The Moon

By spring of my final year of high school I was running every day. Disappearing from classes, avoiding assignments and drinking every weekend. Beer was easy to get and allowed me to escape the turmoil and trials of a hormone enraged, self-loathing, worried 17 year old. Parties were plentiful. It now seems amazing that so many parents left their kids for the weekend and that so many kids opened their houses even after seeing the trouble that usually occurred. Burned carpets, spilled drinks, broken glasses, and vomit were regular occurrences and lots of parties devolved into mini orgies and battlegrounds with different biological stains to clean up. A thee beer buzz was enough to race away from my every day and find a more confident, less troubled persona. One additional beer every hour or so kept the starting line out of sight.
Working almost every night, I had become accustom to getting by on a few hours of sleep even if it meant that the bags under my eyes made me look 10 years older. It made pulling beer so much easier and the offsale staff at the Empire knew me well enough that they never requested ID. Working, avoiding classes, partying, smoking didn’t prepare me well for racing and even during the race season, I didn’t attend many practices believing that I could skate by on my talents and laurels. It made a good story but wasn’t true. “ You are sabotaging yourself” was the admonition from teachers and the track coach. “ You have so much potential” was what I heard the principal tell my mom in an emergency parent meeting to determine if I was to be expelled or suspended. Not wanting to spend a fifth year in high school, even though I had no idea what was preferably, managed to meet the expectations agreed to in that meeting and graduated with the rest of my class. It was meant to be a big deal and the start of something new but five minutes into the ceremony I was thinking about the party and possible hook ups from dancing and drinking that might occur. The present moment was bearable only in as it served to launch us to greener pastures. Distrust of circumstances, motivations and the words of everyone around me made being present a blur like an out of body experience or what I imagine an acid trip would be like. I was never completely coherent or competent because I was either imaging some minor event in yesterdays or wishing for something different and unknown in my tomorrows. Based on evasive conversations with a few friends and limited awareness of others around me, this seemed more like the norm for my cohort than the exception. Micro-rebellions that chaffed authority but didn’t rise the hackles of the legal system were rampant and celebrated for being much more than they really were. A ‘nothing really matters at all’ futility smothered us; me.
Once a week coma sleep was meant to be a reliable recovery practice. Push forward on 5 hours, 4 hours and then crash for 20 on Saturday/Sunday. This seemed to work but the untold and unseen damage to my brain and body did catch up and a compromised immune system meant constant sniffles and sore throats for more than two years.
Cycle breakers can be bottom stops or freaky top of the mountain scares. I wasn’t diagnosed manic depressive for 25 more years but looking back the swings and ups and downs were just as pronounced at 17 and 27 and 73 as 42.
When I broke out of the self-loathing, self-medicating stream long enough to see the world another run of high risk-high reward activities arose. It is confusing being the smartest person in every room for 28 days and tomorrow being a sad scarecrow for a lunar cycle. Retrospection, rear view mirrors, hindsight whatever you call it is an accurate observation point but not all that helpful when you are being torn apart from inside your head. The demons roar as dulled by beer and bravado but before the assent there was a base camp; a terrible, dangerous base camp. “ No one would care if I wasn’t here”, “ It would be so simple to… It would be over”, “ I can’t breathe, I can’t hear, I can’t feel anymore, this is too much”. Plans, notes, threats were made and never followed through. No explanation or reason for not cutting and running the final race but some force held me just far enough away from that race. When the tide turned and the serotonin uptake elevated it was invigorating to step outside and watch me wow a crowd, stump a teacher, create a masterful picture of a remarkable idea. I admired myself from above, beside, in front. The POV was external and disassociated until the moon changed and then everything was viewed through pitiful (full of self pity) eyes and the out of focus lens of depression.

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Powerful to Powerless

Did the silence mean it was going to happen again? If I held my breath, would time stop?

After hours of clinking glasses and men laughing, the party, upstairs, came to a sudden halt. He was visiting from wherever he came from and the Pilsner or Bohemian and cigarettes always came with him. Crude jokes, a couple of punches and arm twists, a dollar and the big bottle of red wine followed. The man made my father laugh – no one did that anymore. His visits were the highlight of his year.

