Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Happy Holidays from the Paleys: Our Year that Was

Dear Friends, Family and Randomly-Selected Recipients (aka the Control Group),

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Paley family!

It’s incredible, but another year has come to an end and it is time for our annual recap of the trials and tribulations (metaphorically speaking, of course) of the year that was 2016. We hope this letter finds you in good health and that you are surrounded (in a non-aggressive way of course) by loved ones during this festive time of year. We sincerely hope that you’ve had an amazing year full of joy, satisfaction and clear complexions.

Over at Chez Paley, as our days turned into nights and back to days again only to once more incredibly turn to nights, life has been as busy as always what with the whole family running around like chickens with their heads cut off day in and day out. After some time, we came to an agreement that we would continue to run around, just in a slightly more controlled manner what with all the panting and the collisions and the grotesque analogies involving flightless farm animals that may or may not be considered food.

But where has the year gone? Based on how mean-spirited you are, that question is rhetorical, though we do really want to know. Our older daughter exasperatedly complained that time has just gone so quickly and no matter of explaining that time doesn’t speed up or slow down per her father’s layperson understanding of quantum physics, helped her relax. What does help her relax is horse tranquilizer, but that’s a topic for a very different kind of letter, not one of celebration or at least a very different kind of celebration.

Let me tell you, these kids of ours constantly keep us on our toes, which, while exhausting, has strengthened our toes. Our free time (cue the recording “what free time?” and “nice try funny guy” and “hey, wait, are you recording me?”) was spent shuttling the kids from sports to lessons to activities and once, by accident, to the local Recycling Depot where dad tried to make it look like a planned and much-anticipated educational field trip. The weekly schedule was so regimented that one tired parent exclaimed that it was like we were in prison, and we laughed and laughed and laughed before slowly stopping and then just sitting, staring at the wall lost in our thoughts.

It feels like ages since we’ve seen any of our friends. In some sense, our only contact has been through social media, which paints an incomplete, yet highly humorous and potentially strange, picture of how we are doing. So, we thought we’d break down this wall, and if things go well, to continue breaking down walls (an excuse to buy a new sledgehammer!) and write you all this letter.
Now we could have written a very boring, predictable, generic and seen-many-times-before recap. You all know the type — full of cute anecdotes involving our children; littered with the “hey, check out how funny and cool and high-functioning our family is” photos; a few detailed and gripping real challenges we faced, overcame and grew from and then finishing with a sappy and clichéd inspirational conclusion. 

Sorry, we are not that family. “Just what kind of family are you?” is a great question, which we’ve decided not to answer on advice of our legal team. “Just what kind of legal team are you?” is also a great question as our legal advisor confusingly keeps telling me he is just the checkout person at the local grocery store and that he will call security if I don’t leave him alone.

So yes, we’ve decided to pull the plug (try taking a bath now, Grace!), open the curtains (take that, vampire!) and bake some cookies (take that….ummm…people who hate cookies?) and give you a rundown of all that was unique and odd and wonderful in our year. I have taken creative license to “spice things up” as well as being quite liberal with my spices while cooking. Without further ado, here was our year.

As we said goodbye to 2015, the new year started with a bang as the kids enjoyed staying up till 1am at their aunt’s party. “We want to stay up till 1am all the time!” they said quite ominously as we got into the car to drive home, before falling asleep instantly and having to be carried into the house rolled up in a rug Mafia-style. The beginning of 2016 saw the four of us huddling for warmth as we spent our free time playing hours of board and card games while enjoying the luxuries of central heating and warm woolen sweaters. As we played hundreds of hours of games, the concepts of a humble winner and a gracious loser were works in progress and more abstract constructs than reality.

February brought day after day of rain where both the winter holiday and spring break seem equally far away. To liven things up, Grace dabbled in lovingly mentally torturing her older sister as part of an ongoing experiment that the local university psychology department showed great interest in. Charlotte passed the time playing the same song on the piano again and again and again all weekend long as her own version of melodious torture to be enjoyed by for all. Valentine’s Day where dad “surprises” the females of the family with chocolates arrived once more. Just once dad wants to truly surprise the girls with actual cow’s hearts rather than the chocolate variety just to hear their sweet childlike screams more often.

Spring break provided a welcome chance for the family to catch up on sleep, while Charlotte also began cooking her own breakfasts, braiding her own hair and diagramming detailed gerbil habitats often killing two birds with one stone, figuratively. March was also birthday month for mom and dad. Dad and the kids planned an elaborate birthday for mom that included a special breakfast and an amazing dinner as well as a huge, ear-splitting and poorly thought out “SURPRISE!” while mom was peacefully enjoying her morning shower. Grace told dad not to worry as 45 wasn’t old yet, but that 50, which was old, was only five years away before she walked off saying “tick tock, tick tock” in as endearing a way as one could for a seven-year-old.

Spring was in the air as April announced its arrival. As the days got slightly warmer and longer, every extra minute was needed to fit in all of the ultimate games and yoga classes and piano lessons and dance classes and family air band rehearsals. We were like “ships passing in the night” as mom insisted on reminding us all on a weekly basis; even going as far as making impressively realistic and joyful “tooting” sounds and far less pleasant, yet still realistic, boat horn sounds while walking around the house. Charlotte’s birthday came and she turned 10 which, as she reminded us, meant that she was almost a teenager which we couldn’t decide was more of a threat or a promise.

In May, the girls were in their first piano recital. After hours and hours of practicing their festival songs, the girls went to perform. Not that their dad is biased or anything, but they clearly turned in two of the single best piano performances in the history of humankind which all future performances will unfortunately be negatively compared to, thus reducing their father to a puddle of tears which they confusingly splashed in afterwards. Grace enjoyed her 8th birthday at a local gymnastics facility where she literally bounced non-stop for two hours and that was before she consumed near lethal amounts of sugar.

The end of the school year approached and that meant two things, a much-needed return to sanity and year-end dance shows! As dad had more flexibility in his work schedule than mom, he took on the dance show rehearsals which involved managing complex hairdos and navigating complicated makeup directions. Where some men, when confronted with these challenges, would run away screaming or huddle in a fetal position whimpering like a baby, dad decided to confront his fears head on which meant begging and pleading for some of the infinitely more skilled mothers at the rehearsals to “help a brother out” which led to some beautifully made-up girls and $2.35 in loose change. The kids were wonderful in their time on stage, both absolutely loving the chance to perform in front of an audience that was more significantly more appreciative than a couch full of stuffed animals who are super tough to please.

Summer was here and mom went off to teach summer school to earn money so the family could keep using electricity as well as putting food on the table and then, after a short period of time, eating said food. Dad and the girls hit the beach; literally. Summers have become a never-ending cycle of swimming, drying off and repeating. Dad has also passed down the age-old family traditions of healthy eating as well as living in constant fear of sunburns, thus making summers feel like one long application of sunscreen. The best moment of the summer is when mom would join the family for an evening BBQ and we’d sit there enjoying our meal in the waning sun all the while shooing away seagulls and wasps.

Every few days, the Paleys would pick up the tennis racquets and head to the local courts. These highly enjoyable hits followed a very predictable arc for the kids — (1) complaining about everything conceivable and being lazy, (2) blaming dad for everything and arguing and fighting with each other, (3) digging in and adopting a positive attitude, (4) playing great tennis and promising next time would be different, which it never was. When not at the beach or on the court, the family spent time throwing Frisbees at or to each other, riding bikes with or away from each other, and watching movies.

