Be a Little Controversial

I recognize that ‘little’ is relative but isn’t almost everything.

Are you up to creating a controversy? Do you prefer melting into the backdrop? Can you do both, in different circumstances?

I have been trying to play against my tendencies for the past year. When I am asked to make a commitment I reflectively decide easily, but maybe not well. So I have been forcing myself to ask if I can take time to reflect and consider the question. Folks that know me well have been surprised by the request but were gracious in their response.

My gut almost always leans towards contrarianism. I look for another perspective in discussions and debate. I intentionally provoke when it would be gentler and easier to just go along with the flow. My preference is to stir the pot. One of my proudest days was when I was called an ‘advocatus diablo’ an ‘agent provocateur’ and a shit disturber by three different leaders, in the same meeting. So I have tried to be more agreeable. I haven’t been as successful at shifting the tendency here but I am working on it.

An offshoot of the contrarian practice is seeking the spotlight. Over the past 20 years. I have found ways to place myself at center stage with heads and ears turned my way. In the last couple of months, I am striving to deflect attention, share credit (and blame) and be in the pit or backstage far more often. In public sessions, I have stayed at the back and even when I knew I could stir, I didn’t ask difficult or ridiculously hard questions, just to have you and I hear my voice. (I see the irony of continuing to post on one or many blogs and leadership sites, daily).

So I invite you to consider picking up the slack. Is there an issue, a leader, and problem that requires some intentionally controversial rhetoric? Have you wanted to say something but thought “it isn’t my place” or “someone else will speak up” or ” what will happen if I ask this question?”. I am not going to speak up today and hopefully not tomorrow so I leave space for you and offer permission, such as it is, for you to ‘speak your mind and heart’. If you accept this window to be controversial then you need to hold fast to Illegitimi non carborundum (don’t let the bastards bring you down). There will be resistance and naysayers are practised at loud and hurtful responses. In the moment you may feel embarrassed but if you stay the course, you will be remembered and isn’t that the real and honest motivation for getting up every day.

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. Colin Kaepernick
Trust your own instincts, go inside, follow your heart. Right from the start. go ahead and stand up for what you believe in. As I’ve learned, that’s the path to happiness. Lesley Ann Warren

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Homesick and Sick of Home

When I was 8 or 9 years old, I got shipped off to a variety of relatives for the entire summer. I don’t know what was happening at home but in hindsight, I should probably have noticed something. My sisters stayed home and at 5 and 6, they didn’t notice or at least don’t remember anything unusual in the household or in our parent’s relationship. Maybe I had been a handful for my mom and she needed a break from me. Nonetheless. I spent the summer on the road, shuttling between my uncle’s farm, my grandmother’s house, an aunt with a huge family in the same town and between two aunts who were raising their families in Saskatoon. I have patches of clarity about that excursion and it seems that I stayed about two weeks in each home and then was shipped to the next arrangement.I haven’t a clue about the real itinerary but there would have been a logic to make the trip from south to north with a stop at the farm and then two stays in outlook and the final month in Saskatoon.

I imagine that my dad drove me to the first location and likely left me without much ceremony with my aunt and uncle and three older cousins. For the rest of the trip, I have a recollection of a solo bus ride and a trip alone on the dayliner that occurred about that age but can’t be sure it was the same tour.