Darkness covered the corner of the basement where a curtain defined my bedroom. What time was it? Midnight? Would he be too drunk? Too tired? Tonight? I pressed myself against the concrete wall and pulled the covers over my ears. The cocoon was so small, maybe I could disappear tonight. Maybe I could transform into a superhero.

Superheroes didn’t feel this much fear. Superheroes fought back regardless of a 100 pound weight difference. Superheroes didn’t need their parents to fight their battles, even when they are 9 years old. Tonight I was going to fight back. I was going to say “No, no, no”. Tonight I was going to scream. Tonight I was going to stab him through his heart.

A light at the top of the stairs went out and the shadows crept away. The steps on the treads shifted from stomps to tiptoes. The sanctuary curtain was torn open and disappeared. Not in the world but in my head. I wasn’t here. I wasn’t helpless. I wasn’t abandoned. This didn’t happen again.

I was 6 the first time I remember Roy visiting Regina or the first time I remember him at our house. He was always around my aunt’s house in Saskatoon. “Wanna play catch?” “Let’s go to the park” ”Would you like a chocolate bar?” My cousins never went with him. They were always busy or out of sight or in the bathroom. O’Henry, baseballs and swings. Roy always had time for me. “ “You are becoming a little man, aren’t you”. “ Climb up on my lap and I will tell you another story”. One gold tooth, sweat, and tales of headless horsemen.

I think he did some kind of work with my uncle, maybe painting, or pounding, or lifting or grunting. Something for those sausage fingers and rough hands to squeeze and pull and push and caress. Man work where you didn’t need to ask if you could, you just knew you could. Start a job, finish it. “ money in your pocket let you do whatever you wanted to do”.

My dad didn’t really like anyone but he seemed to really like Roy. He didn’t talk about much other than football. “ If God made cows then we are supposed to eat them – with mashed potatoes and gravy”. “The government needs to teach kids reading, writing and rules”. “ We have a little bit set aside to buy a truck but things are tough”. Roy drew him out. They shared something from their past but I never knew what it could possibly be. Mutt and Jeff, Laurel and Hardy, Jeckyll and Hyde and yet they fell into each other’s company, bear hugging, catcalling and baboon laughing. Between visits, my dad sank back into a silent stupor with occasional outbursts and roars. Work, beer, sleep, work, beer, sleep, … until Roy graced the back door with chaos and mayhem on his shoulder. I loved the light he brought. Garlic, sweat, dirt, shone from his pores and everything was instantly and temporarily brighter, lighter. Twinkle, twinkle eyes, crooked man smile, and always a secret to be shared or never to be told.

In those days, everyone looked back with nostalgia. “ Will it ever be a simple as when we were kids?” “Remember the time we went swimming at the Red Bank and Charlie got caught skinny dipping by Sister Anna.” “ A deck of smokes used to be 35 cents”. Safety, sanity, silliness and no responsibilities. Life was better then and wouldn’t be better tomorrow. Things could never be the same.

Breakfast, school, cartoons and lunch, school, playground, supper, back alley, sleep, breakfast, school, cartoons and lunch, school, playground, supper, back alley, sleep …. Me and Brian Bushe.

When you don’t know what poor is, you aren’t. Ladders turned into sailing ships, trees into fortresses, sticks were swords or guns or spears and playgrounds were where kids shared secrets, surprises and challenges. Street lights coming on signaled something different – no need for shouting “Billy”, no cell phones, no worried parents. Just streetlights coming on and dozens of kids racing home.

Dreams were simple, sweet, safe and if scary not so scary as to make you wet the bed. Exhaustion, growth and youth brought 8 hours of sinking deeply into a soft mattress, cool sheets, warm blanket and a new day – much like the others but with a promise of adventure and unknown.