Each year, September is like a smack in the face, although an actual smack in the face is infinitely more like one (thank you mom, for the help with the comparison). The change from sleeping in to alarms at 6:30 were a challenge. The change from leisurely mornings to the frantic, heart-racing panic of a school day was drastic. The change from a summer of lounging in pajamas or beachwear to actually having to look presentable was really hard. And although we all greatly missed the freedom and warmth of the summer, thankfully the kids love school and were excited to see their friends and teachers and underappreciated school custodians once more.

As the Paleys switched racquets from tennis to squash as well as roasting squash and red peppers deliciously topped with goat cheese, the cool days of October let us know that summer was long over. Both girls ran cross-country this year, though that statement is vastly misleading as far as the actual distance covered. Big strides, alternating with several small ones, were made and each kid showed huge improvements throughout the season. As for many, October is all about Halloween. This year, the girls collected a disgusting diabetes-inducing amount of candy which dad joked about unwrapping, melting and then bathing in, to absolutely zero laughter aside from his own.

In November, the girls enjoyed multiple trips to local swimming pools and skating rinks, as well as getting ready for their acrobatic Christmas dance routines as evidently nothing says Christmas more than backbends and cartwheels. Afterschools were reserved for homework and piano practice and each kid worked really hard as report card time neared. Thankfully, the parents had to spend minimal time cajoling and/or barking and/or threatening to hide the remote for work to be done, as each girl cares about doing well as well as having access to the remote on a regular basis. Evenings were never complete without a painfully slow, drawn-out bathing and brushing teeth routine followed by the howling wails to “please read another chapter if you love me”. Ah, the things the parents will miss when they are 90.

And here we are at the end of yet another year in December. Time really has passed so quickly and it’s amazing that it is almost 2017. Holiday time is always a chance to take a deep breath, or multiple deep breaths depending on your level of stress, and reflect. We personally try to schedule reflecting time in front of a mirror so we don’t have to lug around our heavy portable one.

Life has been good for the Paleys this year — happy, healthy, hungry and…and…just a second while I quickly search for a fourth applicable H word…hesitant (nope), humiliated (not since dad stopped making recordings of his singing for internet distribution), hopeless (not yet), hysterical (sure, why not). 

At this most merry time of year we are wish all of our friends and family the very best for 2017. We just can’t wait for the adventures that lay ahead!

Happy Holidays from the Paleys

Monday, December 19, 2016

"So You Want to Play with my Daughter?" How to be Prepared for the First Playdate with a Boy

So, the other day I was picking my kids up from school and my 10-year-old daughter announced that she wanted a play date with Alexander.
I froze.
A playdate with a boy?
Dazed and confused, as if hit point blank with an undercut, I teetered before supporting myself against the side of the car.
Should I have seen this coming?
Were there warning signs that I had ignored?
Up until that moment, she had only hung out with girls. Life was free of unnecessary complications. It was all going so well.
Or so we thought.
When she came home and said boys were gross, we agreed.
When she said they were disgusting, we nodded our heads.
When she informed us that they were dumb, we couldn’t have been happier.
And now this?
My mind was bombarded with questions from every angle.
What had gone wrong?
What would we do now?
Did we have to move?
Quickly I shifted from “nice and caring father” into full on undercover detective mode and after locating the correct hat and reminding myself that my suspect was innocent until proven guilty, I began the interrogation.
As we drove home, I opened with typical dad comments like “that’s nice” and “what’s he like” and “I’m so happy you have a new friend” to earn her trust. I reassured her “that people won’t make fun of you for playing with a boy”, while plotting my attack.
By the time I was finished with the two of them, I’d have nothing to worry about.
Now, before you start worrying about me and wondering if I am okay, I must explain.
See, from the moment my wife gave birth to a daughter something shifted deep within me. I now saw all boys in a new light. It was like a homing beacon or some sort of radar. Each boy who has ever been in close proximity to either of my girls whether on the playground, in the pool, at daycare or at school has been thoroughly scanned, judged, categorized and then filed away in my memory.
He has no idea what sort of can of worms he has opened.
He has no idea what is coming ‘round the mountain.
He has no idea what he is in for.
So even though I was initially surprised, I quickly settled into an eerie state of calm. Nothing can phase me, not since I have been methodically preparing for this moment for the past 10-and-a-half years. I am so ready for this cute and seemingly-innocent, just turned 9-year-old boy, and all I can say is that he better be ready me.
Here is my fool-proof approach that all fathers of daughters can use in this sort of situation.
1) After weeks of avoiding the boy’s mother’s calls and going way out of your way to not bump into her at school, finally agree to a text conversation only to reveal that your cell phone is “in the shop” so as to buy yourself more time.
2) When you are mentally, physically and emotionally prepared (and not a moment sooner), talk to his mom via text to set up the playdate for a few weeks in the future, thus giving you the option to leave town and adopt new identities. Determine what her “angle is”, where she’s “coming from” and if she “gets it”. It is highly important that you determine without a shadow of a doubt whether she can be fully trusted. If all goes well, down the road marriage may be in the cards, so make sure to ask for a signed prenup upfront during these early conversations.
3) A day, time and venue for the playdate will be suggested, and you must reject the first three suggestions outright (EVEN IF THEY WORK) so as to maintain full control over the situation at all times.
4) Finally, you graciously offer to have him over at your house so you can “boy proof” your turf ahead of time including buying low-voltage “kid friendly” tasers, setting up motion sensors as well as numerous traps and snares containing things boys like as bait (Hot Cross Cars, sloppy joes and salted pork products) in multiple areas of your house in case he needs to be contained on short notice.
5) The second after his mom leaves, make eye contact with him and, whatever you do, do not break the eye contact for a minimum of 5 minutes while also emitting a low, yet audible growl so you let him know who is boss. Also, insist on being referred to as Sir or Master at all times. Whatever you do, resist the impulse to frisk him.
6) You want to strike the delicate balance between having him relax and having him quite tense. Feel free to playfully oscillate between these two extremes for much of the playdate to keep yourself entertained and him on his toes.
7) Plan your musical accompaniment for the afternoon quite carefully and have a series of different playlists at your disposal. All types of music can aid you during this experience from loud ear-shattering metal (hard to have a conversation now!) to peaceful piano music (feeling sleepy?) to foreign (what are they saying? Let’s do some internet research!).
8) As the kids begin to play Lego or some other innocent-seeming game, find a vantage point that grants you a full, unobstructed view of the kids without seeming too obviously intrusive. Good options include the couch, sitting at the nearby kitchen table slowly and loudly drumming your fingers against the table and the comfort of your own room via hidden camera.
9) It is very important to come across as friendly and cool, so offer a never-ending stream of fist bumps, high fives and playful, yet firm, hip checks while demonstrating your near-perfect use of modern youth lingo. Pull this off and he’ll be figuratively (and potentially literally) eating out of your hands the rest of the afternoon. Bonus marks if he wants to spend the rest of the afternoon with you instead of your daughter.
10) When he asks if he can use the washroom, enthusiastically reply “I don’t know can you?” before breaking out in over-the-top laughter for exactly five seconds before abruptly stopping and looking mournfully off into the distance to give the impression that you are not all there.
11) After escorting him down the hall to the washroom, use this prime opportunity to quietly, yet thoroughly, go through his bag in search of any contraband, recording devices and high fructose snacks that he may have been thinking of sharing.
12) It’s lunch time and you are preparing the food. Resist the urge to show off your skills in the kitchen as this is not about you. Make the food good enough that he eats it and doesn’t complain, but not so good that he will be wanting any more play dates in the future.
13) If either of them suggest playing alone in her room, do whatever you can to prevent this from happening including, but not limited to: offering a bottomless bowl of ice cream, feigning a sudden onset of a contagious skin disease and purposely setting off the smoke alarm.
14) Popcorn and a movie are a great idea. Ensure you’ve properly vetted all possible selections ahead of time for any kissing, hand holding or body contact between male and female characters. Good choices include documentaries about the environment or movies about an animated singing trio of cute, yet exasperating, chipmunks.
15) Now it’s your daughters turn to use the washroom and this is your prime time for questioning. You must walk a fine line here between interrogating this 9-year-old about his true interest in your daughter while still maintaining a friendly and cool vibe. Remember, if he is non-compliant or evasive, you do have the option to treat him as a hostile witness. A swinging lightbulb is a must to complete the mood.
16) But you do want your daughter to have friends and there is nothing inherently wrong with her playing with a boy, so you don’t want to intentionally chase him away. If he just happens to find your never-ending series of strange facial expressions and yelps reason to run, that’s totally on him.
17) They are having so much fun together: laughing, playing hide and seek and make believe. It looks like a real friendship is developing. Whatever you do, don’t panic! It may be time to pull out the big guns (NOT LITERALLY!) and start uncontrollably and awkwardly sobbing until he asks to call his mom to pick him up early.
18) You must be exhausted by now what with the stress and vigilantly watching his each and every move, so give yourself a much-needed break and slip a mild, harmless sedative into his juice. For those of you conflicted by this instruction, pretend that he is a vicious lion about to attack you. I find that this mental exercise comes in handy whenever faced with a slight ethical dilemma. Note: there is no need for a tranquilizer gun unless he is unusually large for his age.
19) Play a game all together on the living room floor. This is your final prime opportunity to observe him up close to make careful and detailed observational notes and rudimentary sketches. Throughout the game expose him to a wide variety of different stimuli and stressors to accurately assess his responses and to aid you in your overall analysis of the playdate. If he asks you what you are doing, shake your head from side-to-side with a slightly disappointed look on your face, before resuming taking notes.
20) The play date is over. He has gone home. Your daughter is happy and still your little girl. You’ve done well. Grab a shower and take a nap. If you’ve played your cards right, there won’t be any more of these playdates until she’s 21.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sorry if I'm Repeating Myself