The farm was like so many in Saskatchewan, in the early 1960’s – small (about 160 acres) fenced with a big coulee running east to west where the few head of cattle grazed during the day. I can hear my older cousin standing at the top of looking across to the sunset, placing his hands at his mouth like a megaphone and hollering ” Soiee, soiee”, a tradition from our Scandinavian roots; kulning, I think it was called. It was remarkable, and now I understand Pavlovian that the three or four cows made their way across the bottom land and up a trail straight to the barn. Chester always had a handful of oats for each of them as they passed into their stalls. He might have needed to milk them but that might be an image from another farm that I spent time at before I was 12. There were a dozen chickens; layers, that I shared responsibility for with my girl cousins. We needed to scramble into the coop, right after breakfast, and snatch up the eight to ten eggs that had been laid in the last day. It took some effort and fortitude to reach under an angry hen and steal away her creation, but there wasn’t any dillying because the air reeked of chicken poop and ammonia. I barfed a bit, in my mouth, almost everytime but I didn’t shirk my duties. The girls made fun of me for being a sissy and a city slicker and said: “we are going to make a chicken farmer out of you, yet.” There really weren’t any adverse childhood experiences. Even when Chester convinced me that it was Wednesday and we needed to let the chickens out of the enclosure so they could get some exercise, I didn’t resent the whooping my aunt gave me. We were able to corral all the birds before supper, and this became the story the three cousins told about me at all our family gatherings.

The day-to-day experience of waking to the smell of food cooking, eating a big, delicious breakfast, with strangers and being outside picking rocks, weeds, or some other chore became a refuge from a bit of homesickness. I didn’t know the strangers were boarders that my aunt had ‘taken in, who were building the hydro dam a few miles away and I didn’t know that what I was feeling in my heart and chest was about missing my sisters and my home.

After we got our morning chores done, we were on our own until lunch. I learned to swing in the hay loft and was coaxed into walking a ridge beam in the barn that seemed to be 50 feet above the ground. I snared gophers, and we cut off their tails. Supposedly there was a nickel bounty on each tail, and by how many my cousins had stuffed in old snuff cans, I thought they were going to be rich. I didn’t get or expect a share of the payment and don’t know if those cans are still lined up in the rafters waiting to be taken to the land agent.

The firmament of time leaves the impression that I ‘lived’ the farm life for a couple of weeks before it was time for an aunt in a neighbouring town to take me in. I had spent time in the chaos of their household before. An older girl and eight boys created more than enough drama and intrigue to make me forget about hearth and home. It likely wasn’t the schedule during the school year but when I was there at the end of July, the kids had settled into very late nights and sleeping until almost lunch time. I felt the jetlag from the transition from farm life and relished not having any real responsibilities. No one seemed to clean, do laundry or even wash dishes. A couple of us would venture to the regional park to toss rocks in the river or swim in the outdoor pool but nothing was scheduled and nothing was promised. For the five or six days I was there it was liberating to be free from internal and external expectations. I am sure that I would have gone stir crazy if the lack of routine and planning was permanent but it was fun while it lasted.

I grew up a bit that summer. I recall independence and my mom tells a story of having to come rescue me and take me home. Her detail of me standing alone sobbing with dust sticking to my face and her asking ” do you want to come home” sounds right but feels wrong. Did I want to be the big man who is okay when he feels alone? Do I still need to be that?

When I spend time with my mom, who is now 90, we talk about my childhood and her early years of marriage. My misremembered childhood may be more or less accurate than her nostalgic memories. My stories may be a compilation of experiences across time and distance and hers would have infinitely more variations.

But does it matter? If I remember my grandmother as important and caring and a cousin thinks she was dictatorial, does it change the world we both live in? Could he change his impression and would he be better for it?

 

A Side Step

Sailing Away From  Serenity

 

The mountain of clothes wasn’t going to do themselves, but the thought of gathering them all into a basket and lugging it downstairs to the laundry room seem like an impossible chore. Scaling Mount Norquay would be easier, and at least I might fall and be seriously injured or maybe even die.

September is always a difficult month. I don’t know what happens around the equinox but my disposition and desperation change. The demons and vigilantes invade my head and make staying under the covers the only bearable option. Sniffing stale air and weeping into a pillow doesn’t strengthen any resistance to the power of negativity and self-medicating only opens the neural network of pity and self-righteousness.

“Get up, suck it up, and cheer up” was my mom’s voice that rattled in my head even though her funeral was in September 8 years ago. For more than a decade she exhorted me to “pull yourself out of this,” “you have no reason to feel sorry for yourself.” As always she was right. It was also an embarrassment to her that her daughter didn’t appear perfect and her friends from church and the knitting circle, and bridge group, and book club and Zumba class all knew about her disappointment.

