Put a Sock on it!

We’ve had a particularly snow-filled winter this year it seems to me. Okay, nothing like the blizzards I remember from my childhood in Winnipeg when even the snowbanks on the constantly plowed roads would rise far above my ten-year-old head, and when we routinely built snow-caves in drifts along the river dikes. But that was Manitoba, three time zones and a half-century way. And I do live in the lower mainland of British Columbia, for goodness sakes –a land where rain is queen, and snow discouraged everywhere except on the North shore mountains for tourists to photograph.

Vancouver does not like snow; there are too many streets that become luges, too many people in Lycra on bicycles -there’s an image to maintain after all. But every five or six years, we have to endure the derision of the unfortunately-located Eastern provinces who seem to think Canadians deserve snow and that Vancouver is somehow unpatriotic to settle for mere rain in the winter. And so whenever we do find ourselves saddled with a white Christmas, it’s suddenly national news about the weak-link, profligate rain-queen finally having to pay her dues -like we’re being audited or something.

Anyway, we’re all unwitting hostages to those Jekyll and Hyde twins el Nino and la Nina that seem to alternate every five years or so. Last year we apparently endured the intemperate clemency of an el Nino so I suppose we were about due for his colder sister to usurp the throne:  http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ninonina.html  All fine and neatly retributive, perhaps, but it does wreak havoc on those who have never experienced a prairie winter, or on those who have but don’t want to anymore. Vancouver is the fabled Lotusland of Homer’s Odyssey and our tourists expect it. So do I.

But, like Brigadoon, the snow is only a once-upon-a-time here: a bedtime story told to naughty children, an advertising gimmick to sell ski passes for the nearby mountains. What we have more frequently is a thin veneer of ice masquerading as asphalt, or clinging like tired bats to the cables supporting major bridges. It hides, sidewalk-savvy, near retirement homes, waiting for un-caned feet, and walker-less arms; it preys on those whose eyes are wrapped in memories of other times, or stomachs aching for a change of menu at the Home. It is a dangerous time for the unwary -ice takes no prisoners.

I know the problem Brien usually has in this weather. A large man himself, he claims he was brought up by cautiously obese parents who instilled in him an inordinate fear of falling. An oft-told family legend has it that a distant, even larger relative, froze to death up north when he slipped on some ice as he returned from a nocturnal visit to the backyard privy. Neither legend nor Brien seemed willing to explain why the great-uncle-once-removed didn’t simply get up again, but I suppose the family needed a cautionary tale to scare the children. At any rate, Brien lived in small town Saskatchewan, and he says his fearful parents made him wear outsized rubber galoshes with snow-tire treads to school. They also made him promise he’d never drink alcohol when he grew up. So, as a result he hates hockey, and only drinks beer on his porch.

I had read an interesting, but silly article from New Zealand about wearing socks over shoes for walking on ice: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/mar/09/improbable-research-icy-socks-over-shoes and I thought I’d tell Brien about it. I even toyed with the idea of showing up in full kit, but after ruining two pairs of perfectly serviceable fancy woolen tube socks, I realized that nothing else in my drawer would likely fit over my rubber boots. A description of the article would have to do, and if he laughed at the idea, well, sometimes you just have to risk personal humiliation to help a friend.

It was a bitterly cold day (for the West Coast) in late January, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark and threatening rain. Snow still clung stubbornly to the lawns and roads however, refusing to budge until it had first turned to ice and choked the stems off any daffodils foolish enough to attempt a pre-vernal dash for sunlight. Some considerate neighbours had salted the sidewalk in front of Brien’s house, but the fragmented concrete slabs that led to the steps of his porch were tiny ice rinks, their slanting surfaces seemingly Zambonied in anticipation of my imminent arrival.

Brien was organized, too. Despite the cold, he was sitting on the porch bundled up like an Inuit with a large Hudson’s Bay blanket over his lap, and his parka hood fully deployed. His hands were thickened with fur-lined leather mitts with opposable thumb tabs so he could hold the Sunday afternoon beer bottle comfortably and securely. Brien is nothing if not prepared.

“Brien,” I said, waving at him as I skated warily across rink after rink on my way to the porch.

He lifted his bottle in silent recognition of my arrival, and studied my careful little steps. “Watch out for that last rink, eh? It’s my rental dog.”

I stared at him for a moment before attempting the crossing. “Huh? What do you mean?” I said, suspecting a trap of some sort.

He shook his head slowly at my thickness. “Dogs warn you of people coming, right? Well so do people on that final bit of ice.” I could see him smiling in the cavern of his hood. “Never fails.”

“Come on, Brien, you just don’t want to have anything to do with ice… like everybody else,” I said, a little bit irritably, and pointed to the ice free sidewalk that ran past the outside edge of his yard. Then, I realized I’d been a bit harsh, so I softened my tone. “You keep telling me about that uncle in Saskatchewan…”



“North West Territories,” he explained, as if I were an American.

“It changes every time you tell it, Brien…” I couldn’t help chuckling.

He shrugged in reply, I think, but it was hard to tell through all his clothes. “I never met him,” he said once I had gained the steps without barking. He nodded towards a nearby chair equipped with both a large woolen blanket and a bottle of beer.

Why would I even think he’d want to sit inside? “Anyway, I read an interesting article about walking on ice,” I said as his face disappeared once again into his hood. “No more need for the legendary winter-tread galoshes of yours…” I added, wondering if I sounded too much like one of those fast-talking salesmen on TV.

But I must have seemed really excited, because I could see his teeth glimmering in the depths of the downy cavern. “Haven’t used those in years,” he said, obviously amused at the memory.

