Over the course of about ten days, I spent several hours on the phone with Elections Canada being transferred to one person after another as I tried to get correct information about my voting options, figured out how to vote by mail, and how to resolve complications with the process. I could have voted at any Returning Office before the 14th, but by the time I learned that I was in Espanola and was under the impression that I still had plenty of time to vote by mail since September 14th was listed as the deadline to apply.
Unfortunately, this is misleading since in reality it wouldn’t allow for enough time to receive the special ballot via Canada Post and then get it back to Ottawa by 6pm on September 20th. That’s right, post mark dates aren’t what count here; it has to physically arrive in Ottawa by the 20th. That sort of turn around *might* be possible, but only for those who can afford $85+ to courier it there.
Why is the government not footing this expense for all mail in ballots given the impossibility of the deadline they have listed? Disabled folx and those in remote communities (like Northern Ontario) will be disproportionately excluded by this process. How many ballots will arrive late and thereby be excluded? During the last election “11.1 percent of national ballots and 11.8 percent of international ballots were returned late” (Elections Canada Vote by Mail FAQ). Clearly this is a significant issue even outside of a pandemic.
I applied on September 9th, but even this wasn’t enough time by regular post and maybe not even by express post. My ballot finally arrived to Iron Bridge on September 15th. At that point I was in Thessalon and had been told by Canada Post that the mail left at 5pm. Express post should get it there in three days – just enough time. I packed up as quickly as possible and rode hard and fast to get there in time.
On the way I made a quick stop at Little Rapids General Store for food. I’d heard they had lots of delicious smoked meat and cheese and I needed food anyway to get through the next stretch without grocery stores. Little Rapids did not disappoint. The smoked rainbow trout and taco flavoured cheese curds were delicious. Beyond that though, the town is a beautiful hole in the wall spot that most drivers would likely miss. I was disappointed that there wasn’t time to hike out to see the salmon spawning or take in the heritage museum. It also had lots of spots that looked great for stealth camping.
About half way to Iron Bridge I realized that without taking the highway I’d never make it. Pro tip: avoid this stretch of highway 17 at all costs. There’s no paved shoulder and drivers will risk your life here. If I hadn’t been so emotional about the messed up system I likely would have bailed and hoped it would get there anyway. As it was, I plowed on.
My cousin didn’t have time to drop my ballot off and I knew there was no way I’d get to the their place and then the post office in time. A random kind gentleman in his driveway picked up the ballot from my cousin’s (only a few blocks away) and dropped it off at the post office across the road. I made it to the Iron Bridge post office just before 5pm!
But I got misinformation for the bajillionth time: mail left at 3pm, not 5pm. Couldn’t have gotten there earlier anyway. I cried… not for the first time about the likelihood of my ballot not being counted. I jumped through so many hoops trying to get this ballot in – including changing my route multiple times. Right now it’s not looking hopeful – as of now it’s showing a Tuesday arrival and has no updates since it left Iron Bridge on Thursday.
As someone who has lived in poverty since my teens, the right to vote is a huge deal. It’s how we raise our voice, call for change, and hold our government accountable. If you weren’t planning to vote today, please get moving and go vote. My vote probably won’t be counted, but yours still can (if you have the privilege of accessibility). If transportation is a barrier phone the office of anyone who is running and a volunteer will help you get there!
The Menopause Manifesto isn’t a manifesto. It would perhaps have been better for Dr. Jen Gunter, author of The Vagina Bible, to follow her previous branding and call this second book something like The Menopause Bible – which invokes a lot of information and story about which there is the need for interpretation, debate, and critique as a key part of faith.
I am really excited by the increasing number of books and blogs talking openly about hormone transitions of all sorts, and how they can be made less bad. I’m a feminist who studies transformations in medical practice, and I came into this book ready to cheer for anyone attacking medical sexism, especially the specific form that sexism takes in how it talks about menopause. I’m a nerd and I love there being uncountably many books about stuff I’m interested in. I’m an easy sell!
So, I’m disappointed in how strongly I cannot recommend this book to you. I was about to write, “to you feminist readers of this blog who think critically about fitness, many of whom are nonbinary, or trans women, or fat, or disabled, or asexual, or cancer survivors, or not parents, or all those things at once.” But really, having to put all those caveats in means that pretty much wherever you land on these matrices of experience the book will stab you on one of your other vectors of awesomeness.
My impulse to say: “If you’re thin, cis, straight, monogamously coupled, have had no problems having and bearing children, never had chemo related early menopause, and if you’re otherwise are this book’s normal, you can read this book” is actually really awful. I know that the particular brand of liberal feminism that means you can write a whole book, with the best will in the world, as though all the rest of us are sidenotes, actually doesn’t help even people in the supposed centre of the frame.
