Saturday, July 30, 2016

45

Here I am - I'm 45 years old and that much closer to my age matching my IQ.

As I sit here contemplating what message I want to convey to my throngs of readers (using the loosest definition of 'throng' possible), I am smacked upside the head by the number. 45 is serious. 45 is mature. 45 doesn't take nothing from nobody. 45 is really starting to sound not so young.

Yikes.

Where has my youth gone? That youth spent covered in freckles and sunscreen as well as possessing a naivete that was as endearing as it was unattractive. That youth who donned a spectacular head of hair as a last ditch effort to be taller despite all evidence to the contrary. That youth who always had a racquet in his hand, a smile on his face and story to tell, often at the same time as he was being chased by packs of wild dogs.

Now many of you may be wondering who do I think I am kidding, as it is not as if 44 was so young sounding either. (Who I may or may not be kidding is totally confidential by the way.) And you are right, I've been a full-fledged, (library) card-carrying adult for many years now. So what makes 45 so ominous? I don't have all the answers, it just does.

So what am I going to do about it? Whine and whinge and type excessively long sentences? (Perhaps) Huddle in the corner of my room, moaning and crying and clutching my teddy bear? (who keeps professing she's actually my youngest daughter) Perform an interpretive dance covered solely in blue acrylic paint that will invariably leave my kids scarred throughout their teens? (hey, it's bound to happen regardless).Take a stand and then go for a walk once standing? (hate to waste a good stand) Continue asking rhetorical questions out loud all the while smiling because I think I'm pretty funny? (a man has to live)

But instead of running away from my issues (have to rest my tender Achilles' tendon in case you were wondering), I've decided to confront this whole birthday thing head on after taking the necessary safety precautions (three words: peat moss padding). That's right, this year, as my body ages like a true cheddar (I was going to go with the more cliched fine wine reference but I decided to keep that one in my pocket for now), I've decided to be bold where those that know me would expect me to be weak. I've decided to buck trends, right wrongs, eschew things that need eschewing and embrace those I love no matter how real or imaginary they are at the time.

Instead of worrying excessively about the numbers that comprise my biological age, I've made the conscious choice to cease all excessive worrying no matter how boyishly cute it is. I mean I can't do anything about my age, or at least nothing currently legal in Canada. I may as well grin and bear it (or grin and bare it if in the mood for skinny dipping), laugh in the face of adversity (don't judge me, adversity has been laughing in my face for years) and giggle like a schoolgirl (bucket list, people, bucket list). 

The thing is, I still feel young, I do. I have an energy and a bounce and a verve that feels no different today than when I was 30 aside from being totally exhausted and sore all the time. And I may (fingers crossed) finally be gaining some of the highly-anticipated wisdom that has been promised to me for years. Not that I'm going to become excessively wise anytime soon (I don't have a long or distinguished beard to stroke anyways) or wow anyone with my expertise or wit or stately gate, but I do feel incrementally more "bright" or "smart" or "less likely to be taken advantage of" than in the past.

With the passing of this birthday, it's no longer automatically assumed that I have no idea what I'm talking about (it's still assumed, quite correctly much of the time, just not automatically). People actually look to me for guidance or directions and not sarcastically or out of sympathy, or just not as blatantly as before. I am fully and firmly ensconced in adulthood and there is no turning back. So, as melancholy and misty-eyed as I am (it's seasonal), I am healthy and happy and ready for whatever the next year brings as long as it isn't pneumonia or leeches. 

Happy Birthday to my wife, Lori

Happy Birthday, Lori!

Let me be the first of your many husbands, both real and mythological (and the only one who dabbles in both), to say this to you via social media. Ah, these richly complex technological relationships we lead. How could I accurately share my love for you without the use of emojis or emoticons or  italicized text? That question is as good as it is rhetorical. Only the best for my sweetie on her big day.

You may rightfully be wondering how big and, if you are, then I've achieved my first goal of making this day a day full of wonderment for you before, unfortunately, having you crash back down to the reality that I wasn't able to actually increase the size of your day. A health dose or smack of reality is the second layer of my gift for you. In case you are confused, your gift is not an onion, or at least not solely an onion.

This is the beginning of such a special year for you and it is starting right now! "Why is it special?" you may ask with chapped lips. Well, to start, fewer chapped lips. I'd also answer that question with a series of monosyllabic grunts and utterances that I believe were an ancient mating call among hunters and gatherers right before they decided to take up farming and domesticating wild dogs. Interestingly, I almost got you a farm got your birthday present until I fully realized how much dirt was involved. Seeing as it is the thought that counts, I'm glad I saved the money.

As hard as it is to imagine, there was a time before you. Yes, some years ago you didn't exist. Wars were fought, stocks were traded, leg warmers were knit and particularly hairy men were mistaken for bears. Those days were often bleak and foggy with an ever present aroma of freshly baked pie. And then you were born. Fast forward, fast forward, fast forward and here we are. It's like I have a degree in history from a reputable university that is gathering dust in my parent's basement.

This day commemorates the day you were born and I had planned a hyper-realistic birth re-enactment this evening. And allow me to take a minute to get up on my soap box (that was just gathering dust in my parent's basement - that place is literally teeming with dusty degrees and soap boxes) to say how disappointed I am with the lack of realism in other surprise birthday birth re-enactments these days. It is disgusting and insulting. Anyways, I had spent hours and hours recreating the operating room down to the most minute detail as well as rehearsing the entire thing ad nauseum for the past few weeks only having to ditch the idea due to the obscene cost of fake blood these days. It's a travesty. 

The day I met you will always hold a special place in my heart - I think it's located in the right valve although that could just be a particularly rambunctious collection of platelets. I sometimes wonder if divine forces brought us together or if it was pure luck or excessive use of duct tape. I just don't know why it can't be all the above for a change and why I feel compelled to choose? There are so many amazing things that have happened since we've met: the kids, all of the miming, the Hawaii trip, that lint brush as well as the huge amount of lint I never could have created on my own and the kissing. How could I ever forget the kissing? Amnesia, perhaps?

Regardless of the numbers of your age or their correct place value or the font size, in my eyes, you are still a young woman full of near lethal amounts of pep and high-quality, freshly-brewed coffee. You are as dangerously attractive and mockingly tall as you were the day I met you. Before we met, I never thought that I'd be spending my life co-existing with a human female, let alone one who is considered the Michael Jordan of converting oxygen to carbon dioxide, and yet here we are.

To say you literally complete me would be an exercise way to time consuming to prove on any level accepted by even the lowliest of academic journals. Just face it, we are like two positively charged ions who have decided to eschew the way ions are traditionally "supposed" to interact. As cliched as it sounds, I see us like a piece of protoplasm and whatever that protoplasm sees as good husband-material. For the record, I have no idea what protoplasm actually is, and don't really care, but I go to bed each evening rest assured that you could explain it to me if I cared, which, to be clear, I don't. 