Once you stop being curious, once you know too much, the promise fades and then is gone. Night just brings morning and day brings more of the same. Stealing candy, curiousity and dreams. Hope glimmers for a while. Trust tries to press through. Love is seen but not felt. “I need to get up every morning and get out into the world and keep looking for the secret, keep looking for a time to share it, keep hoping that someone will ask. Running helps, rhythm and breathing stops my brain from returning. When my legs are churning forward, I can’t go back. At 1 mile the veil lifts and light peeks in. 2 miles and heat rises from inside and warmth on my face is understood. Beyond 3 miles anxiety returns as the awareness of the end gets closer. I can’t run forever but maybe for an hour. I can pull a Houdini again this afternoon or this evening and on Thursday. Keep running.

He would catch me some day. I knew the bastard was behind me, getting closer. He was near enough that I could feel his breath chasing me down. His panting wasn’t laboured but enjoyed. His body was strong and soon he would reach the end. 1 mile, 2 miles 3 miles – darkness. Powerful to powerless.

Humiliation and Recognition are Twins

I had heard about Froshing; the first Friday of high school year where freshmen were hazed as part of an unofficially (but truly officially) school sanctioned initiation. Dread had been seeded as the stories filtered down to middle school and fear had bloomed over the summer. On that day no chance meeting, planned activity, hang out happened without raising the prospect of humiliation, embarrassment and maybe even injury.

Pushing pennies down a 300-foot hallway with your nose, wearing a diaper all day in class, following seniors on hands and knees like a dog seemed like mild expressions of Freshie Day by the time we allowed our imaginations to run wild. “ I heard that one boy was forced to run naked through the girl’s locker room”. “ A friend of a friend’s sister carried her books on her head all day and if she let them fall, they publicly spanked her”. “ Whatever you do – don’t cry. They made this kid stand sobbing at the front of the lunchroom for an hour.” “ You can’t go to teachers for help because they are in on it”.

From Monday to Thursday that first week, the tension mounted. Innuendos, suggestions, and statements of sworn intent swirled every time you passed a senior. “ I have been waiting 4 years for this day. You are going to get everything that I did times four” was scary in its lack of detail. I was spitless and shit less by Friday morning and considered faking sickness ( I could have vomited on cue by pushing my toothbrush down my throat until it triggered a gag reflex). It was the story, epic saga, of the boy who hid at home on Friday and then had his own private Frosh Hell for a week that tipped the scales in favour of getting it over with. “How bad can it really be?” Harvey asked me. I don’t know if he took my silence as an agreement but it was meant as apprehension. “ There is a dance at 7 tonight.” Was the only words I could find and those took ten minutes to discover.

Friday morning came and we trudged our way to school. Two became three and by the front entrance, there were six of us who hadn’t been allies until we faced a common foe.The trip had taken less than fifteen minutes the first four times and this one was more than double that. Five minutes before nine, five minutes before the start bell. I could feel eyes boring into me, glaring ravenously at me scrawny frame. I hope my demeanor was saying “ Not much to eat here.’ The safety of the first period was like a sanctuary where hunting wasn’t allowed but it became obvious that the seniors didn’t need to attend their scheduled classes as they prowled the halls looking for stragglers. They were positioning themselves outside classrooms for a five-minute blitz attack at class change. Should I let it happen to me ( and get it over with)? Will they get braver in their punishment as the day goes on or tire of the hunt?” Can I just stay here for the next class?” “ Can I run?”

The teachers wasted their time doling out their lessons but all attention was focused on the noise in the hallway and our imagination. The drone at the front of the room only served to emphasize the chaos awaiting us once the door opened. I chose a ‘be first’ strategy and had my hand on the door knob as the bell rang. I thrust myself into the abyss startling two grade 12 boys and a girl. “ You, freshie get over here”. I willingly and maybe excitedly obeyed. “ On your hands and knees”. I complied again “ Put your nose on this penny and push it down the hall. Don’t stop until I tell you”. I was quick to react and moved the coin faster than they expected, five feet, ten feet, I was way ahead of them. At fifteen feet there was a shout behind me “ Okay, stop’. They seemed relieved and disappointed. “ Here wear this ribbon to let others know that someone already got you”. A yellow piece of cloth was thrust at me and they were gone looking for another victim. It wasn’t a star or a badge of honor but that tiny piece of cloth saved me from more imaginative and vindictive seniors. Before the next class started I had the ribbon on the front of my shirt without considering similarity to other persecute groups, and felt all the tension evaporate from my stomach and shoulders. The impending headache was gone and decisions seemed clearer. The whole ordeal hadn’t lasted five minutes. I observed the hunt for the rest of the day, no one was hurt and I didn’t see anything that came close to all the hype.