And I believe that Gunter really, really means well! She has taken on Goop around its antiscience grifting, the Toronto Star about bad medical reporting, and regularly engages various randos on the internet about health generally. The Menopause Manifesto has some great parts. Gunter is very sympathetic to taking hormones, especially in the perimenopausal years when they can actually help with vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes and night sweats, for example), and so she has detailed accounts of various hormone options and what they do. So those chapters will be helpful if you’re in perimenopause, having those symptoms, and interested in hormone therapy to help with them – it explains a lot.
The other very great part of the book is a list of signals for when to walk out of a doctor’s office around menopause stuff, because these things indicate that they are either quacks or so behind the science as to be potentially harmful to you. That list includes:
salivary hormone level tests
hormone level testing to guide therapy
recommending only hormone therapy and not the other things that can help menopause symptoms
prescribing topical progesterone cream to offset the dangers of transdermal or oral estrogen
selling supplements or products.
(Re this last one, here is your reminder that it’s always a good time to read or reread Middlemarch and to reflect on the long history of people trying to practice integrity and care, including in and around medicine.)
But one of *my* signals for when to walk out of a doctor’s office, unless there are really really specific conditions that actually involve weight, is when they say:
To solve these [waves hand] health problems, you should lose weight!
Gunter does this All. The. Time in this book. It’s SUPER WEIRD! Even when she’s talking critically about how sexist weight loss advice is, she reproduces it.
Doctors in general have a tragic axiom lock around weight – they struggle so much to look at fat people and treat our actual health, even when they know that fat isn’t the reason we’re in their office. They can say in one breath that standard measures, like BMI, are unscientific and useless and in the next breath reiterate just slightly updated versions of dodgy, unscientific pap about fat. Gunter goes for “visceral fat” and waist circumference.
Many doctors, Gunter included, go on from using bogus measures of fatness-as-illness to suggest weight loss as a good remedy for what ails us (in this case, menopause). In a book so critical of pseudoscience and from someone aware of the problems with generalizing health advice from a single person’s experience (Gweneth Paltrow might have good personal results from jade vaginal eggs, but she oughtn’t market them), it’s so odd to see Gunter recommend that her readers do what she does as though it will work for us.
She says, “Admittedly it’s a work in progress and I’m not recommending this approach for anyone. But experts say that journaling is a low-risk intervention that can help with weight loss and weight maintenance” (83). Which experts? Where are the studies? And it’s jarring to have her acknowledge that weight loss advice is sexist, and political, that weight interventions overwhelmingly fail, and proceed to give the usual pablum weight loss advice in the chapter “Metamorphoses of Menopause” (Watch what you eat! Cook at home! Don’t eat ultra-processed food!). I’m here to say, I’ve done or do all of these things and I’m still fat! And I’m good with that!
The standard move here is to follow “I’m fat” with “and I’m really healthy!” But appealing to health as a foil for the “it’s bad to be fat” line is just another trick. Many of us are never going to be not sick, and all of us deserve solid help for problems with menopause, fat or thin, sick or not.
“Obesity is a medical condition, but it’s one of the few in which we assign or imply blame to the patient. It’s also one of the conditions where medicine generally provides the least amount of guidance and support. What if we treated people with cancer or high blood pressure the same way? Can you imagine a world where a provider would give the diagnosis of breast cancer, imply it was the person’s fault, and then send her out into the ether to find help?” (85)
So, you can see that Gunter thinks that people should have more and better support around fat. But, as readers of this blog know well, obesity is not a medical condition – fat is not a disease. Even if it were, the precise approach to fat that Gunter here excoriates is pervasive in the book, not just in that chapter. Weight loss is suggested as a remedy for almost every problem perimenopause and menopause might throw at you, and it is named as a potential beneficial side-effect for almost every medical intervention Gunter recommends. I was going to try to give you pages to avoid if you want to get some of the helpful stuff from this book but not be sent down a fat-hating, body-surveilling wormhole and I’m afraid I got overwhelmed. So, general content warning, I guess.
But then content warning for so much more. I know I’m harping on this, but it really is shocking how Gunter is able to identify sexist medical inaccuracies and perpetuate them in the same breath and in the name of feminism.
Aside from leaving when medical professionals talk go first to fat, I have a couple of other signals to walk out of offices – when people go to evolution to explain health advice they’re giving me, when all their heroes are straight and cis, and when they have no disability analysis.
