Take a Hike

I’m sure you know one of those families that are so outdoorsy and stoic that it’s irritating. They’re always headed off on epic cycling trips or month-long paddling excursions. They don’t have any wimpy kids in their brood, who constantly whine, “My legs are tired. Are we almost there?”

No. Their kids completed their first triathlon at the age of 6 and can easily carry a 20-lb pack as they scale mountains.

I don’t know who these kids are, but they look impressive.

I aspire for us to be one of those families. And I’m ready to irritate you with tales of our stoicism.

For the last few years, we’ve been promising our oldest that we would do an overnight hiking trip. Soon. When you keep saying that you’ll do something “soon” for YEARS, your kids start to lose faith in your empty promises.

I thought, for some time, that we would have to wait until Lark is old enough to walk a fair distance. She’s still only 5, after all. Although she requires no sleep and probably runs a marathon every day, when it comes to going on a family walk, her legs suddenly stop working.

She is very tired, she needs a break, she needs a snack, and this is boring.

I began to realize that if this overnight trip was going to happen soon, we’d have to take my daughter out of the equation. I told her with some hesitation that the three of us would be going on a camping trip without her. But that she would be having a sleepover at her aunt’s house.

She was not remotely disappointed. “Good,” she said, “Because I hate walking.”

The past many months of international pandemicdom has made me thoughtful. What kinds of experiences do I want for our family? What can we do together that is out in nature, creates growth and pushes our collective boundaries a bit? This excursion ticked those boxes for me.

I began researching all of the gear we would need. We have a lot of camping equipment, but it’s all for “car-camping” as snooty backcountry Canadians like to say. Translated, our tent weighs a tonne and is meant to be thrown in the back of the car for drive-up camping. The purists among us only consider it camping if you walk or paddle there. Or parachute. Whatever.

Although That Big Mountain Store had some great options for gear, their prices were high for what was essentially an experiment. I found stuff elsewhere, borrowed a few things, and hit Canadian Tire.

Last Friday, we tossed some packets of ramen in our bags and hit the road.

I should mention that I ran into trouble when I began looking for a place to do this hike. Ontario’s provincial parks system has a bunch of parks with hiking trails, and backcountry reservable sites. I narrowed my search down to the ones that were not more than five hours away, and then found that – sigh – most sites were completely booked until DECEMBER.

In this post-COVID world, no one is travelling far, and everyone wants to be outdoors.

Finally, I found an available site at Frontenac Provincial Park. This park is over 5,000 hectares but is apparently “threshold wilderness.” Anywhere else in the world it would probably just be wilderness wilderness, but in Canada, you know, we have tiers of these things.

On arrival, it was a balmy 12 degrees. We had a 5 km walk to our site.

Map in hand. Ready to walk.

I was relieved to find the trail very clearly marked. It was almost impossible to get lost.

The Arkon Lake loop was about 11 km in total, and relatively flat with a few small hills.

Frontenac didn’t disappoint with fall colours.

Craig and I were both super proud of our kid for not complaining and carrying his pack with minimal rests.

Campsite 7 at Birch Lake
Food storage box to prevent a critter invasion, OR, my worst nightmare, BEARS.
Bean steaming himself on a frosty 5 degree morning.

Although it was chilly overnight, the whole experience was amazing. You know that something feels like a success when you’re already planning your next trip on the way home.

What are your next new adventures going to be?

Burnt Marshmallow

Is the best flavour of ice cream in the world. There, I said it.

And this stuff they make at our local, Ed’s, somehow manages to capture in its frozen goodness the essence of summer campfires. Without the mosquitoes.

Forget canned beans and frozen peas. A pint or two of this is essential. For mental health. Unfortunately, like many other things in the city, essential services like ice cream stores will have to be closed for awhile.

B stands for burnt.

Have we invented a word yet for the regret we feel for the things we failed to stock up on when it all got real?

How Sweet It Is

If Hollywood has taught me anything, it’s that it takes 28 days to change addictive behaviours. You know the scene: Loveable F***-Up has cleaned up his act after a stint in rehab, and is being seen off into the sunset by his warm and fuzzy mentor, to live a happy life free of booze/drugs/sex/whatever.

It’s not my intention to make light of struggles that can be devastatingly real, but I’m pondering addiction today as I’m trying to kick my own sweet habit. Yes, I’m an addict. Admitting it is the first step, right? I’m fully addicted to a substance that society not only sanctions but throws in our faces with almost every bite of packaged food we take. That substance is SUGAR.

As a kid, I was always on the bony side, and never had a huge appetite. I remember feeling stuffed after eating pretty minimal meals, but I also remember always somehow finding room for dessert. Like most of us, I had a sweet tooth, but my eating habits were controlled by my parents, who didn’t stock tonnes of treats in the house.