You spend your days doing the yeoman's (why aren't there more yeowoman?) work of teaching the leaders of tomorrow about the wonders of chemicals, I mean chemistry, and why adding numbers is infinitely more enjoyable than subtracting, which, as we all know, is for losers. You then return home like you own the place, conveniently forgetting about our astronomical mortgage. You are so cute how you conveniently forget astronomical numbers with or without dollar and minus signs before them. 

You are such an amazing person and have the rest of us constantly on edge what with your level of amazement and all. From the moment you wake each morning and put your glasses on one arm at a time, to the moment you put your shirt on, coincidentally also one arm at a time, it would be easy to fall into the trap, based on this small sample size, of believing that you only perform certain tasks that involve arms in someway. I know you so well and that, in a pinch, you are ready and willing to use your legs when and if needed.

The first reviews of your birthday are in and the critics have spoken. They are calling this the birthday "ahead of it's time" and "not to be missed" and "a stunning display of modern film making that is a must see for the whole family". They are lauding you for your dynamic acting ability particularly focussing on your ability to eye roll at your husband in one instance, laugh with your kids in the next and then sing beautiful songs in the moonlight while brushing your teeth in another. You are a veritable triple threat! 

I must bring this happy birthday wish to an end (I have to save some of my material for next year and in case this Facebook message gets optioned for a movie). You and I both know that I could just go on and on all day and I almost feel like I need to prove that, but I am fighting this urge as I type. Socially acceptable fighting! I also know that by now I've lost at least 75% of my initial audience and, with them gone, any chance at mass appeal and free shirts, but I only want you. I am tempted to say the rest of your present is in the mail, but I don't want to make you confused and think the present is in the male, being me. I repeat, the present is not inside me and now is not the time to use your new set of Exacto knives!

In closing, I love you. You make me so happy each and every day. You are a beacon of light around here even after I've cleared my throat numerous times while not-so-subtly pointing at our electricity bill. You are the mother of our children and the de facto mother of our gerbils. I have also asked numerous times, solely for simplicity's sake, if I could also call you "mother" to which you kept on sleeping as you are always asleep at those times. But you are my wife, who I plan to cook dinner for each and every non-sushi night for the rest of your life. And no, that is not meant to sound as ominous and threatening as it comes across. It is meant to sound a little ominous and threatening, just not that much.

Happy birthday, Lori!

your loving husband (and future biographer if all goes well)

Tommy

Busy Summer Days with My Girls




The "excitement" all begins early, around 7:45am, when I hear hushed whispering emanating from their room next door.

"Should we wake up dad?"

"It's not 8 yet and he told us not before 8."

"But I'm awake and I'm bored and I'm hungry."

"Do you want to play with our stuffed animals?"

"Has mom left for work yet?"

And it continues, as I lay there in my half asleep/half awake semi-consciousness praying for just a few more moments of peace and quiet before the day begins. And it's almost as if they read my thoughts as they must have found some sort of activity to occupy themselves for the next few minutes as I'm able to doze off again.

I often wonder what they are doing, mostly silently, using hushed murmurs, but I figure that as long as I don't hear crying or screaming or loud noises that will disturb the neighbours on the other side of our thin townhouse walls, it is all okay.

And then, I wake, all of a sudden, as I'm gently shaken and stirred. In my darkened room, I can barely make out two large shadowy figures that loom above me to my left. I blink a few times, rub my eyes and grab my glasses.

"Dad, it's 8 o'clock," they say "it's time to get up."

I try to tell them that I'm beyond tired and that we should all sleep in as it is the summer and that I didn't have a great sleep, but I'm told, unsympathetically, that if I am tired I should just go to sleep earlier. Hard to argue with that, so I don't try. Instead I roll away from them, hoping that they will get the message not to bother me yet, but, their well-planned attack is ready for this maneuver as one of them circles the bed and they climb in and trap me.

In one of my favourite moments of our full day, we lay there, silently cuddling together, papa bear and his two cubs, I can hear them breathe just as I did when they were babies. It is a perfect moment of peace and calm. And then, then the tickling begins.

When they were little I could use my strength to "overpower" them as I'd hold them down and make them giggle until they cried for me to "STOP!" But something has shifted. They are big, they work as a team and they know all of my moves and my weak spots. In seconds, I am trapped as one sits on my chest and works my neck, while the other blows on my belly and attacks my sides. I squirm, attempting to free my arms, my hands, trying to go on the offensive, swearing to "get them back if they don't stop".

And then, as quickly as it began, it ends, as we lay there panting from our wrestling. It's time for the day to begin. We descend down the stairs.

It's time for the short-order cook to punch in for work. The orders come in quickly from the couch like rapid fire as they settle in to watch their morning TV show.

"I'll have my usual."

"I just want blueberries right now."

The daily, almost rehearsed argument over which show to watch ensues. It would be hilarious and enjoyable to listen to, if I hadn't heard this discussion dozens, if not hundreds of times already, and even then, only slightly.

"You chose last time!"

"You promised if I let you choose the movie, I could choose the shows for a week!"

"I have the remote and you aren't getting it."

"Dad, she's not listening to me!"

"If I get to choose, you can sleep with all of stuffed animals for a month!"

"You don't really mean that."

"Get off me! Dad, she's touching me with her feet!"

Exhausted, I am forced to intervene after pleading with them to "just figure it out or else there will be no TV" a threat I have used many times before and which we all know I won't follow through on as I need their TV time to completely wake up. Somehow a compromise is reached and the cook can get back to work.

"English muffins, lightly toasted with cream cheese. Make that peanut butter. With honey. Actually, one of each or just surprise me, but don't give me anything I don't like."

"I want a piece of toast, buttered, cut into four squares, crusts cut off, with melted cheddar topped with a runny-yolk egg with salt. Remember I don't eat pepper."

"Hurry, I'm starving."

"Me too, I can't wait one more second to eat."

With the sounds of the TV in the background and two half-asleep kids on the couch, I launch into action filling my arms with a variety of items from the fridge, freezer, pantry, and cupboard. After placing them on the counter, I instantly begin reliving my summers as the breakfast cook in a busy restaurant. As if on auto-pilot, I'm microwaving, frying, toasting, cutting and spreading with an accuracy and precision that goes completely unnoticed. It's as if I am dancing.

The food is served, the dishes washed, a second show starts and I feel my tummy rumble. Time to think of myself for a moment. The second I sit down to enjoy my food, the requests continue, incredibly perfectly timed for the moment I resume sitting.

"My food got cold, could you heat it up?"

"Can I have some juice? With ice. Not too much, I'm not that thirsty."

"I will have some corn flakes, no milk, with a spoon."

"I also want juice. Actually milk. Or chocolate milk."

After eating my breakfast, I boil some water for our thermoses and start to get lunch ready and packed for whatever adventure lies before us today. The beach, the park, the pool, the court, the bikes - the possibilities are endless. Not that we don't take it easy and relax at home and enjoy our literal mountain of Lego, our stacks of puzzles or collection of games, but I was brought up to get outside in the summers.