These are more signals that make me wish I’d walked out of this book, but, well, I guess I can offer you my experience. It is just hopelessly, deeply, pervasively committed to a particular understanding of evolution that grounds the worth of menopause in a narrative of “the grandmother effect” (a real and good thing, just not something that we should limit our explanatory scope to). This narrative pervades the text in a way that brings along with it a whole cluster of things around reproduction as the point of human existence, bundled with a whole bunch of stuff around evolutionary fitness. Making menopause a good thing because evolution just tangles us back up in eugenic narratives of personal fitness as a subset of the health of the population. This sucks.
The Menopause Manifesto is deeply straight. Its normative subject is someone who is going through menopause in her forties to fifties, with a uterus and overies, who is having sex with cis men. I feel it really minimizes cancer and decisions people might make around cancer risk that do not ignore other problems postmenopausal people face, such as heart disease and osteoporosis.
All of these grate the more because Gunter references misogyny over and over, and she is able to identify the sexism in her archive even as she reproduces it. It is actually very possible to write a book about menopause that does not do these things – Heather Corinna has done so just this year!
I think that all of us should be demanding books that apply to and help women think about their experiences but that at the same time resist gender oppression generally. Acknowledging that non-binary people exist and go through menopause, acknowledging that trans men exist and go through menopause, that some people have had early menopause because of cancer or other medical treatment, acknowledging that not everyone wants to have vaginal sex, that not everyone needs to have a pregnancy test, and so on – these things actually help us fight sexism and oppressive gender norms. (Sophie Lewis’s book Full Surrogacy Now! offers a parallel example to Corrinna’s What Fresh Hell is This?, giving a political analysis of pregnancy without restricting it to women. It’s possible, and great!)
So, closing sidebar, not the point of the book but a plea for more science. Anyone who menstruates and weight lifts who I know probably has been interested in studies about lifting and menstrual cycles. There is data that training hard during your follicular cycle, the bit between when you start bleeding and when you ovulate, has strength benefits. I remember my aunt Karen Moe Humphreys, a two-time Olympic swimmer, gold-medalist in the butterfly, who has been a fierce and impressive athlete her whole life and continues to get stronger in her sixties, reflecting on her strength gains post-menopause and saying that she wished people would research this more.
Gunter, and everyone else writing about menopause, talk often about how perimenopause can involve higher levels of follicule stimulating hormone circulating in our bodies – but they do not make the connection to work on weight training during our follicular cycles as helpful. Rather they take it as given that menopause will make us weaker, less muscly, more fragile, no matter how much we exercise. So, I’m interested in someone doing more science on this, but in the absence of good studies, I’m personally going to decide that perimenopause is a good time to get incredibly strong.
And whatever you’re deciding to do with your perimenopause and menopause, I just want to say that you can do it just as you are, and you deserve help and care that doesn’t hate on any part of you.
Bio: Teacher, writer, SF nerd, functional potter, queer, currently obsessed with doing handstands in middle age. Author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times and working on a book called Collecting Our People, about getting together to solve big problems in which we are complicit.
There is freedom waiting for you, On the breezes of the sky, And you ask “What if I fall?” “Oh but my darling, What if you fly?”
This quote by Erin Hanson has strengthened me in an enduring way that only a couple other quotes can lay claim to. The start of it is engraved on my iPad as a form of resistance to the impact of perfectionistic ideals that often hold me back. But since my collision in 2013, these words have encouraged me to push beyond my comfort zone in countless ways.
As recently as last summer, I was super anxious about everything that might go wrong on a hypothesized weekend canoe trip with a friend. But interestingly, internalized ableism was a significant contributor to my camping trip fears. Because of this, solo camping (even bike touring) actually feels less daunting: I can go at my own pace without fear of slowing anyone down.
Even so, it’s plenty daunting! I’ve never biked on country roads, never ridden more than 40km in a day, and I pitched my first tent this July… I’m a newb in every possible way and I’m diving in anyway!
I finally made it out of London on Saturday evening and was shocked that I made it to Lucan without needing more than brief water breaks on the side of the road. Not sure if that’s thanks to electrolytes or adrenaline, but I’ll take it!
Even before I made it out of London there were plenty of hiccups! I figure that’s par for the course given the steep learning curve! But I’m fumbling my way through, figuring it out, and pushing back against gender stereotypes and ableist views that say I shouldn’t do this… especially as a solo female. I’ve heard “you’re so brave” way too many times already in response to these plans. Do people also say that to men embarking on solo bike tours? I’m guessing not.
Adventure was not the initial driver of this trip, but despite the complicated backstory it appears to be shaping into a delightful adventure. I’m doing all the things that excite and also terrify me… but I’m more excited than anything… which is a major shift even in the past few weeks! I’ve no doubt this adventure will significantly change me and the decisions I make through life… I think it already has in many ways. Because how could showing myself all that I am capable of not change me?