I often get this feeling these days.

Don't worry, I'm not about to break into song.

All the time I have this feeling like what I'm saying, I've already said before. Many times before, in fact, like I'm caught in a temporal loop or experiencing deja vu or the universe has finally had enough of my whining.

Not that I don't have original thoughts and ideas and takes on topics, I do, or at least I think that the words that come out of my mouth or via my fingers are original and worthy of a nod or a gasp or "damn" from the listener or reader.

But so frequently I catch myself (harder than it sounds), both in my spoken and written word, repeating words I have said before, almost like I'm quoting or plagiarizing myself. And when I do, I'm not totally sure how to react. Sad? Mad? Glad?

I mostly feel disappointed with myself for falling back on something easy rather than working hard to break new ground.

Does that make sense?

As a person, I'm driven by this desire to be unique and different and interesting. As an animal, slightly less so. Seriously though, I'm strongly motivated to avoid a cliched existence (unless purposely littering my written work with them for comedic effect).

All throughout my youth and into adulthood I've been aiming to strike a balance between nerdy and athletic as well as going out of my way not to sound like anyone else. Even as a young kid, I was obsessed with doing things my way. I was never a sheep, aside once for Halloween, and I was never a follower, except the few times when the leader was particularly good looking. And I dressed differently. Thanks a lot, mom. No seriously, I am actually thanking my mom a lot.

As a high school student I struggled with this strong pull to fit in at all costs while resisting this gravitational force with all my might. I think we all feel this struggle to varying degrees and each person feels this desire to resist the pull to fit in differently. For me, it felt like a gigantic, high stakes ,five year game of tug-o'-war as I sorted out who I was, what I was about and how much I cared what other people thought about me. When I arose from the ashes (why there were ashes is a story for another day) as school ended, I had a confidence and a style and a pair of significantly less than 20-20 eyes as well as a goatee.

And with those tools I was ready to be an adult, or at least as ready as one could be with a liberal arts education. I spoke my mind more frequently than before. I started writing, creatively. I showered daily. I was my own man.

And so it went for a number of years. I had relationships. I finished a few degrees and was rewarded with a moderately-paying job. I got two cats, developed a love for said cats that only dissipated years later when I realized that they were the sole reason I was constantly sneezing. Through it all I continued to shape myself as if I were a large piece of soap or modelling clay (I'm not. You can stop looking shocked right about now).

Something happens as we age (multiple things my biology friends tell me with an annoying smugness) and become parents and even more so for me as a teacher and counsellor. I constantly find myself in situations where I'm expected to be the adult now. "When did that happen?" I often ask, followed by "But I don't wanna grow up" followed by ordering a pizza. I find myself constantly being asked my opinion or doling out advice or giving suggestions or drawing from my past experiences to help someone younger than me navigate a challenge.

And though I pride myself on having my own way of thinking, so often I find myself giving a fairly typical speech and I hate it. I don't want to be like someone else. I definitely don't want to sound just like another person. I absolutely want to come up with my own material or unique view. And, I also don't want to have a set of memorized go-to responses that I can pull out when needed depending on the situation. I repeat things I've said before often these days.

Now you may be thinking (let's give it 2-1 odds), one can copy or repeat themselves and still be considered original, their own person. That's true, and if I had the means, I would literally copy myself an infinite number of times. But, I am concerned (consumed?) with constantly striving to come up with new ideas and to not fall into the pattern or trap or comfort zone of recycling and reusing what I've already uttered or typed before. I love being creative and when I say something again it is like my brain was unable to drum up something new and that doesn't sit well with me considering the money I shelled out for drumming lessons.

Plus, I am a different person than I was last week or last year and I like to think that I am still growing and improving and progressing. So when I read a piece I wrote a few years ago and it sounds achingly similar both in word choice and in content to something current, I shiver. And when, I find myself saying to someone "sorry if I'm repeating myself", a grimace crosses my face. Then there are those times when I give a student a well-used speech that, as true and apt as it may be, it is another form of repeating myself and being unable to come up with something fresh.

In my writing, I've been told countless times that I've got a unique voice, which I take as high praise.
I purposely try not to read too many other authors who sound at all similar to me, as I don't want to consciously or subconsciously be influenced too much. I have also been told that I write how I talk, also high praise, as I have attempted to capture what is in my head and what comes out of my mouth in my writing. And yet, as I continue to write and write and write, I get the feeling more and more that I am repeating words and funny bit and themes, and I don't like how that feels.

Sure I continue to push myself to improve as a writer, and I believe that I have, but I spend a significant amount of "creating time" looking at an unfinished draft and beating my head against the wall (thank you, padding!) trying to finish something that just won't allow itself to be finished no matter how many times I write and rewrite a paragraph. "What or who is stopping me?" I wonder as I look at myself accusingly in the mirror.

Often it is lack of sleep or the fact that the topic of the piece is just very unexciting, but typically it is because what I type sounds too "been there, done that" and a new piece stalls as it lacks originality and enthusiasm. I fully understand that there are only so many adverbs and creative ways to use a semicolon, but I demand originality and refuse to continue to publish the same piece every week over and over again as some sort of psychological experiment on my readers.