Often from just after breakfast until just before dinner, covered by multiple layers of sunscreen and sweat, I remember returning home as a kid, exhausted by hours in the sun and collapsing on the couch with my sisters at the end of each glorious day to watch a movie as my dad went to downstairs to create art and my mom went to the kitchen to create dinner.

The debate begins over our plans for the day as I make lunch. Summers have always been this way, dad and the girls, as my wife and their mom has always worked. While jealous of our time enjoying our freedom, the best moment of her day is the excited and high-pitched squeal of joy from the girls when she returns home, exhausted from another day of work.

I attempt to find consensus.

"How about the pool?"

"We just went a few days ago."

"Tennis?"

"Maybe tomorrow."

"Bike ride?"

"Nah."

"Playground?"

"Boring."

We usually settle on the beach, an activity they thankfully both love. They could, and do, spend hours and days on end swimming, playing in the sand, collecting shells, and looking under rocks for small crabs. Regardless of how often we have been recently, there is rarely a dull moment on the beach as they meet up with friends from previous summers, invent games or lay back and read.

While they are still young, there is an almost unnoticeable shift from year to year in our summers as they grow up and their interests change. Before, we had to plan our days in and around nap times or meals. We had to be close to home in case of exploding diapers or meltdowns. And then, they aged, growing out of strollers and car seats and high chairs. Summer days have become, over time, endless sprawls of unscheduled, non stressful, not-in-any-rush-to-leave time and I love this aspect the most.

During the school year, every moment of every day is accounted for. Homework and workouts and dance classes and dinner times are all set as the family races from event to event to event. Each day feels packed as we long for free time. And then summer arrives and aside from a few things here and there, time magically appears saying "use me as you will".

Dinner a little late tonight? Who cares?

Enjoying the beach for another hour? Why not?

Already past bedtime? Doesn't matter.

What time is it? No idea.

It is wonderful.

We spend a lot of time in the car together, the girls and I, driving from place to place. These days the soundtrack of our rides is dominated by pop music as the girls all-of-a-sudden know every word to every song and either sing along at the top of their lungs or complain about the frequency of each song being played. Music in the car ends up making me feel a bit crazy, regardless of whether it is the current pop music or the Raffi, Charlotte Diamond, Sesame Street or Disney songs we used to listen to.

Piano is practiced, teeth are brushed, pajamas changed out of, hair is combed and we are off.

They are each other's best friend, spending hours each day side-by-side, being silly. The care and love they have for each other is clear and they really enjoy being together. And I love spending my days with my kids who quite obviously love it as well. I hope this never changes, but I know that the teen years will bring changes and there will be a point, soon, where they won't want to spend all day with their dad and sister. I'm enjoying it as much as I can, trying not to be complacent, while it lasts.

Not that they don't bug and annoy each other, and me, on end as well. No day or hour would be complete without something happening, usually in the downtime between destinations and almost always in the car while I'm driving and unable to really do much about it except plead, plead some more and threaten to stop the car or the removal of a treat later that day. No matter how much I ask each to stop whatever they are doing that they were completely aware would annoy the other, they don't. I ask, nicely at first, for quiet or patience or understanding.

It's always when they are tired and hot and as impatient with each other as possible for two girls who love each other.

"Stop making that noise with your lips!"

"Just blow your nose already!"

"Quit smiling at me!"

"Dad, she stole my book!"

"You sound like a baby right now!"

"Ow, she scratched/pinched/bit/punched me!"

And I sit there, focussing on the road the best I can, calculating the minutes until my wife gets home and waiting for the storm to blow over, which it always does.

And then we arrive at the beach. The girls get suited up, I lather them with copious amounts of sunscreen due to their fair complexions and they race off to play.

I'm still young, or youngish. I still have the energy and desire to race around with them and kayak across the bay or attempt to find balance and calm on a paddleboard or play in the tide pools. But it is just so tempting to sit and breathe and fight the desire to close my eyes and listen to the sounds around me as time slows down. I just don't want to be one of those parents. You know the ones. The ones on their phones or buried in a book or gabbing away with no idea where the kids are.

So I jump up, fighting off the fatigue I felt since I woke up, and run after them the best I can with my fill-in-the-blank current injury as my years of being injury-free finally have caught up with me. We swim and jump off the dock, we skip rocks and shiver in the cold, Vancouver ocean and I feel good that I didn't just sit there, enjoying some free time but feeling guilty, regardless of the sharp rocks and pointy barnacles.

We sit down for lunch and invariably I gave one kid or the other something they have told me "a million times" that they don't like. Somehow, even though I've been to this rodeo a few hundred times, I packed one kid or the other a snack they "just don't eat anymore" even though I just purchased a huge amount of it because they pleaded for it. And then the bargaining begins.

"If we eat all of the fruit and veggies could we have ice cream?" (nope)

"You promised us a treat today!" (I didn't)

"How about a lemonade then, and a treat tomorrow?" (nice try)

"We have been really good since we got here!" (debatable)

"Don't you want to be the best dad ever?" (tempting)

And sometimes, because I am some combination of nice, tired and weak, I say yes and I do enjoy watching them enjoy their winnings. There is just nothing like watching a young kid eat ice cream outside in the summer. It is about as pure a feeling of joy as one can find and I can feel good that I, this amazing dad with money to burn, helped provide this joy.

The beach beckons.

It's funny, because I was never a beach kid growing up. I mean I went there, from time to time, but I never spent days or even hours laying around in the sand. The memories of my childhood are dominated by parks and playgrounds and tennis courts. I have easily spent ten times as much time at the beach with my own kids then I did as a kid. I like the sand and the water, but I don't love it. It doesn't call to me the same way it does for others, like my girls.

They could almost live there, on the beach, bouncing in the waves, digging holes, eating barbecued meals and it doesn't matter how recently we have been there, they are eager to go back. To be a kid again. And I love providing them with a childhood to remember, regardless of how bored I am by the repetition of the beach and how much I ache for more variety and how burned the back of my neck feels. Not that I am complaining too much, it is pretty awesome to have this luxury.

"It is time to go," I yell at them from across the beach.

They don't want to leave.

"But, dad has had enough! We've been here for hours!" I reason.

Sorry, they are having too much fun!

"Well, in that case, why don't we stay forever?" I joke.

Sure, they say without a moment's pause.

"I was kidding!" I exclaim to no one as they have already jumped, tumbled and flown away to play.

Finally, after much effort, we escape, partially showered, mostly changed, hair and crevices somehow still full of sand and we head for home. The girls, sit in the back, flaked out in their seats as I attempt to creatively figure out a meal to make for dinner that all will enjoy that doesn't involve too many steps that I don't need to stop and shop for. We all want to get home and picking up groceries just isn't in the cards at the end of the day.

The car ride is long and full of predictably tired bickering. I beg them to stay on their sides, to not touch each other AT ALL, and try to get a fun game going. They insist on spending their time telling on each other and attempting to use the very same words we parents use on them to get them to stop an annoying behaviour on each other with amazing results.