That was the next three years with rare exception; big promises and expectations and small outcomes. Until my senior year it all blurs together; wake, shower; walk, droning teachers, walk, sleep and repeat. Uneventful was the norm. The rare exceptions; first drink, first smoke, first kiss weren’t monumental but just broke the monotony. In the fall of my junior year, I discovered the cross-country team; a group of misfits that couldn’t make the football team mostly because, like me, they still hadn’t had a growth spurt. I found comfort in accepting the misfit moniker and joined the team.

This time I was running towards something; the finish line and a reputation. Racing over a 3-mile course, I was also escaping the sameness of early teens. The distance ate up the aches of loneliness and winning won acceptance from the oddballs and eventually minor notoriety with the general population. Chicken and egg.

Uneven ground, twists and turns and elevation changes made cross country more interesting than circling a cinder track counter clockwise. For the meager spectators, there was surprise rather than anticipation because their view was limited to their vantage point. At the start/finish line, they saw the rush of arms and legs hurtling away in a clump and then the thrill of one or two competitors loping towards the end, nothing in between. The real race was meant to be a secret to the competitors. The strategy of leading out, building a lead and holding on was challenged by a steady pace and final burst. On any given day regardless of your tactics, you weren’t sure of how the others were playing. Three to four miles is a long enough distance to come from out of sight and overtake any leader. It is also far enough that a leader can get confidence by adding yards between himself and the competition at each checkpoint. I often charged ahead not considering the consequences of walls or wobbly legs. Most races came down to me or a lanky kid, 6 inches taller than me, from a south end school, in fancy cleats. In the first year I competed we split the 6 events finishing first and second. The City Championships would settle the score.

In late October that year, we had had snow once and temperatures were consistently in the 40,s F. Frozen ground was treacherous but the nip in the air made pounding out the 4.2-mile course seem less strenuous. I had actually trained for the past two weeks, following a regimen outlined by the track coach/math teacher. Sprints, intervals, over distance, and practicing running form. I had been running all my life and didn’t know anything about technique, I had never needed to think about it.
“ Racing is different than running but you need to practice your technique while running so it is good when you are racing” he instructed all of us one afternoon. It took some struggle to understand what he meant and then to follow his urgings about “lead with your knees”, “ keep our body over your feet”, you are striding too long”.

On the Thursday before the Saturday championships, my 4 mile run with better technique felt easy and natural. Friday at school was a blur except for the strange “attaboys” from other kids and teachers after the school announcements that included congratulations to competitors (three of us) who were representing the school on Saturday. I got to bed early and overslept leaving me just enough time to walk the five miles to the park where the race was being held but no time to really prepare physically or mentally. My nemesis was there, with an entourage from his school and family. He was sporting a new warm up suit from Adidas and a gleaming white headband. He looked like the competitors I had seen on TV from Wild World of Sports. My sweat pants and t-shirt seemed insignificant. He looked like a winner. His friends, family, and coach looked at him like a winner. My cheering section was just me. The other two kids from my school were already on the course running in their age group finals and I couldn’t find my coach anywhere.

A parent volunteer shouted, “all competitors in Senior City Final to the start line in five minutes”. Anxiety, panic, terror-linked in rapid succession in a few seconds. “What was I doing here?” “ I am feeling too sick to race.” “ His cleats look fast.” “ I am going to get clobbered in front of all these people, all twenty-five parents, and siblings of other racers.”