The other day, I was in Value Village and I spotted a pair of neoprene pants in the “leggings” section. You wouldn’t think neoprene pants would bring on a bunch of anxiety, but they did.
Here is the conversation in my head:
Voice of reason: Oh, hey, have you thought about the fact that your wetsuit might not fit anymore because of pandemic coping?
Anxious Alisa: I DO NOT HEAR ANYTHING.
Voice of reason: You should buy these pants, just in case. They look like they’ll fit.
Anxious Alisa: My old wetsuit HAS to fit, so I don’t need these pants.
Voice of reason: Um, actually, laws of physics, the wetsuit does not have to fit. These pants are 15 dollars.
Anxious Alisa: But, that was the biggest wetsuit they had way back when, and if they don’t fit, I can basically never do scuba again and that would break my heart. I can’t buy those pants because it will be an acknowledgement that the wetsuit might not fit. Then, my life will be over.
Voice of reason: That is ridiculous. Buy these pants. Your wetsuit jacket will still fit; it’s always been loose. You might have a less than ideal suit, but you’ll make it work because you LOVE scuba diving.
Anxious Alisa: LA LA LA LA LA LA LA. I don’t hear anything.
Voice of reason: We’re buying the fucking pants.
I’ve always been so afraid of not fitting in my wet suit? Like why? You know what, Alisa, you can buy a new wet suit. Problem solved. Surely, there is a company out there that has figured out that women of larger sizes also like watersports and don’t want to freeze to death? I have clothes that fit best at different body sizes. It doesn’t bother me at all to change which clothes in my wardrobe I wear based on different body sizes. Why do I not deserve the same in wet suits?
Self love is buying a new wet suit that isn’t going to cut off my circulation.
So, my old wetsuit does not fit, at least not if I want to be able to continue circulating blood through my body. Yesterday, I was underwater for the first time in 2 years. I was awkwardly dressed in those gift from heaven neoprene pants, a shirt meant for the ski hill, and my neoprene jacket, but who is judging my fashion underwater? The fish? Also, yesterday, I called the company Truli (Truli Wetsuits – Women’s wetsuits for all water sports.), which carries sizes called “defiant” and “fierce” in 21 sizes. They show pictures of women with round tummies and powerful thunder thighs on their website. I am currently waiting for them to call me back to help me figure out what size I am. We’re talking a Canadian-based, woman-operated wetsuit making company that knows that my generous hips do not make me ineligible for staying warm while in the water. They can take ALL my money. I promise to report back about buying with the, once I’m in my ADORABLE polka dotted wetsuit from them. I cannot wait.
Alisa Joy McClain spent the first half of her life thinking she couldn’t do cool exercise-y things because she was fat and is now spending the second half of her life enjoying the body she has and all the cool things she can do with it like rock climbing, cycling, and scuba diving. When not trying to be a fat athlete, she can be found reading books, playing pinball, hanging out with her family and children, and ranting about various social injustices.
I have blogged previously about group exercise adventures–winter hikes, fun runs, wall climbs, etc.–so it was only a matter of time until we ended up at an aerial adventure park. Set at a western Ontario ski hill forest, this treetop adventure has courses of increasing height and challenge in which participants climb ladders, cross wood and net bridges, and zip line from tree platform to platform.
Through some Wikipedia surfing I learned that aerial adventure courses were borne from military training-style ropes courses and alternative adventure education. However, most of today’s adventure parks are touristy fun that Wikipedia describes as requiring “neither climbing techniques nor special/specific physical fitness experience.”
Judging by our next-day muscle soreness and little bruises, there is at least some physical fitness required. But more than exercise, it was thrilling to hop across wobbly bridges, and stand high in the trees without falling out of them. The course didn’t require teamwork to complete obstacles, but we encouraged and cheered each other a lot.
Among my GoPro pictures, I found one of my handheld carabiners that the trainer had described as “our hands” while we were out on the course. This meant that we were to latch one or both carabiners onto within-reach “lifeline” cables throughout the entire course.
Using a self-belay system in a tree top adventure was a little scary because we were responsible for our own safety. We received some initial supervised practice on a training course, but in the park it was up to us to keep ourselves attached to the steel cables.
Looking at the photo afterwards, I realized that being responsible for my own safety had given my mind something to pay attention to in the trees and on the ladders. Each step was a reminder–in order to move forward I literally had to put one latch in front of the other. The carabiners kept my brain focused on a safety system that wouldn’t allow me to fall, and the constant latching also distracted me from thinking too much about falling.
The above photo also made me realize that I have not always put “safety first” and foremost in my brain when I go to exercise. This is especially true with activities that I perceive as less risky, or when I feel I am more familiar with the risks. But, on the treetop adventure, it was precisely because I was forced to put my safety first in a potentially dangerous situation that I confidently enjoyed the activity all the more (or, I suppose, experienced paralyzing fear all the less).