I try not to take sides and, with a deep breath, I make some suggestion to each about what they could do to make the circumstances better for them.

"You know if you stopped bugging her, she'd stop bugging you."

"If you ignore her and don't let it bother you, she will stop."

"How about trying to fill each other's buckets?"

When that doesn't work, and it often doesn't, my patience goes out the window.

"Come on, just get along!"

"Why are you doing that, it only makes her angry!?!"

"No talking at all till we get home!"

And on those drives when it continues, they talk back, refusing to take any blame for anything and saying things that are just untrue.

"You always take her side."

"I'm just going to ignore both of you."

"Fine, I'll never talk to my dad again."

"You only love her."

We are all thankful when we get home and the girls race inside to watch a movie as I get dinner ready.

Now don't get me wrong, I love to cook and during the school year, I will research recipes and ingredients and attempt new and creative meals all the time. But in the summer, regardless of the long expanses of time, I just want to sit when I get home, enjoy a cold drink and watch something. But, someone has to cook and my wife will be home soon from another long day of teaching and the kids are getting cranky for some food, so I jump up, feigning energy and begin to put something, anything together.

Wife comes home. Long day. Tons of marking. Tired.

The movie ends, the dinner table is cleared and the partially-cleaned living room is reduced to shambles in mere minutes as seemingly every toy, colouring book, Barbie and small piece of plastic is scattered all over the space. Somehow they are actually neater now than they used to be and the adults don't have to do all of the cleaning. Most, just not all. How they still have so much energy after a busy and active day is impressive. I almost feel proud.

And almost on cue, the picking starts. They are in each other's space, they are drawing on each other's prized pieces of art, they are burping in each other's ears. On my last fumes, I suggest playing a game partially to help settle them down before bed and partially for reasons I'm not totally aware of. Duty? Expected future guilt? Love of board games?

"I won't play that game."

"She chose last time!"

"You always whine so much!"

"Well, I hate you."

"I'll only play if I can go first and be the banker."

"She always gets her way."

Finally a game is settled on and we begin. I've tried to impress upon the girls that it really doesn't matter who wins as it is only a game, but those words fall on deaf ears. Regardless of the game, within minutes of starting there are invariably accusations of cheating, moaning about things being unfair, threats of quitting if things don't go their way soon and the exhausted tears of some tired, tired girls. Once again, they are better at playing and competing in games that they used to when it seemed very much life and death to them. Gone are the days of full on tantrums, mostly.

Sleep is suggested.

Reading lots of books is offered as my means of cajoling them to go upstairs at a reasonable time. Reminders of how tired they were this morning and how they were the ones to say that an earlier bedtime was a good idea are given. Could they move any slower if they tried? Maybe if I start a bath that will magically get them off their butts and somehow compel them to clean up in a jiffy and race upstairs? Neither asking nicely nor raised adult voices have any effect. Finally, even they can't deny how ready they are as the chorus of yawns begins.

Teeth are brushed and flossed. A team effort is needed to attempt to remove the tangles from their hair. And after a full day, we collapse on the lower bunk bed to read a chapter of our book while I fight to keep my eyes open. We sit there, leaning on each other for support, attempt to remain conscious. Often I doze off mid-sentence and they have to nudge me awake. How anyone is actually following the plot of this book that we read 7 pages at a time is beyond me. I know I'm not. Plans for tomorrow are suggested as I fill their water bottles.

I hug and kiss each girl. I have a different, unique silly routine at bedtime for each. My youngest one and I battle as I try to tickle her neck with my beard, while she attempts to lick my nose. Don't ask. My oldest one always wants one more hug. Finally, with each and every of their hundreds of stuffed animals returned to its precise spot - and nothing can progress until that happens - play is pressed on their music, the lights are dimmed and I stand at their door saying goodnight, I love you and don't wake up early.

Please.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

"You Were Really Good": When your best days are behind you, but you just don't want to let go.

"You were really good."

There is no doubt that it was meant as a compliment.

I was swimming with my kids at a local busy swimming pool the other day, and I ran into another somewhat-beleaguered looking dad with a few young kids who looked quite familiar. After a few guesses, we realized that our paths had crossed peripherally on the Ultimate Frisbee fields a number times over the years. I felt badly for not instantly recalling his face, but in my defense, I have now played Ultimate Frisbee since 1989, and through those 28 years have played with and against hundreds of people.

We exchanged names and when he heard mine he uttered the following words "Tommy Paley? I've heard of you. You were really good." In the moment I was flattered. It is so rare to hear the words "really good" used to describe me, let alone having name-recognition. But when I look back at my long career on the field, though far from the best, if I am willing to throw humility out the window, I was really good. Limited in stature and never the fastest or most athletic, I made up for those physical restrictions, by being a very hard worker, having a creative flair as a thrower, developing a high-level understanding of the game as well as having such a passion for all aspects of the sport. All of those combined to help me play at a really good level for many many years, definitely exceeding my "ceiling" when I first started all those summers ago.

Our respective kids pulled us in opposite directions and we said our goodbyes. As I swam away it hit me. The use of the past tense. "You were really good."

Were.

Hmmmm.

We all get there, just at different rates, the proverbial other side of the mountain. And we all fight this inevitable slide to varying degrees. Some bail early while the kettle is still hot, others hang on for a while before reading the writing on the wall and then there are those that just refuse to quit trying to stay legitimate.

And it's not all purely one's own decision. As we mature and invariably gain responsibilities, life gets in the way. Some of us start families and notice our free time vanish in an instant. Others take on more and more at work and have to sacrifice many of those weekends driving to tournaments. Then there are those that either burn out or discover a life away from the fields - "there are actually other activities I can do in the summer?!!?! Who knew?" And, for many of us, on top of one or more of the previous excuses, sadly, the injuries begin to pile up.

Considering the beating my body has taken over the years, I have been very fortunate to be relatively injury free. I have always stayed fit throughout the years; cross-training, doing yoga, and maintaining a healthy diet and weight. Not that I've been completely injury free - I think that is impossible considering how punishing Ultimate is on your body (it's not just tossing a Frisbee to a dog on the beach I'd always have to tell coworkers back in the mid-90s) - but I had a really healthy run for many years.

"You were really good."

But then, a few years ago, right around age 42, it started. Over a period of just over two-and-a-half years, I hurt my throwing elbow, then my shoulder, then my ribs, followed by tweaking my already-bad ankle, pulling my calf, doing something weird to my back, straining a ligament in my toe and bruising my heal. On top of all of that my allergies have kicked into overdrive and I have had multiple chest infections and a persistent wheeze for 4-5 months a few times.

When the injuries first started, I just attributed them to bad luck (and they were), but as each short period of health was truncated by yet another freak incident, it began to feel more and more like the new normal. "Injured again" I was always posting on Facebook or telling my captain or my daughters when they wanted to do a certain activity I just couldn't do. And with each injury, I found my resolve to recover as speedily as I could slightly diminished. Not that I didn't want to be pain-free and healthy, just that I began to feel like my prime playing days were in the past and, with nothing special to train for, there was just no rush.