On into the teens and twenties, I didn’t have healthy eating habits, but they weren’t fast-food-daily-horrendous either. I think. It’s hard to remember at this point. Back then I wasn’t so worried about sugar, firstly because I had no clue how damaging it is as a substance, but also because I smoked like a fiend, so clearly I had bigger fish to fry. After many, many attempts over many years, I finally managed to quit smoking permanently nine years ago. Smoking now has no place in my busy life with small children, and most of the time, when I encounter people smoking, which isn’t that often, I think, Ugh, can you smoke that thing somewhere else? However, there are STILL times when smoking seems like a good idea. (Hello, wine!) On the occasions over the years that I’ve given in to the impulse to have a cigarette, I’ve seen the reality of looming addiction again. Nicotine is so addictive, that after all this time, I could potentially slide back down that slope. Obviously, I won’t. I no more want to be a smoker than I want to be a rhinoceros.

Despite the difficulty that quitting smoking posed, it’s pretty easy for me to remain a non-smoker. As in, it’s not hard to refrain from a habit that makes one a stinky social pariah. However, my sugar addiction is a different story. Sugar is food and it’s in so much of it, that it’s increasingly hard to avoid, especially when it arrives in disguise. I needed to be making better choices.

Six years ago, shortly after my son’s diagnosis, I read a truly inspiring book called Anticancer: A New Way of LifeThe book gives solid, evidence-based advice on diet and lifestyle changes to make when you are faced with a cancer diagnosis. There were many recommendations that were revealing, but the thing I found most sobering was the information on sugar. Basically, the suggestion here is to avoid sugar like the plague. I’m sure we’ve all been aware for some time of the role sugar plays in obesity, diabetes and other conditions – but cancer? I thought that as a family we were pretty healthy, and we were, but I needed to go deeper.

These were not just changes I had to make for myself, but for my kids’ habits too. The first step was an easy change: drinks. I was never much of a pop drinker so soft drinks were no hardship to give up completely. Next up, juice. On the rare occasion, we will buy juice or juice boxes, but it’s as I say, rare, as in a couple of times a year. Taking a hard look in the mirror though, I realized that I was putting a teaspoon of sugar in every cup of coffee and tea that I had. The WHO’s daily recommendation for sugar intake is no more than 50 g. That’s 12 teaspoons a day. Sounds like a lot, right? Except that they then amend that to: actually it would be even better if you only had 25 g – 6 teaspoons. If you’re drinking 3 hot drinks a day and putting a teaspoon of sugar in each time, that’s half your daily dose. I cut that out. Easy.

Then, that’s when I had to really start reading ingredients, double-checking the labels on my bread and crackers and yoghurt.

I eventually gave up buying almost all children’s snack food, and almost all packaged foods except for a few acceptable brands. Why? Because, all of those cute, individually-packaged things that are so easy to throw in your kid’s lunch pack an insane amount of sugar – organic or not. Yoghurt tubes, granola bars and fruit chews masquerade as healthy options, but many yoghurt cups have as much as 26 grams of sugar per serving. The whole daily allotment in one go, and as much sugar as there is in a Twinkie. Sadly, the cheapest foods are the worst foods, which makes good choices even harder for many families.

I wanted to know when we were eating sugar and do it consciously, as when we go to our local ice cream shop for a cone, pick up a cookie from the bakery, or have a piece of birthday cake.

I know what you’re thinking. This all sounds very pious, right? I’m going to stop cantering around on my moral high horse for a moment.

I made all of these great changes. The meals that we eat as a family are on the extreme side of healthy. But am still a complete junkie who goes to sugar when I’m tired or cranky. When I’ve had a bad day. Or had a good day.

Whilst I’m in confessional mode – when it comes to eating sugar, I don’t have an off switch. I’ve been guilty of buying one of those large Lindt chocolate bars, and eating the whole thing. In one go. On autopilot. I’ll buy ice cream, eat a bowl of it, and then think, That’s unbelievably delicious! and then go back for ANOTHER one. Who needs two bowls of ice cream? Certainly not my liver. I seemed to be giving myself free rein in the sugar department because I was eating so well all the rest of the time. Clearly, this kind of logic isn’t working for me, or for my family, as the repercussion is that I expose my kids to more sugar as I feed my own demons. My 19-month old has recently discovered the joy of ice cream, and asks for it with appalling regularity. I don’t want my kids to never get to indulge in a treat, but reasonable limits must be set, not just for them but for myself.

Of late I’ve felt the need to make more changes, but half-hearted efforts always seemed to end in a binge of some kind after a couple of days. So let’s loop back to the beginning. I’m currently in the middle of my own 28-day program. I’m on Day 8 of no sugar, caffeine or alcohol and I feel great. I needed something totally prescriptive, to help me out of the what’s-for-dinner vicious circle and to break my unhealthy evening sugar-binge ritual. I am really enjoying being told what to do for once.

Will I ever eat sugar again? I would say that it’s likely. It just feels really good to take a break from things for awhile and press the reset button. Stay tuned. I’ll keep you updated.

 

For more information on the evils of sugar, check out these documentaries:

That Sugar Film – by Damien Gameau

Sugar Coated by Michele Hozer

Self-Care

Self-care.