A deep breath and a tug of the duvet and the laundry and the demons and mom’s voice were shut out. I again promised myself “tomorrow; I will jump out of bed at 6 and get all this straightened away”.

Tomorrow comes and tomorrow. I eventually stop feeling watched intently and invisible. Another cycle begins. Tick, tick, tick – knowing there will be an explosion doesn’t make the apprehension any less.

Tomorrow comes, and I reluctantly join the living. Sophie greets me at the train station “Glad you are feeling better, we missed you at the office.” She doesn’t mean to, but her red hair tussles like licorice and her freckles twinkle like pop rocks on your tongue. Her exuberance is deafening and nauseating even when I am at the top of the cycle. There are days the 40-minute ride leaves me wanting to smash her silly little head through the compartment window and toss her into the ditch. It would be a terrible way to lose my best friend, and then I wouldn’t have anyone to love.

We have a history – back to before the Septembers started, back to high school in Fallbrook. She was my first kiss, and I was her first rejection. We fought about clothes; music, boys and we shared hopes, dreams and dares when we still believed in such things. We plotted and planned our escapes and cheated together on exams and boys. There wasn’t much we didn’t tell each other, but she didn’t know the secret – still doesn’t. Mom pretended that she didn’t know it either, but pretending doesn’t make it so.

At the end of senior year I started to tell ” Soph, do you remember when you were 8 or 9?” But Jamie Douglas stepped around the corner where we were sneaking smoke and invited her to come for a ride. She invited me. Neither of us knew he had a car. It turns out he didn’t. On the way into town, there was a storage facility for the car plant, and he had helped himself to a Taurus or maybe was a Sable. That road trip was the start of the journey into dark alleys and even darker hearts. But I am ahead of myself already. That’s what happens when the depression breaks and the mania begins. I race from one adventure to another idea to the next assignment chasing completion and recognition before time winds down, and the covers beckon again.

Jamie, Sophie and I enjoyed that afternoon in May 1989 with a case of beer, a pack of cigarettes and some really bad, cold, pepperoni pizza. Four hours later and a hundred miles from home we abandoned the chariot and spent the night wondering the streets of Detroit. The morning dawned, and a Greyhound ride home waited. This adventure repeated itself a dozen times before Sophie, and I went to college and Jamie went to prison for selling coke. On all those trips he had never even mentioned blow, hadn’t used, didn’t try to get us to snort, and if it wasn’t for the wad of cash, he gave us no reason to suspect that he was involved in anything more serious than joy riding.

~
Deep dive on first joy ride/

Well, it wasn’t as innocent or carefree as the initial telling. Jamie did have a reputation, not with the police but every girl knew he was a player looking for notches on his belt. He apparently had 26 pelts by grade 12 and had left shattered dreams and pails of tears along the way. Amy St-Pierre shouted at him in the cafeteria over shepherd’s pie, so it must have been last October, “how could you do that to me? You didn’t even dump me; you just used me and then moved on to another. Three girls at one party, you are a big man aren’t you. A rutting pig, that’s all you are.” The room erupted, as I imagine Jamie had, with “oooh.” From the girls, it meant either “eew, gross” or “oh, I’m jealous.” From the boys, it meant “wow,”” what” or” how.” Needless to say that brand was the talk of Fallbrook and the legend of Jamie grew. So the invitation to Sophie wasn’t innocent, and her acceptance wasn’t chaste. My joining them, the first time, was just a safeguard. If someone else was there and she got cold feet (she joked a week later, “It wasn’t her feet that were hot”) she had a way out. The story was that no one had ever said “no” to him but that if they did, he was cool.

The midnight red Taurus was our first chariot but not Jamie’s first ride. It looked like something an uncle might drive, sensible and safe and ready for a family. But it said “SHO” on the trunk, and somehow that meant “bat out of hell.” We hit 90 plus on I75 just south of Flint and were over 110 mph for a stretch before all three of us admitted that we were scared. Uncle Frank would never drive over 55, so this wasn’t for him.

