The Flea In The Bottle

George and his dad, enjoying the concert

George and his dad, enjoying the concert

A long time ago, I heard a story about a flea that was put into a bottle. Since fleas are capable of jumping something like 30 times their own body length, the lid had to be put onto the bottle in order to contain the flea. Whenever the flea jumped, it dinged itself on the bottom of the lid, and eventually it figured out how to jump to a level just below the lid. After a period of time, the lid was removed, and the flea was free to go. But by now, it could no longer jump high enough to escape from the bottle. The physical capability was there, but the flea had the expectation that if jumped any higher, it would get hurt.

The story is a metaphor, of course. It’s supposed to illustrate the idea that we perform not according to our abilities, but according to the expectations we have, that are put there by ourselves or by someone else.

When George was diagnosed with autism seven years ago, I promised myself that I would never put a lid on my expectations of him. I would ensure that he had whatever opportunities he needed to learn and grow, and to discover what he might be capable of.

This strategy has not always been easy to follow, but it appears to have been reasonably successful. Over the years, periods of rapid progress have alternated with disheartening plateaus. Lately we have been experiencing the latter, and my husband and I have been having some depressing conversations about George’s limitations.

In the midst of all of this, my other son James has been preparing for his school’s spring concert, which happened this evening. In the past, we have left George at home with his grandma on occasions like this. Sometimes crowds and excitement overwhelm him, and we don’t want to stress him out or wreck things for James. Tonight, however, Grandma was unable to watch George, so we had to bring him with us.

While we were standing outside the school waiting for the doors to open, George was already getting antsy. My husband and I spoke about which one of us would leave with him, and which one would stay behind to watch James. In the end, we decided to see how long George would last for, so we went in and took a seat.

The concert started with the 8th Grade band. As soon as the music started, a huge smile appeared on George’s face, and he started swaying in time to the beat. He briefly clapped his hands over his ears when the drumming started, but for the most part he stayed calm. He even started singing along when the band played We Will Rock You.

The folk-dancing act that James was participating in was quite late in the program, and throughout the whole concert, George was sitting calmly, listening to the music and clearly enjoying himself. From time to time he would bop up and down in time to the music.

When James and the rest of the folk dancers came out, I scooted to the other side of the auditorium to get a clear shot with my phone’s video camera. While the dancing was going on, I turned my head to see how George was doing. To my astonishment, he was standing beside his seat, trying to imitate the moves of the dancers. As his hat-bedecked head bopped and jived in time to the music, my husband caught my eye and gave me a thumbs-up. For a few moments, I swung the camera around to capture some of his dancing.

We left soon after James was done with his performance. George was brimming with happiness, but we could tell that he was ready to leave. We took the boys to McDonalds to reward both of them for a job well done.

Now, as they settle into bed for the night, I cannot help reflecting on the fact that if my mother-in-law hadn’t had a prior appointment, George would have stayed home and we would have missed the opportunity to see him having such a wonderful time. This has renewed my resolve to keep testing his limits and pushing him beyond his boundaries. I don’t want to put a lid on my expectations of him, or his expectations of himself. I don’t want him to be that flea that is conditioned into lowering its potential.

I want George to dream big, and to fly as high and as far as he dares to go.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.


The First Decade

Today my son George is ten years old. There are no words to say how I feel, so I made this video instead.

A Decade Of George

This is an original video created by Kirsten Doyle. Music written and produced by Eric VonHunnius.



My Mojo Tripped And Fell

On Saturday evening I had a Very Bad Run. This is something that happens to all runners from time to time, and to be frank, my running has been going so well lately that I’ve been overdue for a bad one. But still, when it happens it leaves me feeling negative and slightly anxious about the prospect of lacing up my shoes and going out for my next run.

The fact that I went running at all on Saturday is somewhat unusual. Apart from a loosening-up jaunt on the treadmill right before my morning coffee, Saturdays are designated rest days. I go for my long runs on Sundays, when the pace of the day is leisurely and the husband does not have to go rushing off to work. In my household, Sunday mornings have been established as my time to run.