There is always risk in exercise, which is not an inherently bad thing. But, no matter how strange or familiar the activity may be, we are our own self-safety systems. Safety can create fun. In the future, I think that reminding myself of that fact when I go to exercise will be a good thing.
In this month’s lead up to the Olympic Games, various American track athletes have been posting about the injuries that prevented them appearing at the trials (June 18-27) where they might have qualified for a spot on the US Team. The heartbreak is palpable: “I live in an optimistic world,” writes Emily Lipari, “but I have truly struggled to find the good that comes from this one.” Keira D’Amato observes the fickle nature of her ill-timed injury: “The fall of 2020, I was able to push [my] limits and accomplish some incredible personal feats. Unfortunately, this spring season was on the other side of that equation.” These women, and many others, are watching their long-dreamed of chance at Olympic competition recede over the horizon.
“We have tried everything,” Lipari remarks of her knee injury, and I can relate. Last March, I was ready to run the Boston marathon, with 10 km and half-marathon PBs freshly minted in January and February races. We all know what came next. I slogged out a quiet summer of running and looked ahead, along with the rest of the planet, to 2021. But a niggling knee pain in October developed into a full-blown injury by December, and suddenly I was no longer running, at all. I did my rehab exercises and resigned myself to a couple of months off. An MRI showed a complex meniscus tear, probably the work of many years, aggravated by who knows what on a long run. I got on a bike and I jumped in the pool and I waited for recovery to arrive with the spring cherry blossoms.
I have been here before. After several years of running in my teens and early twenties, I developed knee trouble and my physiotherapist suggested that, since I liked swimming well enough, I should just stick to the pool. I don’t remember this moment very clearly, so I couldn’t have minded giving up my runs. Thirty years later, I mind very much. When I started running again at fifty, I thought, “We’ll see.” As the years passed and the knees showed up, week after week, my fears of injury subsided. “Besides,” I thought, “the science is better now. My physio will fix me if I break.” But my physio has tried his very best, and I’m still broken. A few short runs in April resulted in another flare up and pain all over the place. The specialist has advised me that I should start planning an “alternative activity” future—my knees are telling me it’s time to quit, he says.
The fact that my heart, as well as my knee, is broken this time round tells me that running has been doing some heavy lifting for me over the past few years. It found me a new community after a midlife move across the country; it helped me recover from the loss of a parent and a family home; it gave me goals to reach for, a way of moving through my fifties with confidence and strength. Now, I walk the dogs. I swim my laps. I pedal miles along a country road. Sometimes dark clouds block the sun.
It is a small loss in a year of catastrophic losses, but it is a loss just the same. No one likes to see me sad and friends have weighed in with advice and opinions. Everyone, it seems, has a meniscus surgery success story to share. It’s time for a second opinion, they say. Hyaluronic acid, plasma injections! The options seem endless, until they aren’t.
Covid has taught us all that we don’t know a lot of things. Like many others, I struggle with uncertainty and would rather find a story to tell, one that puts me back in charge. Blaming myself for the injury is one way to know something. Tracking down a specialist who will give me the right referral or a different diagnosis is another. For now, though, I’m swimming into an uncertain future, about which, today, I know nothing. And I’m thinking about all the runners who have gone before me and wondering how they felt when they put their trainers away for the last time.
Alison Conway lives and works on the unceded territory of the Syilx (Okanagan) Peoples.
2020 was a strange year. The things that used to bring me joy, just aren’t the same. Choices for entertainment were limited, and who we can do those things with even more so. So far, 2021 hasn’t been much different.
I’ve never been very athletic. Competitive to a fault, I gave up on sports at a young age because my body just wasn’t good at doing the things I wanted it to do. As a little girl I was told “scars don’t look good on girls” so I wasn’t allowed to do the rough and tumble things I really wanted to. As I got older sports and fitness were just another way to obsess about my body size and be disappointed in it once again.
A few years ago, I took up powerlifting and fell in love. The intensity, the competition, the fact that the contest was over almost before it began was what drew me in. But living a year in relative lock-down, trying to work a day job, manage a new business and trying to educate two children under 10 was intense enough. The thought of doing another hard thing was just too much.
And that is where Skateboarding comes in. My 9-year-old son was the first to start. A great way to be outside, get in some exercise and socially distance. Then, my husband bought himself a board because he wasn’t going to be left just watching the fun. It took me a bit longer, but I finally gave it a try. My 9-year-old coached me and cheered when I didn’t immediately fall.