Paula Abdul sang ” lost in a dream;
I don’t know which way to go.
A-let me say if you are all that you seem,
Then, baby, I’m movin’ way too slow.”

“Turn it up” we yelled. And then all three sang along
” Straight up, now tell me ,
Do you really wanna love me forever,
Oh, oh, or am I caught in hit and run?
Straight up, now tell me,
Is it gonna be you and me together,
Oh, oh, oh, or are you just havin’ fun”

The radio blared Janet Jackson, Bette Midler, more Paula and Milli Vanilli before
” Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone
I hear you call my name
And it feels like home

When you call my name it’s like a little prayer
I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there
In the midnight hour I can feel your power
Just like a prayer you know I’ll take you there”

Made me and then Sophie really quiet. After Madonna had finished Jamie turned the radio off, and we drove in silence for 40 minutes. I’m not in Soph’s head and too much in mine, so I don’t know what she was thinking, but I was naive enough to be lost in possibilities. It wasn’t white picket fences and fresh cut grass, but there were a crib and a dog and someone who would always call my name. So far that hasn’t happened – not for lack of trying. Married twice and in a ‘committed relationship’ twice and now in 2015, I am living alone and lonely. No dog, no crib and there is still a pile laundry.

Sophie didn’t succumb to Jamie’s advances that night. She didn’t climb into the back seat and spread her legs. Ecstasy didn’t flow from her lips, and she wasn’t the next notch. After she had said “no,” not emphatically but more sorrowfully, he asked me, and I was quick to jump to the chance and his bones” I wasn’t a virgin but no slut either. I had gone the distance in my junior year with a senior whose name has escaped me, The romp in the car was better, longer, and he was interested (by his actions) in my experience. Sophie sat looking out the front window in a trance the whole time we danced. Well, that was what she was doing when I lost track of my surroundings and what she was up to when I returned to the here and now. It was a shitty thing to do to her, and she has never mentioned it.

Two weeks later it was her turn, in the back of a boxy Ford Explorer that Jamie helped himself to. It wasn’t a competition or an act of jealousy; we just spent the next five years crossing stuff off a list almost simultaneously.

~

Graduation was a month away, and a couple of final exams loomed every week. I didn’t care about school but “I as sure as shit don’t want to have to come back here next year.” Sophie had been conditionally accepted at Pontiac College, but she needed to raise her GPA by more than half a point, or deferral was a distinct possibility. School came easy for me. My letter from the Dean of Admissions didn’t mention any requirements, so I wasn’t worried for myself. I could get a B by just attending most classes and listening to some of what our teachers were saying. I knew that the foolishness that they blathered on about would get ” stuck in my head and I could puke it on the test papers almost verbatim” We agreed that we would both buckle down for the month and get this over with. It wasn’t like we were part of the popular crowd and getting invitations to soirees, so any distractions were of our own creation.

History, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, and Calculus were the big five that were weighted in GPA calculations and admission criteria. Not because they were the most important or integral to further studies but because curriculum designers knew how to distinguish right answers from wrong. Even as some schools in Michigan were experimenting with more free form subjects like Art Appreciation and Dream Capturing we were still pounding out the fundamentals at Fallbrook. The structure made learning hard but studying easy. You just needed to memorize the underlined texts and duplicate them into the right blanks. Seeing ” Which of the following is (are) true?
1) f is continuous at x = -2.
2) f is differentiable at x = 1.
3) f has a local minimum at x = 0.
4) f has an absolute maximum at x = -2.” on page two was the same as the ‘practice tests’ that Mrs. Mason left stacked on a desk by the door of her classroom.

” Give a value of c that satisfies the conclusion …” meant that you needed to remember some formula or write it on your forearm. Nothing needed to be recalled after the 90 minute exam period and for the two of us would “never be helpful in real life” whatever that would look like when we got old enough to worry about it.