On this particular week, however, I decided that a Saturday evening long run would be a better idea, for several reasons. There were thunderstorms in the forecast for Sunday morning. I’m completely fine with running in the rain, but thunder and lightning do not make good running partners. On Saturday evening it was clear, and I was itching to go for run, having kept myself off the road for a few days due to an injured foot. In any case, the Olympic women’s marathon was being broadcast live on Sunday morning, and I really wanted to watch it.

Although it was evening, I knew it would still be quite hot, but I was not quite prepared for the hazy wall of heat that hit me when I walked out of the house. Having been glued to the Olympics for the better part of the day, I hadn’t really taken notice of the weather. I second-guessed this grand running plan for a moment, and then reasoned that if anything, conditions would get cooler as I went along. I was not planning on breaking any ground speed records, and I was well stocked up with water, so dehydration should not be a problem.

For the first eight or nine kilometres, I was fine. I was pacing myself well for a long run and keeping myself hydrated. It was brutally hot and I was melting all over the sidewalk, but I thought I was managing the conditions reasonably well. And then, with about nine kilometres still to go, I abruptly started to fade.

Fading during a long run is par for the course. Usually I start to feel dips in my energy during the second half of a run, and when that happens I simply adjust my pace, and then pick it up again when I feel recovered. This time it was completely different. My energy took a nosedive and I just couldn’t recover. I didn’t give up on the run, of course. I knew that if I saw it through to the end I would at least feel good about having completed the distance. But I felt like hell. I kept having to slow to a walk, and far from enjoying the running as much as I usually do, all I wanted to do was get home. I was drenched with sweat and getting a headache, my legs were screaming at me, and my sore foot was – well, sore.

I like to think that I have mastered the art of “running through the pain”, and usually I can do just that. Not this time. The pain just ran right along with me, preventing me from finding my rhythm. The only thing that kept me going through this run – the only thing – was my music. I kept stopping to pick out different songs that had a beat I could run to.

Finally, I found myself within shouting distance of my house, with about four minutes of running left. I wasn’t entirely sure that I had four minutes of running left in me, but I had a choice between running home and simply lying down and spending the night on the sidewalk, so I soldiered on. I stopped for one final time to select a different song and somehow managed to sprint home with the sound of Queen’s We Are The Champions in my ears.

In the end, I completed the distance I set out to do, and I’m sure the run benefited me somehow. But I did not feel good doing it.

All I can do now is put that run behind me and look ahead to the next one.

(Photo credit: Ryder Photography)


Run With The Sound Of Music: Or Maybe Not

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

To run with music, or to run without music… that is the question. A surprisingly controversial question at that. While many runners are appropriately moderate in their stance about whether or not it is OK to block out the world with music during a run, there are those on both sides of the debate who can be astonishingly militant about their stance.

Those who are in favour of the tunes say that it counteracts the monotony of a long run, helps keep energy and motivation levels high, and simply offers the opportunity to enjoy some good music. They say the anti-music people are antisocial know-it-alls who think it’s OK to jostle a slower runner who happens to wearing earbuds.

Those against the music-and-running combination cite things like safety, being in tune with one’s body, and enjoyment of Mother Nature. They accuse the music-lovers of being antisocial plodders who cannot hear when they’re supposed to get out of the path of a faster runner coming from behind.

I am firmly in the middle of the road on this one. I listen to music on all of my training runs, but never on races.

I do my training on my own, partly by circumstance but largely by choice. I love the feeling of getting out on the open road early in the morning, when it’s just me. It allows me to escape from the “real world” of people and responsibilities, and to be beholden to no-one but myself.

Having said that, two hours can seem like a very long time when you don’t have the company of music. I never find running boring, but it can get lonely, and the music counteracts that. If I find songs with the right beat, it can also be a nifty training tool, and to be quite honest, it is refreshing to be able to listen to an entire song without hearing kids start World War III over a single piece of Lego.

I used to listen to music while racing as well, but the Energizer Night Race of 2011 cured me of that. I had no choice but to leave my music at home, because earbuds were banned from the course. A third of the way into the race I could understand why: the park that the race was run in was very, very dark, and although the headlights that came with the race kit helped light the way, all senses had to be on full alert.