Also my focus has been divided and diverted the past few years. Coincidentally (perhaps), almost at the same moment when my body started not behaving, I rediscovered my love of writing. Many of those moments in the gym or running in the woods or doing footwork drills on the squash court started being replaced, many times by choice, by sessions creating at the keyboard. Just as physical exertion does wonders for the body, I find that the mental exertion involved in writing satisfies the mind in a similar, yet different, way. The past two years, even when healthy, I am often stuck with how to spend my little bit of spare time. Write or run? Type or train? Edit or exercise? The answers to those questions are far from easy.

On of top of all of that, I just want to spend as much time with my family as possible. The teenage years are rapidly approaching for my girls and I need to take advantage of them actually wanting to spend time with me while it lasts. Even when healthy, a weekend away from my wife and kids to go play Ultimate is less and less of a slam dunk decision, as I just love relaxed weekends at home playing games, practicing piano and just spending valuable irreplaceable time together. There is a small amount of irony in that if I didn't just drop everything at the last moment to go to a tourney back in 2004, I would have never met my wife in the first place.

"You were really good."

And yet, despite all of the great reasons to slow down or walk away, the fire still burns inside of me. Ouch.

As much as I attempt to deny it, I am just not totally ready to throw in the towel. I am not done yet. I think I still have it and, even if I am being slightly delusional (there's always a chance), I need to see if I still do. I'm not ready for my competitive playing career to be past tense.

I've always watched retirement speeches at work and with professional athletes on television with a keen eye. When the retiree inevitably begins to tear up I totally get it. The toughest thing for all athletes, whether professional or not, is to admit that you just can't perform at the level you always did; that you have to walk away from the activity or job that you've done for the better part of your adult life. In my mind, I am still that same player that I've always been, but my body is just not as strong, flexible and resilient as it once was. Every once and a while (with a depressing decreasing frequency) I recapture that feeling that is still so fresh inside my mind. But, though I have flashes of my younger self, my back is so tight, my knees hurts (or literally creak occasionally), my ankle is perpetually one misstep away from sidelining me and I find myself out-of-breath when I used to just go and go.

I'm constantly surprised that I'm almost 45 years old, even though my body feels every one of those years as I sit here. In my mind's eye, I am still that 28 year old freckle face, chasing after a frisbee with a huge smile on his face and with my mess of red curly hair shining and flying to and fro in the wind. The picture I see in my head is clear like that photo in that album on my parent's shelf. I always had a never-ending bounce in my step, an engine that just kept going and a knack for finding the exact right spot at the exact right time again and again and again. Man, I loved those days.

"You were really good."

It would be so easy to walk away, but do I want to do that with the last memories being those nearly-faded highlights or the cold slap of reality in the face? Why can't I stop? Do I really want to put in all of the work away from the field, the hours at physio, the time at practice when I may fall short, be embarrassed by younger and hungrier players and just look old?

We all know the old guy - we've all seen him before. You know that guy - the one out there at the practice or on the field who just stands out like a sore thumb because the game has passed him by. I always told myself that I'd never be that guy. But then there is also that other guy - you also know him - a bit old but still kicking it and impressing everyone around that he still has it. I always imagined I'd be that guy.

I know that I'm used to having a certain role on competitive teams, and while I know that role will naturally diminish as I age, I won't be one of those guys who will just be happy to be along for the ride, trekking to tournaments to play 3 points a game. Once I can't contribute as I always have, I won't have a desire to go out to play competitively any longer, but I do see myself playing ultimate in some form for a long time still.

One goal I have always had was to one day play on the same team as my kids. With my younger daughter being almost 8 (and the older one 10), she could be ready to play on a league team with me when she is 16 or 17 (if she chooses to play ultimate at all...she better!), which means that I need to at least keep playing league for another 8 years, or when I'm 53. No problem, right? A number of times when I'm standing there throwing a disc with my girls in the summer, I can imagine being flanked on either side by the two of them and feeling so happy (maybe we'd even pull my wife back on the field too).

"You were really good."

It was meant as a compliment and it was taken as such. But, it was also one extra piece of motivation to kick at that can at least one more time. I think that just so much of my self-identity is through the sport that I play. I have always thought of myself as Tommy, an ultimate player. A squirrely lefty with a good first step and crafty throws. Though I define myself in so many many many other ways, I am just not ready to lose this definition yet.

It's interesting when you look back over time, at how your perspective changes as you age and gain experience. I remember when I first started how little I knew and how I was basically trying to stay out of the way and "not screw up". I remember getting so nervous and anxious in big moments of games and making horrible decisions and/or just not executing a basic throw. And then, I reached a moment, when I just relaxed and was able to bring a confidence to my game that I rarely had previously. Despite a huge gap in skill and talent, I felt just as comfortable playing with and against some of the best players in the World. Not bad for a nerd with glasses who was always picked last for soccer at lunch hours in elementary school.

Allowing my friends to convince me to come out for Ultimate that first time back in May of 1989 was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life. It had rained that morning and I, without cleats, slipped a million times, but I was instantly hooked and went and got cleats the next morning. I just knew that this was the sport I had been looking for. I think of all the amazing moments, teammates, and tournaments over the years. I sense the feeling that only comes with beating my check up the line, or throwing yet another lefty forehand break or releasing a flat backhand huck that just sails through the air. I constantly think of all of the ways the game of Ultimate has helped me grow as a person and how it has impacted me in such a positive manner countless other ways off the field for years and years.

Quitting feels to me like an admission of old age, and though that day will come, I'm just not there yet. While I have to admit I'm not as excited as I once was about practices full of drills or playing in a downpour or games that start 45 minutes late or losing to a super-cocky young team who don't know me from a hole in the ground (despite the fact that we don't look anything alike...well, just a little), I'm still so excited every time I walk past a field and see anyone throwing a disc or anytime I smell that smell that we all know that comes when the calendar hits Spring and knowing that the first pull of another season is almost upon us or when lacing up my cleats or raising my arm signalling that we are ready to receive.

"You were really good."

Yes, I may have been a really good player in the past, but I still love the game and will attempt to be as good as I can be in the present as much as possible this year if my body is willing.

I just can't wait.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Happy Anniversary: From Single to Married - A Look At How I Got Here

This past Saturday marked the 11th year anniversary of my marriage to my wonderful wife, Lori. While I have sung her praises before and will sing them again, I will spare your ears today from what even the nicest reviews of my singing call “torture” and “laughable” and “AARRGHH!!!”. Yes, on a beautiful summer’s day (Saturday, July 9th 2005 to be precise) in Penticton, British Columbia I, Tommy Paley, wedded Lori Kedda in front of a suspiciously peaceful and aggressively well-groomed collection of family, friends and hotel staff. I remember standing there in front of the assembled crowd relishing the attention after years of almost-literally starving for it. I kissed my newly crowned wife (author’s note: I almost went with newly cemented, but that sounded wrong…and completely, completely untrue) and enjoying kissing in front of a crowd for a change. As I stood there, sun beating down on my shiny forehead, eyes squinting due to the glare and stinging from the sun screen, I had never felt happier.  

