking a bit of a breather, and sifting back through what I've written -- with the aim of polishing up the best ones and turning them into a book. An e-book, initially, and hopefully a hard copy version down the line.

January is also a busy month for me with various other projects and ventures -- but I do still plan to post a brand new column once a week; likely on a Saturday or Sunday. So keep an eye out for those.

In the meantime, HAPPY NEW YEAR! And all the very best for a 2013 that puts all predecessors in the shade.

~ BC Johnny  :o)

Monday, 31 December 2012

#75: Two Degrees of Separation — Part Eight

The biggest issue I had upon first landing in Sydney was the 180-degree climate change. I’d gone from snow and the frost-biting heart of winter in eastern Canada, to the thumping heat and humidity of summer-time in Oz.

Minutes after touching down on Australian tarmac, I was stripping off layers like a champion layer-stripper-offer as I negotiated Customs, then headed into Sydney Airport’s International Arrivals lounge.

Staying with friends Martin and Sue, who very kindly put me up during my three-week stint in the state capital of New South Wales, I had a cool experience (to contrast with the heat) on my first full morning Down Under.

I went for a 5:45am run (as you do) through a neighbourhood in a village south of Sydney where Martin’s family had a holiday home.

As I headed up one street, I was greeted by a mob (troop or herd) of kangaroos. Perhaps 25 of the bouncing beauties. All apparently taking a break from doing some landscaping work on a resident’s garden.

We swapped nods of recognition and then went our merry ways. Well, they remained transfixed by this strange running guy – and I’m sure, in my peripheral vision, I spotted a couple of the mob (likely part of the local kangaroo mafia) practicing their Muhammad Ali shuffles, just in case I returned with backup.

Sydney is rightly recognized as Australia’s most spectacular city – and I enjoyed getting my fix of its famous sights during my time there; including, of course, the Harbour Bridge, Opera House and Taronga Zoo.

It was also fun taking the boat tours around the harbour, and becoming obsessed with trying to spot Great Whites. Or any kind of fin-tastic Jaws-a-likes. Shark Bay, Shark Beach… COME ON! WHERE ARE YOU? Nowhere to be seen, as it turned out.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

I flew down to Melbourne at the end of January, and prepared for my semester studying at the Australian Catholic University (ACU), the focus of course material again being centred on physiology, nutrition and sports psychology. I also had to do a Research Methods module, which was about as exciting as watching Big Brother on Nightvision. Or DAY-vision, for that matter.

It was interesting to get both the U.S. and Australia's unique takes on the mechanics of sports science and its various elements – both practically and academically.

While in Melbourne, I stayed in the trendy South Yarra area, just off Chapel Street. This was a fluke – it just happened to be where the converted convent-turned-long-stay youth hostel recommended to me was located.

The cool things about this place were that it was cheap – and that we had our own rooms. Also, that it was near a Borders bookstore. I spent most of my free time camped out in that place, devouring biographies and mentally quaffing a large quota of the Self-Help section.

I bought myself a second-hand bike and rode everywhere when I wasn't running. My daily route to the ACU campus took me through the heart of Melbourne Park (and Rod Laver Arena) – home of Australian Open tennis – and the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). For a sports fanatic, that was pretty cool.

My timing was also spot-on to take in the 2004 Australian Formula One (motor racing) Grand Prix. The hostel was a short spin on the bike away from Albert Park, which transforms itself into a formidable F1 street circuit every March.

I cycled a lap of the circuit pre-race one evening, videoing as I went. Great fun, though it was unlikely my time of 15 minutes and change was going to trouble Schumacher and Co.

Having got the taste for marathons again with Chicago, I decided to follow up with another (my fifth) the following spring, during my stay in Oz.

As Melbourne and Sydney both hosted their 26.2-milers in the autumn/fall, I had to opt for striding around Canberra – Australia's capital city – on April 18th, 2004; the day after my 31st birthday.

I trained for around 14 weeks along the River Yarra and around the multi-cutural Melbourne cityscape. I then chose to jump on a coach for a 10-hr overnight trip to Canberra; arriving in the early hours of Saturday morning – just over 24 hours before race-time.

Not the smartest idea I've ever had (flying up surely wouldn't have cost that much more).

My pre-race prep was also a little disrupted by some dodgy chicken I'd downed on the Tuesday of marathon week.

Accepting invites to dinner on race week is like playing Russian Roulette with your marathon hopes. And you'd have thought the blood which spurted out onto my chin with the first bite would have alerted me to the fact that this particular strip of poultry thigh may have been a little undercooked.

I roomed in a hostel close to the start with a Tasmanian guy called David Bone. Dave was in his early 40's and a marathon maestro. Tough as, well bone. He actually took up the race option of carrying on after 42.2k and racking up 50. His marathon time was 2:52 and his 50k clocking around 3:30.

My race went as I feared – about as well as a guy with mild food poisoning. I was through 10k at a fair clip, but faded from there.

The second half included a fair bit of walking; much grimacing/clutching of my stomach area; and likely a lot of strange noises emanating from my gastric region.

I was able to duck under 3:30 (3:27:58; I’m sure still sprinting for the line to break 3:28) – but I've definitely spent more enjoyable Sunday mornings before and since.

A couple of running breakthroughs were enjoyed during my stint Down Under – ensuring the marathon training didn't go to waste.

I lopped a fair chunk off my 10k PB during a race in North Melbourne – lowering it to 37:49 – and also bagged my first overall podium in a race; fending off both a cold and the fourth-place finisher to snag third.

Much diligent toil on the academic front during my time in Melbourne kept my GPA (or equivalent) on course for a First. And I once more befriended a cluster of top people, including Chris Hussey (a fellow British-born) and Sean ‘Okey Dog’ O’Keeffe – who put the 'laid' in laid-back.

Okey Dog very kindly gave me a ride to the airport for my flight back to England in the June of ’04 – and arrived wearing flip-flops. But not just any flip-flops; two different ones. Apparently he’d slipped on one of his housemates’ by mistake as he dangled his foot like a fishing rod into the murky shoe cupboard.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Back in England, I bagged some editing work at the Daily Mail during the summer, then got stuck into Year Three of my degree back at St. Mary’s, determined to do whatever it took to maintain my grade average and bag a First.

Some of the Final Year elements – not least researching around a million journal articles – were a little tedious. But I kept my head down and grinded it out. I also found a loophole which allowed me to do Creative Writing as an X(-tra) Module during my final semester (the winter/spring of 2005) and helped keep my spirits up.

And, when degree results were posted one fine, June morning that year – I happily (and with an outer space-sized sigh of relief) saw I’d achieved that First (70% or above); just one of eight people on my course to do so. My mark? 71%. It had to be.

The ghost of the lost Staffs Uni degree was well and truly exorcised.

Now it was time to turn my attention to a new focus. Sink my teeth into a new challenge.

Like say… a move to Canada, perhaps?

THE END

P.S. Thanks for reading – and helping me hit 75 posts before the end of 2012! (Vancouver, Canada time). It’s amazing what can be achieved when you put your mind to something… :o) Happy 2013!