The race went well – so well, in fact, that I started thinking that maybe the lack of music had been beneficial. I tested this theory in my next race two weeks later and set a new personal best time for the distance. And that was enough to convince me to run my races with nothing but the sound of the wind in my ears.

When I race, I’m not running to improve my form or experiment with speed. I’m not out there just for the joy of running. I’m running that race to get the best time I possibly can. I am racing – even though I have no hope of actually winning the race, I am trying to beat the most intense competition there is: myself.

While music is a pleasant distraction on training runs, I find it to be a hindrance on races. Without it, I can focus on paying attention to what my body is doing instead of trying to match my pace to the beat of the music. I can run according to how I feel, and for some strange reason, I am better able to manage my pacing to get a personal best time.

I have discovered that I don’t actually need the music when I’m racing. I get so buoyed up by the collective energy of the runners around me, and that is enough to keep me going. I enjoy engaging with spectators who cheer me on, and I like the feeling of getting pumped up by the entertainers along the course. Although I take my racing very seriously, leaving the music at home definitely helps me get more out of the experience and have fun.

In every single race I have run since I stopped racing with music, I have achieved a personal best time. There’s definitely something to that – at least, for me.

There is room for all runners on the road – the ones who listen to music and the ones who don’t. Watch this space next week for tips on how the two camps can coexist safely and peacefully.

(Photo credit: This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Why I Don’t Eat Lentils, And Other Stories

My grandmother

It is the mid-1980’s. I am fourteen years old, in ninth grade, and I am sleeping soundly. In the early hours of the morning, I suddenly wake up with a jolt. Somehow, I just know that my grandmother has died. I know this with the same certainty that I know the sun rises in the east. Granny has had a cold, but her health has been as good as can be expected for a woman in her 80’s. There has certainly been nothing to indicate her impending death. And yet, as I wake up, I know for a fact that she is gone, but I don’t have a clue as to how this knowledge has come to me.

As I lie in bed wondering what to do with this knowledge, I hear the phone ring. I listen to the sounds of feet running to answer the phone, followed by the muted tones of conversation. My door opens and Mom comes into the room. She seems surprised to find me awake so early.

“Granny has died,” Mom tells me.

“I know,” I say. Mom looks at me a little oddly, but lets my remark go, probably putting it down to just-woken-up bleariness. I sit up in my bed and Mom and I hug one another. She has lost her mother and now has no surviving parents. I have lost my grandmother, a woman I had loved dearly.

This loss is going to be hard on both of us.

One of the earliest memories I have of my grandmother is her lentil soup. The woman was a marvel in the kitchen – not so much because of the quality of her cooking, but because of her uncanny ability to create full meals with virtually no ingredients. She had raised three kids on her own while my grandfather was fighting in World War II, and lack of both supplies and money had made her very inventive and resourceful.

She used a lot of lentils. Lentils were cheap and nutritious, and there was apparently no problem getting hold of them during the war. Old habits die hard, I suppose, so thirty years after the war had ended, when supplies were plentiful and the economy was strong, my grandmother was still making her lentil soup.

It was, without any doubt whatsoever, the worst lentil soup. Ever. Granny would dish out these bowls of the stuff for her seven grandchildren, and make us sit at the table until we had finished it all. I mean, I know it was good for us and everything, but it just tasted so – horrible.

To this day, my friends, I cannot eat lentils. Not in soup, not in salad, not in anything. Those dark days of lentil soup tyranny ruined me for lentils forever.

Fortunately, there was a flip side to the lentil soup. My grandmother made the BEST banana fritters in the whole world. Let me tell you how good these things were. I don’t like bananas. I hate the taste, and I hate the texture, and I’d rather set my face on fire than eat them. But Granny’s banana fritters? I could eat those things until the cows came home. And she was the only one who could make them. She did give me the recipe, and I tried, but she just had that magic touch. When she died, so did the fritters.