And the happiness has continued over the years as kids randomly appeared, jobs changed, cats came and went and waffles with fresh berries were consumed on no fewer than 15 occasions. It is amazing how time has flown and how windy it has been and how we have grown, both individually and as a couple. And to think all of you initially scoffed at my idea of developing growth plans complete with three dimensional pie graphs mostly so I could use my trusty protractor! Some of you also scoffed, quite appropriately, at a mostly-grown man having a trusty protractor. But, we have grown. When this all started, we were but two separate amoeba who barely did anything together almost as if our pseudo-pods just never contacted each other, but over time so much has happened and now we are still two separate amoeba, only we live in the same house, share a bank account and raise a family together. Romantic, isn’t it? I know that eleven years sounds quite impressive (though that could just be the echo in the parkade I’m hearing as I yell it out loud to myself this morning) and some of you may rightfully be wondering if we only got married so that as the years passed we could parade around town waving at the common folk while handing out toffee and used periodicals. Don’t worry, I’m wondering the same thing. Periodical anyone?

I’m also wondering how I got here - not the birds and the bees stuff, though I am wondering about that too, but wondering how I, a once very single guy who almost seemed invisible or infectious or freckled, was able to enter the very prestigious Married Club. The Married Club, for those who haven’t joined, has the most spectacular bathrooms and folded linens. For many years I never thought I’d get married and I thought a lot. I was always thinking; some called me analytical, while others called me philosophical and one girl called me Bartholomew, before continuing to ride her pretend horsey in the sandbox (she was only four). I always knew I wanted to have a ring placed on my finger at some point in the future and get married as well so that I wasn’t just that guy who wore rings, but I was just never confident that it was going to happen. Confidence was an issue for the younger Tommy, which would come as a surprise to all who know me well now, as I am brimming with a self-confidence that could potentially make some people weep (it would help if they were already feeling emotional at the time and hadn’t slept well in the days leading up to our encounter).

Back in my teenage years, while others were dating left, right and centre, I was stuck on the sidelines, reading Nancy Drew novels, playing solitaire and wondering if elective, experimental bicep surgery was the way to go regardless of the cost. I wanted to date and I asked girls out, quite awkwardly hoping they were into that sort of thing, but with no success. I knew that inside this guy lacking self-esteem and a strong enough deodorant, was a nice, funny and caring human male (any resemblance to a chimpanzee was circumstantial at best I kept telling those persistent zookeepers who were only trying to do their jobs). I believed that if people could only look past the odd wardrobe that seemed to shout “witness protection program” to the world, as well as the glasses that seemed to shout “this guy’s nearsighted or possibly farsighted, only that is much rarer among young”, or the puffy hair that seemed to shout “I just moved to the city from the jungle”, they would have found someone who would have treated a girl so well. But I was lacking what the other guys had: height, a firm handshake and muscles. It wasn’t as if I was a pariah (mostly) or a weirdo who couldn’t talk to girls – no, many of my closest friends were girls and I often wondered when we hung out and nothing ever happened if there was some trick or lesson or hypnosis school nearby.

My early twenties, while a lot of fun as I transitioned to university and adulthood, were frustrating as my singlehood continued despite my best efforts. So much of the time I felt that I was being held hostage as friends forced me to tag along with them to clubs as they drank and picked up women. Not that I didn’t enjoy myself, but the club and bar scene always made me feel that I was an awkward imposter whose cover was about to be imminently blown (my obviously fake mustache and obsessive blinking weren’t helping). I was jealous of my buddies “way” with women vis a vis my ineptitude that would have been considered cute if it was the 1830s and I often daydreamed that I was a John Travolta-like hunk who could sashay into the room with such verve that all heads would involuntarily turn as I lit the dance floor on fire without singeing myself or any of the other people. I must emphasize, that part is important – I can’t have anyone getting burned in my daydreams. I also spent time attempting to meet someone in a lecture hall or on a sports field, but the prevailing theme of those stories would be one of near misses as the girls that caught my eye were either conveniently unavailable, “busy” or fictional (and confusingly still unavailable or busy). My frustration was at an all-time high – here I was, a perfectly ripe plum, just aching to be picked and either eaten fresh or made into a delicious plum pudding, living in a world of people who just didn’t like plums.

I was on the prowl as much as a person with my dexterity and level of athleticism could be while maintaining a minimum amount of common decency. And despite my shortfalls, my twenties and early thirties weren’t spent completely single. I had a series of short and medium length relationships that were all good in their own rights at the time. As each ended and the sadness of having failed once again set in, it was so hard not to admonish myself for just not being a good enough boyfriend. But, as I look back on that period of time now, I see that it was all a process; a much-clich├ęd process of figuring out who I was while also figuring out what kind of girl I was looking for as well as figuring out all of the things I needed to figure out to be in a relationship long term while also being considered cruel and unusual punishment. Clearly, I needed to become better at listening, for example, and especially when the other person was talking and especially when they were talking to me. I needed to become less self-centered even though it was one of my most attractive and compelling features. I needed to develop a new level of intuition that would help me figure out what she was thinking or feeling even though it would have been super great if she could have just told me or at least provided cue cards. And practice these new skills I did. As each relationship came and went, I made mental notes as the flood of tears rendered all actual notes unreadable about what I would do differently if and when I was given another chance.

But I was growing anxious as my biological clock as well as my actual clock were ticking louder and louder and louder to the point where I was considering buying a dog prone to barking all night and an old refrigerator just to provide a variety of noise. Friends did try to explain to me via an amazingly choreographed marionette production that males just don’t have biological clocks in the same way women do and that “no that isn’t reverse sexism” and “stop crying, you’re embarrassing us” and “please stop hugging the marionettes”. Throughout this dry spell in my twenties that I was trying to blame on global warming, friends and random strangers constantly offered words of wisdom and advice about how to “get” or “woo” or, in one odd case, “glue” a woman. I was told to be myself, which I thought I had been doing all along, only to embarrassingly realize that in fact I had been playing the role with a tad too much sarcastic angst. Being one’s self is all and good if you are a suave body builder who has a way with words and a fancy car, or at least the muscles and the car if you can only afford some of them, but for guys like me, who kept swinging and missing, it wasn’t so easy to do as it just didn’t seem sufficient. I swung and missed so many times which, while self-esteem damaging, also led others to wonder, quite rightfully, with concern, what was up with that dude walking around swinging a baseball bat all the time.