The next weekend we took it to a skate park, where two young girls, clapped and cheered for me, so happy to see a mom out there giving it a shot. Boys looked at me wide eyed, not believing what they were seeing and other parents mostly looked confused.
It was like learning to ride bicycle all over again. The wind in your hair, feeling like Bambi taking her first steps, learning to balance and feeling the terror. It was exhilarating. I was hardly moving and my watch caught my heartrate at 168 – turns out being scared will rev you up and make you sweat, for no apparent reason! Like riding a rollercoaster, the fear ebbs and flows and when it all becomes just a little too much – you can just jump off!
While kids are whipping around me flying around corners and jumping stairs, I am counting my pushes and reminding myself to bend my knees, sometimes out loud, to my own embarrassment. There have been injuries. Mostly bruises, some impressive, some forgettable. I did bring myself for X rays after an ugly fall while trying to board to the market. Turns out, real life boarding is much rockier than the smooth surfaces at the skatepark. Nothing was broken, but I sprained both hands. At the same time. Wear wrist guards. Do as I say and not as I do. Please. For your own good.
I took two weeks off to heal, put on my wrist guards and got back on. I was not going to let an injury beat me. I started slow, my heart racing, but warmed up quickly, back to the mediocre skater I was before. I bought myself this rad new board. I am not letting it go to waste.
If you’re looking for something exhilarating, stress inducing, and maybe a little foolish, skateboarding might just be for you!
Rachel Holden is the 43-year-old Founder of Uplift Ventures, a real estate investment firm creating new housing options for renters in Ontario. She’s also a mom to two kids, a powerlifter while not in lock down, and has little regard for her own safety. She can be reached at Rachel@upliftventures.ca.
I joined the military reserves when I was 18 to play the French horn in the Changing of the Guard band on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. In 2011, I flew to Maputo, Mozambique by myself to join strangers on a Habitat for Humanity build. I’ve even hiked to Annapurna base camp and para-glided off a mountainside in Pokhara, Nepal.
But my biggest challenge, and maybe my greatest accomplishment, is facing Parkinson’s disease head-on. I hope I do so with courage, fortitude, and occasionally even a little humour.
I was diagnosed with Gaucher’s disease, a rare metabolic disorder, about six months before my PD diagnosis. At the time, I was told this meant I was at high risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. When I subsequently developed a tremor in my right leg, I was not really surprised when PD was confirmed. In fact, immediately after the diagnosis, I texted my family, had a very brief period of feeling sorry for myself, and headed back to work from the hospital. I subsequently learned how lucky I was to be so quickly diagnosed, as many people suffer for years before diagnosis.
In terms of how PD affects me, the most obvious symptom I have is tremors affecting my right side, which are made worse by stress. For me, the weirdest thing about Parkinson’s is that your body doesn’t do what it used to do automatically, so I have to try to tell it to do things. I have trouble with manual dexterity, things like typing, buttoning buttons and cutting bread. I also have to be careful walking so I don’t trip and fall. Lately, it’s been difficult to roll over in bed.
I am fairly lucky though that so far, my Parkinson’s disease is quite manageable. And my friends, family and colleagues have been incredibly supportive, especially over the past several months.
I was honoured earlier this year to be able to participate in a world-first clinical study which used an MRI-guided ultrasound to open the blood-brain barrier (BBB) on the left side of my brain. While my BBB was open, I was infused with a drug commonly used to treat Gaucher’s disease. The purpose of the phase one study was to determine whether this could be done safely. There were only four participants, and I was patient four.
Although there was no promise of any benefit to me, I was pleasantly surprised to notice a fairly significant difference in my symptoms. The most obvious change was that I regained a sense of smell. Many people don’t know that some Parkinson’s disease patients start to lose their sense of smell long before they are diagnosed. That had happened to me. I can’t say that regaining smell is all positive given that the first thing I smelled was my cat’s litter box
Seriously though I have noticed positive changes: less tremors, less rigidity of my leg, and better manual dexterity. As the study has been a success so far, they are looking at the possibility of a phase two trial. If it goes ahead, it will include a larger group of people with the focus on effectiveness of the procedure. I am very hopeful that this could lead to significant benefits in the prevention and/or treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
In closing, I want to mention Parkinson Canada as I really appreciate the work they do through their support groups, research and advocacy. I belong to two support groups including a “young onset” women’s group (“the Parkie girls”), and occasionally attend a Sunday afternoon drop-in discussion group, all of which are sponsored by Parkinson Canada.
I’m also part of a bike group called the Rigid Riders, whose focus is to encourage Parkinson’s disease patients to cycle. The Rigid Riders take part in an annual charity event, Pedaling for Parkinson’s, where 100 per cent of the funds raised goes to Parkinson Canada research.