But I was determined now. “This is about an exciting, revolutionary idea from New Zealand, Brien: wearing socks over your shoes. Apparently you get better traction on ice, and…”

I heard, or rather saw, him sigh as his head emerged from the depths and he pulled the blanket up to uncover his feet. It was hard to miss the bright red argyle pattern of the plus-size socks that covered his size 12 shoes. They stared at me as much as anything. “All the kids at school used to wear socks over their shoes,” Brien said, smiling broadly. “I just had to remember to take mine off before I got home.”

“Where did you get big enough socks? I thought you said you had to wear…”

“My parents gave me a weekly allowance…” he interrupted with a grin.  “In Saskatchewan it was important to fit in with the group, eh?” He eyed me suspiciously for a moment wondering why I wouldn’t have known that. Then he slipped the blanket back over his feet and took a sip of his beer.

He seemed so pleased with himself that I didn’t dare tell him I’d only ever bought candy with my allowance.

Days of Wine and Linament

The time is out of joint, says Hamlet. I can relate to that –only it’s my knees that are complaining, not my Time. But, in fairness to my movables, I suppose I should be mindful that rust is preferable to replacement.

Even so, I find I’m spending more on liniment than wine, nowadays, and the only heady bouquet in the kitchen is that of demulcent emollients from the pharmacy. Friends have stopped dropping by for coffee, though, so I guess I’m saving on that.

I want to be clear: I am as deeply committed to exercise now as I was in grade 5 at the Riverview Elementary School in Winnipeg. I had never excelled at Height, and so to compensate for this disability I concentrated on developing Mouth. It worked in the first few grades, but as my age wore on -and the more evolutionarily successful louts in the back seats began their recess-driven raids on those of us who preferred the front- it soon became apparent why our genetic pool was at risk. It was then that I discovered Run. It was amazing what Mouth could get away with if it couldn’t be caught. I developed what I have come to think of as the Border Collie Defence: a kind of broken field zig-zag that was impossible to predict –a David and Goliath defence that I’m sure is still legend in Winnipeg.

But I digress. I meant to say that I have been intrigued by exercise since I was very young. You’ll note that I used the word ‘intrigued’ rather than ‘excelled’. To excel at something suggests a level of commitment I was seldom able to sustain. In Run, the clearly understood goal was to escape. Only later, in my more mature times, did I realize that it could also be utilized for non-utilitarian projects such as fun, or -if I happened to be chosen for the pick-up game of football on Saturday afternoons- sports. I was usually chosen last, though, and each side always fought over who would be forced to take me, so I often spent Saturdays reading.

As I got older, however, it became de rigueur to pretend I could keep up with my own kids, and so I learned to push my envelope. But when it became embarrassingly evident that I was enclosed in a rather old envelope, they switched tactics. They began to challenge me at chess, then –out of pity, I suspect- Snakes and Ladders, and finally, the  entrance exam for most Retirement Homes- X’s & O’s, so I opted out of team sports and limited my exercise to solitary moonlight walks and private, keyed facilities like the mat in my basement.

As a Retirement gift, though, I ventured online and bought myself a programmable stationary bike with speakers into which I could plug my iPad and its retinue of Netflix movies. It seemed like the perfect answer to unfavourable, ego-dystonic juxtapositioning with those -other than my children- more endowed with the atavistic simian traits that I had learned to avoid at Riverview. Sometimes I wonder if I harbour some lingering bitterness about my youth.

I’ve never been a big movie fan. We front-rowers who could actually hear the teacher, quickly realized that the strange black things scribbled under the pictures in our books were words –and that there really were two roads that diverged in a yellow wood that we could see with our minds without photographs. And never the twain did meet… Sorry, I get carried away sometimes.

Anyway, because of my exercise bike, I became enthralled with movies. Entranced by the colour and the action, no longer did I have to imagine what was happening –it was all done for me like magic. My aging friends started to roll their eyes when they saw me coming because they knew I would have discovered some great film to tell them about that was all the rage when they were still working. They had to assure me that the marvellous old cars I described were not just special-effects, but were actually the ones being driven when the movie was made. Who knew?

But, when I immersed myself in this new medium, I lost track of time –all the while pedalling away on my endlessly repeating program of hills and mountains on the bike, heedless of the increasingly hoarse shouts from my knees. I would emerge from the film and then buckle when I tried to stand. Well, not actually buckle or anything –but when I tried to walk, I would hear what I used to hear in the bowl when I poured milk on my Rice Krispies. Whatever; I’m not convinced that stationary bikes are equivalent to standard-issue outdoor bikes whose movies are more three-dimensionally compelling, and also subject to balance and dog issues.

And then there’s the muscle thing –the char, or whatever they call the thigh pain you get when you keep pedalling and watching the screen. I never used to suffer it when I ran, and my legs stayed neutral when I biked for miles around my paper route, so this is all new to me. It makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with the bike. I’d take the whole thing back, only I got a deal online and saved a lot of money by renouncing the warranty. Also, somebody scraped the brand name and serial numbers off, so it would be difficult anyway.

I’m going to persist, though. I’ve decided to bike in smaller aliquots to accommodate different viewing opportunities. I’ve switched from movies to the shorter TV shows, and lately I’ve found that some of the children’s programs actually help with my muscle-driven attention span. I do worry, though, what this ever-diminishing physical stamina says about my cognitive capacities -that I can now lose myself in a cartoon I mean.

But my new selections have also taught me a few tricks I can spring on my kids if they ever try to go back to those game challenges -I think I’ve discovered a sure-fire algorithm for Rock, Paper, Scissor victories, for example. I can’t wait.