The twenty racers, all grade 12s except me, began moving towards the starting line. Some were striding with macho bravado, others timidly trying to find a spot away from the 40 elbows and knees. I always found a spot alone as far to the left as possible. This time Adidas boy broke tradition and sidled over to within a foot of my position. Trash talking without saying a word, he stretched one more time as to remind me that he was taller and faster. I couldn’t retreat any further left so I held my ground and ignored him out of the corner of my eye. No words were exchanged. I heard a somewhat familiar voice “ Bobby, you will be okay, just run your race and stay in form” instructed the coach, wearing a school jacket. I am now sure that he had said the same thing to me before and to the other teammates who were already racing but in the moment it was a voice of encouragement. A voice that I took to heart and a goofy smile swept across my face. Adidas boy saw the insane grin and his eyes panicked for a fleeting second. He regained his composure has he adjusted his headband. No victory for either of us but even though this course was hilly, we were starting on level ground.

Racing at a high pace is as much about your head as your legs and lungs. For me, the first mental wall was within the first 5 minutes, every time. “ I think I felt a twinge in my calf”, “ My ankle is really hurting”, “ This is too hard” scream inside me looking for an excuse to quit. I know the voice and know to expect it but it often is still unsettling. I had never obeyed the urging but there is always a temptation. At the start line, I steeled myself for the fatalist’s voice by imagining a fast break and a charge for the ¼ mile. If I could put distance between me and the others, they would hear their deserter urging them to give up.

“ Runners to the line, On your marks, Get set…” “ Bang” went the pistol that evoked the startle response in me, even though I had heard it dozens of times before.

I broke fast with Adidas boy on my right shoulder and two others further to my right. 440 yards down the course with just under 1 minute gone, there were just the two of us. I loped the next ½ mile in what I imagined was perfect form and he stayed within a yard of my shoulder. I could hear his cleats on the hard ground and occasionally his breathing matching my rhythm. The first mile was the fastest either of us had started, at just over 5:10 but I didn’t feel winded and the voice hadn’t appeared. Admiration for my competition began to develop as we moved through a treed section as if joined at the hip. I couldn’t tell if he was pacing me or just keeping up. Was this his strategy – to push the pace for as long as I could manage in an effort to spend my legs? Red flags on the left, blue on the right as the course marched forward through the hilliest portion and I remembered that over the next rise was a sharp right turn and then another which was the 2.1-mile turnaround. If I was going to dictate, I needed to make a decision. In retrospect, it was probably way to far from home to be making a second break but I did it. At the top of the second right, I surprised him with the jump and myself with the speed I had found. He definitely heard his defeatist voice in that moment and let a gasp and grunt come out as I was now 5 yards, 6 yards, 10 yards and stretching ahead. I was running toward the line like I was possessed by the wind. I knew my wild stride was terrible form but the freedom reminded me of innocence and naivete that I hadn’t felt for almost 10 years. “Red on left, blue on right” became a mantra rattling in my head. “ eeeh, eeh, eeh, eeh wooo, eeeh, eeh, eeh woo, “ was the tempo of my breathing. I didn’t feel the course beneath my feet or notice when I went through the wooded portion but suddenly heard cheering and looked ahead to see I was within 200 yards of the finish line and an organizer was frantically stringing the tape across the line. I was aware but not appreciative of the clapping hands as my chest broke the tape. I looked back up the course and there was no other competitor in sight. If you can feel elated and sad at the same time, this was it. I had won but somehow felt sorry for Adidas boy (who I learned at the presentation was really named Donald). “ 21:32, 21:32, unbelievable 21:32” as a distant cry from my coach as he raced towards me with his arms both raced in the air. It took ten seconds for it to register that he was telling me my race time – he had never done that before and had never done anything with such enthusiasm. I heard an unknown parent ask “ Is that a city record?” No one seemed to know but it didn’t seem to matter. I was being back patted and head rubbed by people I didn’t know. It felt like a hero’s welcome but by noon it was forgotten. Well not completely – the 10 am school announcements announced my win and record and gave me 15 minutes of additional fame.

To be fair, I did have a light glow around me in track and cross-country seasons for the next year when someone recalled that I had won something and my yearbook picture had a caption referring to the accomplishment. The fickle nature of high school and teenagers meant that the next shiny thing was the next shiny thing and I learned that was okay.