I remember being a student teacher and being told by my faculty advisor that if I was bored with the lesson that the kids would pick up on that. A huge part of the success for many teachers, myself included, is in the deliverance of the material. "Guess what kids?!? Today we are learning about fractions! Booyah!" If I can summon up the necessary enthusiasm and find the best vocabulary available to me in the recesses of my brain, then I can salt and pepper my speeches and written work with the newness I'm craving and desiring.

Having said all of that, for the reader when I've published some writing or the listener when I am talking, I believe the repetition I bemoan mostly goes unnoticed. The bemoaning does not - it's super annoying. I don't believe I sound like a broken record, and believe, me I would know as quite a large amount of time in my formative years was spent listening to and befriending broken records.

But, I am sure that when I communicate an idea I'm slightly bored with, that it doesn't come across as excitedly or enthusiastically or as creatively as it would if it was new. We all know how it feels to be the recipient of a speech from an adult on a ubiquitous topic such as trust or honesty and we just want to interrupt the speaker saying "I know, I know". And now I am that adult, only I have the self-awareness (enough with the shock and awe, thank you very much) to not be that adult.

I can be unique and different and original. I've been there and I can be there again. I don't have to repeat others or myself. I can continue to reinvent the wheel! (oval anyone?) I can climb to new heights figuratively speaking of course what with my totally debilitating fear of heights. I can absolutely become a better writer and a more eloquent speaker.

Having said all that, I am my toughest critic on nights the other guy is busy. It's not like I have a huge problem - it's more of a long string of minor ones. While I don't have to repeat myself, I also don't have to berate myself for some repetitiveness. I'm not going senile (just around the corner), and some great thoughts and ideas and speeches and funny bits in writing are worth saying again almost like a Greatest Hits album.

Knowing myself as I do (it's like we're best friends), I will never settle on boring and I am just not satisfied with substandard and uncreative work. I will write and rewrite as I find that fresh material. I will revise and constantly freshen up advice I give students or stories I tell friends. Or, if I must say something again, I will present it with an excitement of a man half my age (with the full head of hair to match). So, I am sorry if I am repeating myself, but I am working on it.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Time to Make it Snow

He sat on the grass by the lake under the shade of the grand old oak tree spying on her swimming from his private vantage point, just marveling at how wet her hair was able to get and just laughing at how dry it would be later.

She took the expression “if the shoe fits, wear it” literally exactly once a month just so the huge pile of shoes in her closet didn’t feel like a complete waste of money.

He climbed a ladder to the roof of his house, hoisted himself up, and looked back down at the ground with disdain and pity. It was moments like this when he felt so proud and alone.

She is often told that she looks like a woman half her age which makes her understandably happy as well as eager to meet this youthful woman whom she will either befriend, tear to shreds or both.

He drinks water with a thirst befitting a much thirstier person or a less thirsty person who is aiming to fit in among all of the other very thirsty and cool people he is always surrounded by, which he is.

She burst through the door, ran to the bookshelf and hurriedly re-organized her books by their chronological date of publication just in time for the arrival of her mother who only asked for one thing in return for years of thankless parenting; randomly assorted books and periodicals whenever she visited. “Take that mom!” she whispered devilishly under her breath as she heard her mom knocking at the door.

He opened his closet and placed all of his shirts in a pile and then, taking exactly four large steps backward, he leapt on top of the shirts with a glee that could only come from leaping onto a large pile of shirts or finally being completely wart free.

She was heading uptown on the bus surrounded by hippos, most likely hungry hungry ones, and she was just praying that they weren’t also going to the library, no matter how real or imaginary they or her trip to the library was.

He sat in his car and observed the busy street around him – a couple walking their dog, the mail carrier distributing letters and flyers, a young woman going for a run, some kids making a lemonade stand and an older man watering flowers in his underwear. “Damn,” he thought as he looked around in wonderment “this is one amazing tuna salad sandwich.”

She was sitting at her desk in the dark, her face illuminated by the moon in the window, as she faced a giant pile of premium white paper. She methodically picked up one sheet at a time and punched hole after hole after hole in them until all that was remaining was a massive mountain of white circles. With as much restraint as she could muster, she grabbed her glue stick, rose and walked slowly and menacingly towards the freshly painted black wall. “Time to make it snow” she whispered.

He spent his days wantonly and dramatically cracking nuts and then, stopping, feeling guilty and gluing them back together.

She sat at the piano and played slow, moving and emotional songs for hours until she just couldn’t take it any longer as she dropped her head and wept. Steadying herself, she stood, took a step back and then grabbed her trusty saw. No one, not even her beloved piano, could make her feel this way.

He looked at the large, juicy apple on the counter with misplaced jealousy followed by vicious sadistic chopping with his invisible knife before turning to face himself in the mirror with the smug satisfaction of a job well done before settling down to enjoy yet another really great apple still filled with misplaced jealousy.

She sat on the beach watching the waves crash at her feet enjoying this perfect moment of relaxation. A flock of seagulls announced their presence overhead. The waves continued. Her mind drifted. She wondered how different things would be if, instead of water, the waves were in fact made up of flocks of seagulls and she, for some reason, smelled strongly of fish. Or what if she was a seagull and the rest of the flock, all of a sudden, decided they no longer wished to fly with her for reasons they couldn’t completely articulate mostly because they were seagulls. Or if this beach and the waves and the seagulls were merely figments of her imagination or she of theirs. She sat on the beach watching the waves crash at her feet only feeling significantly less relaxed.

He, after many months of menu planning and hiring staff, opened up his first restaurant to rave reviews such as “why does this place reek of fish?”, “you do know that this isn’t your restaurant, it’s my boat, right?”, “stop wildly waving that freshly caught snapper in my face while imitating my voice” and “fine, if I order the bouillabaisse, will you leave me and my boat alone?”.

She often stands outside on her deck on warm summer evenings, glass of wine in hand, just wishing she was more one dimensional in all senses of the term.

He is often referred to as a human garbage can by his friends who are, in fact, garbage cans and aren’t, in his experience, the best judgers of character. And yet, it still hurts.

She held her newborn baby on her lap the way a mother dolphin would hold a baby dolphin if it had arms and hands and a lap. Why she was always making things unnecessarily challenging and awkward and involving dolphins, she’d never know.

He spent his afternoon enjoying the groves of cool jazz, sipping deliciously fruity cocktails, preparing delicate and dainty spinach and feta pastries as well as plotting the brutal and vengeful overthrow of his strata council.

She stopped what she was doing each day exactly at four and ran home. No matter where she was, who she was with and what she was doing, she would abruptly stop, only to resume those activities at exactly 4:25. What happened in that 25 minute period each day and why it left her literally covered in glitter and soot and smelling of talcum powder and orange zest she would take to her grave. It’s how she was raised.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Nola Kane: A Character Study

Nola sighed. Another utterly exhausting, yet heartwarmingly fun day was coming to an end. The clock read 6:02 pm and she had just, moments ago, waved goodbye to the last kid still somehow teeming with energy and her significantly less energetic mom. Nola sighed, not because she was tired, though she was. Looking outside at the darkness of the late fall evening filled her with a great appreciation for the working electricity inside as well as the vastness of the universe. She smiled a wry smile at her ability to be so deep after a long day.

As she surveyed the now-deserted room that only a short while ago was bordering-on-but-never-quite-reaching chaos, she felt something akin to satisfaction or fulfillment, but it was hard to tell as she was also quite hungry. Nola just loved these little ones who attended her daycare. When she first started years ago, her mother claimed that she had found her calling, while Nola, even though she thoroughly enjoyed her work, wasn't always quite sure.