Black and white, true or false, right or wrong was the domain of the classroom. In the chaos of being teenager, nothing was that simple. One Friday after cramming so much Chemistry into our heads that Soph’s head exploded into a crying fit she listed the litany of stuff she didn’t get right ” Are pastels in or out, denim or cotton, big hair or slicked, jackets, skirts, pantsuits or dresses. Long or short, loose or tight, bright or drab, in or out. I don’t think I every fucking got it right.”
“and when we did manage to figure something out it was already out” I added. We commiserated about why it was so rough; who got to decide what was in, how did they get elected to be queen bitch?

With too much information and too little social graces, we decided to get revenge on the latest bitch that looked down on us and made her court of jesters treat us like crap. Joanne Kramer strutted the hallways with an entourage in tow. She dictated the dress code and who was to be shunned. She also was prim and proper and wore the fact that she hadn’t been late and had perfect attendance as her crowning achievement. This might have been because she really wasn’t very smart and struggled to keep up a C+ average. Did you know that if you squeeze a few drops of super glue into the top of a combination lock, you can spin all the numbers you want and it won’t unlatch?

The janitor always secretly left the back door between the gym and the boiler room unlocked so he could sneak out for a couple of puffs and be back inside before principal Jamieson noticed. Everyone in the school, except apparently Jamieson, knew about the door, so it wasn’t much of a secret. At 11:30 on a Friday, no one would be around the school. The jocks would be at home getting ready for the regional track meet, the druggies would be smoking somewhere far from school, and the popular crowd would be doing whatever it was they did. Even so, we climbed quietly over the chain link fence and snuck across the dark practice field to the door. When my hand pulled on the door, and it opened, I felt a twinge of electricity through my body. It was an alarm; it was just me waking up from the dreary slumber of conformity and feeling the anticipation of minor rebellion. We were in and out if less than 10 minutes and added some drops to as many cheerleader’s and other snooty bitches’ locks as we passed by.
Monday morning we awaited the conclusion of the deed.
We stood by the stairs to the east wing and watched as the confident queen dressed in a spring sweater and short skirt nonchalantly spun the dial. When nothing happened, she looked confused but still confidant. Paying closer attention, she dialed her secret numbers left stop, right twice past zero, stop and straight to the last number stop. Before her confidence turned to panic, we needed to hurry up the stairs, so our giggles that soon became snorting laughter wasn’t heard. The story goes that the unflappable Joanne was sobbing and shrieking about “tardy slips, detention, 21, 50, 11″ as her crew abandoned her. It was mean and hilarious at the same time. “The queen is dead; the queen is dead. Long live the queen.”

Powerful to Powerless

Did the silence mean it was going to happen again? If I held my breath, would time stop? Was it a sin to pray that he falls down the steps and break his neck?

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 my father’s year. For everyone else in the house, we knew enough to pretend to like his overnight stopovers.

Darkness covered the corner of the basement where a curtain defined my bedroom. Moonlight tried to push through the tiny window, but the space between our house and the neighbour’s was too small to allow it to find its way through. 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. I wrapped myself tightly in the dark. The cocoon was so small; maybe I could disappear tonight. Maybe I would 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 nine 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. His steps on each stair shifted from stomps to tiptoes. The sanctuary curtain was torn open and disappeared. I wasn’t here. I was somewhere else. I wasn’t here. I wasn’t helpless. I wasn’t abandoned. This didn’t happen again.

I was six 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 be. Mutt and Jeff, Laurel and Hardy, Jekyll 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. Brian knew some stuff about my home because he had been caught in the spray of resentment and anger more than once. There was other stuff that Brian would never know.

When you don’t know that you are poor, 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 eight 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. The night just brings morning and day brings more of the same. Stealing candy, curiosity 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 hard breathing stop my brain from returning to that place. When my legs are churning forward, I can’t look 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 an awareness that the end is getting 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.
But on this day, he would catch me. I knew the bastard was behind me, getting closer. He was near enough that I could feel his breath chasing me down. I could smell the red wine on my cheek as the breath got closer. 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.