I was also told to play it cool as women could smell desperation from miles away. “What? They can? Miles away? Now you tell me! Damn, what are they bears!?” For the record, and for solely this reason, I never considered courting an actual bear despite the allure of really warm hugs and thorough back scratches. Was I coming across as desperate? Perhaps. Let me put it this way, I once left a series of messages for one girl on her answering machine that started out normal and civilized but quickly became tragically depressing so much so that a director almost handed me the role of a tragically depressing man who scared away yet another girlfriend by leaving horribly creepy messages on her phone (it was the part I was born to play) only to change his mind when he realized he was only a figment of my imagination. But, it was readily clear to all that on the scale of not trying at all to trying too hard, I was off the charts on the “too hard” side. I just wanted to find her so badly and couldn’t figure out how she could be so good at hide and seek considering the spread of h’or deuvres I was offering and the sheer amount of pheromones I was spraying around me each and every moment I left the house.

The final great piece of advice was to relax, be patient and when I least expected it, it would happen. This was all well and good, but I figured that I was never expecting it and it still wasn’t happening and that made me want to chase the friend who gave that advice through the downtown carrying a large brick of cheese. I’d hit rock bottom, so instead of fighting back and being stubborn, I took all of these words to heart, though I wasn’t sure about it happening when I least expected it as there was just no way I was going to meet the girl of my dreams while cleaning the bathroom or peeling potatoes or playing air guitar with the mop while bouncing on my bed in front of the mirror. But I understood that my approach had to change or I’d be stuck as the third wheel forever and I so badly wanted to fulfill my dream to be a second wheel at some point. I am, by the way, a pretty amazing wheel after enjoying an evening of all-you-can-eat sushi.

So I stopped asking random girls sitting next to me in a lecture hall if they wanted to study together when it was clear to all that they didn’t study, and I stopped asking girls on my sports teams if they wanted to grab a coffee when it was clear to all they preferred a nice spot of tea and I stopped hoping one of my coworkers at the restaurant I worked at during the summers would finally change her mind and go out with me when it was clear that they never changed their minds about anything. I also decided to stop frequenting online dating sites where my writing skills got me in the door, but then the door was mysteriously jammed once we met in person. I was going to just live my life, be myself, have fun and let the cards fall where they may and hope that someone else would help pick them up once and a while because, even if it was solely to complete the metaphor, the cards were never going to pick themselves up.

And along the way I somehow convinced myself that I didn’t need someone to be happy. I didn’t need to be in a relationship no matter how fun and cool and sparkling they appeared. I was pretty cool and somehow developed a feeling that it would just work out somehow. I was too good catch to not be caught and I was providing the hook, line and sinker for one low low price that probably made me look crazy. I started going to movies on my own, grabbing a meal out even if no one was available and spending a weekend evening at home watching movies in my sweatpants if that was what I felt like doing. Sure there was always that voice in my head, or set of voices that spoke in eerie unison, yelling at me like a general in the army me that I was single and needed to go out the door and not come home until I had fulfilled my mission, but as I entered my thirties that voice or voices became quieter. I had settled into a confidence in myself that I had slowly been evolving into all along. I always knew that I wanted to get married and be a father and I wasn’t looking for a relationship that was superficial. I always knew that I wanted to find someone fun and smart who got me. I always felt that she was out there but possibly locked up in a woman’s prison somewhere for a crime she didn’t commit and it was up to me to lead the jailbreak. I felt that if only we could meet at the right time and place then everything would just click.


And then, magically, I met her (the vast amount of magic I used is top secret, or at least it was). And it was when I least expected it. It didn’t seem like hard work. We just clicked (that’s what that sound was by the way). All of the relationship struggles and worries and concerns of the past years as well as all of the lessons and learning and community college classes had paid off as they prepared me for the moment I met her. I was so ready and she never knew what hit her (a large sack of ping pong balls I keep around for special occasions). She was what I had been looking for and waiting for all this time. A few months after meeting we were engaged and a little over a year later we married and haven’t looked back since aside from that one time we thought we were being chased by wolves. It has been a wonderful 11 years and it just keeps getting better with age like a good balsamic vinegar or cured pork product. Meeting her is the best thing that ever happened to me and I’m not saying that because she is standing behind me demonically threatening me, or at least I’m not only saying it for that reason.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

BC Counsellor Q&A

How long have you been a school counsellor?

I started counselling at Gladstone Secondary School in Vancouver in September 2007 - amazing that I am already in my 9th year!

 What drew you to this profession?

As a classroom teacher I always wished there was more time to really get to know the students, and as much as I loved teaching, I always knew that I would want to do something else within the public education system eventually. Early in my career I was very involved in extra-curricular drama and directed and produced a number of plays. Each rehearsal we would "check-in" and talk about how we were feeling that day and I spent so much time working on the relationships that the acting was less important. The connections I was able to make with the students and the connections I helped them make with each other got me thinking about counselling. Around this time I also suffered a great loss in my life and sought out counselling for the first time. Shortly after, a student to whom I was close took his own life, and I found myself quite naturally assuming the role of a counsellor for my grieving drama students, which was quite a powerful experience for me. I applied for the Master's of Counselling Psychology program at UBC shortly afterwards. 

What is your approach to counselling?

I am all about developing relationships and my goal is to have the students see me as an adult they can really trust and come see about anything; and they do. Whenever I have a new group of students I spend a lot of time early in the year talking to the kids, going into classrooms and having them get to know me in a variety of settings. I try to make myself available every break and lunch and often after school and I encourage the kids to drop in, hang out and feel comfortable. I spend hours and hours on this and then the kids see me as someone who really cares, is cool (sort of), has a sense of humour and loves to listen to anyone talk about anything. I like to describe myself as a combination of a father, a cheerleader and a friend. The approach seems to work well, as over time so many kids come to see me and share very personal stories.

How have you changed as a counsellor over time?

I believe I have come a long way in the past 8+ years. The transition between teaching and counselling was initially a challenge for me, but fortunately the first administrator I worked with had been a long time counsellor and her mentorship was invaluable. I was able to sit in on meetings with her and see firsthand what she said and how she approached challenging parents, students and situations. We would often sit together and talk about my role and then she'd slowly step back in meetings over time and allow me to take on a larger role as my confidence grew.

When I first started I remember feeling like I didn't want to make a mistake or say the wrong thing to a student that may make them feel worse. I also didn't feel like myself and more like I was trying to follow the steps I'd learned in school. I guess a few things happened simultaneously: I became more comfortable in my role, I was exposed to similar situations again and again and the positive indirect and direct feedback from my clientele - the students - all helped me grow in confidence. I still have a lot to learn and room to grow, but feel so much more confident and comfortable than I did this time in 2007.


What is the best thing and worst thing about being a school counsellor?

Easily the best thing for me is spending time with teenagers and helping them. I think even for the strongest and most well-adjusted student, the years in high school are so challenging. Everyone has complex lives, is navigating emotional highs and lows and just needs someone to talk to who can be trusted and doesn't judge. I love being in that role. In Vancouver we are grade counsellors - I love being the counsellor for an entire cohort and staying with them for their time in high school. The grade 12 year is really something special, for the students and for me.