Back in school, she had been one of those "most likely" types whom teachers fawned over and fellow students both admired and teased, usually behind her back except that one time when she had sensed their presence and turned around really quickly exclaiming "aha!" The world had been her oyster even though she never quite understood what that meant even after she took up oyster fishing and oyster shell collecting as hobbies. To this day the smell of oysters always makes her feels slightly nauseous.

Despite having so many options in her senior year which was almost debilitating, but not quite, unlike that time when she broke her foot which was actually quite debilitating, she surprised everyone by studying early childhood education and eventually opening up her own daycare. She's learned at an early age that it is much easier to surprise people if you purposely surround yourself with easy-to-surprise people.

Others wondered if she was selling herself short and she kept claiming that she wasn't for sale unless we were talking big money as even she had a price. Others also wondered about her choice of cardigans. While running a daycare appeared to be a perfect match for this fun-loving, yet sensitive, young woman in her mid-20s, in the back of her head she always felt like she should have rolled the dice and pursued her true love, and no, that wasn't referring to her love of games of chance involving dice or the stunning Gill Brooks who lived across the street, though those too.

From her early 20s she'd concealed her true love because she couldn't face the music or the laughter or even the sink without calling a plumber first. Privately she'd always wanted to solve crime or crimes, if one wasn't enough to satisfy the itch. Satisfying itches was one of those things that helped her unwind as well as cutting back on winding herself up which had a very limited upside anyways. She had spent her years in college fantasizing about becoming a childcare provider by day and the catcher of bad people at night and then the president-elect of a fantasy world made up of elves who was slowly bringing down the government from the inside while she slept. But something held her back and she was never quite sure what.

Nola shook her head from side to side, slowly at first, and then faster and faster until she grew tired of it and neck grew sore. She was disinfecting the toys that the kids had slobbered on and shared and then slobbered on some more and just wondering if she was truly as happy as she felt when a certain, key part of her, the desire to solve crimes, lay dormant and unused. Maybe she was too sensitive or maybe she was too fun-loving or maybe it was the precise combination of the two that had her trapped in this world of solely watching and washing children for a living.

Or, maybe, just maybe, her struggles were due to her fear of heights; her debilitating fear of heights. A fear that would be a source of pride, if fears ever could be, which they couldn't. She stopped in her tracks at the front door as she was about to lock up and head home and she looked up at the tall building across the street and shuddered involuntarily. Tops of buildings had always had that effect on her.

In an instant she was taken back to her childhood as she stood there in the doorway of her dimly lit daycare she had build brick by brick from the ground floor all those years ago. True, someone else had actually formed the bricks into a building, and true, there was only a ground floor, and true, she had just turned some of the lights off which explained why things seemed dimly lit, and why she was visiting her childhood as she stood there was a mystery to her. Another mystery. So many mysteries. They surrounded her and kept her up at night; well those, and her addiction to caffeine. All she wanted was to throw off the shackles of her fear of heights and solve them all. She also wanted to buy some ice cream.

She turned back to look at the daycare, knowing that in a few short hours, she'd be back here on Burdett Avenue in the morning. The little ones would arrive once again, and she'd play with them with a joy that naturally emanated from her as she was just such a fun-loving woman. And yet, there was so much more to her that she kept concealed, as if locked away in a small safe hidden underneath her pile of big wool sweaters in her closet. She started to cry and wasn't sure why. If only she wasn't so sensitive. Nola sighed. Time to go home.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Why Teach? A Somewhat Brief Overview of How and Why I Became a Teacher

For my whole adult life, I have worked in schools; first as a high school teacher and for the past 10 years, as a counsellor. In fact, since the age of 2, I have been in school. And, while it isn't a heart-pumping thrill-ride each and everyday, I love what I do and consider myself so fortunate to wake up and actually look forward to going to work and that I leave each evening feeling like I made a difference and have had an impact on the lives of the youth I work with.

Recently I was cornered by one of my recent graduates, but to be fair and accurate, I was already near the corner of my office when he entered so it wasn't entirely his fault. Turns out he was looking for some career advice and he wanted to pick my brain, metaphorically speaking of course, or else I would not have been interested in the slightest. Career counselling is one of my favourite aspects of my job and I love helping a student figure out who they are, what their strengths are and what sort of careers would be a good fit. We also, if time permits, try on fake mustaches.

This student was considering becoming a teacher himself and, after a short, but enthusiastic, round of applause, he asked about my story - why I went into education and didn't pursue a more obviously lucrative career like pig farming. The whole thing felt sort of like how a researcher who is interested in how a mouse responds to different stimuli must feel, just on a much larger scale. I paused before replying to make sure it wasn't part of an elaborate prank or that he wasn't asking solely to check the status of my sanity. Then. after attempting to sneak out the back door before remembering that I only had one door to my office which he was not-so-coincidentally blocking, I began to think. I took a few moments to stroke my glorious summer project, my beard, as well as considering the answer to his question, a question I've been asked many times before.

Why teach?

A question that is gloriously simple which, coincidentally, is also how my kindergarten teacher described me to my parents on my final progress report.

A question that is as good as it is short and it's also a question kids used to ask me when I assigned too much homework, only hopefully including a comma in those instances.

A question I'd first been asked all those years ago when I was about to enter the Teacher Education program at UBC in 1994 and many many times since by the bartender at my summer job, my friends becoming doctors or lawyers, my private section squash league teammates, a random passerby dressed as a banana who was being pursued by a pack of other guys dressed as monkeys as well as so many others.

Obviously there is no one correct answer, but before I relaxed too much I reminded myself, there are plenty of wrong answers with my having a God Complex and wanting a daily excuse to hear myself talk being just two of them. And my response, when asked this question, is not solely why I chose to teach, but also why anyone would go down that suspiciously well-lit path in the forest when other paths are also well-lit while also having far better signage. Each time this query arises I feel as if I am having to explain/defend my profession as, unlike in other areas of the world, teachers are just not universally held in high regard by society. The implication always seems to be: why did you settle on teaching?

My answer to my student on that day, which was clearly lacking in eloquence thanks to my genetics, was that I just always knew I wanted to be a teacher. He appeared to be considering backing away slowly or creating a diversion so that he could flee to safety or find higher ground in case of a flood, but instead he stayed partially to ask some follow up questions and partially because he'd paid for parking and felt like getting his money's worth. I liked his moxie and said as much, just not in those words.

In the conversation that followed I told both my rags-to-riches story as well as the infinitely more enjoyable, though less based in reality, riches-to-rags-as-part-of-an-elaborate-hoax-to-find-true-love story that I'm trying to get made into a modern rock opera as I write this. I really wanted to try to help my student figure out if education was the career for him, as it is not for everyone. To help, I'd brought along props and a light snack.

My story all started when I was young boy who was often intentionally mistaken for Little Orphan Annie because of my curly red hair and my propensity for breaking out into song while wearing a red dress. That boy, let's call him Frank just in case the Feds are reading, got up each day and went to school, because that's what little boys named Frank do. When not in school, Frank spent a lot of time in an elaborate dreamworld populated by highly intelligent unicorns who bullied him mercilessly. Frank also was highly proficient at the ancient art of whining.

All joking aside, I loved school from the beginning - the classrooms in all their rectangular and nondescript glory, the hallways full of joyfully poor children's artwork, the bells or buzzers or jazzy saxophone riffs that mark the start and end of everything and the sense of community which I am contractually unable to joke about until the year 2024. 