Free Falling

In a moment, I was floating on my back in the air between the ladder and the ground. I a blink, I tried to figure out if Gary had pushed me, brushed me or if he had tried to grab me. I was off balance and the gravel around the gradall was still frozen. ” Crap, how am I going to explain this to mom?” She was clear that we weren’t supposed to be hanging around the construction yard and there was no explanation for the cigarettes on my breath and the locked gate. I was going to hit the ground hard but that wouldn’t hurt as much as the look of disappointment on her face.
From weightless to weighty. Floating one second and thudding the next. I hit the ground flat and as the wind rushed out by mouth in a strange belch and yelp I could feel the bed of rocks dig hundreds of notches across my butt and back. A familiar metal taste rose up from the back of my mouth and as my skinny neck flopped the back of my noggin cracked ground. The darkness and stars were confusing and exciting. I was on a ship sailing across the sea staring up at the sky trying to navigate through the storm.
It might have been two seconds or 2 hours when I felt Gary standing above me giggling nervously. A twelve-year old’s defense against the worst was uneasy laughter. He didn’t, I didn’t have the tools to process the implications so he tittered – I would have done the same. ” What the hell did you do?” didn’t navigate its way from my head to my mouth but he understood anyway. ” I tried to grab your arm when your foot slipped but it happened too fast. Sorry”. Sorry was something new, especially when there wasn’t an adult around. Sorry was something new when you hadn’t hurt someone out of anger. Sorry was something new when it was because you just understood someone else’s pain without feeling it yourself.
There was something scary and safe about hopping the fence of Grauer Construction and sitting high above the world in the cab of a great digger. Above the world and in the manly seat of a basement digging monster. Every headlight signaled a possible alarm and every taillight another few moments of glory. This wasn’t the first evening we had gone on this adventure – not even the first time this week. Gary could always scoff a duMaurier from his mom’s pack and we would pass it back and forth imagining that we had risen to the lofty position of the equipment operator. I had never seen the gradall outside of the yard and never seen the man who ran her but in my imagination, they were both big, powerful and crude. The spit on the cab floor and the smell of sweat on the seat attested the truth for the latter and the rusting yellow hulk with an eight-step ladder proved the former. For twenty to thirty minutes, we were men.
And now I was a boy. Laying flat and still with the smell of blood in my throat I was small and powerless. Tears had welled but hadn’t spilled yet but I was afraid to try to move. Slowly with Gary’s urging I began to come back from the sailing ship. ” Can you move your hands? They look funny, sort of like the crippled guy at the hardware store.”  I focused my energy and attention down to the fingers. I couldn’t see them but it felt like they were wiggling. ” Phew, good, you’re not crippled.” ” What about your legs? The left one is twisted and gibbled.” Again I mustered attention and energy and was rewarded with a searing pain like the time I touched the roaster trying to sneak some chicken skin. It registered but slowly and then numbed quickly. ” The right one is moving. Can you bend the other one? I couldn’t without screaming a stream of words that I wasn’t allowed to say. Everything else seemed stunned but working – elbows, knees, shoulder, neck but the shin on my left leg wasn’t good. A greenstick fracture was what the emergency doctor called it. “Good thing he is so young or the break would have been way more serious” Mom  replied, ” I hope that if he wasn’t so young, he wouldn’t have done something so stupid.”
That was the end of it. Except for six weeks of celebrity for my stupidity and a bit of a scare when the technician took to the cast with the plaster saw which looked just like mini version of the real thing.
Apparently, in moments of crisis our brain compacts memories very tightly and when we look back on them we feel that they are replayed in slow motion. It is the density of memories that makes the replay richer and our logic posits that it must have taken longer for that much to have occurred. This fall wasn’t slowed but more than 50 years later, the telling is full of detail and sensory stimulation. Weird how memory works and how we think it works.

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.

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.