Most recently, Parkinson Canada created an advisory group to their board made up of people with Parkinson’s disease. To me, this clearly reinforces their commitment to hearing patients’ voices and making their very best efforts to provide the support that we need.
That’s why I am excited that Parkinson Canada is part of the Federated Health campaign.
Second excerpt from my forthcoming book Growing Old, Going Cold: The Psychrolute Chronicles, about my Life as an (aging) cold-water swimmer by Kathleen McDonnell
I remember standing in line with my fifth-grade classmates as we waited to get our polio shots. I knew that throughout history there had been terrible epidemics, like the Black Death, where people dropped dead in the streets (which was actually more the case with cholera than the Plague). Like most people who grew up in the twentieth century, that was pretty much the extent of my acquaintance with serious contagious disease.
So when the Covid-19 pandemic and the worldwide lockdown hit in early 2020, I wasn’t terribly phased by it, at least on a personal level. Shelter-in-place? No problem. My spouse and I already worked from home. In fact, a lot of the writing of this book was done during that time. Social distancing? No problem there, either. On this part of Toronto Island the houses are close together – sometimes a bit too close together –so we don’t feel isolated. Like everyone else, we stayed separate from our daughters and grandchild, but FaceTime and outdoors visits made up for that. Get outside once a day for exercise? Let’s see, I live in a village on the edge of a nature park, on an Island surrounded by water. I venture outside, walk for less than five minutes and I’m in the water. Even in the time of Covid Isolation, there couldn’t be a better situation for a swimmer. As time went on, though, I realized just how extraordinary my situation was, how truly fortunate I was.
I began to see posts by fellow open-water swimmers going through withdrawal, lamenting that they couldn’t get to the water since parks and beaches everywhere were closed. It was just the time of the season when cold-water swim groups were gearing up, and now they were blocked. In the UK the guidelines were rigidly enforced in some areas, with patrolling bobbies chasing people out of the water. One determined outdoor swimmer stopped because she couldn’t stand the stares, the sense that onlookers were thinking, “Why should you get to swim, when I can’t?” A couple of months into the pandemic, swim memoirist Bonnie Tsui published an article in the New York Times entitled “What I Miss Most Is Swimming” “There’s a poignancy to being a swimmer now,” she writes, “in that we’re not able to do it just when we need it most.”
I was always disdainful of those single-lane lap pools, and the so-called “Endless pool,” a jet resistance you swim against, basically going nowhere – endlessly! But with the shutdown of conventional pools, swimmers were buying them or, more commonly, wishing they could afford to. Meanwhile, the open-water community in the UK refused to take the situation lying down. I saw a flurry of posts on online sites about blow-up backyard pools. Yes, folks who proudly describe themselves as “wild swimmers” were ordering blue plastic inflatable pools on Amazon, setting them up in their backyards, tethering themselves to a stationery object and proceeding to swim in place. Swimmers who hate chlorinated pools were dumping chorine into their backyard pools so they wouldn’t become germ infested. They patted themselves on the back for making do with cheery British pluck. And as pitiful as it all looked to me, I could totally understand. It’s an addiction, this need to be in water. I even felt a bit guilty. They had these postage-stamp-size pools, and I had a Great Lake.
After the full-on lockdown began to ease up in early summer, outdoor pools in Toronto began to re-open, but with restrictions. The city imposed strict limits on the number of people in the pool at any one time, and each swimmer’s time was limited to 45 minutes. Between shifts the pools were cleared and surfaces sterilized. People found they had to wait in line, sometimes for hours, and often didn’t even manage to get into the water. Lanes had to be booked ahead of time. Lockers were off-limits. Time in the change rooms was minimized: Swimmers were encouraged to wear their suits to the pool and home again. Once they managed to get into the facility, some users even found themselves singing the praises of the restrictions. “Forty people is nothing. You feel like you have the place to yourself. Maintaining distance is a breeze.” Ian Brown wrote in the Globe and Mail. Still, in the middle of a summer heat wave, Toronto pools were operating at a quarter of their capacity, in a city that sits beside an enormous freshwater lake.
Now, I don’t believe that the big concrete-and-chlorine tubs are going to disappear, nor do I think they should. But I look forward to a day when they’re no longer the default option for getting into the water. Covid-19 has changed the swimming universe. As I write this, indoor pools in Toronto are once again declared off-limits. And the various Open-Water and Wild Swimming sites I follow on Facebook show a huge jump in interest.
I found evidence of this in my own back yard. A neighbor of mine who is a dedicated pool swimmer told me the lake was too cold for her, even in the summer. But the lockdown forced her hand, and this past summer she broke down and bought a neoprene top. Off Ward’s Island Beach, there’s a line of buoys to keep the boats out of the swimming area. We reckoned they were a little over 50 meters apart. From then on, most days I’d see her doing her daily 1500 meters between the buoys. (Okay, so it is possible to swim lengths in a lake.)