I was quite an accomplished pianist in those days. I was very serious about it, and every year I would do practical piano exams to advance another level. I was always allowed to take the whole day off school on music exam days, and when the exam was done, my mom would drive me straight over to my grandmother’s place, where there would be some freshly made banana fritters waiting for me, made in honour of that day’s accomplishment.

Every summer, I spent a week or so with my grandmother. She lived on a large property off the beaten track, and there were acres of open space to play in. She had loads of dogs (including an ancient fox terrier named Chaka Charlie who always made me feel a little freaked out), and a coop full of pigeons. My cousins lived just down the road, and together we would play elaborate adventure games in Granny’s massive yard.

And in the evenings, after dinner, Granny and I would spend hours playing checkers. We would drink our tea and eat chocolate-dipped shortbread made by my aunt, who lived with my grandmother and still lives in the house today. And we would play endless games of checkers. Granny was a master at the game, and although I did win from time to time, this was very, very rare.

The last time I stayed over at my grandmother’s place, she asked me if I would teach her to play chess. Immediately, I agreed. This would be fun. My grandmother definitely had the mind for chess. She would have been fantastic at it.

As it happened, though, I woke up one morning when I was fourteen, and before the phone had even rung, I knew that my grandmother was no longer with us. I never got to teach her how to play chess.

I’ll always have the memories, though.

I just wish I could figure out how to make those banana fritters.




A Friend Who Saved The Day (And My Sanity)

I met my friend Fran about fifteen years ago. We met more or less by default: my boyfriend and her boyfriend were old high school buddies. We always got along well enough, but we didn’t really become firm friends until just over two years ago, when Fran emailed me to tell me she was moving to Canada. By then both of us had long split from the boyfriends who had been responsible for us meeting in the first place.

Despite living on the other side of the country, since Fran came to Canada she has visited me in Toronto several times. During her first visit we ran a race together. I did the 10km race and Fran – running in her first race ever – did the 5km. During that same visit, she assembled an outdoor grill that I had been given and that had me stumped. This is why you have friends who can put helicopters together. Seriously. That is what Fran does for a living.

During Fran’s visits, we always seem to go through an inordinate amount of wine. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Most recently, Fran came to my wedding. I can safely say that if she hadn’t been there, I would have been lost. She arrived three days before the wedding, when I was roughly halfway through a week-long nervous breakdown. By this point, she had already helped immensely, having offered to play flute music at the wedding ceremony (Fran can fix helicopters and play the flute like an angel).

On the day she arrived, Fran and I went driving all over the place, picking up the guest favours, sorting out a camera for the as-yet unconfirmed photographer, buying crafty stuff to make the guest favours look pretty.

The following day, while I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off and doing frantic last-minute shopping, Fran calmly took charge of the guest favours. She spent the day wrapping them, putting ribbon around them and even adding a bit of hand-written calligraphy to finish them off. They looked gorgeous.

I have to pause at this point to give credit to my Mom. She helped with the guest favours too. Enormously. For a day and a half the two of them – Fran and my Mom – were at it, working hard to make everything look perfect. If it hadn’t been for them, I honestly don’t know what I would have done.

Fran also helped keep me from unraveling completely at the seams. During the day, she was offering practical help with all kinds of things. During the evenings, she kept me supplied with wine, good humour and great conversation.

On the day, she drove back and forth to the reception hall with her friend Corrigan, dropping off things that needed to be dropped off and helping keep everything in line.

And of course, there was the music at the ceremony. It was beautiful, it was personal, it made the ceremony complete in a way that some random organist could never have managed. The musical interlude continued at the reception, where Fran and Gerard’s cousin Liam played a wonderful set of Celtic music. They played together effortlessly, despite having met and practised together for the first time the previous day.

Then there was the photography. We had a number of people present with cameras, many of whom are very capable photographers, and Fran was one of them. She took hundreds – literally hundreds – of fantastic pictures that are a wonderful record of a perfect day.

Fran, if you’re reading this, thank you does not begin to be enough. You came through for me in so many ways at a time when I really needed it.

Next time you’re coming to town, let me know and I’ll stock up on wine.