The worst part...when a student you are trying to help is stuck in ways that you can't help them. It is frustrating and I tell the student that at least talking about how they feel is very worthwhile, but I know that there are forces at play that I have no ability to change.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

A bigger office? Beach access? Free lunches? Seriously, I wouldn't change much. I get to interact with many people, I can use my sense of humour, I can dress casually and the hours feel like they fly by as it is usually really busy. I also love puzzles and my work on the school timetable satisfies that. I thoroughly enjoy my work and I'm always telling students when we do career exploration and planning that their goal is to find a job where they wake up in the morning and they are happy to go to work and looking forward to the day and the challenges ahead, and feel like they have accomplished something real and satisfying at the end - that's how I feel.


How do you see the school counsellor’s role in the school community? What about the broader community beyond school?

I am primarily an advocate for my students and see my role as helping them in all areas of their school life. I don't take that responsibility lightly. I also work closely with parents as many students' struggles in school and life require a systemic approach.


Awareness of compassion fatigue is growing. What things do you do to prevent your own compassion fatigue?

We've all had those days where there seems to be a long line of students who are upset as well as other important situations that require my attention and I literally feel like I'm being pulled in a million directions. It is quite mentally and physically exhausting. I consider myself so fortunate to be part of a great team at work. There are four counsellors and we are constantly sharing and debriefing - that is invaluable. I also feel very supported by my administration. I always try to put myself in the student's shoes - I find that no matter how fatigued I may feel or how many students I've talked to without a break, that if I do this, it is easier to summon up the necessary compassion.

I also take care of myself outside of school and have a number of areas where I am able to unwind and figuratively recharge my batteries before the next day at work. I am an avid athlete - I compete in Ultimate Frisbee and squash and routinely attend hot yoga classes. I love cooking. I have two young children and we have an active and fun time together. I have always found that no matter how exhausted or stressed I feel when I leave work, they demand (quite literally) my attention and focus and force me to "switch off" my work brain. I am also so fortunate to be in an amazing relationship with my wife - it can't be overstated how much of a positive impact being truly happy outside of work has on my work performance.

Finally, I write. I am a prolific writer and have been publishing short stories, creative non-fiction, recipes and fictionalized versions of counselling experiences for the past few years on my blog. The chance to truly express myself in this way is transformative and cathartic. I find that writing does something very similar for me that exercise does - I feel totally refreshed and excited afterwards. I am most proud of the pieces I've written about my family and my counselling pieces, with the latter giving me a chance to "talk" about and work through difficult situations. 

All of this together helps me combat compassion fatigue.


If you were not a school counsellor, what would you be doing?


Earlier in my life, I would have answered an executive chef at a restaurant, basketball announcer on television or a radio DJ. These days, my passion is writing and I have had a few short pieces published by creative writing journals. I am also a featured contributor and content editor at Suite.io (check out my blog at suite.io/tommy-paley if interested). My goal is to publish my own collection of short stories someday and I'd love to go back to school and study creative writing as I still have so much to learn.

Save Gladstone: My Story

I just found out that the school where I have been working as a counsellor for the past 9 years may be closing down at the end of the next school year due to budgetary issues. This horrible news came as a total shock to the staff, students and parents and I have been overwhelmed with such a wide mix of emotions the past few days. I love Gladstone Secondary School. The students are generous, kind, hard-working and so respectful and the staff genuinely care about kids and education. It is a special place that I am proud to be a part of.

When I first came to Gladstone in September of 2007, I knew nothing about it. The hallways felt foreign, I barely knew anyone, I was overwhelmed with my new job and I went home each evening wondering if I’d made a big mistake leaving my old teaching job. Those initial feelings of doubt and not belonging were erased within days as this wonderful community accepted me. Many many many times since I first started, I have considered myself so fortunate to work here and couldn’t imagine ever leaving.

When people talk about how Gladstone is amazing they always mention the same things: robotics, dance, athletics, performing arts etc. etc. Not that those programs and activities aren’t great, they are, but for me it is all of the little things that occur on a daily basis and almost go unnoticed that stand out and make the school amazing. The smiles and waves from kids as staff walk in the hallways, the excited support from the audience during a performance for their classmates, the sheer amount of selfless fundraising at holiday times, the tears from grads on the last day of school when they have to leave, the number of times I heard someone say “thank you” during the day – I could go on and on and on.

I am now working with my third group of students as a counsellor and each one has been so rewarding and special to be associated with. While I’d prefer to be hanging out with my family or throwing a Frisbee in a park, if I have to work, this is just about perfect. I wake up each morning looking forward to going to work and I leave each day full of appreciation and accomplishment. I am always advising students to find a career, as I have, where they feel like they are making a difference and having an impact on the people around them. This job at this school with these students is so incredible.

Just last week I was telling a friend how great a set-up I have – awesome students, fun and various responsibilities, a supportive group of people to work with – that I could see myself staying for the rest of my career. “Why would anyone leave Gladstone?” I asked at the time. Now I’m asking “why would anyone want to close such an incredible school?” The answers provided just don’t take into account what a drastic and negative impact its loss would have on so many people and the community. Sure I’m biased, but I also know that I am speaking for hundreds and hundreds of others.

My first thought when I heard the news was that my current group of grade 10s wouldn’t get to graduate together, and that I wouldn’t be there shaking hands and giving high fives at graduation and telling a funny and heart-warming speech at prom about our incredible journey together. I know it may not make sense to others, but I really associate myself with the students I work with – I often say “we” when referring to the grade I work with and “my” when talking about the students. I care so strongly about the students and always feel like they do of me. I believe I’m seen by the students as a combination of a parent, a cheerleader and a friend and I’d be sad if we didn’t get to finish this all together.

Working with a group of kids as they grow and mature and progress through the five years of secondary school is the single best aspect of the work that I do. From meeting them as young grade 8s all the way through the end of grade 12 and helping them with resumes, friendship issues, graduation and the real world is such an amazing experience. And grads often come by to visit, to catch up and to continue to get advice and counselling years after they have left the building. Having this current grade splinter and split apart after their grade 11 year is just horrible timing. Having the school cease to exist just seems so wrong on so many levels.

The news about the school closure, while still preliminary, poses many challenges and has been an instant and tangible source of stress for so many people. The end of the school year is usually a time for celebration and sharing exciting summer plans, but current events have put such a damper on this seasonal revelry. I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason in life. But, this news is such an affront to one of my personal and heartfelt philosophies; that everything works out in the end. Does it? Will it this time? Please.

I hope more than anything that, in the fall, our staff is able to work together with the parents, alumni, current students and the community as a whole to somehow save the school. I am, by nature, a very positive, roll-with-the-punches sort of person and I am trying so hard to stay positive, but it is so challenging not to feel like the end is coming. While I obviously know life will go on regardless, I’m having such a hard time integrating this plan of Gladstone closing with my philosophy that everything will work out in the end. I hope that come December of this year we all receive the good news that we so badly want, that Gladstone can be taken off of life support. I just want to keep working here with this staff and these students. Is that asking too much?