The Wild Swimming trend may have begun as a necessary adjustment to pandemic conditions, but it’s taking hold worldwide, as more and more swimmers go for regular dips in open-air pools, lakes and rivers. At one point, demand in the UK was so high that the Outdoor Swimming Society was forced to take down its map of wild swimming spots, in an attempt to prevent overcrowding. Even colder weather, more challenging water temperatures and the discomfort of wriggling into dry clothing in public is failing to deter many of the converts. The National Open Water Coaching Association (Nowca), which operates bookings for 30 open-water venues in England and Scotland, said the number of swimmers in October was up fourfold or 323% year on year, after a 60% rise in swimmers over the summer. The surge in outdoor swimming has been a boon for watersports suppliers. Sales of swimsuits are down because of the closure of indoor pools, but cold-water swimming gear – wetsuits, dry robes, neoprene swimcaps – is flying off the shelves.
Covid-19 has introduced countless water-lovers to the joys of open water, and a lot of them will never go back. As one convert wrote on an Open-Water Swimming site: “Ya gotta love not having to book lanes at the pool.”
Kathleen McDonnell is the author of nine books and more than a dozen plays, which have had award-winning productions in Canada and the United States. She’s also been a journalist and CBC radio commentator, and does a fair bit of teaching and public speaking. As befits a passionate swimmer, McDonnell lives on an island; Toronto Island, a unique, vibrant, mostly car-free community a ten-minute ferry ride from downtown Toronto where she and her life partner raised their two daughters. Check out her website: http://www.kathleenmcdonnell.com/.
Last year as my 54th birthday approached with no prospect of celebrating normally due to the covid lockdown, I decided to undertake a serious (for me) physical challenge instead. I’d recently watched a video where a guy did a marathon over the course of 24 hours by starting each hour with a 1.8 km run, then carrying on with his day until the next hour. That seemed like an attainable challenge except for the part about running and the part about 24 hours. On my daily walks I mulled over different possibilities for doing something pretty big but also doable at home or nearby and preferably not in the dark. It was my birthday celebration, after all.
I settled on doing a half ironman distance rowing/cycling/walking day. A few days before as I started to have niggling thoughts that this might not be the most fun way to spend a birthday, I posted about it in my women’s cycling club’s facebook group figuring that telling a bunch of people what I was planning would be insurance against wimping out at the last minute. I hadn’t reckoned on receiving a couple of dozen messages of support, though in hindsight, that’s exactly what I should have expected, since it is a very supportive and encouraging bunch.
The day went off without a hitch. I rowed 8 km, Zwifted for 90 km, and walked 21.1 km up and down my country road, stopping only for snacks, second breakfast, lunch, pee breaks, more snacks and clothing changes. There are definite advantages to creating your own home-based event and being the only participant. My reward was a flood of post-exercise endorphins, a huge appetite for birthday cake, and a massive sense of satisfaction.
A couple of weeks ago I turned 55 and to celebrate I did a made-up row/cycle duathlon consisting of 10 km of indoor rowing followed by 150 km of Zwifting, topped off with 30 more km of indoor rowing. This was a considerably bigger challenge (I had never even spent more than about 90 minutes on the rower) but I had more time to prepare for it since I decided to do it back in January when I was setting goals for the year.
I don’t need to remind anyone that this year has been a lot. To add to the general misery, the menopause symptoms I’d convinced myself I’d somehow miraculously avoided hit me with a vengeance. All of a sudden this winter I felt every day of my age and my confidence took a hit. Fuelled by stubbornness and meno-rage, I persisted with my plan, even though it was seeming more and more like a really foolish idea.
I’m pleased to say I completed the whole thing in less time than I predicted (and completing was always the only goal), and because I was unable to find any record of anyone else ever doing the same thing, it occurred to me that I am probably the current world record holder for this event. (9 hours 48 minutes in case anyone is interested in challenging it.) And I can confirm that it was, indeed, a foolish idea. Except that it was also one of the best things I’ve done lately, so I’ll probably do it again.
Even though my Oura ring is still grumbling at me about recovery, I’m already thinking about a bigger and better challenge for next year. I don’t know how long I can keep raising the bar, but I know that completing a significant physical challenge is a splendid way to start a year. The satisfaction of finishing something large and silly like that is a pretty remarkable antidote to the angst of being another year older.
Bev has recently discovered the joy and pain of doing hard things for fun but mostly likes doing easy things. Cycling is currently her main obsession.She lives in Almonte, Ontario where the road and gravel riding is superb.