I distinctly recall being in grade three or four and I was, among other things, quite cute, like a smaller, less disillusioned and more infinitely more adorable version of my present self. It was recess and as we ran after one another, screaming, the conversation on the schoolyard turned, as it invariably does among 9 year olds, to our future careers as we had exhausted all that could be said about more macho topics like cars and sheet metal and the negative impact steroids may one day have on professional sports.

We went around the circle, naming jobs we were dreaming of doing and, maybe this is an indirect critique of my ability to dream big, but I was the odd one who didn't want to be an astronaut or a doctor or a cowboy or a princess. I mean I sort of wanted to be a princess, but only a fictitious one or a cowboy but only the kind that has absolutely nothing to do with cows do to my irrational fear of being recruited to "their" side. I remember telling everyone, especially my somewhat proud and somewhat worried teacher, that I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Then she made a note using her special long, red, tapped teacher's pen in her book while glancing up at me and shaking her head slowly from side to side.

I'm not sure what initially interested me in teaching. I'm not sure about a lot of things, but I'm attempting to keep this piece focussed. What initially attracted me to the job? The power? The responsibility? The ability to unfairly grade others on a curve? Being referred to as "Mister" or "Sir" or "O Bearded One" with only small amounts of sarcasm? For those wondering, I planned from an early age to one day grow a beard and, if all went well, to go full-Muppet at some point after that. But, I did like the idea of standing up in front of a class of wide-eyed kids with all eyes on me, but I also liked the idea of my sitting in front of a classroom of an empty classroom equipped with multiple containers of thick molasses and vats of feathers, but that is a story for a different day.

I'd be lying to say the power didn't interest me. This will be the last time I lie to you. And the responsibility spoke to me with a thick German accent who turned out to be my imaginary German exchange student, Hector, the entire time. I loved the idea that I alone would be given the immense responsibility to fill these impressionable young minds with ideas and the ability to think critically and to problem solve, just like I had the immense responsibility to fill buckets full of hot, sudsy water each Saturday afternoon for reasons my father refused to reveal.

Some would argue that it was my long-term exposure to teachers from a young age, while others would argue it was my exposure to large amounts of toxic glue, but all I know is that I just always wanted to teach and I often wondered why the trees always appeared to be melting before I remembered the glue. Back in elementary school, I was fortunate to have a number of passionate, caring and fun teachers who directly influenced my career path with only somewhat-obvious brainwashing, while also indirectly influencing my love of chalk. Chalk, I must say, is fabulous and to this day my spare time is often spent going outside and drawing immaculate coastline vistas using nothing but white chalk as my family decided that I wasn't ready for colours yet.

But sure, I spent so much of my formative years eating toast as well as sharing the space in and around teachers and school it left a mark which thankfully didn't leave a scar. The scars you see are from my short-lived desire to erase all of my freckles using extra-coarse sandpaper. I just really loved elementary school and, when no one was watching, I often hugged it. One time I called it "mom". Some may wonder if it was my first love, but that was my Raggedy Ann doll with Raggedy Andy being a close second. I believed that teachers were cool as they knew stuff and used their mouths, and occasionally their eyes, to teach things to us. I loved learning and the feeling in my brain as I learned, which I often described to my parents as being akin to how a garburator works. I'd sit there, in my desk, and multi-task - one part of my brain was actively learning, one part was strategically planning on either training to become a teacher or using my newly obtained powers of ESP and the other part was eating tuna fish straight from the can.

I dreamed of being a teacher and on expanding my caveman-like vocabulary too along the way. I wanted to be one of them; to write "nice try" or "close" or "come see me" on top of someone's paper, to enter the staffroom without feeling anxious or at least feeling less anxious then I did doing it as a kid, to resolve conflicts between students using the silent treatment juxtaposed with barking like a dog, to force others to raise their hands when wanting to talk to me which never worked on the schoolyard and to gain entry to their elusive club where I figured there was lots of hidden perks and free nougat.

And throughout high school and into university, I continued to love school and look up to my teachers mostly due to my lack of height, but also because I appreciated how hard they worked and how much they cared. Despite all of the rain, I never wavered from my future career goal. I got up each morning, brushed my hair into a wonderful afro, carefully made sure not to step on the cat, before feeling guilty and going back and stepping on him and then I continued marching towards my destiny as an educator. Others occasionally scoffed at me and my desire to be in school for the rest of my life, while others claimed they were just clearing their throats and that their proximity to me at the time was merely coincidental.

Though I was occasionally confused as to where I was going in life as evidenced by a glazed-over look not dissimilar to a glazed doughnut, I never really considered any other career. "Was this fate or just evidence of a lack of any real imagination" I was once asked? I spent many summers wondering why it couldn't be both while also liberally applying sunscreen. I mean sure, I had the flash-in-the-pan ideas of being a world-famous NBA broadcaster or a world-famous flamenco dancer or even a world-famous frying pan designer thus making all flashes in pans easier what with the copious amounts of pans on hand, but all roads pointed towards education and I skipped all the way there and I haven't stopped skipping till this day. Literally.

But, while I sat there on my chair, swiveling around slowly and dramatically, I considered the question "Why teach?" and all of the times I have had to explain or justify or fight off a pack of hungry wolves with the answer, which happens much more often that you'd think. Teaching in North America, unlike in many other countries, just isn't held in high regard by society. The age old joke that those who can't do, teach persists no matter how many times I demonstrate my ability to "do" things. So often I've found myself not only explaining my love for the work that I do, but also justifying teaching itself.

I strongly believe that teachers are as important to society as doctors and nurses and only slightly less important than creative writers. It just feels like important work, and as I sat there in front of my student, remembering so many amazing and cathartic experiences along the way - my education degree, student teaching, substitute teaching, my first permanent position, directing plays, my year of exchange teaching, and becoming a counsellor - it took all of my power not to weep. I always try, by the way, to weep outside in the rain.

As we continued to chat, I thought about my own path towards teaching and also about what continues to motivate me today, after over 20 years in education, to keep getting out of bed in the morning and head off towards school. My student wondered aloud if I ever found the job and the routines boring, while also wondering numerous other things that I was able to pick up on what with my natural telepathic abilities. Again, the answer is quite simple; I just really enjoy working with students and helping guide them. I feel that the job is a true higher calling which initially made me quite concerned what with my debilitating fear of heights.

Sure there is repetition, and some days are monotonous and mundane. Other days are a tad dry and uneventful. Still others are tedious and dull. And let's not forget about those days that are unvaried and unstimulating. It is just a fact that not every moment of every day is exciting, but that is true about all professions. But, the good moments and days heavily outweigh the bad or boring. Sure, I sometimes look out the window of my office like a trapped-inside-puppy dog and briefly flirt with the idea of becoming an accountant or an accountant's brazen, no-holds-barred assistant, before I come back to Earth and snap out of it. Thank you mom, for the travel set of smelling salts!

Though I've been at this for a while, and there is an occasional feeling like I've seen and done it all, what prevents it from becoming stale for me are the students. Each group of students is unique and they come with their own challenges and original personalities and I love getting to know them all as people. I see working with a new group of students sort of like doing a similar yet new puzzle with a similar yet different answer to the last puzzle I did. As one group leaves, I miss them and bemoan that my work will never be as enjoyable, and then the new, young and exciting group comes in and I get hooked once again. I honesty care about helping them all and that is something you can't fake or grow tired of, unlike that week when I attempted to convince my friends that I was a part man part frog which got old really fast.