It’s one of those irritating Internet buzzwords that’s been making the rounds in the world of health and wellness for the last few years. Every time I read another article encouraging me to make time for me, I end in feeling ever-so-slightly down, as I contemplate how I’m possibly not only failing my children and family in the care department, but clearly, I’m also disappointing myself, by never getting going on that daily yoga practice. (Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way.)

In a world of endless tasks and to-do lists, self-care feels like yet another thing to worry about completing. From what I understand, the argument goes that unless we take time out for ourselves, we won’t have the energy or motivation to care properly for others, with the knock-on effect being that we won’t perform as well at work or at home with the kids.

That sounds reasonable, but it also seems that there’s this pervasive feeling in our culture that we must be able to do it all: create and maintain a wonderful, fulfilling career; be the perfect Pinterest-parent, with an orderly, crafty home full of fresh baked goods; sustain a loving and affectionate relationship with our partners; and nurture our friendships so as to retain some semblance of a social life.

Then, on top of all those things, if you aren’t tired from just reading that list, you’re supposed to invest the rest of your free time (ha!) in taking care of yourself; with, I dunno, daily meditation sessions, green smoothies and luxurious trips to the spa fortnightly.

Forget about the long, solo walks in the woods and wellness retreats. Let’s start with the basics: eating and sleeping. I’m definitely eating. Well? Not so much. As for so many parents to young ones, sleep continues to elude me. There are two reasons for this, the first of which is my own bad habit of staying up too late. Judging by conversations that I’ve had with friends, this is a pretty common problem. The comment I hear over and over is, I stay up too late because I just want some time to myself at the end of the day. This may be true, but it’s also true that many of us end up in a Netflix vortex as we binge-watch our latest favourite until far past an appropriate bed-time. The second reason that I fail to sleep enough is that my darling girl still wakes in the night, and then thinks 5:30 is a pretty good hour to get cracking. At both ends of the night, not to mention the middle, I’m not clocking enough hours in my bed.

My main issue with this self-care business is time. Generally, I despise the lame excuse of I don’t have enough time to do that.  Yes, we are all insanely busy, but often how we spend our time is about making choices, right? Yes, but. There is also the truth that when you spend your days with small children, you don’t get to choose how you spend your time. Well, I mean you can try to squeeze in those extra me-moments, but you may find that a very vocal little person has differing opinions. Hands up if you’ve ever tried to buy jeans with the kids in tow? It’s okay, I know how entirely impossible item-specific shopping is. Getting stuff done with a super sidekick or two is just fraught with difficulty, so, if you’re like me, you end in deferring many tasks until the kids are asleep, when you can tackle them in peace and quiet.

Let’s return to our self-care basics. Showering. Bathing is a essential human right – isn’t it in there in the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or something? I have to say though, that in a life with littles, a daily shower starts to feel ambitious. This is because my toddler doesn’t want to be separated from me for the eternity of 10 minutes whilst I practice normal human hygiene. The usual scene at my house is me frantically rinsing shampoo out of my hair while my daughter cries and bangs on the glass shower door saying, “All done, mummy, all done.” At that point, my son decides this is a good time to come in and talk to me about something that is very important to him. Meanwhile, I’m in there like, “What? Hon, I can’t hear… okay baby, two more minutes…” I don’t know where my husband is while all this is going on, but I can tell you that the kids are nowhere to be seen while he’s in the shower. It’s a calm oasis of pixie dust and unicorns for him.

When fundamental grooming tasks start to feel like a luxury, forget about the waxing and facials.

Apart from time, the other spanner in the works is my old buddy, guilt. If I actually slot that yoga class into the schedule, going off to do it care-free poses problems, as I have to leave my toddler sobbing at the door and screaming, “Mama!” at the top of her lungs. It doesn’t feel good. Sometimes I want to turn around and go back. Like most mums, I tend to put my kids’ needs first, and my own on the back burner – the back burner of a stove-top that is 1 sq km in area. That’s part of the reason why I haven’t had my hair done in 4 months.

This is exactly the point of all these self-care fanatics though, that we should be doing what we need to do to feel recharged, without the guilt or panic for time lost. I guess there’s something to it.

So from this day forth, I intend to care for myself as much as humanly possible. You won’t believe the amount of self-care that’ll be going on around here. I’ll be eating, sleeping and showering with the best of them. That weekly yoga class is happening. Who knows? I might even sneak in a hair appointment. Shoot for the stars, right?

What’s at the top of your self-care list? Feel free to comment.

 

The Lapsed Vegetarians

Here’s a story:

Long ago when we were wild young things, my husband and I went travelling in Peru. One evening, we were eating dinner in a restaurant on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It sounds rather more exotic than it was. We were with a group of travellers that we’d fallen in with. We ordered the fish, as almost everyone did, with the promise that it was fresh-caught daily. We were all served identical-looking plates, with a breaded slice of something on it. Craig took a bite of his food and a weird look flitted across his face.“Taste this,” he said. So I did. It tasted like chicken.“Is that chicken?” he said. I said I thought it was. He grimaced and put down his knife and fork.

Continue reading “The Lapsed Vegetarians”