And my colleagues. Too many to mention now and even if I could it would really negatively effect this piece of writing to the point where I'd just abandon it and go for a walk. Going for a walk every once and a while is great exercise by the way - give it try. Anyways, I have really been so fortunate to work with so many passionate and enthusiastic teachers in my 20+ years, who have greatly added to my overall love of my work. Sure, I have also seen with my own two eyes, aided by thick, constantly-smudged glasses, a small number of people who were ill-fitted for the profession. Teachers who didn't inherently like students and seemed to be in the job purely for the vacations or those were bored by their subject material and taught on auto-pilot or ones who just seemed unhappy and cranky all the time. But, these types of educators are few and far between, sort of like random, but pointy, thorns in the strawberry patch that is education. As I spoke to my student, I took a minute and imagined I had a big bowl of strawberries and whipped cream in front of me right now and I exaggeratedly licked my lips which was one of my bad habits along with stupidly fondling thorns.

The focus from my friends in the private sector when the topic of public education is brought up is often on the bad apples, the teachers who aren't that good. They argue that teachers are glorified babysitters who have it so easy with too much vacation time who leave at the bell and don't work hard. I always find that line of reasoning so offensive as it is so far from the truth. Sure there are a few bad apples, but I always say to them find me a profession where there aren't any including, but not limited to, apple farmers as some of those farmers are totally mailing it in. For the most part, the schools I have worked in have a staff that really cares and that is clear as soon as you take a few steps inside the building. After that I usually take a few more steps, followed by a short break to stretch my hamstring and then I resume stepping until I find a place to sit down.

And the pay is sufficient, at least for my current lifestyle. Sacrifices have had to be made along the way. I mean I won't be holding any champagne and caviar parties anytime soon unless it is BYOCandC, and then I'm all in. But I'm doing better than okay what with my full head of hair and new sneakers and set of shirts and sweater tops that don't scream "80s!" To be clear, I definitely wouldn't turn down more money if someone was in the mood to pay me more, unless it was hush money as I staunchly refuse to hush unless I have some sort of diagnosed throat ailment or if they sweeten the deal as I have a sweet tooth or, more accurately, a mouth full of sweet teeth.

So, to the question "why teach?" I told him, the answer is because deep down inside you love working with youth. It definitely isn't for everyone and it has to be much more than loving the hours and the holiday time. There will be plenty of days when you are tired or stressed or don't feel like going to work for a variety of reasons, but once you are there, you'll find yourself rising to the occasion because you just care, a whole awful lot. If that describes you, I finished, then yes, teach. But not everyone is as lucky as just knowing like I was. Not everyone has taken such a straight path towards education. So, volunteer at a school or community centre or youth group. Tutor or coach or mentor. See how it feels. You'll know. It will either fit like a boot or it won't and remember as my preschool teacher always said "never wear boots that don't fit".

I watched him leave just wishing I could be the one doing the leaving at some point in the future. I'm not sure if my student will pursue teaching and I'm not sure if he found our chat illuminating or helpful or coherent. But I enjoyed the chance to take a trip down memory lane and to reflect on my journey. I have some days when I daydream about "what if" I had gone a different route in life and whether I'd be even happier or more satisfied or at least write using fewer travel metaphors. Impossible to say, but what I do know, is that I am fortunate to be where I am at this approximate midpoint in my career. I experience satisfaction, fulfillment, reward, and accomplishment each day and I'm just so lucky to enjoy what I do. I just hope my student is able to find the same for himself, either in education, or wherever his path takes him.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Playing Ultimate Part 1: My First Game

I have been playing ultimate for 28 years. I am also a writer. After a significant amount of time trying to figure out how to combine these two skills, I settled on writing a series of stories about my life as an ultimate player which, if all goes well, will also be turned into a groundbreaking psychedelic rock opera entitled Tommy unless someone has beat me to that already.

Here is Part 1: My First Game

It was late spring 1989, flowers were blooming, love was in the air for the local birds and bees and I had just turned 18 and was finally on the cusp of graduating. While I was excited for university and couldn't wait to get out of that "hell hole" (author's note: not an actual hell hole), all in all, high school was pretty good for me - above average grades, minor roles in school plays, and minimal amount of long-term permanently scarring moments. But, there was one major thing missing from my To Do list for school; one glaring thing, in fact. I had never played on a school sports team. And I loved sports! I was literally in love with sports, seriously, it was a huge problem. Honestly, I followed almost every sport as if my own existence depended on them (maybe they didn't, but was I going to take that chance?) and it had always been my dream to be a star on a team with the bleachers full of adoring fans cheering for me (true story - I spent hours in the backyard completely dominating my solo version of tennis-ball-against-the-aging-wooden-fence baseball and as well as being a virtuoso at one man balloon basketball in the rec room). Unfortunately, in reality, I lacked what is commonly known as skill and thus, I never made even one team.

Not that I hadn't tried. If they gave awards for trying, I still wouldn't win one, but I'd be close. There were numerous failures and shortcomings that I just don’t have the room to adequately give justice to here, but am happy to send interested parties the entire DVD collection. I remember going out for the basketball team in grade 9 after a summer of watching Bird, Magic and Isiah on TV and believing that my time brazenly dunking on the kiddie hoop in the lane was all the prep I needed. Sadly and unfairly, I was wrong. Laughably wrong if you were someone else, which I wasn’t. Instead of walking around the halls full of pride after making the team, I came away psychologically and metaphysically knocked down as I had to finally confront that I didn’t have what it took. I still walked down the halls as I needed to exit the building. Turns out that I couldn't dribble well enough to be a guard, wasn't tall enough to be a forward and couldn't shoot well enough to be on the team at all, but I could be a manager if I didn't find that too insulting, which I didn't...till now. I was an amazing grade 9 basketball team manager, by the way, years ahead of my time.

I so badly wanted to wear our school colors with the nickname "Grey Ghosts" emblazoned on the front to hopefully terrify, or at least confuse our opponents (“why were the ghosts, grey, and what did that mean?”) and I wasn't ready to give up. I considered volleyball (too short), soccer (hilariously uncoordinated with my feet) and rugby (scared of everyone and everything hitting me). Don't misunderstand, I wasn't a stereotypical glasses-wearing, calculator-carrying, member of the chess club nerd decorated with skin blemishes and freckles, I mean I was, but that’s not the point, or not this point I’m trying to make presently. It wasn't that I wasn't athletic, I played competitive racquetball, squash and tennis as a teen, but unfortunately, no school team sport worked for me and those individual sports carried next to no cache, which I had cleared ample space in my backpack to carry. My parents consoled me the way that only my parents could (although to be honest I didn't go around trying out other parents approaches to compare and contrast) with well-meaning clichés such as "keep your chin up", "don't take it on the chin" and other chin-related expressions and idioms that were meant to motivate and inspire me, which they did, while also making me fairly self-conscious about my chin.

And then, just when I was ready to give up all hope, I found Ultimate. Looking back on things, it must have been destiny or fate or a result of being stalked.

I grew up vegetarian, though that isn't important for this story, and also loving throwing Frisbees, or more accurately, being totally frustrated that I couldn't really throw one to save my life which thankfully never came up. I was told that a ball dreamed that it was a Frisbees, which was but one thing that a ball and I had in common. My parents always brought a disc with them whenever we went to a park and they were just so good at chucking it to each other and then turning to me and smiling in a perfect mix of taunting and love that only they could master. All throughout my youth, I vividly recall being in awe of how they would effortlessly wing this colorful plastic disc to each other at a good distance without it wobbling or hitting the ground. I would just lay there, under the big ol' oak tree, reading Nancy Drew, and eating sugar-free snacks, just wishing that I could throw like they were. Occasionally I would be permitted to join in and I clearly stood out as "NOT A THROWER!" (why my mom had to continually, and quite joyfully call that out each time I was about to throw, was beyond me) as my discs posed immediate health hazards to all humans and animals nearby as the Frisbees would rarely get to one of my parents and when they did it wasn't pretty. I always looked up to their ability to throw so crisply and accurately while humming the hits of the 70s and early 80s while doing so. I really wished that I could do the same.

For much of grade 12, my friends and I had spent our lunch hours walking outside, eating lunch and throwing Frisbees, usually in that order. It came as quite a shock one day when they approached me unknowingly carrying large amounts of static. They cornered me (to be fair, I was already in a corner at the time marveling at the practical application of angles), and asked me if I wanted to come out that evening to play on their team. I instantly said "sure" a little too loudly and enthusiastically for the librarian's taste before inquiring exactly what kind of "team" this was and whether I'd need to be vaccinated beforehand, which, for me, was a deal breaker. I found out that my friends had been leading a secret, double life for years now while also playing ultimate on Wednesdays as well, without telling me or possibly they had told me and I was lost in the bliss of yet another incredible peanut butter sandwich.

Why they wanted me, a guy who couldn't hit the side of a barn even when provided with a barn ahead of time to practice on, was beyond me. Also beyond me was quantum mechanics, as well as why orange shirts just don't go well with brown pants. Maybe they had done their due diligence and research and realized that I was the missing piece to the puzzle for their team and that they saw within me great potential and just wanted the opportunity to help me unleash it or, conversely, they were fresh out of options and were incredibly desperate and I was their final hope so they wouldn't default. Either way really, I was just so excited to have been invited out to join their team as long as dogs weren't involved in any way, which they assured me they weren't, though I swear I heard barking and the cackling of laughter in the background on the phone when they hung up.
I remember my first game so well.

It was a late Spring Wednesday evening in 1989 at the idyllic Jericho Beach Park in Vancouver with the coastal mountains looming in the distance and that ever-present and beautiful aroma of the woods after a rain all around. The grass was still damp as I dropped my bike on the sideline and ran over to join my team just hoping that this wasn't all part of an elaborate hoax, though, like all of us, I do love a hoax from time to time. The previous summer, the team had been called The Pink Lungs, but with many lineup changes, the new team was called Hat Head (we all wore hats...on our heads) and eventually we morphed into Bandana Republic (we all wore bandanas while also feeling strongly that supreme power should be held by the people and their elected representatives, if you are into that sort of thing, which we were). I jogged around in my running shoes warming up, trying to ignore how damp my socks were already getting while also attempting to look like I had some idea of what I was doing, and failing miserably. I was a pro at attempting and failing to fit in, though this was the first that my socks were wet at the same time, so there was that.

To get ready for the game, our side performed a detailed routine of ritualistic stretching that the director of the local dance academy said was mediocre at best while we claimed that we weren’t auditioning and that she should leave us alone. Then we started a “simple” throwing drill where my discs went everywhere but their intended targets. I considered either specifically not aiming at the targets or breaking down and crying or both. One friend came over and seemed to be threatening me not to screw up the game, though in retrospect, he was probably just struggling with seasonal allergies. While looking forward to a relatively relaxing sporting activity between friends, I was mostly hoping that I would escape, body, glasses and psyche fully intact (or least no less intact than when I started) and that they would want me to come back next week if, for nothing else, as some comic relief or to throw over ripe fruit at. My heart was pumping a mile a minute and my head was spinning (both par for the course for a Wednesday evening); I never played team sports ever since I swore off soccer after that rabid dog tried to eat my leg on the gravel field during a lunch time game back in grade 5 as I figured “why did someone invent a game that involved a rabid dog in the first place?” 

As I looked across the field, I noticed that the other team had MATCHING SHIRTS (!?!?!?) which seemed to either be their attempt to intimidate us (it was working!) and/or encourage us to buy or invest heavily in Adidas. In my shaky-at-best memory, they were tall, lean and spectacularly tanned. It seemed totally unfair that our ragtag bunch of pseudo, quasi athletes who could have easily been mistaken for a group of foreign exchange students from Eastern Europe or a youth community theatre troupe for wayward teens had to go up against these veritable Olympians. In my paranoia (which my grade 7 teacher once referred to as “impressive”) I was sure that the other team had already sensed my blood in the water and were plotting and scheming to expose the imposter (me) on their way to total domination. As I stood there shaking in my boots (no one told me not to bring boots!), I was completely consumed with not screwing up or being the primary reason that we lost. As we huddled up in a circle before the game, I complimented our team on our ability to form a circle so well on such short notice with next to no practice. I remember in my panicked moments before the game hearing these strange terms thrown at me like "the force", "the stack", "hucks", "striking" and “macroeconomics” while I employed the time-honored strategy of smiling and nodding to give the illusion that I had any idea what they were talking about.

The game began. To say that I had dreamt of this moment ever since I was a child would be completely inaccurate, because how would I have had any idea on any level of consciousness that I’d ever be in this exact position. No, I had only dreamt of this moment since a couple days before when they invited me to play. In my dream, I was the star. Small in stature, but huge on the field as I made awe-inducing play after awe-inducing play. There were a series of incredible dives for Frisbees, amazing and improbable leaps into the sky to grab discs that were seemingly out of my reach and a game-saving play for the ages that was commemorated by a local artist who used primarily watercolors on canvas. Alas, my idiotic reality never lives up to the stupid expectations of my dumb dreams.

We started on defense. I was told to do “whatever it took” not to let that guy standing across the field from me to score. I tried to wink at my teammate to show that I got it, but, honestly, I’m a really poor winker and it probably came across like I was hitting on him or that I had dirt in my eye, which are often easily mistaken for each other in my experience. I learned quickly that not wanting your check to score wasn’t enough and you had to actually do something about it as he was unlikely to listen to your fancy reasoning. The game went by in a blur, and that was even after I cleaned my glasses. I spent the evening huffing and puffing, trying not to run into people, and standing around waving and calling for the disc. I slipped and fell constantly all over the place (remember: running shoes on damp grass) and I did not complete one pass or catch one disc. Aside from that, it was an unqualified success on par with the tuna salad I had made that past weekend. I was thrown to a few times, partially out of pity and also sympathy, which are really hard to tell apart while playing a sport for the first time. 

Despite losing and not really getting involved, I was in love, even though I was a bit scared and had no idea what exactly I was getting into, which was, sadly, eerily similar to many of my first human relationships too. In my short experience, I felt something deep inside me that ended up being heartburn, and then I felt something else, a stronger feeling, like I had finally found my game, my people, my home. If I were a stronger, less-in-touch-with-his-emotions man, I wouldn’t have cried. First thing the next morning, I got dressed and had some breakfast, again not really essential to the story, and then went off to get some cleats to greatly eliminate the falling as well as being able to help my father aerate our yard. Though I had only played one game, I just knew that Ultimate was for me. There was just something about this game and this sport and the people that grabbed me (quite aggressively I must add), shook me to my senses and wouldn’t let me go until I ran away from home leaving only a short, cryptic note like it was a cult, which I was totally okay with as I had been considering running away to join one at some point in the near future regardless. 

Stayed tuned for Part 2: Learning the Game